Our Northern Blind Spot

There is a tart and nutritious berry available to us from the nordic forests of Sweden. The lingonberry. You can walk into any Ikea and buy all sorts of products made from this small, dark, imported red fruit, such as sparkling water, jam, and drinking boxes. You can eat it with meat and when you drink it it can cure urinary tract ailments.

Photo by Janelle Marie Baker
Photo by Janelle Marie Baker

The irony is that the exact same berry grows wild in abundance in Canada. We call it the cranberry. Vaccinium vitis-idaea for the scientists. It’s circumpolar and circumboreal, but grows quite far south into  the Canadian provinces. We call it “mountain cranberry” were I grew up, since it grows on the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

I have the fortune to work on a project with Fort McKay, a Cree, Dene and Metis community in northern Alberta where we monitor some of their traditional berry patches for effects from nearby oil sands operations. The cranberry is one of many species of edible and medicinal berries that grow in Fort McKay’s territory. Several of their berry patches have been lost to industrial development and others are no longer considered safe to harvest from due to potential contamination. However, there are remote berry patches that people travel long distances to with their friends and family in the late summer to fill their buckets. They bring cranberries back to their community and share them with the elderly and with people who have illnesses that cranberries can cure. The cranberries are eaten, frozen, canned, and made into juice.

Many Canadians pick berries but more eat farmed cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) from a can or plastic bag at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and some drink them mixed with copious amount sugar from a plastic jug, but why aren’t wild cranberries a part of Canadian cultural identity? Why don’t many people pick them and why can’t we readily buy products made from wild harvested Canadian cranberries?

Canadians are in denial. The majority of our population lives along the southern border. We dread winter and always pretend like the summer lasts longer than it does. We tell foreigners to only visit us in the summer months. Unlike our Scandinavian friends we do not self-identify as a northern people and we certainly don’t embrace the winter. We lack heated sidewalks, year-round outdoor cafes, skiing to work, and fashionable winter wear. The boreal forest and arctic are thought of as barren frontiers, with few people, only useful for natural resource extraction. The wild cranberry is a symbol of our northern blind spot.

As I listen to loons call and write this from Fort McKay’s fly-in northern reserve at Moose Lake, I can see that the boreal forest is a beautiful and bountiful place. Red cranberries blanket the forest floor. Monstrous fish are delicious when freshly caught and smoked. People have lived off of the land here for centuries and they continue to do so with respect and reciprocity. It’s time for all of us to appreciate and embrace the landscape that sustains us. Perhaps we can begin with a small red berry.

 

On Being an Academ-Hick

Country mouse in the city? There’s no need to be ashamed of your rural upbringing.

MKTGIRL1I grew up on a subsistence farm in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies near Sundre, Alberta. That’s right, west of the 22, for the Albertans reading this. Cue the banjo music. Myron Thompson taught me high school science. You know, the former MP who resembles Boss Hog with his cowboy hat and infamous quote: “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve”. Not so scientific there Myron. My family has a trapline and none of them have been to university. I often get asked how the heck I ended up as an academic.

In fact, friends and family discouraged me from going to university: “Them university types have no common sense and just become professional students”.

My former creative writing professor Birk Sproxton captured this sentiment well:

..that spring we moved the outhouse and Allen carved an inscription on the inside of the door: “This hole dug by” and then my name and university degrees. The English professor finally does something useful.

However, there are some benefits to being an Academ-Hick:

  1. You get the best of both worlds. World travel, live music, art shows, good books AND picking berries and going fishing? Perfect harmony.
  2. Being in the “field” isn’t really being in the field. If doing research means  being on the land, riding horses, harvesting food, building a fire, getting dirty, not having running water, and sleeping on the ground, then…that’s what Academ-Hicks grow up doing and still do for fun. Why do we anthropologists call research locations “the field” anyway? Where I go isn’t a field, it’s the boreal forest, home to a lot of lovely people. The only person I know who is going to the field to do research is my friend, Katie Strand, who is working with farmers in Saskatchewan. How cool is that? She’s going to the field.
  3. You know where good food comes from and how to get it. The locavore and canning trend in the hipster scene in the city is great, but it cracks me up. People walking around with mason jars, really now? Having music events about growing food in the city but not actually growing food? Silliness. My family doesn’t garden, hunt, and have chickens because it’s cool, they do it because that’s where their food comes from and always has. Academ-Hicks know how to garden, shovel manure and store food because those were their chores, not because they  attend weekend workshops on it. As an Academ-Hick  you have affordable (often free), healthy meals in the city and while doing research you know how to help people prepare meals instead of just sitting there taking notes or filming people while they prepare meals.
  4. You have manners. Not because Academ-Hicks are good people, but because it was beaten into them. When you grow up in a place where your parents know what you’ve done before you get home, you learn to be respectful. There’s just no swearing at strangers or being randomly rude. Academ-Hicks help elderly people without thinking about it. This transfers well to all places, but is especially important while doing research in other people’s homes and communities. Meanwhile, the university setting is always in need of a  good dose of manners.
  5. You can fix things. Fences, pull out porcupine quills, open a stuck choke, mend that hole in your pants, darn a sock, dig an outhouse hole. Self-reliance. Life is more affordable when you can do things yourself and  you can help other people fix things. Academ-Hicks can be useful and write about how other people do things, which is useful.
  6. You’re grateful. Really? I get money to sit on my butt and read about things that interest me!? Amazing! I can sleep in and don’t have to check the cows at 2 am and 30 below in February? So easy I feel guilty! When I started my MA and got paid to work as a TA and RA I thought I’d won the lottery. Being a grad student is a wonderful luxury. It’s an opportunity for you to contribute to the world. Academ-Hicks skip the entitlement generation.
  7. You find each other. Academ-Hicks just look at each other and know. There’s a glean in their eyes and next thing you know they’re sneaking out of some uptight event to go drink beer together. My Academ-Hick friends are hilarious, calm, respectful people who know how to live well and if anyone gets stressed, we just go out for a rip.

 
This blog was also posted on Huffington Post Canada.