A Canadian newspaper company recently ran a report about rising sea levels in the Maritime provinces of Atlantic Canada, and quoted Emma Power, a consultant for a company dedicated to helping communities deal with the effects of climate change. As well as being an undisputed fact, Power said the situation is also “too big a beast to pull back”; the damage is done and storm surges will just keep getting higher, tides will inevitably come further up the shoreline.
Going on to discuss the emotionally charged topic of ‘managed retreat’, Power maintains reversal of this state of affairs is no longer possible, so the only reasonable thing to do is to pack up and head inland.
As a resident of the area, Jane Alexander has been all too aware of these issues for years. From her home in Shelburne County on the southwestern tip of Nova Scotia, she keeps track of what is happening outside her windows. Our conversation takes place mid-January; heavy rain has drenched the area for days, but now the sun has come out, and the room she is in is bathed in light behind her on the screen. But while the weather has brightened, the forecast has not.
“We have a pretty significant problem in the Maritimes and that’s the rising ocean. Places like Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island are really feeling that. It's significant on my property alone, the tides have been incredibly long.”
Trends in the scarcity of birdlife have been all too noticeable as well. In the breeding season, she is a monitor for Piping Plovers and other coastal birds and has participated in Christmas Bird Counts for many years.
“I do a breeding bird survey, and it's a huge survey that's been going on for over 50 years. The Piping Plovers on our sandy ocean beaches often use the dune grass for nesting, but that’s being wiped out with these tides. Still, we can do a lot to help by making sure that non-native predators are kept at bay as much as possible, for example excluding people and dogs from beaches during breeding season. It's not a long breeding season, so people really should buy into that.
I've done my same route for about 12 years, it's 50 stops every three kilometers; you stop, look and listen: it's mainly listening because you only have 3 minutes in each spot to check what's there. I do that in June which does take me several hours, and it's exciting to know that you are part of a huge number of people across North America who are doing citizen science. But there has been a decline of a number of species, not the least of the emblem of Canada, the Canada Warbler; I don't have any more breeding in my area.
But there is some good news for me and the people around here, as we're seeing a lot of species we don't normally see, species who are moving north, like the Cardinal, and we have the House Wren now, and the Carolina Wren – so it's sort of exciting to see. We’re also getting more Wood Thrush, which is an endangered species everywhere in North America; it's also my favorite bird, they are such glorious songsters.”
Singing through the years
Like many of us, Alexander felt a connection to wildlife and birds from a young age. In her book Wild Things, Wild Places, she recounts the sheer joy and wonder at hearing a Wood Thrush sing and how over time, she could tell the difference between the individuals that visited her home by their song. She had an absolute favorite that she named The Grand Old Man: He was with us for five years, she writes. His song was to the previous Wood Thrush as Pavarotti is to Garth Brooks’: both are good singers, but the former takes your breath away … I had the feeling that perhaps the whole forest stopped to listen.
As she grew up, her attention turned to her own life of acting and relationships; for a time, she was immersed in a completely different world. But a bird’s song stays in the memory, and passion for nature can only lie dormant for so long; when it was renewed, Alexander suddenly understood the role she had to play in it.
“My husband and I moved to Putnam County, New York, and in the first spring there, all these birds started to arrive. I watched as Barn Swallows screamed and swirled around as they came up this beautiful lawn towards me, and I suddenly realized – this is their home. You could just tell they were so happy to be there. Right away, they started building nests under the back deck. I began to look at everything in terms of resident and migrating birds, and I realized, we have to take care of them.
Their families have been here for centuries, maybe millennia. When I saw and heard the Wood Thrush again after all those years, birders told me, ‘Well, you know it's a declining species?’ That was the kick-off for me. Once you've been really awakened to the fact that there are things that you love that you might not see again, then there’s nothing else to do but become a protector.
During the 70s, I was meeting a lot of wildlife biologists because the films I wanted to do invariably had to do with being in nature and being an explorer, adventurer, or a woman warrior, so I would meet these biologists by doing my research. I went to Belize and met Alan Rabinowitz who was studying Jaguars, and then I was totally hooked on saving all the creatures, great and small.”
