Photo: Deborah Freeman

Runner-up Stories from the “What Does Biodiversity Mean to You?“ Essay Contest

In 2020, Alberta Views Magazine and the ABMI partnered for the “What Does Biodiversity Mean to You” Essay Contest.

The ABMI is a proud sponsor of this competition and we hope it fosters further conversation about how Albertans view and engage with biodiversity. Please note that the views of the authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the ABMI; nor should the publication of these stories be considered endorsement by the ABMI or its representatives.

The winning entry, Spice of Life, by Billie Milholland was published in Alberta Views in June 2021 (online) and in the July/August print issue. Our heartfelt thanks to Alberta Views for supporting this inaugural writing contest!

The runner-up entries were The Birch Bark Berry Basket, by Andrea Johancsik and Biodiversity in the River Valley, by Eric Shapiro. Honourable mention (youth category) went to The Home of the Animals, by Danica Skrzekowski (written at age 7). The runner-up and honourable mention essays can be read below.

Saskatoon Berries

Photo: Marilylle Soveran

The Birch Bark Berry Basket
by Andrea Johancsik

An adult now, I take the birch bark berry basket I made as a kid to pick saskatoons along the lakeshore. They’re small and dry this year—have they always been that way? I pause and consider how the basket is just as functional as it was when my dad made it some twenty years ago, given that it’s made from only the bark and wood of a birch tree. The tree that it originates from still stands on my family’s cabin in Alberta’s boreal region. Reaching for a particularly juicy berry at arm’s length, I reflect on my dad’s announcement a few years ago that the walleye fishery had closed for the first time. The rules around catching a fish that used to fill our dinner plates are now catch-and-release only.

There were two birch bark berry baskets made before I was born, one for each of my siblings. I continued to use mine long after they lost enthusiasm for berry-picking. As I child, I would hold up this basket and proudly announce my intuitive knowledge of berry seasons to anyone who would listen: “June, strawberries. July, raspberries and saskatoons! August, blueberries. September, cranberries.”

When I was too young to know any better, the richness of life at the lake seemed guaranteed. Though nature’s patterns changed year-to-year, I counted on their permanence. In the early spring, I was sometimes lucky enough to encounter the mayfly hatch, insects filling the air at once with the hum of life and easy death. Each midsummer, loons gathered in dozens or even hundreds, a lone pelican shining surprising white in their midst. And always, my siblings and I bore witness to the strangest boreal insects: spruce beetles hazardously buzzing through the air; caterpillars with mohawk-spikes; a hornet as long as my pinky.

I relished those memories with nostalgia in the long Calgary winter months. Suburban nature is elusive, and my appetite for it had to be satisfied in fleeting moments like glimpsing skyward through a pile of leaves after an autumn rake or watching the reflection of a tree from a clogged storm drain puddle. A monotony of poplars—enough to make any modern urban planner cringe—lined the neighbourhood streets, while a close-up search in the lawn produced nothing but ants and four-leaf clovers. Big houses and big yards were replaced over time by even bigger houses and, consequently, smaller yards.

A degree in environmental sciences later, I visited the lake with newly formed perspectives that turned magic and wonder into issues to be resolved and resources to be managed. Where as a child I saw a remote beach lined with soft moss and jewel-like berries, I now focused on the erosion caused by a few reckless ATV tracks that transformed bushes to sand. I became paranoid that each cloud or storm was a climate anomaly and every green speck in the water was algae threatening to bloom and smother aquatic life. My joyful childhood recollections of catching and cooking wild-caught fish were stained by the realization that my family and I were the “fishing pressure” the wildlife biologists were referring to.

Berry basket full, I start to stroll barefoot along the rocky beach back towards the cabin, a recent memory coming into focus. Springtime in Calgary, walking with my mother in the neighbourhood, and I had heard an abrupt “rat-a-tat-tat.” Looking upwards, I’d spotted a flicker on the top of a lamp post pecking its beak against the hard metal pole. I had wondered aloud, pointing, why a flicker would do that? Does it think the lamp post is a tree?

“It’s making a loud noise to attract a mate,” my mom had answered, with all the patience and wisdom of a backyard birder. A flock of cedar waxwings had flown by us then as if in one unit, over the parked cars, to take refuge in a row of poplars.

My dad walks down the steps to remark on my harvest.

“I just heard,” he says. “The walleye fish is opening this year. One fish per license. Should we make a crisp with those saskatoons?”

I walk with him back up the steps, keeping my ears out for the loons.

Edmonton River Valley

Photo: WherezJeff

Biodiversity in the River Valley
by Eric Shapiro

I was fortunate enough to grow up in the Bearspaw neighbourhood in the south of Edmonton with plenty of green space to play in and explore. This neighbourhood borders a park and ravine that slopes down toward Blackmud Creek, a tributary of the comparatively massive North Saskatchewan River, which forms high up in the Rocky Mountains and flows east toward Hudson Bay. A two-minute walk from the house where I grew up, Blackmud Creek seemed like an extension of my backyard. In the winters, my brothers and I would sled down the steep slope in the ravine, and in the summers we would walk, bike, and climb trees in the area. Back then, I knew that this creek flowed far away somewhere into the North Saskatchewan, and I was dimly aware that the water I was seeing would eventually end up thousands of kilometres away. But somehow, this idea never really resonated with me. I saw the creek, and certain parts of the river, as a playground in my immediate vicinity, and anything beyond that seemed too distant and far-off to consider.

