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Stephen Hume

ON MY UPPER LEFT ARM, faint now after more than 70 years, is the white scar of a smallpox vaccination required before my entry into Canada.

I am a visitor from the time before the last big North American smallpox outbreak. It began in New York City, now lashed by the coronavirus, not long after I was born, still in the first half of the last century.

That event marked a signature response to the threat of pandemic. Authorities swiftly launched the largest mass vaccination in history—more than 6.3 million people in three weeks. The looming epidemic was snuffed out after just two deaths.

In 1947, American public health authorities were ready, had a plan and a vaccine. A far cry from the 2020 response in which authorities were unprepared and leaders took refuge from responsibility in magical thinking, a fascination with voodoo cures, denunciations of science, and xenophobic scapegoating while the virus marched through America.

I’m old enough to remember the fear of polio, the virus that left withered limbs and condemned paralyzed victims to life in an Iron Lung that did their breathing for them. The fear stalked parents taking their kids to summer swimming pools or sending them to camp and was a national crisis in the mid-1950s.

My mother put on a brave front. She never talked about her concern except to caution her kids about proper pool and playground hygiene. But the worry simmered. Her own father had been partially paralyzed by polio. She’d long lived in its gloomy shadow.

So I recall the sense of relief with which parents responded to a polio vaccine, the apprehensive line-ups for our elementary school inoculation and our sense of betrayal at our parents’ jocular enthusiasm. Now I read stories that ask the question: what if we get a vaccine for coronavirus and half the population refuses vaccination?

I thought about this as I bid farewell to the journalism class I taught at Vancouver Island University this spring, sending them off to complete their assignments on-line from France and India, Wellington and Campbell River.

What began for them as a classroom assignment in early January—find out what you can and write about this viral outbreak in Wuhan, China—had morphed into a major upheaval of their lives. Some raced to get home before national borders closed, others scrambled to find accommodation here before a possible lockdown, yet others worried about money running out.

I thought about how a world had just ended for them and how they would now have to invent a new one.

The principal ending was an assumed certainty. Most of them had never experienced a world in which existential threat lurks in the breath of friends or at restaurant buffets or on washroom door handles or in the seat next to them at a concert or a Mariners basketball game.

Now they are urged to maintain distance even after restrictions ease, to wear masks lest they be a silent carrier of pestilence to grandparents—or to old men like their journalism instructor.

This psychological shift represents a vast lurch backward into the near-forgotten. My own childhood of polio and, beyond that, into the pre-antibiotics childhood of my father—at 96 bearing his lockdown in assisted living with aplomb. Lethal microbes took two of his brothers, a sister, a step-sister, his father’s first wife and an uncle.

We live in medicine’s golden age and yet this tiny virus disrupts everything we took for granted about the economy, the power of science to protect us, our social lives, the institutions that sustain our social order, how we conduct ourselves in public and private.

Those students will return—those who do return—to a reconfigured education in a few months. Most classes will be virtual except for a few—labs, studio work—in which their physical presence is deemed essential.

And that may be only a small element of how the pandemic transforms the world. How will schools cope with social distancing? The guidelines, rendered as a circle, require 12.5 square metres per person but standard classrooms normally allot 2.5 square metres per student. Grade six arithmetic suggests that either classes must be radically smaller or classrooms radically larger.

Then there are the teachers themselves. If the plan is to open gradually while protecting high risk segments of the population, how will the plan address the fact that 38 percent of teachers fall into the high risk group more likely to suffer serious illness because they are over 50?

And how does a professional hockey team that puts 19,000 fans into a 44,000 square-metre arena deal with the fact that under social distancing rules they’ll need a 238,000 square-metre arena?

In this newly apprehensive social order, can air travel return to anything resembling normal? Airlines operate on minuscule profit margins earned by jamming passengers into fuselages which recirculate particle-laden air through passengers’ lungs many times on a long flight. Decreasing density can only mean ticket prices that return air travel to its niche as a luxury service for the very wealthy.

