Friday, May 13, 2011

For the Earth: David Orton (1934-2011)

 David’s death occurred on the morning of Thursday, May 12th, 2011 at his home in Watervale, Pictou County, Nova Scotia. David was born in Portsmouth, England on January 6th, 1934. He lived in Canada since 1957. 

David was an activist and deep green philosopher, who dedicated his life to developing the theory of Left Biocentrism within the Deep Ecology movement. He was uncompromising in his fight for the Earth and set a high standard for others to follow. David believed in living simply, where the richness of human life was defined not in material values, but within a deeper spiritual relationship with the Earth.

His body of work can be found on the Green Web site and on his Deep Green Web Blog.

A green burial will take place.


Postscript (June 4th, 2011)


One of David’s friends, Mark Brennan, made a recording of the morning sounds at our place. I think it is a moving tribute to David and to our place, which David called a paradise. See “For the Earth, Morning Chorus at David's” at:

There is an article on David “Noted environmental activist, David Orton, dies at 77: Orton espoused deep ecology and left biocentrism” at

See also the tribute to David on the Friends of Redtail site at

David’s green burial was on our land, on a hill in the woods, in a spot David loved. A friend took some photos at the burial, which show the lovely spot the gravesite is at. See

See the Wikipedia entry on David at

The obituary is now posted on the blog at and on our web site at

An account of the burial ceremony "A deep green burial" is posted at

Helga and Karen 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

My last blog post

This will be my last blog post, as in early March I was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer.

Unfortunately, due to my illness, I am unable to write Part 2 of “What Makes an Activist?”. Instead, I am posting the outline of a proposed book of left biocentric writings which I wrote in 2005, in the hope that it will give an overview of my work and enable others to see the direction I have been working towards, since moving to Nova Scotia in 1979.

I originally put together this book proposal six years ago with the aim of eventually getting it published. Although there was a lack of interest at the time, I’m republishing the outline with a modified title and some light editing of the book chapters, with the assistance of my wife Helga and daughter Karen. 

To see what I’ve been working on since 2005, go to our website, where more recent articles can be found. There are a number of theoretical papers showing the application of left biocentrism, e.g. tributes to Arne Naess and John Livingston, and practical examples, e.g. off-highway vehicle use and industrial wind turbines.

I’d like to thank all the people who, over so many years, have sent me their thoughts and articles and encouraged me in my work.

We all eventually return to the Earth. Goodbye and keep fighting.

For the Earth,


Book Proposal

Provisional Title
Left Biocentrism:
Fostering New Earth Values and Social Justice for the World’s Peoples

By David Orton              

Rationale for this book:
The theoretical tendency of left biocentrism exists and can be seen as a “left wing” of the deep ecology movement. It is therefore worthy of support. One might consider the following, in assessing whether to publish a book on left biocentrism.

A number of well known deep ecology and green theorists have expressed general support for the left biocentric theoretical tendency as it has evolved, and specific support for my own work, including for example the late Richard Sylvan, Andrew McLaughlin, Alf Hornborg, the late Rudolf Bahro, the late Judi Bari and, most recently Fred Bender, the author of the new text The Culture Of Extinction: Toward A Philosophy Of Deep Ecology

Both Arne Naess and George Sessions, through personal correspondence have, in the past, expressed interest in and general support for my theoretical work. A summary of left biocentrism, which continues to evolve, is given in the ten-point Left Biocentrism Primer, which was collectively agreed upon in 1998. A personal letter to me from George Sessions, dated 4/19/1998, also copied to Arne Naess, Bill Devall, Andrew McLaughlin and Howard Glasser, noted in part about left biocentrism and the Primer: “Personally, I agree with almost everything you say in the Left Biocentric Primer...It’s a real shame that the Green parties came under the influence of Bookchin and not your version of Left Biocentrism – it’s obvious that’s where they need to head. So, I have no necessary bones to pick with your idea of a Left wing of the Deep Ecology movement, more power to you and your colleagues. I wonder if the word ‘Left’ is the appropriate one to use (as opposed to social justice).” John Clark, a “deep” social ecologist, has expressed in writing the viewpoint that left biocentrism is welcome evidence of some “common ground” between deep and social ecology: “The existence of such common ground is indicated by the emergence of a left biocentrism’ that combines a theoretical commitment to deep ecology with a radical decentralist, anticapitalist politics having much in common with social ecology.” (See the third and fourth editions of the undergraduate college reader, Environmental Philosophy: From Animal Rights to Radical Ecology.)

There are people in a number of countries, in addition to myself, in particular Canada and the USA, who support deep ecology as an overall philosophy and who also consider themselves left biocentrists, i.e. “left bios.” Some of these people are active in the federal Green Party in Canada. That party publicly endorsed deep ecology in the last federal election in Canada and polled over 4 percent of the vote. 