Battles worth fighting
Alexander is no stranger to the big issues and how important it is to ensure people are aware of them as much as they can be. But being aware is not enough – one must understand them, stay informed, and question things when they don’t make sense. Her moral compass is well and truly calibrated, which is evidenced in the way she helmed the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) during her four years as chair.
Prior to her appointment in 1993, the NEA had been blindsided into public controversy by the very loud and incendiary voices of a powerful few. The allocation of funds to a handful of “controversial” artists had set politicians aflame, and the media loves fire. Headlines about how the NEA was bankrolling deviants were all the Average Joe on the street heard. Alexander, of course, knew this couldn’t be further from the truth, and the truth needed telling. When she took over as chair, she spent the first year or so on a tour of the US, visiting 200 towns and cities across all 50 states, just talking to people about their perceptions of the organization, or lack thereof.
Engaging with everyday folk who unknowingly benefited from its existence, she explained that those amateur theater productions that involve the whole community, those small exhibitions displaying the unprecedented artistic talent of an otherwise quiet neighbor, and all those concerts, cinema screenings, poetry events, songwriting workshops, museum restorations; all had been funded by grants from the NEA.
In 1997, Alexander retired from the role, but not before hanging in there to make sure it managed to secure a new round of funding. She is largely credited by all in the know that under her watch, the NEA faced and won some of the worst battles it had ever seen.
Alexander has also served on many boards and councils for many organizations dedicated to wildlife conservation, including Panthera and Birdlife International, and for the past ten years, she has been a Board Director for Audubon. During that time, she has seen the immense effect pooled resources can have and is very excited about how more people are becoming aware of the fact that, if issues are affecting them, they are affecting everybody. A case in point is the newly unveiled America’s Flyways Initiative, which was recently announced during COP15 in Montreal.
“The migratory path of over 600 species of birds includes North America, Central America and South America. People don't think about flyways enough, we always think that these are our birds when they land where we are. But as they are migratory, these birds belong to everybody along that flyway, so it’s vital that everybody preserves them.
Audubon has been working with many organizations and people in Central and South America and Birds Canada, and the Latin American Development Fund, known as CAF, has come up with $5 billion to help with this initiative. So that's a very exciting development and I’m feeling quite good and hopeful.
However, there is a bird in Bhutan called the White-Bellied Heron. They are one of the most endangered species in the world, and there are twenty-one of them left. Twenty-one. Now, it doesn't take a lot of money to start the process of saving them in the same way that that wonderful organization in Idaho bred Peregrine Falcons when they were almost decimated by DDT. So we can do that with the White-Bellied Heron, and we know there's enough money. They already have a breeding facility on the banks of the Punatshangchu, but what it needs now is $150,000 annually, so I do worry for birds like that. We need to get the word out.”
Alexander was at COP15, as part of a group from Audubon. When the invite came from CEO Dr. Elizabeth Gray, it was very much a no-brainer.
“I was delighted. It was really remarkable, and very exciting. There were thousands of people in Montreal, from around 195 countries, all deliberating on two things: the framework and the language of what the global developments would be, the regulations they wanted to pass; and the ‘30 by 30’ – that 30% of the planet would be protected by 2030. What was exciting were the non-governmental organizations that were there, and the Indigenous people who came with their pleas for help, because they can't pay for all that has to be done.
They said, ‘Listen – we have something to say. We have a perception about the world that is valid; we know how to be guardians of the land, and you can help us get there so that the planet can be saved.’ And they owned their power. 80% of biodiversity of the world is on Indigenous lands. There are over 640 recognized First Nations in Canada alone, and they have been leading conservation efforts on this land for time immemorial.