Similar problems beset public transit. Packed buses and trains are the preferred norm. They keep fares low for low income commuters. In Metro Vancouver, public transit moved about 435 million passengers annually to and from work in the city core, university, college and high school campuses and to shopping districts. How travel at that density might continue in the age of social distancing and the coronavirus is a conundrum. And yet it seems impossible for those commuters to move to private vehicles without strangling the city.

As air travel and public transit go, so goes tourism. It produced $1.7 billion in provincial taxes in 2018 and contributed $8.3 billion to provincial GDP. In Victoria, tourism generated about 17,000 jobs, close to $500 million in wages and almost $700 million in GDP. Changes to this sector promise huge impacts on the city’s economic health and well-being.

Work itself seems destined for enormous upheaval.

How many of those forced to work from home during the closing of office buildings, whose tight floor plans and closed ventilation systems work like giant virus distributors, will continue work at home? The arithmetic of social distancing suggests many won’t be going back to the office soon.

That brings its own economic fallout. If corporations aren’t simply to offload office overhead costs onto home officer workers, tax structures must be reworked.

The global economy itself is in the throes of transformation. The half-century mantra of Neo-liberal fiscal austerity in service of globalization seems dead. Governments everywhere suddenly rediscover the virtues of Keynesian spending powers.

And assumptions about the efficiencies of bigness and vertical integration and the inefficiencies of small, local and dispersed now implode in the face of disruptions to global supply chains.

If meat processing in Canada concentrates in three plants and they are contaminated with coronavirus outbreaks, the efficiency of size suddenly transmogrifies into a horrifying inefficiency for the national food supply. The small local and travelling abattoirs that were once common now look like not such a bad idea.

Yes, pandemics change everything, and the world my former university students have just inherited will be extraordinarily different from the one they knew in their December break.

 

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Stephen Hume

SINCE WE’RE NOW ESSENTIALLY A TEXT-BASED CULTURE, there’s a strong tendency for social memory to focus on that history most easily accessed through documents.

The Vietnam War seems more real than World War II which seems more real than World War I because the documentary record is richer.

And there’s an equally strong tendency to assume text-based records have greater credibility and importance than that history which comes to us through other means—stories, memories, artifacts, and so on.

The great coastal smallpox pandemic of 1862 looms extraordinarily large in the imagined history of the West Coast. “Imagined” because all history is mostly imagined. It’s reconstructed from fragments gleaned from the past and is frequently revised to reflect the biases inherent in those doing the reconstructing, the biases of record-keepers and the biases of those interpreting to serve present agendas.

Anyone who wants a quick lesson in this would do well to read Jaroslav Pelikan’s remarkable Jesus through the Centuries, a study of how successive generations of historians reinvented the fragmentary historical evidence to serve and to shape the cultural demands of their particular time.

What happened in 1862 plays a central role in British Columbia’s collective identity precisely because documents of colonial settler culture recorded it even as it ripped apart the oral histories of its victims, the once-populous First Nations sustained by the rich coastal ecosystem of estuaries, rivers, inlets and sheltering islands.

And yet 1862 was only an aftershock to an earlier epidemiological cataclysm of Biblical proportions. A massive transformation of coastal demography had already occurred.

That first shock depopulated entire landscapes, erased collective memory, brought demoralizing confusion and disarray to a system in which lineages and hereditary titles and ranks were central to social identity, political power and economic organization.

The second episode dismantled economies as dwindling populations were separated from their traditional resource bases and eventually from the practical ability to exercise sovereignty over them.

The third shock was, in effect, geo-political. As the pendulum of pandemic swung again and again through populations, it reshaped the balance of power. Before, First Nations were a powerful majority. Even up to 1862 they still felt able to assert interests with what, for want of a better word, might be characterized as military actions in Nootka Sound, in the Peace River district, the Fraser Canyon, the Chilcotin, the Gulf Islands, on Vancouver Island and elsewhere.

But over the century between 1780 and 1880, recurring epidemics reduced the coastal First Nations population by 90 percent. Should a catastrophe of similar magnitude afflict today’s Canada, the surviving population would dwindle to Greater Vancouver’s numbers.

