Landscape: Progress towards a philosophy of sustainable occupancy

Schueler, Frederick W. & Aleta Karstad. 2013 [2014]. Landscape: Progress towards a philosophy of sustainable occupancy. Library of One Thing and Another, Bishops Mills, Ontario. paperback, 222 pages, 44 black & white illustrations, 7 poems, 1 map.
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Landscape: Progress towards a philosophy of sustainable occupancy

[landscape_cover] This is a collection of essays and other documents, written since we came home from Haida Gwaii in 1989, that are relevant to understanding human occupancy of the township of North Grenville. The collection originated in the meetings about the first Official Plan for the amalgamated township when Fred protested that the proposed plan seemed to be combine Third World rates of population growth and First World levels of personal income, and the mayor snapped that "You can't stop growth."

The first edition was published in 1998 (Schueler & Karstad, 1998, Landscape: Twelve Documents Relevant to Planning Sustainable Human Occupancy of the township Municipality of North Grenville. The Canadian Biodiversity Institute. 88 pp.), and this edition has six later items added. These documents were inspired by a variety of circumstances, and we have assembled them here because, while they have been published or circulated to diverse audiences, they all are derived from our observations and thinking about our home territory, and deal with the question of how People must live, and what they must know, if their occupancy of the land is to be sustainable.

Grounded as they are in our life and work at home, they are not cast in the official framework of land-use planning in Ontario, in part because we have not had much contact with this system, and in part because it does not seem to be based on principles of ecological sustainability. This does not mean that ecologically sustainable planning is not possible in Ontario, just that it will take some thought and innovation to achieve it.

While no authority suggests that People occupy too little of the surface of the Earth, government planning is written in a language which promotes such over-occupancy, so that land we'd describe, as naturalists, as 'biotically valuable' or 'occupied by fairly mature communities' is described in plans as 'undeveloped,' or 'vacant' or 'hazard,' and land that we'd describe as 'destroyed,' or 'exploited,' or 'built-up' is described as 'developed,' or 'class 1 and 2', etc. Until there are value-neutral descriptions of land use, it's hard for naturalists to participate in planning without getting thoroughly angry at the process.

Our predisposition towards thinking in terms of understanding relationships along continua rather than classifying objects or phenomenon into categories, also puts us at odds with the system. We suspect that all classifications, boundaries, and partitions are over-simplifications, and prefer explanations based on combined consideration of continuous causal factors. We're then struck with the often-surprising discovery that categorical partitions are acceptably congenial to many who employ them, who don't feel that they need to replace them by relational, regression-like, explanations. While, in the 1960s, Bob Wittaker, Fred's professor of plant ecology, had explained plant distribution as species independently arrayed along environmental gradients, rather than as tightly co-adapted communities of species, nowadays plant communities are routinely mapped as the hard-edged "polygons" of geographic information systems.

Of course, the pro-exploitation bias also affects the character of government policy. The case of the Atlantic Cod (Gadus morhua) is the most spectacular recent example - both scientists fishermen observed the authorized depletion of the stocks - and Callum Roberts documents over-exploitation on a global scale in Ocean of Life

Since the first publication of this collection, we've also observed several situations where citizens, faced by clear predictions based on simple ecological theories, have denied that ecological theory allows predictions about ecological situations, if these predictions are not those they'd prefer to see. Then, when the predictions turn out to be accurate, the deniers have denied that the theories were relevant to the predictions the theories had made.

We've learned that the public has no idea how compromised ecological planning is, or how little research is invested in forming a basis for it. Time and again, ecological action is based on (at best) following (or at worst, ignoring) “rules” (“classifications” of situations), rather than assessing situations in their own context.

If a government promulgates a plan with certain restrictions on land use, residents assume that these restrictions are based on solid research that demonstrates that these regulations are all that is needed to protect and preserve the species and communities they live among, and many of them then assume that the restrictions are so calibrated that they personally can whole-heartedly struggle against them on their own land without producing adverse effects on the whole community. Just as residents can't count on the kind of municipal ecological planning they assume is present, municipalities can't assume that the ecological planning required by the Province is anywhere close what is needed to maintain the health of their townships.

