Back in the spring, as I flailed more aimlessly than usual in a world ground to a halt by COVID, I stumbled upon a writing contest purely by accident. It was run by a nature biodiversity organization in Alberta that I’d never heard of and the only barrier to entry was the purchase of a discounted subscription to Alberta Views magazine. That’s a magazine I’d been interested in subscribing to for some time, and with nothing but time on my hands thanks to the pandemic, more reading material felt like a sensible purchase. So I took the plunge, filled out my subscription form and set about writing my contest entry.
The topic for entries was biodiversity in Alberta and what that means to me. I figured I could conjure up some gibberish about that easy enough, and so I did. Below, you’ll find those 500 words of faux-sincerity. Months later, in fact months after the winners were supposed to be announced, the organization running the contest finally revealed the contest winners and runners up. I was neither. Much like my ill-fated Crude Awakening submission to a CBC writing contest a couple years back, my handy work was not elite enough. Thus, it becomes blog fodder in hopes of generating a couple pennies worth of advertising revenue. Enjoy!
I found a rat! I kid. I kid. Seriously, I’m kidding. Alberta’s rat-free status remains wholly, boastfully, intact. It’s just that when you’re gutting an old garage replete with ample droppings and other evidentiary unpleasantries, as I recently was, you can never be sure what’ll be found inside those dilapidated walls.
As I toiled away removing water damaged, puck punctured drywall, the pandemic having thwarted a years long home improvement procrastination, my mind ruminated on the meaning of biodiversity. I don’t regularly reflect on such deep, albeit peculiar, matters as I putz about the house. This was purposeful deliberation for this essay and I concluded it was ironic that one of Alberta’s claims to fame is a singular lack of biodiversity; no rats.
Not that invasive species represent the hallmark of healthy biodiversity but they are hard to ignore. Like the yellow dandelion blooms dotting my front lawn, taunting me as I write. Or the lawn itself, for that matter. So much of our ecosystem is characterized by species not naturally occurring here. Be it the invasives we battle manually and chemically or the domesticated varieties that make our modern life possible and enjoyable, contemporary biodiversity is very much “unnatural.”
Look no further than the humble, lumbering bovine. Next to oil and gas, perhaps the national parks, ranching is our most recognized business. It is cattle, the black angus variety in particular, that symbolizes Alberta beef and the industry so historically entwined with the very fabric of this province, rather than the native bison.
I think this speaks to our predilection for generalizations. We humans love to categorize and simplify things, almost to the point of meaninglessness. In our attempt to depict complex, evolving entities with a single, representative image we too often miss the tree for the forest.
Look no further than Alberta’s provincial shield where the entirety of our natural environment has been distilled into five pieces of clip art. Yes, it works and is vexillologically necessary, but it also understates the true grandeur and wonder of the natural world we inhabit. Just as Alberta is more than one industry, two big cities, two resort towns, or one voting block, our biodiversity is more than five, oversimplified biomes.
One of my earliest awakenings to Alberta’s biodiversity came during a day trip to the badlands soon after moving West. As a geologist, exploring the revealed sedimentary layers and the lure of potential dinosaur discovery in these near barren wastelands of spotty, treeless, scrub is a must, beating sun be damned. Though captivated by the geology, I was startled to discover the delicate, beautiful, yellow bloom of a cactus. I’m a rock jock, not a biologist, and cacti were something I’d come to expect only as indoor plants or scenery in Road Runner cartoons. To find them here painting the earthen surroundings with bursts of glossy colour, where harsh, frigid winters last for months, was a revelation.
In the two decades since, the breadth and glory of biodiversity in Alberta has enchanted me on each and every camping trip, or school field trip, I’ve made. From provincial and national parks to modest wetlands tucked in amongst urban developments to visiting my aunt and uncle’s hobby farm, the wonders of nature have captivated my mind and salved my soul.
A Smurf-like mushroom next to an aged cottonwood in the woods near the glacial lakes that mark Alberta’s summer playgrounds. Or white pelicans soaring overhead like squadrons of WWII bombers. Or silver, misshapen wolf willow offering modest privacy to our campsite. Or an unfamiliar beetle scurrying from the shelter of the sidewalk paver I removed. Or the mother black bear and cubs foraging by the side of a mountain highway. Or the herd of elk, the stand of lodgepole pine, the bull trout, the caribou, the quaking aspen, or the pink simplicity of the alluring wild rose.
This is what biodiversity means to me. It’s the marvel of nature and of life in myriad forms all around us both obvious and hidden. But it’s also the recognition that if you look beyond the symbology, what may seem homogenous at first glance is in fact brimming with wonderful intricacy and inspiring diversity.
Just no rats.