One of the first tools a genealogist reaches for, on discovering a new connection or query, is a map - but how often do genealogists really think about the environment our ancestors lived in and the changes they made in it?
The social environment of an ancestor's life is often examined - what rules, regulations and societal norms shaped or governed behavior and how these relate to the documents and artifacts that tell us about the past - but the physical environment is less often regarded. Occasionally, one will see or hear a reference in family stories to smoky London or Manchester, but rarely mentioned are the reasons for the smoke or the effects of it on people, plants or other animals.
My great grandmother, Janet IRWIN, née CARMICHAEL, who migrated in the 1880's from the areas of Islay and Cambray in Victoria County in Ontario, Canada to southern Manitoba with her husband, William IRWIN, and their daughter, Minnie, worried about how the environment she would find there would affect her own way of life. Both my mother and grandmother remembered Janet as saying she did not know how she would make soap on the prairies without trees for ash, for instance. Was she ever as concerned about the changes her family had made since the 1830's in clearing land in Victoria County? I would guess not - I don't think those changes were evident enough for her to see - and I suspect that anything she did notice would have looked like 'progress' to her, although clearly she was more directly aware of her dependence on natural resources than I, as a 'city girl' have ever been.
Genealogists do say though to 'begin with yourself' and for my own part, I remember how foggy Vancouver, British Columbia, where I was born and near where I still live, used to be. As an elementary school Vancouver 'School Safety Patrolman', I stood on street corners many mornings ringing a bell to warn motorists that school children were crossing the streets. (And yes, being awarded my Patrolman certificate was my first feminist 'click'.)
Now it seems amazing to me that I never connected this 'fog' with the dense smoke and steam from the lumber mills and other industrial operations in downtown Vancouver. I can still smell cedar every time I cross the Cambie Bridge -although it's mostly condominiums and fancy restaurants below there now!
I never remember this discussed at all when I was young, although both my parents recalled dense fog in the 1940's and 1950's. I know I did worry about nuclear fallout and Strontium-90 in the air (does anyone else remember the collecting of baby teeth for testing), but in British Columbia, a resource rich province, 'making the most' out of the environment was seen as a common good. The consequences weren't questioned till much later. It wasn't until Vancouver's fog was gone, that the reasons for it became obvious to me.
Nowadays it is evident to concerned people that we've replaced the local fog with vehicle exhaust -much of it is blown or drawn up the Fraser Valley so we Vancouver area people don't suffer as much from it as others do. I've never driven a vehicle & have always been an advocate for efficient public transit, but did I protest enough, early enough - apparently not.
What will my 11 year old grandson write in his genealogy reports about the environment of my day? I am hopeful still that my generation can make changes that will benefit the environment and future generations -the loss of farmland here and the lack of support for better transit which would take cars off the roads and prevent more pollution are primary concerns of mine. I see these as linked - the ideal here is still a single family house - more and more farmland around Greater Vancouver is being built over with houses, many residents of those houses then commute long distances to work.
Members of the Society for Environmental Conservation, formed in 1969 in British Columbia, are people who've been promoting action on environmental issues here for decades. I've just signed SPEC's petition for 'Better Transit, Not Freeways', for example. (That's one more record for my grandson to collect and file with my pedigree.)
If you live in Greater Vancouver or the Fraser Valley, please add your name to the 'Better Transit, Not Freeways' petition.
Society Promoting Environmental Conservation, British Columbia, Canada: http://www.spec.bc.ca/
This blog entry was prompted by Blog Action Day. All over the world, bloggers are sitting down today, October 15th, 2007, to think and write about environmental issues.
What a great idea! Let's do it again: http://www.blogactionday.org/