“If all the beasts were gone, men would die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to the beasts also happens to the man. All things are connected.” ——Chief Seattle (1786—1866)
SPECIES HAVE BEEN GOING EXTINCT for numerous reasons, over millennia. But human-caused development, deforestation and climate change have accelerated the process as never before.
Record numbers of species are threatened or at risk—nearly 2,400 in British Columbia alone. Scientists say that up to half of all species may vanish by the end of this century.
The problem is so widespread and distressing that an international “Remembrance Day for Lost Species” was created in 2011. This year it fell on Tuesday, November 30th.
In BC, lost and threatened species were honoured with events held in Port Coquitlam and in Victoria. About 100 people participated in Victoria’s event, called Rise Up for the Fallen, on November 24th.
Rise Up for the Fallen procession in Victoria, November 24, 2021. Hereditary Chief Ye-Kue-Klas (also known as Sonny) of the Gwat'sinux-Kwakwaka'wakw, carries a small totem pole, while others carry fronds of the cedar tree, sacred to many Indigenous nations. (photo by Valerie Elliott)
Twenty people helped carry an iconic reminder of one of the “fallen”—a 1200-pound slab of coastal Douglas fir. With chanting and drumming, they followed Indigenous leaders in a procession that ended with a rally at the Legislature, where MLAs were still in session.
The slab measured a full eight feet across. It had been cut from a huge stump left behind in a clear-cut at the foot of Edinburgh Mountain, in the Port Renfrew area, and served as a stark reminder of the ongoing destruction of old-growth trees and the irreplaceable habitat they provide. Coastal Douglas fir ecosystems are among the most threatened in the province.
En route, the procession paused at several intersections. During one pause, Jackie Larkin, an organizer with Elders for Ancient Trees, led a call-and-response that honoured recently clear-cut nearby ecosystems, and extinct or threatened species.
“We honour, we remember Caycuse…” she said. The crowd gravely repeated each phrase after her. “We honour and rise for Eden Grove… We honour and remember marbled murrelet…”
And the little brown bat… Western toad… bandtailed pigeon… sharp-tail snake… Western skylark… oldgrowth specklebellied lichen… barn swallow… great blue heron… olive-sided flycatcher… common bladder moss… blue-grey taildropper slug… Western toad… phantom orchid… Stellar sea lion… red-legged frog…
Marbled murrelets are a threatened species. These robin-sized sea birds nest only in old-growth forests, high up on thick branches covered in moss. They lay only one egg. When it can fly, the chick makes a solitary journey to the sea. A lack of old growth along its route leaves it vulnerable to predators. (photo by Deborah Freeman)
Northern pygmy owls are only 6 to 7 inches in length—about the size of a plump robin. But they are fierce hunters, sometimes preying on birds and mammals larger than itself. (photo by Deborah Freeman)
The goshawk is a large hawk and requires large areas of old growth or mature forest for nesting and hunting. It is a red-listed species. Goshawks have been known to attack people that venture too near its nest. (photo by Deborah Freeman)
Close up of a Western Toad (photo by Andrew Johnson, Creative Commons)
Phantom orchid, Cephalanthera austiniae, on Vancouver Island (photo by sramey, Creative Commons)
These are only a few of the threatened species within our region. The full list is much longer. And it must be added to the lists of all the lost and threatened species in other regions, and other countries, as well as the oceans. More than 37,000 species in the world are at direct risk of extinction.
For the past 20 years, Larkin and Maggie Ziegler have been co-facilitating groups to help people open to and share the grief and pain so many feel for our planet and its beings harmed by human activity. They encourage people to see the interconnectedness, beauty and presence of life, and to feel gratitude for it. They include, honour and share the pain rather than repressing it as a private grief.
“The Spanish word for remember is recordar—‘to pass through the heart,’”Larkin noted in an interview. “For me it’s very important for us as humans to remember and honour them, to celebrate the lives that they had, and to grieve for their loss. To me, the grieving and the honouring and the celebrating are all tied up together.”
Citizen scientist Natasha Lavdovsky discovered one of BC's largest populations of this blue-listed lichen—in a marked cutblock at Fairy Creek. Oldgrowth specklebelly lichen only grows in forests that are at least 6,000 years old. Much of this forest in the Heli Camp area was recently logged. (photo by Natasha Lavdovsky)
Ziegler explains the issues humans are facing are collective, and the pain is collective, so it makes sense to acknowledge them in community, where they can be witnessed and recognized as normal. It’s empowering, it opens the heart, and it also brings attention to what hasn’t been said or acknowledged, she said.
She added that protecting land and water is a dangerous activity, and around the world, hundreds of environment defenders are murdered every year. It was recently reported that a record number of land defenders were killed in 2020: 227. Many were Indigenous people defending their ancestral land. (A sobering reminder, in a week when the RCMP reportedly assaulted a Pacheedaht land defender on her ancestral territory at Fairy Creek, and a week after 29 Indigenous people were arrested as they defended their Wet’suwet’en territory from the destructive installation of a pipeline which will endanger their sacred river and the nation’s water supply.)
Que Mary Banh, who helped organize the Rise Up event, says the actual number of land defenders killed in the world is likely much higher. She speaks from personal experience. Before her family moved to Canada, two of her uncles were killed defending their jungle homelands from the destruction of logging and mining in South Vietnam.
Que Mary Banh at Fairy Creek, April 2021 (photo by Dawna Mueller)
“They were shot by corporate mercenaries,” she said. But deaths of land defenders like her uncles go unreported in countries where there’s little press freedom, or where they may even be perpetrated or covered up by governments.