Over that century, intensive seasonal rounds to harvest the resources of traditional territories collapsed, languages and the world view they contained vanished. Colonists gave themselves permission to settle lands abandoned by what they perceived as a dying race.

In addition to at least five outbreaks of smallpox—one for every successive generation born without immunity—measles, malaria, influenza and other diseases identified by the few fur traders only as “the mortality” or “fever and ague” contributed to a population decline of unprecedented dimensions. The 50 percent surviving the initial outbreak were next reduced by another 10 percent, then by 14 percent, then by 22 percent, then by 50 percent and so on down a relentless ladder of dwindling.

We tend to parse this awful experience into its individual outbreaks, smallpox in 1782 and 1801, “the mortality” of 1824, malaria in 1830, smallpox again in 1836, dysentery in 1844, measles in 1847, smallpox again in 1853 and then another coast-wide smallpox pandemic in 1862.

The dreadful century culminated with the formation of British Columbia amid the ruins.

As settlers poured into the region on the discovery of gold on the Fraser River, people already there were quickly marginalized economically and separated from their resource bases. The new overlords then set about trying to neutralize what power remained by dismantling the cultures themselves—outlawing language, religion and cultural practice, ethnically cleansing the landscape and establishing concentration camps under the euphemistic rubric “reserves,” disenfranchising ethnic groups and, the ultimate insult, seizing children for brainwashing to accept subservient roles in the new “normal.”

This, of course, is the takeaway from our dolorous past, after enormous transfiguring events there is no return to “normal.” Pandemics take normality and contort it into something else, something few of us can foresee.

The Black Death ended a thousand years of feudalism. The economic change it unleashed shaped the wage economy we share today and to which—like the serfs and lords of of 1345—we can’t imagine an alternative. The pandemics of the 19th Century changed the world of proto-British Columbia in ways unimaginable in the century before.

So we can all be sure of one thing about our pandemic. Survivors of the medical and economic carnage will inherit something but whatever it is, it won’t be the normal we knew in 2019.

The new normal around the globe: social distancing

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Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

Stephen Hume

PANDEMICS, LIKE BIRTH AND DEATH, have always been with human populations. History is composed of pandemic layered upon pandemic as far back as written records extend.

The plague of Antonine, almost certainly the smallpox virus from the description of its symptoms by the Greek doctor Galen, rode home with troops returning from a Middle Eastern war, swept through the Roman Empire, and killed an estimated one in 10 of its 75 million citizens.

Victims included the Roman emperor Lucius Verus, co-ruler with Marcus Aurelius, who is perhaps better known for the Stoic philosophy that must have kept him going while plague was killing 2,000 people a day in Rome. The current daily death total in the US during the COVID-19 pandemic is now 2,000-a-day and projected to rise to 3,000 a day by June. The more things change, the more they get the same.

Later, in 735 Japan, the smallpox virus killed about one-third of its population over the course of two years.

When smallpox arrived here on the West Coast for the first time in 1782, travelling its perambulatory path from an outbreak in Mexico, it killed every second person, a mortality rate about double that which had afflicted ancient Rome and early medieval Japan.

Viruses leap from animal to human populations when they find fertile ground and then they leap from concentration of humans to concentration of humans until they’ve either killed off enough hosts that they reduce their transmission options, or their hosts adapt their immunity, or the viruses adapt to their hosts so that they can live in a symbiotic, sometimes mutually beneficial relationship.

It doesn’t make evolutionary sense to kill off the host that keeps you alive; viruses that do soon disappear along with their dwindling transmission possibilities.

And so it does make sense that some viruses which reside in the mucus that lubricates human respiratory, digestive and reproductive tracts, for example, protect the medium in which they live—and thus us—by killing harmful bacteria. They are helping to keep the world in which they live intact.

Our quirky, sometimes uncomfortable coexistence with microorganisms is hardly surprising considering that we live in a vast ocean of them. The math is astonishing. As part of the global biomass, humans, it’s been pointed out, amount to little more than a rounding error, about one ten-thousandths of the total. Microorganisms, by comparison, amount to 13 percent of the total. Viruses alone represent about three-and-a-half times the total biomass of 7.5 billion humans.

