Monthly Archives: March 2013

Using traditional story-telling to teach ecology

by Candace Gossen

photo1I grew up in the bayous of Louisiana. As a French-Indian, storytelling is in my blood and often in my hands, eyes and smile. I am also a scientist, an archaeologist and an ecologist. For more than 12 years I have taught for Saturday Academy in Portland, Oregon, an organization that hires people like me to teach 2nd to 12th graders about science. For the past 8 weeks I have been teaching a group of 5th to 8th grade Native American students about the Great Bear Rainforest. I want to share with you how I integrate the art of storytelling back into the world, even through the public school system where talking about spirit and ceremony are not easily understood.

This class focused on the Salmon Forest within the Great Bear Rainforest. David Suzuki, through the television series The Nature of Things, produced a really beautiful film on the Salmon Forest and we began the class with this. Each week we focused on a part of the forest. In the beginning we identified all of the characters, with the keystone being the salmon itself. We sketched flow diagrams of all the connections of the characters to sort out the ecosystems within the forest itself. Then the students chose a living creature as their animal to focus upon for the rest of the class, and explained why they were interested in it. Their homework included researching a native story about their animal and bringing it to class. It was not a personal story, but one about an animal usually read from a piece of paper. This was the beginning.

photo3In the following weeks we conducted water tests to determine if a salmon could live in the water samples that we were testing. Through the use of their senses – touch, taste, smell – the students began to understand how to ask questions and how to use their senses to arrive at answers. They learned about the scientific method. Each student wrote a description of their experiment. We then drew the hydrological cycle and talked about things that were causing the water to change and affecting the fate of the salmon.

In the chemistry class they learned that the planet’s surface was 70% water, about the same proportion as a young human body, and that the air in our atmosphere contains 78% nitrogen.  It is this nitrogen that is the key element and which tells the story of the importance of the salmon to the forest. By measuring concentrations of the isotope N15 we know that nitrogen is taken up in the deep oceans by the salmon and carried with them as they return to the streams in the north-west. It is through bears and other animals that feed on salmon, carrying them deeper into the forest and leaving the carcasses on the forest floor where they are eventually incorporated into the soils – a vital link in the life of this magical place. More than 50% of the nitrogen in the trees is derived from salmon. If the salmon disappeared then half the forest would vanish.salmon

The students then had to draw the connections between their chosen animals and the salmon and explain how they all depended on each other. With all of this information in place, they could draw a mask of their animal and tell its story. These masks could be hung on a wall, or worn – whatever they chose. The mask told the story of their animal and its place within the Salmon Forest; the storyteller was encouraged to embellish the tale and so an even better story unfolded.

After drawing, painting, adding branches and whatever art pieces we had in the art box and from their own recycling, we sat in a talking circle. Each student was asked to share the story of the mask. Their story could be real or not, but it had to include facts. It had to include the chosen animal, information on where it lived, how it connected with the salmon, and whatever else they had learned.

photo6In a truth-speaking way, each student was given time and attention by the others. I was amazed at the ability of the students to make up their stories on the spot while looking within their masks for the reasons why they created them. Up to the last minute some were saying that they couldn’t think of a story to tell, but as each began the story seemed to unfold easily and became entertaining. Each story-teller earned a round of applause and a thank you.

We have one more class meeting next week. I have asked the students to think of someone that was a storyteller for them – a grandparent or a friend, someone that told them stories that made them laugh. I also made them promise that they would take home what we did each week to share with their storytellers. My final request was that these elder storytellers come to the last class to attend the story circle.

Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out that way. A few won’t make the last class, others have multiple families and arrangements wouldn’t allow. Many elder grandparents have been left without ways to get around, and can only be part of a group when someone takes the time to bring them. Sadly, they feel forgotten.

The art of storytelling came from my ability to tie stories in with science, a way to understand complex science that I teach to college students as well as 2nd graders. The only thing that changes from one class to the next is the level of complexity. But science does not have to be hard, in fact, it’s the story of life. Ecology is the connection between all living things, invisible threads that I get to explain.photo2

This class taught my students about a place in the world that is unique, close to their homes and within tribal areas of the students. They shared what they learned with their elders every week, and some mothers and grandmothers stayed in our classes to participate themselves. The science experiments and lessons further detailed the connections so that in the end the stories were broad with details. The students learned how to conduct experiments, write stories, research, draw, and built their confidence with support from their friends.

In eight weeks, two hours once a week, a group of students became very good storytellers and learned that their voices are important and that stories bring all the connections together.

