In 1960s Calgary it was easy for a kid to be naive and free. Naive, because Alberta seemed a perfect place, far from all the ugliness populating the pages of the papers our parents read. Free, because most kids still lived half-feral lives outdoors.
I used my freedom, and my bicycle, to explore the wild places beyond the city limits in search of birds. Brewer’s blackbirds would rise from their nest sites in the tangles of buckbrush that lined the prairie back roads, scolding with sharp, clacking calls. They dove at me as I pedalled earnestly past, having already recorded them in my notebook and looking forward to more exotic discoveries.
One day I ventured far out into the farm country north of the airport and found a long prairie slough adjacent to a strange array of pipes, smokestacks and windowless buildings. I stashed my bike in the weeds and waded out into pond stink and duckweed. A colony of eared grebes had built floating nests among the reeds. I waded from one nest to the next, counting the eggs in each for the nest record cards I submitted each year to the Calgary Bird Club. Avocets flew shrieking at me—trying to keep me from approaching their nests on a nearby island. Their efforts were in vain; those eggs needed counting too.
It was a wild, living hubbub—waterfowl circling overhead, sora rails yelping in the cattails, the cries of willets and terns, gulls, blackbirds and more. Incongruously, that strange industrial installation—a refinery of some sort—loomed nearby, like an outpost of some alien civilization.
But those two disparate realities came together when I happened on my first oil-smeared bird carcass. Eventually I found several more—mostly terns. Evidently the company operating that plant had let oil escape into the slough. By the time I left, head starting to ache from the pounding prairie sun and incessant fussing of disturbed birds, I suspected that the company was using the slough as a waste dump.
All these years later I recall writing a letter of protest but I’m not sure to whom—probably the premier. I have no recollection of ever getting a response. What were the concerns of one little birdwatcher when grownups were raking in big dollars from oil and gas?
One day as we were returning from a fishing trip, Dad pointed out the refinery at Turner Valley. He mentioned that he had read news about the company polluting the river. That still made no sense to me. This was Alberta—a place of clean, sweet-smelling skies, pristine streams, birdsong and endless miles of wild forest, prairie and freedom. Pollution was something that happened in other places. Wasn’t our Alberta better than that?
It wasn’t. Our messes were just tucked out of sight—at least until inquisitive birdwatchers poked their noses into those out of the way places.
What does it profit a society if it gains prosperity but sacrifices the beauty of a creation it was meant to steward?
I grew up amid both an economic boom and the long, sad decline in the living beauty that was once an Alberta birthright. Two sides of the same coin. The slough north of Calgary is still there but the grebes, terns and avocets are long gone. The Turner Valley refinery is closed now, but the land beneath it is permanently fouled. Abandoned oil and gas wells, some leaching toxins into groundwater, litter the province. Vast, deadly lakes of toxic water lie adjacent to oil sands operations. Wounds, everywhere. Wealth, spent
In the Christian Bible the apostle Mark asks, “What shall it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his soul?” One might equally ask: What does it profit a society if it gains prosperity—however briefly—but sacrifices the beauty of a creation it was meant to steward?
Another childhood memory haunts my darkest nights: another roadside Brewer’s blackbird. This one was struggling in the dirt beside the road that leads into the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary. The water ponded in the ditch was covered with the viscous stain of oil that had seeped from the adjacent Imperial Oil Refinery, and somehow the little bird had managed to get fouled by it. I held its little body in my hand until it stopped struggling. It was smeared from head to tail, pink flesh showing through the oil-caked plumage, panting for breath.
In the world I’d been raised in, one didn’t rescue sick creatures; one put them out of their misery. There was no hope for the little bird. Choked with sudden grief, I pulled its head off and, horrified by what I had done, threw its little carcass into the ditch. The end of innocence.
I can’t rid myself of that image: a plume of bright, red blood spilling into that dead black oil stain, under the fading blue promise of the vast Alberta sky.
Kevin Van Tighem’s Wild Roses Are Worth It: Reimagining the Alberta Advantage, was released in spring 2021 by RMB.