Moral Ecologies

On writing the end first

Sitting, alone, by the fire, the west horizon deep magenta, listening to the loons on the lake, to shallow water lap receding shore, surrounded by fireflies, mosquitos in their twilight frenzy, the dead and dying ash, the stumps and logs I craft into outdoor sculpture. It’s 2015.

The water sways with plant life spawned by the chemicals dumped into it. And every day the constant drone of lawnmowers, weed whippers, chainsaws, generators, pressure washers, motorbikes, motorboats, balers in the fields. I mark time by the military planes flying in and out of the air base to the north, by drag races up and down the township roads, by the frenzy of highway drone, summer’s increased frequencies of want. 

The skein of property unrelenting, no breaks along the shoreline, one tiny public beach around the way, stuffed with people. There are those who can afford to lay their heads beside the lake—and I’m not one of them; it’s on other merits/privileges I’ve been invited here to stare into the night—and those who slip in for free, sit for a bit on a small patch of sand, dip their feet in the water. 

The West is on fire. It’ll burn all summer, a changing season the only thing that’ll stop it. Temperatures, both here and there, reach record highs each day. 

I watch the ants underneath the rocks around the firepit. I follow ladybugs, waxwings, red squirrels, dragonflies. I pick berries and wild grape. I learn the ditch weeds. I learn the lake, spring-fed, and how it carries and echoes sound. 

A thought forms: I am ignorant here. I know next to nothing about where I am. This does not just refer to my brief time by the water. I’m pulled, compelled, to watch the life around me, write it all down. It feels like a bare minimum. It feels imperative. I catch myself scrambling, fumbling, building something, but I don’t know, at first, what.

Tim Lilburn:

Without a relationship to land and the respect and ethical regard that come from relationship, we are dangerous and savage to land, as well as bereft within, nameless, unhoused. Our incompleteness makes us destructive, ravenously, disproportionately, madly, ungovernably hungry, afflicted with a hunger that may be a sort of uncomprehended mourning. This behaviour is met by love for place, by being entered by the accommodating beauty or idiosyncratic strangeness of that river, that hill or neighbourhood or garden, met by this sweet, comprehending erotic passivity. This violence to land is met by the self enlarged by affection and gratitude for particular places, for places that seem to look at us and take us in.1

Jan Zwicky, on steeling oneself for climate crises:

Becoming an excellent human being requires one to adopt a moral ecology; and ecologies aren’t modular constructions….Moral ecologies, like biological ones, are organic wholes, whose distinguishable aspects—the virtues—stand in internal relations to one another.2

(The virtues, the Socratic ones: awareness, courage, self-control, justice, contemplative practice, compassion.)

Jeanette Armstrong: 

When we Okanagans speak of ourselves as individual beings within our bodies, we identify the whole person as having four main capacities that operate together: the physical self, the emotional self, the thinking-intellectual self, and the spiritual self. The four selves have equal importance in the way we function within and experience all things.…We must be disciplined to work in concert with the other selves to engage ourselves beyond our automatic-response capacity. We know too that unless we always join this thinking capacity to the heart-self, its power can be a destructive force both to ourselves and to the larger selves that surround us. A fire that is not controlled can destroy.3

That fall, the fires finally petered out, a new scale of damage realized, I find myself drawn to demolition sites, dumping grounds, clear-cut woods, the city’s edges, suburbs jutting into forest and farmland, topsoil scraped, shipped away, sold. I’m drawn to endless clay and graders and For Lease signs. I don’t know why. I feel terrible, being drawn to these places. But at the same time, odes well up in me: to the beetle climbing out of industrial muck, to the wind with less and less to calm it, to the water pooled after digging, to the mouse gleaning food in near-total destruction. Enough odes to make a book.

Two threads: one grief-filled, one singing praise. Learning to be a full being in the face of such destruction. Demanding of myself, the book demanding, a robust moral ecology.


Tim Lilburn, The Larger Conversation. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2017, p. 16.


Robert Bringhurst & Jan Zwicky, Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2018, pp. 69–70.


Jeanette Armstrong, “Sharing One Skin: Okanagan Community” in The Case Against the Global Economy, eds. Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1996, pp. 463–464.