November 24, 2010

Christmas bells call for peace and generousity

As published in The Erin Advocate

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said:
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

That is an excerpt from I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It is one of my favourite carols, partly because it acknowledges that things are not always joyful as we put up our holiday trees. The words are from the poem Christmas Bells by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who at the time was grieving the loss of his wife in a fire, and the wounding of his son in the American Civil War.

Our country has been at war for almost a decade. I am proud of our soldiers, and I feel a stab of pain when any one of them is wounded or killed. But are Canadians able to feel the full measure of pain from the thousands of lives lost in this war? Does it only hit hard when a loved one is the victim? Do we feel anger, now that the Prime Minister has broken his commitment to bring the troops home in 2011? Or are we just numb – too tired after dealing with jobs and family matters to think about war and peace?

So at Christmas, comforting words flow over us once again, even though we know that peace on earth and good-will to men (and women) can be hard to find. It gets complicated when we hear that the more accurate translation of that passage is, "Peace among men with whom God is pleased." Are we among the favoured ones?

Christmas is a time of heightened expectations. There are many happy gatherings, but for some people it is a stressful and potentially depressing time, making obvious the gap between hopes and reality. Communities instinctively take notice that there are families who do not have enough money to celebrate the season well, and so we rally to help them.

It will never be enough, but it is still good to make charitable donations of time and money. Actions are always more helpful than words, and there is a natural instinct to take action locally – helping people with whom we share a bond, even if we do not know them personally.

For example, East Wellington Community Services (EWCS) makes a special effort to help its food bank clients at Christmas. People can make donations of cash, food and toys for the Christmas hampers. If you would like to sponsor a family, or find out more about how you could help EWCS make a difference, call Gillian Riseborough at 519-833-9696 or visit

Our televisions deliver to us a deluge of opportunities for Christmas giving, much of it based in Toronto. People in the Town of Erin often do not feel they have much in common even with Guelph and the rest of Wellington County, and are not aware of organizations with a mandate to help the whole region.

For example, the Children's Foundation of Guelph and Wellington gives grants of up to $400 to low-income families to help cover the costs of kids' participation in sports, cultural and recreational activities. They support more than 12,000 children through school-based breakfast, snack and lunch programs.

At Christmas, they run Adopt-A-Family, which provided gifts to 600 families last year. Donors (individuals or groups) get a wish list from the adopted family. The families are referred by social service agencies or schools and have to qualify for the assistance. Donors buy presents and deliver them to the Foundation, which operates a wrapping warehouse at this time of year. For more information, call 519-826-9551 or visit

Christmas charity – how much, and how far it is spread – is a very personal matter, which depends one how you perceive yourself in relation to your neighbour. For some, it is simply a habit that makes them feel good. For others it is a matter of social conscience, or of religious devotion and tradition.

Longfellow lived in a more religious era, but even in the 1860s, Christmas was becoming a secular event. His famous Christmas song is no hymn. It makes no mention of Jesus Christ – nor of praise, thanks or salvation. It ends with a simple, optimistic message from the church bells, one in which we may take comfort, if we choose.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

November 17, 2010

Duct tape adventures in wastewater management

As published in The Erin Advocate

When water goes down the household drains, I just want it to go away – preferably far away. I do not want to see it, hear it, smell it or touch it. Unfortunately, I've had to do all those things this fall.

It started with a soggy spot at the end of the septic bed, and proceeded to the guessing game that septic system owners must eventually face: Are my weeping bed tiles disintegrating? Are they clogged with crud from my septic tank? Have the roots from nearby trees grown into the pipes and choked them? Has the layer of biofilm (smelly black gunk) under the pipes gotten so dense that the water has to drain up instead of down?

With the expensive possibility of having to replace the entire system looming, I asked the inevitable bottom line question: What is the least amount of money I need to spend to get this system working again?

The tank is about 33 years of age, but I get it pumped every three years and it still works properly. Since I was unsure about the condition of the septic bed, I decided against a system that would regularly pump air into the pipes and possibly rejuvenate their ability to process wastewater.

I got some helpful advice from Dave Doan at SepTech Wastewater Systems in Hillsburgh. We decided the best first step would be to pump out the bed, which could solve the problem, at least for the short term. That's when the fun started.

I had to get access to the drain pipe, downstream of the septic tank. To save myself some money, I said I would do the digging on my own, since the pipe appeared to be only about 18 inches underground. When I started digging, however, I found that the pipe took a sharp turn downward, through some dense clay.

Many hours later, I finally had the pipe exposed at the bottom of a three and a half foot deep hole, dug wide enough for someone to get in and work.

I found too that the drain pipe had for some time been separated at one of the joints, leaving a large gap. Standing in the hole, I wondered why the ground was totally dry.

