The Globalized Great Lakes

An environmentalist charts the ruin — and possible revival — of the continent’s heart

If you want to know what the climate was like in Great Lakes country just before this latest period of global warming, you might have to climb the Rockies. In 1990, the bones of a giant pika, a diminutive member of the rabbit family, were discovered in a cave in the Niagara Escarpment, and were later carbon-dated to 9,780 years before the present, when the climate around the glaciated Great Lakes region was decidedly colder than it is now and the escarpment itself probably poked up above a plain of solid ice. As the climate continued to warm, American pikas migrated west, and are now found only on tree-line talus slopes of the Rocky Mountains, where it still gets cold enough to entertain glaciers. Giant pikas, a slightly less diminutive subspecies, went extinct altogether, part of what John L. Riley, who helped excavate their bones in Ontario, calls “the long list of species that perished soon after the last glacier receded” in The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History.

The list of the disappeared—which also includes mastodons, cave bears, giant sloths and giant beavers—shows that things have been changing in Great Lakes country for a long time, and that change is, perhaps, the only constant. It also suggests that change often comes about as a result of forces outside the region, and therefore beyond the control of those who live within its somewhat porous borders. Do what we may to prevent the extinctions, we may be unable to stop the invasion of species rushing in to take their places.

Others have written about the interconnectedness of the Great Lakes and external events: A.A. den Otter, in Civilizing the Wilderness: Culture and Nature in Pre-Confederation Canada and Rupert’s Land, makes the point that the pace of destruction of Canada’s wildernesses greatly increased with the Industrial Revolution in England and France (Riley notes that because of cheap energy here, the Industrial Revolution zoomed ahead at breakneck pace even after it had flagged in Europe). In my own book on the Great Lakes, I observed that the opening of shipping canals between the Caspian and Baltic seas in Europe was largely responsible for the incursion of zebra mussels, quagga mussels and round gobies, among dozens of other non-indigenous species, into our inland waters.

Riley takes these examples much further, painting a fascinating and convincing picture of the extent to which the Great Lakes and their environments are linked to world events, often to their detriment. He states, for example, that 95 percent of the Native population was killed by diseases introduced to the area in the first 130 years after contact with Europeans, “the greatest sudden collapse of human life and culture in human history.” He compares the slaughter here with the devastation wrought by the bubonic plague, which killed 75 percent of the population of England over a period of 287 years. In Great Lakes country, two thirds of all Natives died between 1634 and 1639 from successive epidemics of measles, influenza, scarlet fever and smallpox.

The consequences of this diminishment on the land were huge. Before 1500, Native groups were farmers and hunters who cleared land (primarily by controlled burning) and kept the forest understory cleared of debris to provide poles and firewood and to make the woods easier for hunting and gathering. Twenty percent of the land in the Lower Lakes region (south of Lake Superior, including Huronia, in southwestern Ontario and Mohawk territory south of Lake Ontario) was under cultivation at the time of contact; fields were cleared and planted, and the forest was sustainably managed. After such massive deaths from diseases—augmented in the 1650s, Riley adds, by ethnic cleansing and slave raids, mostly by Mohawks who needed slaves to tend their farms—the original 13 Nations had been reduced to five, and the land, almost totally abandoned, reverted back to nature, albeit second-growth nature. Clearings grew back in with non-native shrubs, and the forest understory became virtually impenetrable. The land was “completely changed” and remained virtually uninhabited for the next hundred years: what had been home to some 150,000 Natives had become so “vacant and wilding,” Riley reports, that in 1684, Baron de Lahontan could write in his Dialogues: “March’d ten days, fifty leagues, without seeing a soul.”

It was this drastically altered and empty landscape that greeted the first settlers, when Europe began “shovelling out the paupers,” and prompted entrepreneurs to think of North America as an untamed and hostile emptiness, free for the taking. The Iroquoian vision of the land—one of benign use, sustainable harvests and no sense of individual ownership or property—gave way to the Laurentian view: land not maintained as a commons, but bought, parceled and, as Riley puts it, “manufactured” for sale.

 

What is referred to throughout this impressive and important history as “Great Lakes country” consists of the drainage basins of the five Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River up to Quebec City, where fresh water meets salt, an area larger than France and Great Britain combined, with a population of 40 million (expected to rise to 50 million by 2025), and containing a huge proportion of Canada’s and America’s industrial might. Its coastline is 6,000 kilometres long. And, as “a region with no natural borders or defences,” it is entirely open to invasion by foreign pathogens, non-indigenous species and land agents, many of whom have taken advantage of that fact.

The Great Lakes contain 25 percent of the world’s accessible potable freshwater (the official figure is 20 percent, but that was before the melting of the polar icecap, which also contained 20 percent of the world’s freshwater but is now largely gone). And yes, thanks to enormous efforts on the part of citizens’ groups, environmental organizations and individual scientists such as Riley himself, an eminent botanist and the science advisor to the Nature Conservancy of Canada, much of that water is once again potable and the land is regaining some of its natural features after the uncontrolled ravages of its inhabitants since the 18th century, when, as Riley states, “we deliberately set out to convert the whole region to a New Europe.”