This ethos of taking what you need and not what you want seems fundamental to many of us, but in practice we can of course see what decades of overdevelopment and sheer exploitation for profit have done to the natural world around us. Balance must be restored, and the onus lies with every single one of us as well as with governments and corporations. Alexander fully believes that any effort, no matter how small, contributes to the bigger picture and is intrinsic to the world recovering from these near-fatal wounds we have inflicted upon it.
“We always have to start with our own backyards, with our home. Human rights begin in the home, and so do rights for all animals. Once you start to realize that this is their home as well as yours – and they've been living here probably longer than you have – you want to protect them, but you have to take care of them in the right way. For example, I don't feed my birds all year round here in Nova Scotia because I have so many predators: Weasels, Mink, Bobcat, Coyote, Otter.
But you have to understand what resources birds need, and then you begin to find a relationship between your behavior and bird behavior. If we plant the native plants, you’re providing the natural food resources. A friend of mine said, ‘I'd like to attract some Monarch Butterflies because I hear they're endangered’. I said, “Well, it's very easy. Just go and buy the right kind of milkweed that they like and just put one or two plants in. Last summer, she birthed 50 Monarch Butterflies – in an urban environment in her backyard – from one plant.
I have a lot of acreage here, so I have all kinds of plants for the seed eaters. I have a pollinator garden in the summer for the nectar crowd, which is so easy to do. This really is a fecund part of the world here, and when spring comes in April or even March, the Tree Swallows will start to come back. I have boxes for those.”
At this point in the conversation, Alexander’s representative jumps on the call and explains she’s been waiting to comment on the Tree Swallows: “When we were talking about bird feeding, I was also going to make a plug for Jane's boxes. She has some really great bird boxes at her house, and she sends me lovely photos of the Tree Swallows which always warms my heart.”
Alexander uses this interjection to expand on how things work where she is – and how they can work everywhere.
“Let me talk a little bit about connections. I have a Beaver in my pond. If I didn't have this Beaver, the pond would just not be producing insects, all kinds of little fish and so on. The Beaver keeps the pond at a certain level, and when it's at a certain level, it doesn’t dry out, so, it becomes a home for lots of species to be confident. It's going to be there, right? Tree Swallows like to be near water, so I've got seven boxes near the pond.
Last summer, all of them fledged not once, but twice. The adults immediately teach the fledglings to skim along the pond and get the insects on the top of the pond, just a swarm that might have just hatched, and that’s how these connections happen: the Beaver makes it possible for everybody in that landscape to have enough to eat. We need to do the same.”
Hope not hurt
The historic deal that was struck at COP15 was hailed as a victory, a landmark achievement dubbed a ‘Paris moment’, in reference to the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. I ask Alexander what her thoughts are on just how much of what was achieved at COP15 will actually occur and if there was a feeling of just yet more lip service that observers across the world have seen before.
“Going in, the people who had attended these conferences before had very little hope; the framework itself is so hard because so much of it is about language. I watched one morning when the delegates were debating just one phrase! That argument went on for hours. So, it was painstaking, but COP15 was an historic pledge. Over 700 billion dollars needs to be raised annually to make it happen, but the money is there. We know that the money is there; it's just where they put it.
Here in Canada, they’re doing a pretty darn good job working on the Boreal Forest issues with our Audubon's America's program, which is one of the greatest carbon sinks on Earth. In the past few years, the government has already pledged over 400m Canadian dollars for Indigenous peoples to work as guardians on their lands. So that's pretty great, and they've already pledged a lot more too. So Canada is in a very good position to be a leader in some way. But you know it's all political. It all comes down to that.
But I went to one presentation that young people gave and they were really wonderful, and it gave me a lot of good feeling about the future. You know, they seem to have more patience than a lot of other people. It is generational: these kids have grown up with this one fact – and it's not very hard to understand – that the world has been trashed by us. They get that right away. The world has been trashed, Mother Earth is not happy, and now, we have to fix it.”
You can follow Jane Alexander on Twitter under her succinctly perfect username, @wildlifechamp, and learn more about what BirdLife International is doing to help the world’s birds here. Regular updates on achievements and projects that Audubon represented at COP15 can be viewed here.