Now, she says, “There’s almost no life in the jungle. The fish have disappeared. The soil is contaminated.”
Young people of that region now see the birds and animals that used to live there only in photos. In Canada, Banh believes we are heading for the same fate. She is passionately committed to protecting forests and biodiversity, and spent five days in a hard block structure at Fairy Creek last August to slow down the logging.
Banh says, “We Teochew people are not scared of death. What we’re scared of is not standing up while we’re living, letting these bullies scare us into submission. That’s not what I was taught.”
WHEN THE PROCESSION reached the Legislature, several Indigenous leaders addressed the crowd.
Elder William Jones, of Pacheedaht First Nation in the Port Renfrew area, thanked those in the crowd who have helped defend the old-growth forests in the Fairy Creek area, which are part of his nation’s ancestral territory.
“I am most grateful for all of you,” he told them. “We are here to protect and care for our Great Mother’s gift to us.”
Another elder, a hereditary chief from northern Vancouver Island, Ye-Kue-Klas (Sonny) of the Gwat'sinux - Kwakwaka'wakw Nation said: “We will never give up, in our fight for our lands and for Mother Earth.”
Indigenous people led the Rise Up for the Fallen procession, including hereditary Chief Ye-Kue-Klas (also known as Sonny) of the Gwat'sinux-Kwakwaka'wakw, in the centre-right of the photograph. He was accompanied by his mother Tlax-Gwah-Nee (Fran Wallace), in the centre-left. Both are wearing their traditional regalia. Their nation is located on the western side of northern Vancouver Island. (photo by Valerie Elliott)
Wearing his traditional regalia, he explained that his people call the Earth Mother because it provides for all: “It provides for every animal, every insect, every plant. The Earth provides for us. We need to stop all of the greed, all of the overcutting. We need to save the last bit of our old growth.”
Ye-Kue-Klas said he was raised to think seven generations ahead. “What will they have, that we have now? If we take too much, our future generations will have nothing.”
Greed was absolutely illegal before colonization arrived in these lands, another Indigenous speaker told the crowd. Chiyokten (Paul Wagner) from the W’SANEC nation has spent the past few months defending the old growth forests at Fairy Creek.
Colonialism is “an adolescent culture of death,” he said. “It has destroyed all its elders and Indigenous-hearted matriarchs that would have said ‘No, you will not harm the circle of life.’ They have lost their connection to Mother Earth.” While Indigenous cultures were able to steward the lands and keep the circle of life healthy, this society is unable to even ensure a future for its own children, he said.
Colonialism has never listened to our First Peoples, he said. As a child, his mother told him a story of the first contact with Europeans. “She said, ‘They came here with long eyes,’ and she took her fingers and moved them in a gesture from her eyes forward, beyond herself. She said ‘they came here with long eyes, and they looked beyond us, they looked right through us. They could only see the things they wanted to take for themselves.’
Since then, Chiyokten said, 98 percent of the forests in the Salish Sea region have been destroyed, and 95 percent of the animals that lived in them are gone. “And about the same percentage of Indigenous human beings are gone too. Annihilated.
“So this is the trajectory of colonialism. We’re moving hard and fast towards death for the circle of life.”
In order to stop that process, it is time to return to and honour the knowledge of Indigenous people, he said. Their deep and intimate knowledge of the earth, the water and their inhabitants enabled the first peoples to steward and maintain a paradise here for millennia, he said. That knowledge was passed on to children by the elders, and matriarchs guided their society.
When the Douglas party arrived and started wholesale destroying the ancient forests on their territories, the WSANEC people tried to reason with them, he said.
“But they wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t listen to us. So we counselled and we decided to paint our faces black and fight to the death for an ancient forest. I’m proud of that. Not because it was violent. Because it was necessary.
“When my elder told me this, he said… if they destroy that, they destroy our ability to live as human beings. To be free, to truly be Indigenous, to be the same as all the other beings. That’s our knowing.”
MEMBERS OF THE RISE UP FOR THE FALLEN event in Victoria had hoped to speak with MLAs. They stayed several hours at the Legislature, occupying the entrance and exit to the restricted parking lot until midnight. However, MLAs left their cars in their parking stalls and took taxis from the other side of the Legislature.
But as Chiyokten said, many people see the need for change now. Many are embracing the Indigenous teachings about living simply, to respect the Earth, nature, and all species, and to stand up to protect them. “We’re beginning the end of the era of death,” he said. “We’re returning to a way of Life once again.
“When you fight for that ecosystem, when you fight for what is simply called a tree, you’re fighting for our existence as Indigenous people.” Chiyokten said his ancestors didn’t fight out of hate or anger.
“They fought out of love. They fought out of love for our ways, our ways of keeping every single being as well as the Creator put them here. Our way is the way of life and respect. We’re stepping into the ways of the ancient people.
“And we’re going to bring these governments along with us.”
Grace Golightly (her name since birth) is a freelance writer interested in the protection of nature and human rights.
Further viewing/ reading:
• A video of the speakers when Rise Up for the Fallen reached the Legislature.
• Raincoast Conservation Foundation recently stated that within the coastal Douglas fir range, 44 ecological communities are at risk. So are 94 species of vertebrate animals, 65 vascular plant species, 45 invertebrate species, 5 lichens, and 3 bryophyte species. See the Foundation’s report on coastal Douglas fir ecosystems.
• Check out the rich variety of biodiversity at Fairy Creek, found by scientists and citizen scientists.
• Habitat Acquisition Trust has information on local species and on native plants and trees we can plant to support local species.