If government is to be more than intraspecific bickering, it must be mostly the regulation of the relationships between People and our non-human neighbours. This means landscape ecology, natural history, and historical continuity. "Rural character" is a mantra of the local Official Plan, but if this is to be maintained we must remember, with Susan Butala, that "the most basic ingredient of all in rural life [is] that it [takes] place in the midst of Nature, that Nature permeate[s] the lives of rural people, and that this [is] more than anything else, the element which separate[s] true rural people from urban people" though "these relationships are so subtle as to be unnoticed by the majority of even those rural people who perhaps routinely experience them." (1994, The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature. pp 114 & 116).

Rural character is the issue in every municipality threatened by economic expansion, but politicians and public media are strikingly silent on ecological issues, and it is the responsibility of the electorate to question them, and hold them to any worthwhile promises. Editorial correspondence in newspapers calls for politicians with experience in "urban planning, economic development, heritage preservation, communications and public relations" but not landscape ecology or natural history. "It is unbelievable to [us]", as it is to Susan Butala, "that futurists and experts in universities and in government don't see how important it is to all of us that a stable body of people remain in intimate touch with the land, and include it in their equations about the future” (1994. p 180).

But this rural empathy with the land and waters must be informed by the most advanced and inclusive ecological thinking, on a global scale. Fred was once asked, in a phone survey of management practices of land owners, what publications he relied on to guide the management of our land, and he amused the interviewer, herself a Ph.D. candidate in ecology, by referencing the American Naturalist, a primary literature journal of theoretical ecology and natural history. The present volume collects our efforts along these lines over recent decades. Some of these essays share common ancestors, but we hope the repetition of similar ideas in different contexts will serve to clarify their inter-reationships rather than annoy the reader.

The first essay explicitly deals with local land-use planning, the next with two local species that indicate the need for such planning, the middle seven with reflections on the current Ontario system of land-use and ecological principles relevant to particular organisms or habitats. The Lawn Care Manual draws lessons from government strictures about ecological planning, and applies them to the immediate surroundings of a homesite. The longest chapter is our account of what we know of the ecology of the Kemptville Creek drainage basin, derived from the chapter we prepared for the Rideu Valley Conservation Authority's Watershed Plan. We conclude with an essay on the application of the principles of scientific philosophy to understanding animal movements, a critique of a Counties' project asking about criteria and action towards sustainability in Leeds-Grenville, and a hymn of praise to mud, one of Eastern Ontario's primary constituents.

We hope that this collection will be useful to residents, municipal Councils, agencies, and non-governmental organizations in thinking about what affects life in Eastern Ontario. We dedicate it to all those with the fortitude to challenge the "system" on behalf of ecological integrity.

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My Kemptville Creek's golden and silver and amber
Through Wild Rice and Cattails wide under the sun.
From Cranberry Lake with the echo of Loon calls
Through Bishops to meet the South Branch where they run.

My Kemptville Creek's rosy with leaves of the lily,
And streaming with long silken tresses of green.
Reflecting the blue sky it slips over dams where
The Beaver has deepened pools clear as black tea.

My Kemptville Creek's sable, 'neath low boughs of Cedar
It slips along swiftly, as silent as glass,
Reflecting red Dogwoods and banks of green rushes,
It ripples across with the Water Snakes' path.

My Kemptville Creek's golden and silver and amber,
And rosy and green 'neath the blue of the sky.
It's brown and it's sable, the turtles are basking,
I'll rest on my paddle where the Tree Swallows fly.

My Kemptville Creek's golden and silver and amber
Through Wild Rice and Cattails wide under the sun.
From Cranberry Lake to the echo of Loon calls
Through Bishops to meet the South Branch where they run.

(Aleta, May 1993)

My white Kemptville Creek is as smooth as a highway,
The Swamp Maple path, the marsh-dwellers' abode
Where Otters & Mink, and the Muskrat & Beaver
Briefly emerge on the Coyotes' road.

My Kemptville Creek is anoxic and yellow
Sealed under the ice when the branches are bare.
Most fishes let go and drift down with the current,
While Mudminnows forage for bubbles of air.

My Kemptville Creek's emerald green in the winter,
When snow and hard ice keep the air from the stream.
Open a window, and wavering pondweeds will
Show you the summer as if in a dream.

(winter verses, Fred, 1999)

My Kemptville Creek's golden and silver and amber
Through Wild Rice and Cattails wide under the sun.
From Cranberry Lake with the echo of Loon calls
Through Bishops to meet the South Branch where they run.