While this spring has been a time of worry and uncertainty, the one positive side-effect has been gaining the time to explore Edmonton’s River Valley once again. I’ve been spending my time walking and cycling around parks and areas surrounding the North Saskatchewan I’ve never visited before. For the first time in my life, I have begun to grasp the interconnectedness and diversity of this space. What before used to be separate, distinct parts of the valley that I knew only slightly and sporadically have begun to integrate in my mind. The more I explore, the more connections I see – one trail along the river leading into a park I may have been to many years ago. In this way, these spaces, while physically unchanged, take on newfound meaning and significance. Similarly, the more I observe my surroundings, the more attuned I become to the amazing biodiversity inherent in this river system. Each park and trail has its own idiosyncrasies – waxwings in one space, yellow warblers elsewhere; unique collections of wild rose and saskatoon bushes; even the occasional plains garter snake. Each space has its role to play in the creation of this holistic ecosystem. This spring has been a time of heightened awareness for me, both of the particularity of certain places along the North Saskatchewan, and of the interconnectedness of the system as a whole. As one moves from one part of the valley to the next, new particulars emerge, and yet it’s still the same.

The last few months have cemented in my mind that biodiversity is not just one thing – it’s everything. Every insect, plant, bird, mammal, whatever form of life you can imagine, coexists in a symbiotic network that is more complex and grand than we can imagine. How can one word even begin to convey the importance and the significance of life itself? The simple answer is that it can’t, but at least it can begin to try. The concept of biodiversity, not only in Alberta, but everywhere else on the planet as well, is not just one factor among many of various environmental issues to be solved. Rather, it should function as the basic tenet of all of our efforts to live sustainably within the confines of the Earth. While there are many steps we can take collectively to protect diverse regions through official channels like public policy, legislation, and lobbying, I believe the first step is to recognize the beauty hidden in one’s backyard and immediate surroundings. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as a single river system with its countless trails and tributaries. It can be as simple as a single tree which houses several species of bird and insect. It is true that some regions are more biodiverse and have more ecological importance than others, and yet it is crucial to realize that biodiversity is present everywhere. It is all around us.

Biodiversity is just a word, but what follows from it is a feeling. The memories of the bluejays and robins in my parents’ backyard; the sounds of coyotes howling; the taste of wild strawberries growing in a shady grove. For me, Edmonton’s River Valley is the perfect embodiment of both.

Photo: Wildtrax

The Home of the Animals
by Danica Skrzekowski

I am seven years old and to me biodiversity means the home of our animals. I live in a forestry based community in Whitecourt, Alberta. In the mornings, the deer come out of the forest to eat the flowers in my grandmother’s garden and the branches on her trees. I like to think of what their home looks like in the forest and how I enjoy spending my time camping where they live.

My home looks much different from the home of a deer. The deer have rivers to drink out of and there would be so many ponds for them to find water as well. I bet they sleep on a bed made with leaves, flowers and grass, I think their bed would be surrounded by big spruce trees. The trees would keep them hidden from hungry wolf packs and other predators. The trees would also provide them warmth from the wind and rain, but also shade from the sun. In the summer, the deer would have lots of leaves, twigs, berries, grass and some lichens to eat. In the winter, the deer come into town more and it must be to find easy food since there is so much snow in the forest.

The deer would have to share their home with lots of other creatures, some that they get along with, some that they’re scared of and some that they can’t see. I wonder if the deer and the moose visit with each other? I do think the deer and the bunnies would be friends, maybe they would help protect each other. I do not know if deer are aware that they share their home with lady bugs or other insects. If they can’t see the ladybugs, I would think they have no idea about micro organisms.

One thing that all the animals probably appreciate in the forest is the fresh air. There are lots of trees in a forest, so they are producing a lot of oxygen and clean air. The floral smell of daisies, lilies and all of the wildflowers sure make me happy and I bet the deer enjoy it too.

The home of our animals sounds peaceful. Everyday the deer get to wake up to birds chirping, the sound of leaves fluttering on the trees and each night they fall asleep to loons hooting and the noise of crickets singing. In the wilderness there isn’t the sound of cars or machines, it’s quiet and calming.

After thinking about the home of a deer, it sure makes me want to be a deer. It is a good reminder to me and to each of you that everything outside of our community is somebody else’s home. The world just isn’t made for us but for us to share with the trees and the creatures to. I love when the deer visit Grandma’s house and I hope the deer will be ok with me visiting their home too, I like sharing our communities. This is what biodiversity is all about, a variety of species comingling, coexisting and working together.