In fact, microorganisms comprise a big part of us from the day we’re born until the day we die and they begin to dismantle and recycle us.

For every cell in the human body, there are 10 microorganisms, most of them benign, many—including viruses—which are essential to our survival. Only a few are temporarily lethal to us until we eventually learn how to adapt to them or they to us.

The variety of coronavirus that’s disrupting global civilization for the moment—the inconvenience of social distancing may seem interminable to us but it’s a tiny fraction of our time on Earth and a minuscule fraction of a fraction of a fraction in evolutionary time—tends to be anthropomorphized as “the enemy” and demonized as though it were following some nefarious conscious imperative.

 

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Electron microscope image of the new coronavirus SARS-COV-2

 

Yet, if it weren’t for viruses, we likely wouldn’t even be here to complain about them.

It turns out that viruses kill 80 percent of the bacteria that inhabit the ocean deeps. This in turn releases the nutrients upon which bacteria higher in the water column feed. Those bacteria are themselves crucial nutrients for the single cell organisms upon which the entire marine food chain rests.

At the top of that food chain are humans.

And so, even as we curse the COVID-19 virus and its hazards and inconveniences, the tuna melts we make for lunch actually come to us courtesy of its very convenient cousins.   

Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

Stephen Hume

GEORGE VANCOUVER’S LOGS from his 1792 circumnavigation of Vancouver Island note that any one of the large deserted villages around the Gulf of Georgia appeared big enough for the entire indigenous population he had encountered.

He rightly guessed this was the scattered remnant of a much larger population.

How large? As many as 200,000 people likely lived on the Northwest Coast when the first Europeans visited.

Warriors and traders, they travelled in swift sea-going canoes whose hull design inspired the clipper ship. The biggest were capable of crossing the Pacific Ocean, which one of them did in 1901.

Great houses were adorned with the crests of mighty chiefs—the Europeans thought them “kings”—and the heraldic emblems of clans. Warriors dressed in armour that resembled that of Japanese samurai. Trade routes for prized fish oil, obsidian, precious shells and stones reached deep into the continent.

Sophisticated traditions produced oral heroic epics and for any student of classical antiquity the broad similarities between Northwest Coast societies and Mediterranean’s culture of the Homeric age are difficult to ignore.

But the post-apocalyptic scenes witnessed by Vancouver were evidence of the pandemic that laid waste to that rich human pageant. Perhaps 100,000 of these people had perished—at least 400 percent more than died during the 1862 outbreak that later became a horrifying icon in British Columbia’s historic timeline.

Think of this another way. Imagine a BC in which COVID-19 kills 2.5 million people over the next 18 months—about half our present population.

In that first pandemic people died so rapidly that the death rate overwhelmed society’s capacity to respond. Hence an archaeology of normal burials, then hurried mass graves, followed by simply burning houses with the dead and their personal property still in them, concluding with the final indignity, the dead abandoned where they fell.

Smallpox was far from unknown to Captain Vancouver. In the 18th century it killed about 400,000 people a year in Europe. Enlightenment Sweden lost one in every 10 children to the virus.

In the final century between 1870 and its eradication, smallpox still killed 500 million—and that was with an effective vaccine.

First described by Chinese, Indian and Egyptian writers 3,000 years before Vancouver was exploring our coast, the virus came ashore in North America in what is now Mexico with the soldiers of Hernan Cortes in 1521, and then swept through the “virgin soil” of Indigenous populations without immunity.

 

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Graphic illustration of the historical spread of smallpox, leprosy and malaria around the globe

 

Explorer Alexander Mackenzie, travelling overland to the Pacific through northern BC in 1792, witnessed it on the Great Plains.

“The smallpox,” Mackenzie observed, “spread its destructive and desolating power as the fire consumes the dry grass of the field.” It was so terrifying, he said, that when it first made its appearance in camps, the bravest warriors would kill their wives and children and then themselves to escape the malevolent, inescapable “spirit of pestilence.”