Then, someone flushed a toilet. I was suddenly flooded with a realization: the tightly packed soil I had just dug out had formed part of the drainway. I jammed the pipes together, wrapped the joint in plastic bags and sealed it up with duct tape until a proper repair could be done.

The next day, a whole truckload of gunk was pumped out of the septic bed and the drain was fixed – complete with a new access pipe so I could add hydrogen peroxide to the drainage bed. It breaks down to oxygen and water, putting dissolved oxygen into the system to help the digestive process. The wet spot on the lawn dried up, and everything was fine.

A few weeks later, though, I heard strange gurgling sounds through the kitchen sink. When we used water in any part of the house, it started filling up the kitchen sink. The laundry drain was backed up, and when I tried to let some water out of it, I got a solid spray in the face. I thought the whole septic system may have failed and backed up, but when I went outside and lifted the septic tank lid, the water level was normal.

That meant there had to be a blockage in the pipe between the house and the septic tank, which led me to the big threaded clean-out plug in my crawlspace. But before you can attack the clog, you have to get rid of all the water in your drains. That means unscrewing the plug just enough to let the smelly water pour into buckets. If you have poured Drano into the system, in a futile attempt to clear the clog, then you have to haul out smelly, caustic water.

Running a bucket brigade to get wastewater out of your basement may seem like an unpleasant job, but trust me, it can be much worse. If you are ever in this situation, do not be tempted to loosen the plug just a bit more, to speed up the process.

When the plug popped out of the drain pipe, it only took a few seconds to force it back on. But with a 3.5-inch pipe under pressure from the whole house, that was enough time to create an unforgettable mess. The type of mess that requires not only a Shop-Vac, but a small shovel.

Moving right along...the water was eventually out of the pipe and I had access to the clogged drain, but my plumbing snake was not long enough to reach the clog. So, naturally, I got three broomsticks and attached them together with duct tape. That made a ramrod that would go all the way from the basement to the septic tank.

The clog didn't stand a chance and soon the drain was draining like it should. We put a proper snake through it a couple of days later just to be sure, but the adventure was all over, except for the cleanup.

And the moral of these two stories? It is pretty obvious. Before you start any household project, always have plenty of duct tape on hand.

November 10, 2010

Climate change facts are hard to pin down

As published in The Erin Advocate

Just after writing about the benefits of tree planting in the effort to ease the impacts of climate change, I read about a study from the University of Guelph suggesting that tree planting is not going to be as much help as expected.

Understanding climate change science these days is like trying to nail Jello to a wall – there are just too many people with an interest in keeping it slippery.

Researchers went to 2,300 sites on six continents to study the yearly growth rings on 86 types of trees. Higher carbon levels in recent decades have been thought to boost tree growth, which would capture more carbon and slow the rate of global warming. It appears that in 80 per cent of the world's trees, it is not happening.

"We can’t look to forests to offset emissions from burning fossil fuels,” said co-author Ze’ev Gedalof, Associate Professor of Geography at Guelph. “There might be a very slight increase in the total rate of growth in trees, but they’re not going to be these vacuum cleaners that will magically suck up the CO2 that we’re emitting.”

As often happens, some scientists say the results are inconclusive and oversimplified. And as usual, there's a strong political message: Don't be complacent about climate change, just because we're planting lots of trees – we still need to reduce the carbon footprint created by our factories, vehicles and lifestyles.

Trees have many benefits for water, wildlife and the human environment, even if the carbon sink turns out to be smaller than expected. Our tax dollars support a lot of tree planting by Credit Valley Conservation and Wellington County – one million trees have been planted since 2004 under Wellington's Green Legacy Program, making it the largest municipal tree planting program in North America.

Forest now covers about 17 per cent of Wellington, but Environment Canada says 30 per cent is needed to maintain a healthy water system. Another 50 million trees are needed, so Rob Johnson, Green Legacy Tree Nursery Manager, is not content with the current rate of 156,000 trees a year. “If each resident planted just ten trees, almost one million trees would go into Wellington County annually,” he said.

When it comes to public policy on climate change, there's a huge public relations battle going on. Scientists appear truly baffled that people do not take their warnings seriously. The public is glad to enjoy the benefits of new technology, but is suspicious of scientists – perhaps seeing them as manipulative, or too idealistic.

The conflict swirls on many fronts, including the "Degrees of Change" chart and analysis published by Canada's National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, and the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. It outlines various impacts of climate change, but says they won't be too bad, and that there will be benefits.

I am not knowledgeable enough to say they are wrong, but I do not trust the study's main sponsor, Suncor Energy (Petro-Canada/Sunoco), a major oil sands and greenhouse gas producer. The chart has become a target.