A single example: “At the time of contact,” writes Riley, quoting John Casselman, a fish biologist at Queen’s University, “half of the fish biomass [in the Great Lakes] was eel.” The American eel, with six times the caloric value of any other fish, was a staple of the Native diet; it is now virtually extinct, having been fished out by the millions. Its place in the water has been taken by the round goby, a four-inch native of the Caspian Sea that turned up in the St. Clair River in 1990, having been transported there in the ballast tank of a transatlantic freighter—part of what Riley calls “a profound deepening of the industrial revolution”—and now constitutes 50 percent of the fish biomass of all five Great Lakes.

As a botanist, Riley provides more hair-raising examples of invasions in the forests than in the lakes (which now contain at least 185 non–indigenous species), but his message is the same: globalization, “the ascendant vision now,” has opened the door to myriad invaders that are chewing their way through our woods at a prodigious rate. These include the elm bark beetle, the Asian longhorn beetle (which arrived in North America in wooden pallets through Vancouver, where “barely more than zero per cent of the shipping containers were being inspected”), beech-bark scale, butternut canker and the emerald ash borer (which “will systematically kill all 17 ash species north of Mexico—an estimated 2.7 billion trees in Canada and the United States”).

The list goes on into the future. “The hemlock will be next.” “Are the oaks still safe?” (No: gypsy moths prefer oaks.) “The arrivals are not slowing,” showing up at the rate of roughly one new non-indigenous species every 18 months, despite new requirements designed to curtail their entry.

And all this on top of the deliberate degradation visited upon the region over past centuries by wanton forestry practices—the clear-cutting of white pine in the once-great pineries, unregulated aggregate mining in places such as the Oak Ridges Moraine, factory farming and legitimized industrial incursions into so-called Green Belts. Riley counts the growth of huge “city states” within the Great Lakes region as one of the most damaging developments in the modern era (80 percent of the population in Great Lakes country is now urban, compared to 60 percent worldwide), because cities are major contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to global warming. Climate change, he says ironically, “connects the Great Lakes to places like the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico.”

This is a stark reality, and Riley does not shrink from it. He has taken up the torch passed on by writers such as the acerbic Canadian environmentalist John Livingston, author of Rogue Primate: An Exploration of Human Domestication and The Fallacy of Wildlife Conservation. Riley editorializes when his outrage demands it—“curbing old appetites and creating new ones is the challenge”—and even writes like Livingston in places: “Changes to the climate creep up on organisms and on phenomena like economics and cultures, in small and easily ignored steps until, finally, they all get jammed up against the real world.”

 

It would be easy to become discouraged, researching a book like this, rehearsing tales of the wholesale slaughter of just about everything that moved, century after century. After presenting the sad case of the passenger pigeon, Riley notes that “today, even the hint of abundance, like deer in Pennsylvania, or raccoons in Toronto, or Canada geese, or opossum moving north, makes us nervous.” He records that modern flow rates over Niagara Falls are now “a fraction” of what they were: 270,000 cubic feet per second in 1894; 50,000 today, and even less at night, when the tourists go home and the Niagara River is almost totally diverted into the Adam Beck power turbines to create more electricity to drive more industries that will create more devastation.

Despite his carefully documented history of Great Lakes decline, however, Riley seems to have retained a spirit of optimism for the future. He sees hope in the fact that so many people are working to restore and conserve wetlands, indigenous species, forests, alvars and sand dunes. “We are blessed in Great Lakes country,” he states. “Many parts of it are still close to Nature’s creation.” Reading his final two chapters is rather like reading Bill McKibbon’s Hope, Human and Wild: True Stories of Living Lightly on Earth after reading his The End of Nature.

“There has never been a social narrative that has achieved lasting permanence in Canada,” Riley writes. Socially, the story of Canada has been a narrative of conflict, between Europeans and Natives, French and English, British and Americans, and more recently Canadians and Americans. But there has, he says, been a “shared … ecological consensus, one that enabled massive change, independent of nation or vision.”

If he is right, and I hope he is, it has not come a minute too soon. It is possible that the degradation has persisted too long, that global warming is rushing upon us too quickly, that nature, if it is to survive in anything like a recognizable form, will need a lot of help from the very species that has been responsible for its decline. Riley admits this. Noting that the northern migration of tree species has been too slow to keep pace with global warming, that more native northern trees are dying in Great Lakes country than are being replaced by southern Carolinian species, he admits that if we want to keep trees in the region, “we will have to move them ourselves.”

As signs of positive change he cites the persistence of woodland caribou in the boreal zone despite their intensive slaughter farther south, where they once thrived, calling it “a telling reminder of the constancy of human behaviour and the resilience of nature.” He hopes that “high energy prices may well curb emissions before public policy does,” and notes that cities such as Toronto are pumping water from Lake Ontario rather than using greenhouse gases to cool their buildings. After establishing that pre-contact Native peoples used controlled burns to manage their forests and cultivated clearings, he takes heart that the reintroduction of prescribed burns at Rondeau, the Pinery, Ojibway Prairie, on the Brantford golf course, on Pelee Island and elsewhere, suggests that some of us, at least, are returning to an Iroquoian vision of ecological conservancy, a sense of the land, not as commodity, but as a shared responsibility.

“Slowly and quietly,” he writes, “nature—and how it functions—is beginning to inform our land care again.”