Op-ed: Time by 2009 Laureate David Suzuki
Written by 2009 Right Livelihood Laureate David Suzuki
My seven-month lockdown to avoid COVID-19 brought my life to a screeching halt, which was a gift, an opportunity to reflect on what really matters in life. By sheer luck, my wife and I were at our cabin where we hoped to kick off Spring Break with our daughters and their families, when on March 13, 2020, the lockdown order was issued. And I had packed only four days of underwear! Severn and her sons left in time to catch the last plane to their home on Haida Gwaii before the islands were locked down completely, while Sarika, her husband and three children stayed on with us for six months of total isolation.
It was priceless, a time to hang out with my grandchildren every day. As an old man, I despair about the terrible degradation of the world I’ve witnessed during my life, but every day in lockdown as we went out to forage in the woods, tidal pools and beaches, I got to rediscover the world through the innocent eyes of children. And it is a wonderful world – we encountered snakes, salamanders, frogs, even an alligator lizard! Tidal pools yielded sand dollars, hermit crabs, starfish, moon snails and shrimp.
The water for our cabin comes from a well and with ten people (seven after Severn left), it had to be used with care. We saved greywater from dish washing and baths to use in low flush toilets and the garden. I was on the morning shift to get the children washed, dressed and fed before we headed out to explore, rain or shine.
Each morning, I would avoid flushing the toilet by ritually peeing outside on a leafless bush. The bush had many thin branches jutting from a main trunk. Each branch split into ever smaller branches or twigs. After a few weeks, I noticed that bulges began to appear along the naked branches and twigs and then tiny green leaves started to unfold. I love time-lapse photography, which speeds processes up so we can see a seed sprout, mushrooms emerge or starfish move. But now that I was locked down, I didn’t have to cut out time to speed things up. While peeing, I could marvel that I was feeding a network of invisible roots that were absorbing some of my sprinkling to send water and nutrients all the way to the very tips of these thin twigs.
Once the leaves had unfolded, the bush was transformed into a mass of green, straining to capture sunlight. In the miracle of photosynthesis, sunlight is converted to sugars which are shared to energize all of the cells of the plant. I thought of the contrast between forests where every tree and plant reaches upward in supplication for sunlight, and human habitat in which roofs, walls, sidewalks and roads all ignore this generous gift from the Sun. Every day the planet receives enough sunlight in an hour to provide the entire annual energy need of the United States. (All of the energy released by burning fossil fuels, wood, peat and dung is also sunlight captured by photosynthesis in plants.) We boast that we are intelligent, yet we seem unable or unwilling to emulate a forest by utilizing abundant, clean sunlight to power all of our needs.
By summer, colourful flowers had unfolded at the ends of twigs of the bush and each morning as I performed my ritual pee, I could hear as well as see busy insects, especially bumblebees, zipping from flower to flower. Where did those insects come from and how did they know there was nectar? Pollination by insects is such a great example of inter-species communication and cooperation. Long after completing my morning ablution of the bush, I would stand in awe of the way nature works.
Sitting on the porch in the evening, ephemeral clouds appeared – insects not much bigger than a letter on this page. (Full disclosure: I have always loved insects, especially beetles, and spent my entire scientific career studying a species of fly.) Watching the shimmering cloud, I was humbled to reflect that each of those tiny flies has a brain, eyes, legs and wings, digestive and reproductive systems; in short, they are organisms like you and me. Their kind have survived for millions of years because they know who they are and their place in the world. I tried to focus on an individual fly as it moved up and down in what to me seemed random but may have been some courtship or mating process. I prefer to think they were just dancing on air, celebrating being alive and where they live, just as birds sing to announce their presence, not just mark territory or call for mates.
Summer’s end brought clusters of tiny white spheres on the bush, fruit enclosing seeds that eventually dropped to the ground in hopes of a new generation. And then the bush began to prepare for its winter hiatus as leaves browned and dropped, and in falling to the soil, they will compost to provide a kick start to next year’s plants.
On our daily forays to hunt for animals, my grandchildren learned about habitats and how to spot frogs and baby deer despite their camouflage. In spring, they learned that stinging nettles are delicious and that salmon berries in wonderful profusion are a generous gift from nature. They dug clams and gathered oysters, and at each meal we gave thanks for the generosity of Mother Earth.
A tiny piece of RNA, a virus unable to reproduce without invading a living cell, had brought humanity to its knees, and for me, a gift of half a year of joyous celebration with my grandchildren and a rediscovery of the wonder and generosity of nature.
Canadian scientist David Suzuki received the 2009 Right Livelihood Award “for his lifetime advocacy of the socially responsible use of science, and for his massive contribution to raising awareness about the perils of climate change and building public support for policies to address it.”