What Vancouver’s midshipmen and maritime fur traders found from Port Angeles to southern Alaska were the cultural ruins left by a pandemic that erupted in central Mexico in 1779.

Following ancient trade routes, it raced across the Great Plains, dispersed by a new transportation technology—the jet plane of its day—the horse. Along the Missouri River, it killed 60 percent of the population. American explorers reported abandoned villages of collapsed houses and widely-strewn human and animal bones.

Smallpox, it is now thought, came to the Northwest Coast following the Snake River to the Columbia and then sped north and south with the canoes that sought to flee before it.

In its path, it left famine. Food production and distribution collapsed. Lineages ended. The suffering lingered in collective memory, which itself was rent, so that the early disasters became conflated with the more recent.

Smallpox pulsed through newly vulnerable generations again in 1801. Then 1836. Then 1853. Memories of these merged with those of the fifth great smallpox pandemic in1862. It, too, was followed by outbreaks in 1868 and 1874.

Once, as we stood on the end of a dock while a gale lashed us with sleet and spindrift, a Heiltsuk chief told me about two ancestors.

They’d been recently married and gone into the mountains to hunt for the summer.

The Heiltsuk then occupied 50 villages over 15,000 square kilometres of the mid-coast, centred on what’s now Bella Bella. Their canoes traded from Alaska to Oregon. Their bent boxes, cunningly constructed from single pieces of carved and painted cedar, were in demand everywhere.

The newlyweds came home that fall, travelling back to the outer coast. They found only empty villages. Everyone was dead.

“Every day I think about those people,” he said. “I try to imagine the terror and confusion. They must have believed the end of the world had come and they had been overlooked.”

Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

 

Stephen Hume

AFTER ARCHAEOLOGISTS WORKING NEAR THE MOUTH OF THE PITT RIVER in the Fraser Valley uncovered hundreds of fire-charred body ornaments that weren’t supposed to be there, another team excavating a construction site at Port Angeles about 15 years ago made a horrifying discovery.

The remains of children, dozens of them, all of them 12 years or under, were buried in mass graves amid burned house planks. Valuable tools were scattered where they had been dropped and there was evidence of unusual rituals not before seen in the material culture of the region.

Radiocarbon samples—it’s an archaeological dating method based upon the measurable rate at which the radioactive isotope carbon 14 decays—pegged the burials to between 1780 and 1800.

That coincided with evidence 150 kilometres to the northeast.

The finds provided corroboration in the physical record of accounts recorded in the oral traditions of First Nations occupying the Georgia Basin, as well as naval records from Captain George Vancouver’s expedition in the summer of 1792.

 

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John David Kelly's 1900-ish painting commemorating Captain George Vancouver's 1792 exploration of BC's coast 

 

Vancouver’s log records his arrival off Neah Bay on April 29. He coasted along the south shore of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, dazzled by the snowy Olympic Mountains and noting the stunning beauty of the pastoral landscape.

He’d observed signs or human habitation at what we now know were Clallam village sites at Pysht, Elwha, Yinnis and Tsewhitzen. Then, towed by his jollyboats in an absence of wind, he turned into what’s now Discovery Bay near Port Townsend, and, on May 2, dropped anchor in 34 fathoms and send ashore a landing party.

As the world grapples with the social and economic upheaval from the current pandemic there’s much discussion of how the events of our time have the potential to reconfigure conceptions of governance, economies, how we practice business and the relative merits of values we not so long ago considered unassailable.

Pandemics have a way of bringing down our collective certainties like so many houses of cards. They shake faith in our institutions from the spiritual to the secular, remind us that for all our technological prowess, our hold on life is tenuous and far from guaranteed by wealth, status or power—although these things provide indisputable advantage.

The events of 240 years ago are worth contemplating in the context of current events because they offer a poignant and compelling reminder that we are nothing special in our collective angst and suffering.

It’s all happened before, right here, and to an extent that makes our current upheaval look like a passing irritation, and it’s happened more than once.

Vancouver’s landing parties brought back chilling reports of very large abandoned villages. Skulls and human bones were scattered among the weed-infested ruins, skeletal remains were strewn down the beaches behind which the villages were built.