Energy from the wind – the example of Wolfe Island Wind Farm, Ontario

by David Laing

We were shivering; bracing against a blustery, bone-chilling north-west wind, yet virtually hypnotized by the majestic beauty of the guardian towers and the gentle swish, swish, swish of the rotating blades. We wanted to linger far longer, but the cold won out as a freshening gust drove us back to the comfort of our car. It was a damp chilly day in early December 2012 and my wife Dayle and I were on Wolfe Island near Kingston Ontario, just finishing a visit to Canada’s second largest wind farm project. Our purpose was to get a firsthand perspective on the benefits and detractions of wind turbines as an economical power source for the Province of Ontario and also to understand the impact of those turbines, both positive and negative, on the local Wolfe Island community.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe Wind Farm on Wolfe Island boasts 86 turbines, each capable of generating 2.3 Megawatts, when running at peak capacity. The 197.8 megawatt farm is just under the 200 megawatt limit allowed in Ontario. Of course theoretical capacity is not the same as actual output. The wind is fickle and the turbines aren’t always spinning at their maximum velocity. Maintenance activity, both scheduled and unscheduled also reduces wind farm capacity. But, even considering these inefficiencies, Wolfe Island produces sufficient electricity to meet over 68% of the power requirements for the Kingston Metropolitan Area. [1]

TransAlta completed construction of the facility in 2009 and is committed to a 20 year contract to produce wind-based power for Ontario’s Power Authority. At something less than 9.2 cents a kilowatt hour, (exact contract terms are confidential), the price compares favourably to nuclear and hydro when all the cost for construction, maintenance, operations and environmental impact are taken into consideration.[2]

Proposing to build an industrial facility in a natural setting is a certain recipe for controversy and Wolfe Island was no exception. According to our long-term friends, who moved to the island well before the wind farm project was conceived, the prospect of dozens of 80 metre towers rising above relatively flat agricultural land that also is part of a major bird migration route, elicited a particularly strong negative response from many local residents. The controversy initially divided the community, pitting family members against each other, prompting at least one to pack up and move away.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAYet 3 ½ years after TransAlta Corporation completed construction and began operations, our friends have indicated that the majority of the residents think that the wind farm is more of a benefit than a detraction to the island and that TransAlta is a pretty good neighbour, as corporations go. To discover more, we asked our friends to contact their neighbour Mike Jablonicky who also happens to be Wolfe Island’s Wind Farm Supervisor of Operations.   And so a visit was arranged for that frigid December morning.

Friendly and approachable, Mike is clearly enthusiastic about his job and very proud of the farm and its operating team. We learned that he was assigned to the project from the beginning. He was, and still is the communications point person, handling all manner of objections and complaints from the local residents.

When asked about the acceptance rates for the project prior to construction, Mike smiles and hands us the “fact sheet” published by a group who were, at the time, anxious to stop the project. “Reading that, he said, I would be scared to the point that I wouldn’t want a wind-farm in my area as well”. The early objections he said mostly came down to myths, misunderstanding and a lack of information. For instance, residents were told that, during storms, ice could collect on the turbines and be thrown hundreds of metres by the spinning blades in chunks the size of a bus. Or that the vibration of the towers would crush turtle eggs, kill the crops because the dew worms would leave the area and cause cows to lose their minds and stop calving.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAMike hosted monthly communications sessions, talked to people in small groups and even one-on-one. Each issue was addressed in turn. He demonstrated the mechanics of how any ice build-up on the turbine blades would cause the turbine to slow down and stop, not throw ice off. He explained how vibration, significant enough to damage turtle eggs, would, in fact, destroy a turbine tower in about 3 hours of operation. As a result, he said the three turbine blades, each weighing about 11 tons, is balanced to within 20 pounds of the other two such that tower vibration is virtually eliminated. He also showed concerned residents pictures of other wind farms where crops grow and cattle graze right up to the tower base. Once the farm was in operation, these fears were proven to be unfounded which added to Mike’s credibility and helped build trust between TransAlta and the community. Support for the wind farm development crept above 50% for the first time since the project was announced.

But some issues aren’t myths. Wind farm detractors point to thousands of bird and bat deaths each year from interactions with the turbine blades. Complaints arise from turbine noise, both audible noise and low frequency “infrasound”, which is thought to be a cause of negative health effects such as: sleep disorders, headaches, depression and changes to blood pressure[3]. Then there is the undisputable fact that wind farms forever alter the skyline. Handling these real objections required more than talk and education. Mike, and the company, had to have a process and an action plan for mitigation.