“It is full of bad science and utterly downplays the serious impacts of climate change” said U of T climate scientist Danny Harvey, quoted on “How can we (Canada) talk about profiting from climate change when most of the world will suffer devastating impacts, in part because of our emissions? It is disgusting.”

I also do not trust the Canadian government, which has dedicated itself to doing as little as possible on climate change. It has banned its own scientists from speaking freely to the media, even about climate change research that they have already published. The federal scientists' union says they face "dwindling resources and confusing policy decisions," and they've started a website,, to make their work better known.

Virtually all climate change scientists agree that human industry is making things worse, yet there was not enough support in the US Congress to legislate emissions reductions – even before the recent elections that brought more climate change deniers into power. Stephen Harper can relax now – there is no longer any chance of the US slapping restrictions on Canadian oil sands.

California has a greenhouse gas reduction law. Two oil companies spent $10.5 million supporting a proposition to suspend that law until unemployment declines to 5.5 per cent for 12 months. Voters rejected the proposition, perhaps moved along by the $31 million spent by environmental groups and other businesses to defend the law.

So the expensive fighting carries on, with the environmental movement winning the occasional battle, but remaining a long way from winning the war.

November 03, 2010

Water recognized as a sacred source of life

As published in The Erin Advocate

Just a few days after seeing a presentation on the sacredness of water, my roof sprang a leak, delivering a steady drip into my front hallway. So I ended up on the roof at night with my flashlight, in the middle of a thunderstorm, attaching an extension to a downspout that would direct the deluge away from some damaged shingles. I can assure you that I was not thinking about the sacredness of water.

The presentation had been by Anthony Templer, an Elder from the Peel Aboriginal Network, at the annual meeting of Wellington Water Watchers, the group that has led the local fight against bottled water and high-volume water taking by Nestlé.

After a cleansing ceremony and a drum song, his message was blunt: there's a crisis looming as the world runs low on clean water. Ontarians are often wasteful of water because it appears to be so abundant. Maybe we would be more interested in conservation if we had to carry it long distances in buckets, as millions of people do in other countries.

"Something has to be done immediately for the water and the land," he said. "Don't forget what you inherited from your parents and their parents. It's all up to you. For the sacredness of water you have to be grateful. We need to be stewards of it. We listen to the water and it tells us that it is sick."

He said inadequate protection and wasteful attitudes will lead to a water crisis in which many people will die.

"Eventually, we won't be able to drink it. We have to be on fire on this issue. It's a passion – not an aggression – and it catches on. Be honest all day. Then you can respect the sacredness of water. Because before it was water, it was spirit."

For those who consider water sacred, the buying and selling of it as a commodity is offensive, and it creates various dilemmas. We pay money to have municipalities purify water and deliver it to our taps, but some people find it unacceptable that private firms like Nestlé make a profit by taking an essentially free resource and selling it in environmentally-offensive plastic bottles.

At the recent all-candidates' meeting in Erin, some wanted to see a heavy license fee put on water taking, partly to preserve the water and partly to generate income for the Town. The province has the authority in this matter, but has given no sign it is interested in high fees, and Water Watchers has no official position on them. The issue is complex, because once water is taxed as a resource (like oil), it becomes more of a commodity – one that the Americans could claim is tradable under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Wellington Water Watchers is a grassroots group of people from Guelph and Wellington, committed to protecting local water resources and to educating the public about threats to the watershed. They've distributed more than 13,000 reusable water bottles and brought their promotion of tap water to 30,000 area students – aiming for 50,000 soon. Check out

They keep a close eye on water taking by Nestlé, which runs tanker trucks day and night from a well in Hillsburgh to a plant in Aberfoyle. The firm is entitled to take up to 1.1 million litres per day, but normally takes considerably less. Although the well has not caused measurable harm to the local water supply, Water Watchers is still concerned about the long-term impact.

The Peel Aboriginal Network is a social and cultural organization that promotes awareness of Aboriginal values and traditions. Check out Templer said we need to be more than just thankful for water, but to be thankful to the water.

Water is important in the Judeo-Christian tradition, starting with the Spirt of God hovering over the dark waters even before the creation of light, at the opening of the Book of Genesis. Most spiritual traditions throughout the world recognize a special significance in water, for its role in creation, purification, rebirth, healing and fertility.

"Water, the first living spirit on this earth, gives life to all creation," says the Indigenous Environmental Network, on its website, "Our knowledge, laws and ways of life teach us to be responsible at all times in caring for this sacred gift that connects all life.

"All people deserve the right to a clean and accessible water source. However, throughout the world people are struggling for this basic human right. World trade agreements, industries, and corporations want to view water as a commodity, an item that can be traded and sold to the highest bidder, rather than acknowledge that water is a common and basic need for all life."