There were so many bones that Vancouver assumed he had come upon a burial ground and ordered his crews to offer no indignities to the remains. But as the exploration progressed, subordinates reported baskets with bones in them, canoes full of bones, mass cremations where houses full of bodies had been burned, holes into which bodies had been tumbled and barely covered and evidence that many, many bodies had simply been left where they fell.

As in New York and Milan, the accelerating speed of mortalities had overwhelmed the societies' most basic ability—to care for the sick and dispose of the dead.

Vancouver was convinced that he was witness to the aftermath of some cataclysmic disaster that had befallen a once populous nation, leaving it suddenly impoverished and in an economically ruinous state.

James Colnett reached a similar conclusion landing even farther north at Kildidt Sound, midway between Vancouver Island and Haida Gwaii in 1788. Spanish explorers reported blind survivors in 1792. Peter Puget, one of Vancouver’s lieutenants, reported a large fortified but abandoned village in Desolation Sound where an intolerable stench and a vast infestation of insect vermin literally drove his party off.

The ever observant Vancouver suspected smallpox based on his knowledge of the disease and the fact that among the few survivors he met, many were blind in one eye, something the Spanish had noted, at Nanaimo.

Science would later prove him right. The Clallam and their relatives the Lekwungen in what’s now Victoria, Nitinat and Ditidaht, the Straits Salish peoples of Saanich and the Gulf Islands, the Cowichans, the Lummi, the Sto;lo tribes of the Lower Fraser and on up the coast all had their world shattered and brutally reconfigured in an instant.

Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

Stephen Hume

VALERIE PATENAUDE was a newly-minted 26-year-old archaeologist in 1978 and in charge of an important excavation at Duke Point in Nanaimo where the provincial government was planning a new ferry terminal.

But she was sent to supervise a high priority rescue dig in Port Coquitlam where the Province planned a new highway bypass at Mary Hill near the mouth of the Pitt River.

What Patenaude uncovered was what stalks the dreams of every archaeologist, evidence of a lost civilization.

 

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A  pandemic on the coast around 1750 is suggested by examination and carbon-dating of material found in archaeological excavations near Port Coquitlam

 

At first the archaeologist noticed many shallow depressions which, on more detailed examination, proved the remnants of a large food-processing complex. Locally abundant deer berries were cooked down to extract juice which was used, it’s thought, as a preservative for fish and game meat.

As she explored further, Patenaude found that the food-processing factory supported a concentration of residential structures. A huge site, it sprawled well over a kilometre along the banks of the Pitt River. Radiocarbon dating identified two extended periods of occupation reaching back almost 5,000 years from the present. It proved, in fact, only one of a series of such sites which extended all the way to Pitt Lake, 20 kilometres to the North.

How many people lived there is a matter of scholarly conjecture, but it was a large number.

The site, in the territory of the Katzie First Nation, was exciting, not least because it opened a window into the ancient past of peoples who first settled the rich Fraser Valley floodplain.

Yet it also brought a darker inkling. The site was abruptly abandoned sometime around 1750 and never reoccupied. Whatever happened there had ended the world as they had known it for 160 generations.

Now, as media abounds with prognostications about a world turned upside down by the fallout from the current Covid-19 pandemic—whatever equilibrium we find in its aftermath, economists, social psychologists and politicians warn, our old conceptions of normal have been forever swept away—Patenaude’s discoveries from more than 40 years ago remind us that the world has been irrevocably changed more than once in British Columbia’s past.

As the young archaeologist’s dig expanded, it began revealing something strange. In the level bags were all kind of artifacts that weren’t supposed to be there.

There were scores of labrets, a kind of lip ornament worn by women that were seldom found in grave sites because they were bequeathed within families from one generation to the next, from mother to daughter to granddaughter to great-granddaughter.

Labrets might be made from wood, bone, stone or shell and were sometimes decorated with inserts. Grant Keddie, curator of archaeology at the Royal BC Museum, says that labrets appear to have been crucial signifiers of social relationships, particularly with respect to marriage ties.