To mitigate bird and bat kills, TransAlta worked with the University of Calgary’s Professor of Biology Robert Barclay, to carry out a number of independent studies. The research indicated bat deaths were the far greater problem and the highest concentration of bat deaths occurred at low wind velocities.[4] This lead TransAlta to adjust its procedures around wind farm operations in low wind conditions with the effect that bat fatalities have been reduced by 60%.[5]

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe latest available data from the Wolfe Island studies estimates about 900 birds and 1,900 bats were killed at the facility in 2011. This number is considerably below the Adaptive Management Threshold as set by Environment Canada.[6]

While the hundreds of thousands of wildlife deaths caused by wind turbines in North America are of concern, it is important to put this in perspective when compared to the billions of bird and bat deaths caused each year in collisions with high-rise buildings and attacks by domestic housecats. [7],[8],[9]

In terms of ambient noise, Ontario regulates turbine set-backs from any private residence such that the noise at the residence must not exceed 40 decibels. Mike brought in a decibel meter and showed residents that 40 decibels is about the level of a quiet library conversation. He told them anything above that meant something very likely was wrong. He posted his cell phone number and told residents to call him with noise issues “twenty-four seven” and that “he would be there in 15 minutes”. When tested, even at 2:30 in the morning, Mike was responsive, coming out to check on the problem and shutting down the offending turbines until repairs were made. More trust and credibility accrued to Mike and approval levels continued to rise.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAThe health effects of low-frequency noise present a more difficult challenge. According to Mike, studies by local and provincial authorities along with the World Health Organization have so far, not been able to correlate either low or high frequency noise with any deleterious health impacts. The collective conclusion is that, for some people, living near a wind farm is such an emotional irritant that the annoyance factor alone may be the cause of negative health effects. So this issue remains unresolved although Health Canada is now sponsoring a very comprehensive study. The results are expected in late 2014 and it is hoped this will allow more definitive conclusions to be drawn.[10]

Then there is the issue of wind farm aesthetics. Mike and TransAlta recognized that wind turbines do alter the landscape and this may be disturbing to some people. They addressed this issue non-defensively, in effect offering financial compensation in return for loss of view. During construction, over 400 on-site construction jobs and purchasing through local companies injected $22M over 11 ½ months into the local economy. After construction was completed TranAlta continues to frequent local stores for hardware, gas and automotive repairs. Several permanent well-paying jobs were created and filled with local labour. In addition, each year TransAlta provides the community with “amenities money”: $634,000 to be used for the betterment of the community such as road construction, beach-bike paths and a new water system. As a result, everyone on the island benefits from the presence of the wind farm whether or not they have a turbine on their property.

So after 3 ½ years of operation, Mike says, “I think we are about a healthy 80-85% acceptance rate, [by the residents], right now and, that’s probably as far as we’re going to get, and that’s Ok. We can’t have 100% consensus on anything we do in any community…80-85%, I’ll take that.”

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI’ll admit to bringing a certain bias to this investigation. Dayle and I have stood beneath modern wind farms in several locales around the world: Costa Rica, Hawaii, Europe, Britain, South Africa and North America. In each case we have been impressed by the elegance of their functional design.

We all must recognize that there is no method of producing electricity that is 100% benign. While there is no mistaking their industrial application, wind farms are less disruptive and integrate far better into the natural surroundings than other power producing alternatives. Aesthetics aside, for us there is an unmistakeable appeal in their ability to generate much needed electrical power, using wind as a “free fuel” that is non-toxic, produces no carbon emissions and that will be available for as long as the sun continues to shine on our planet.

We value your comments and discussion. If you want to to learn more about sustainable design, please contact the office at info@daylelaing.comThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 905-846-3221.

[1] 2011 Power consumption statistics courtesy of Ontario Energy Board

[2] “Facts and Myths debunked – Facts and Figures Ontario’s Electricity System”, Ontario Citizens Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy,

[3] “Health Canada lays out a plan for study of wind farms, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013, pg. A3

[4] Bat deaths from wind turbines explained, University of Calgary, Aug 2008.

[5] U of C scientists find successful way to reduce bat deaths at wind turbines, University of Calgary Faculty of Science, Sept 25, 2009

[6] 2011 Stantec study, numbers supplied by TransAlta

[7] “U.S. cats kill up to 3.7 billion birds, 20.7 billion small mammals annually”, Globe and Mail, January 29, 2013

[8] “Many Human Caused Threats Afflict our Bird Populations”, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2002

[9] “Are Wind Turbines getting more bird and bat friendly?”, Scientific American August 20, 2012,

[10] “Health Canada lays out plan for study of wind farms”, Globe and Mail, February 11, 2013