My ideas and writings reflect the input of a number of others who see themselves as left bios. The formation of the internet discussion group left bio, with its approximately 35 members, now functioning for almost eight years, has aided substantially in this regard. I have always been conscious of writing in some way as part of a “collective”, seeking the input of kindred spirits. In early days this was more nebulous, but in recent years it has become more concrete, as left biocentrism becomes more publicly known. Articles or book reviews in draft form, written from a left biocentric theoretical perspective, have normally been made available to other left bios in the discussion group for their critical commentary.

Apart from my own writings, there are a number of books, some in press, which explicitly refer to and discuss the left biocentric theoretical tendency. It is also necessary to point out that, since the early 1980s, other thinkers within the deep ecology movement (although not calling themselves “left biocentrists”), have been struggling to outline what it means to be supporters of deep ecology, and yet to continue to see themselves in some way as part of the Left. Their ideas have greatly influenced me and contributed to my own thinking. These include, in addition to the people mentioned above, Andrew Dobson in England. [Although not included in the original book outline, which was published in 2005, an important early discussion of left biocentrism was published in Patrick Curry’s 2006 book, Ecological Ethics: An Introduction. A revised edition is due to come out in the fall of 2011.)

I myself became involved in environmental work as a primary focus in the late 1970s in British Columbia through naturalist organizations, after a previous political life in Canada centered around social justice issues and left wing politics. My interest in nature and wildlife go back to my boyhood in England. Prior to any contact with deep ecology, through my environmental work in forestry and wildlife issues, I had come to see that the ecological perspective meant to reject the human-centered domination over nature. This was expressed in my writings coming out of B.C. and Nova Scotia environmental struggles. (I had moved with my family to Nova Scotia in 1979.) By 1985 I had come to accept the philosophy of deep ecology and started to promote it in the Maritimes. I came to define myself politically as a Green, although I still consider myself a person of the Left. I began exploring what a left focus in deep ecology would mean. Later I was to discover that others were on the same path.

In 1989, at the Learned Societies Conference in Quebec City, I presented (along with my partner Helga) a paper called “Green Marginality in Canada.” This paper, in addition to the stated focus, outlined the conceptual perspective of “socialist biocentrism.” (Robyn Eckersley in her 1992 book, Environmentalism and Political Theory: Toward an Ecocentric Approach spoke of “ecocentric socialism.”) 

Later I discarded the expression socialist biocentrism in favour of the term “left biocentrism” as wider and more inclusive, as “socialism” seemed too forgiving towards the environmental record of socialist and communist societies. I was also confronted with the fact that many who were sympathetic to social justice concerns were hostile to the term socialism, perhaps a legacy of Cold War socialization. “Left” as used in left biocentrism, is therefore defined as meaning anti-industrial and anti-capitalist, but not necessarily socialist. Yet personally, I remain a socialist. 

The future ecocentric economic foundation of society remains to be defined, although it will not be capitalist, i.e., a society based on endless economic growth and consumerism, population growth, private profit, and human-centeredness. As for “biocentrism”, it is the more popular movement term, while “ecocentrism” is the more ecologically and scientifically aware term. Both “biocentrism” and “ecocentrism” are used interchangeably by left biocentrists.

Since the mid-1980s I have tried to blend theoretical and practical environmental work, from a deep ecology perspective. I have published articles and book reviews in a variety of environmental and green publications, including the Earth First! Journal. My work has included investigating and writing about controversial issues, e.g. green theory, aboriginal concerns, green electoralism, seals, fundamentalism – religious and economic, ecofascism, etc. Interests in forest and forestry-related issues have remained a central theme of my work within Nova Scotia. I also have published in Canadian left publications, e.g. Canadian Dimension and the Socialist Studies Bulletin, when they would accept my deep ecology advocacy articles. Yet a lot of the work is unpublished.

There is a common but misleading perception that the deep ecology movement, particularly in North America, is hostile to the social justice concerns of the Left and is in fact anti-Left. Publishing this book would help to dispel this myth. (Arne Naess, in his main work, Ecology, community and lifestyle, has a sympathetic yet critical discussion of socialism and shows a sophisticated economic, political and power analysis, and a class perspective.)  

Left Biocentrism: Fostering New Earth Values and Social Justice for the World’s Peoples would show the needed ecocentric critique of the traditional Left, but also what can be taken from the Left and incorporated into a socially and politically conscious deep ecology. Left biocentrism needs to be seen as a valued part of the deep ecology movement. Supporting the publication of this book would be a concrete manifestation of this. The front is indeed long. It needs to include and welcome the biocentric Left.

March 3, 2005



This book will be based on articles written by David Orton over a period of about twenty-five years, though most of them were written during the last few years. Each chapter theme will be discussed from past articles written on the topic, but placed in a contemporary perspective. The relevant articles are listed on the website under “A Taste of Green Web Writings and Left Biocentrism

Provisional Title
Left Biocentrism:
Fostering New Earth Values and Social Justice for the World’s Peoples

By David Orton

Introduction: Personal Biography and Intellectual Biography

Personal biography: Orton’s social origins in England: working class, wartime evacuation to the countryside, shipwright dockyard apprenticeship, and boyhood interests in wildlife and nature; the reason for the emigration to Canada; and the last twenty years of living in place in rural Nova Scotia. (One comes to eventually understand that one is a Canadian, and that one does not want to go “home” to Britain any more.)
Intellectual biography: unconscious social democracy of family background in England; Canadian radical politics and their reflection in the university as a student and short-lived faculty member in the 1960s; naturalist and outdoor involvement, environmental engagement and the beginnings of an ecological consciousness.