“But at the Pitt River site we found hundreds of labrets,” Patenaude told me when I talked to her about it while researching a book on the first European contact with peoples on the Lower Fraser River.

There was something else about the ornaments. They were all blackened by fire. For some reason, the ancient cycle of maternal inheritance had been disrupted. The women who wore the labrets had, instead of passing them to their daughters, been burned in massive funeral pyres, probably in the big wooden houses in which they lived.

Who were the forgotten people of this lost world? Patenaude said that, too, was conjecture.

“It was probably a smallpox epidemic,” she told me. “Yet neither the Katzie nor the Coquitlams claimed descent from those people. It’s a strong possibility that site was used by people from South Vancouver Island who just never came back after the catastrophe.”

Next time, a look at the pandemic which reconfigured the West Coast before Europeans came to stay and, in fact, shaped the settler attitudes which bedevil us all today.

Stephen Hume has spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

Stephen Hume

THE MORNING the United States became the world’s epicentre in the coronavirus pandemic, I woke to more ancient news. A spring rain drumming on my skylights and a raucous perturbation among nesting waterfowl.

The rain dwindled to a drizzle, then a sniffle, then wraiths of mist. The birds subsided into grumbling. I took a hike. I seldom meet anyone on the back trails, less frequently now that we’re social distancing.

Above, the sky was steel grey but for a band of intense blue at the eastern horizon. Mt. Baker glittered behind the San Juan Islands in Washington, an epicentre within the epicentre.

 

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Yet, a silver lining. Those snowfields are brighter than most of us have ever seen as entire cities discover they can do what many claimed impossible—just shut down—and the air pollution from 6.5 million vehicles, most from Victoria through Seattle to Vancouver, disappears.

By April, this virus had killed about 40,000 people, mostly elders over 70. Air pollution kills about 73,000 elders over 70 each year—and another 4,000 infants under five.

Tourists who normally throng Victoria’s waterfront and Downtown shopping districts have vanished as abruptly as the Purple Martins in the fall.

So have Americans enjoying an inexpensive day trip to Sidney from Anacortes. They normally swarm Sidney Bakery for cream puffs and perch in rows sipping their London Fogs or eating ice cream at the two flanking cafes.

The Colwood Crawl and the Pat Bay Pandemonium are gone.

As the pandemic spreads, war metaphors abound.

Yet, despite harrowing stories from hospitals in Milan and New York, what we’re experiencing is not war. It’s a natural biological event.

This virus is another evolutionary opportunist, not so different from we humans. It’s killed 40,000 of us so far. We, on the other hand, continue to kill ourselves at a much faster rate—about 500 suicides a year in BC, about 5,000 by self-administered drugs since 2015, 35,000 drug homicides in Mexico, maybe 500,000 dead in Syria’s civil war. Since January we’ve killed more than 13 billion sentient animals in slaughter factories.

We inhabit a vast sea of viruses. This one surged into an ecological niche—us—exploiting vectors that we created with our technologies, our complacent social habits and our political and economic hubris. 

Is it scary? Yes. Can it have tragic consequences. Yes. Do we have an obligation to respond to it appropriately? Yes. Does the war analogy help? No. The term mischaracterizes that with which we must deal.

Unlike war, which rages unabated in Africa and the Middle East and which, as we see from our response to coronavirus, could be ended tomorrow if parties to the conflicts agreed to end them, we are dealing with a force of nature—not malevolent, just ambivalent.

Around us, everywhere, life is resurgent. As our urban lives contract, the natural world reasserts itself. Wild boar forage in Barcelona’s streets, deer investigate empty train stations in Asia, mountain lions pad the squares of South American cities, wild turkeys strut San Francisco and red foxes return to Paris.

Here, on my deserted trail, spring unfolds on schedule. Red currants bloom, Indian plum dresses drab thickets with creamy lace, green moss velvets dead stumps and countless buds uncurl their tiny, defiant fists into the growing light, a reminder that these gloomy days, too, shall pass one day from memory.

Stephen Hume spent half a century as a journalist writing about Western Canada, the Far North, BC and the Island.

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