Chapter One: Pre-Deep Ecology Environmental Work
Forest and wildlife struggles in British Columbia, South Moresby and Tsitika watershed involvement – the fallacy of “multiple use” or “integrated resource management.” The credo of industry: “Forest management for the primary production of timber;” the conservatism of naturalist organizations and the limiting assumptions of mainstream environmentalism.
The critique of pulpwood forestry and of “natural resource management” in Nova Scotia, and the ecological perspective. Uranium exploration/mining and the self-interest of the trade union movement. Discussion of why unions and employers have an economic interest in the continuation of industrial society and its priorities. Organizational differentiation from mainstream environmentalism: not accepting government or corporate financing or “working the system.”

Chapter Two: Embracing Deep Ecology and Various Problems

Deep ecology as the ideological counter to “resourcism,” the world view that the non-human world exists as raw material for the human purpose. Acceptance of the eight-point Deep Ecology Platform. Deep and shallow ecology and implications for industrial capitalism. Three key ideas: non-human centeredness; the necessity for a new spiritual relationship to Nature; and opposition to the idea of “private property” in Nature. Deep ecology as part of the larger green movement – as the first social movement in history to advocate a lower material standard of living, from the perspective of industrial consumerism. Nature as a Commons and not to be privatized.
Problems: ambiguity and the “conceptual bog” (Richard Sylvan) of deep ecology; who ‘owns’ deep ecology and how does it evolve; Self-realization and the psychological self-absorbed path of “transpersonal ecology” (Warwick Fox); the unreality of non-violence and Gandhi, and implications for organizing; NO necessary separation of the peace, social justice and ecology movements; lack of real political, economic, social analysis, or class perspective by most deep ecology writers; lack of awareness of the imperial role of the United States and its world-wide consumption of “resources”; the isolation of deep ecology academics and their lack of accountability to the movement, etc.

Chapter Three: Characteristics of Left Biocentrism

Social base of left biocentrism, theoretical and practical views, handling contradictions among left biocentrists. Is there a role for anarchism? Unity and differentiation with deep ecology. Other Left paths in deep ecology and green theory: deep green theory (Sylvan), radical ecocentrism (McLaughlin), green fundamentalism (Bahro), revolutionary ecology (Bari), and ecologism (Dobson). Characteristics of socialist biocentrism and why it is inadequate. Drafting of the Left Biocentrism Primer in 1998.

Chapter Four: Aboriginal Issues in Canada

A general overview of aboriginal issues as articulated in the 1996 Canadian Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples (5 volumes) and a left biocentric critique given. Implications of aboriginal views for wildlife, forestry, parks, land claims and social justice. What should be supported and what should be opposed on ecocentric and social justice considerations? Past treaties dictated to aboriginals by a feudal-colonial state in Canada – can they be models for contemporary land use and redress of grievances? Treaty rights or social and ecological justice today: going beyond human-centeredness, treaties, land ownership and property rights. What is the relationship of contemporary aboriginal views to deep ecology and left biocentrism within industrial capitalist society?  Deep stewardship of traditional aboriginal thinking as human-centered. The imposition (and implications) of the industrial consumer culture on aboriginals and non-aboriginals. 

Chapter Five: Green Electoralism and Left Biocentrism

Deep ecology in contention for the consciousness of the green movement (Realo/Fundi discussion). How the environmental movement in Canada and elsewhere should define itself – reformist or subversive. Assumptions of green electoralism and their congruence with the continuation of industrial capitalism and shallow ecology. Ecological politics across the ‘isms’ of bourgeois society (Bahro). The disenfranchisement of the electorate with the parliamentary road and liberal democracy: alternative ecocentric visions which undermine industrial capitalist society cannot be advanced through the electoral process, as they go against short-term economic interests. The fundamental dilemma: eco-capitalism – ‘sustainable development’, ‘natural capitalism’, ‘cradle to cradle’ etc., or revolutionary ecocentric change. The overall tendency towards absorption and neutralization for “green” electoral parties and why this occurs. Liberal democracy and ecocentric democracy: why they are incompatible. Is there a political vehicle for a revolutionary deep ecology in our contemporary world? Why some left bios work inside green parties and why others work from the outside, and the example of the federal Canadian Green Party. 

Chapter Six: The Ecocentric Critique of the Left

Green movement has replaced the socialist/communist movement as the center of innovative debate and alternative thinking. No Earth justice without social justice. Discussion of the positive ideas of the Left: e.g. society should control the economy and not the economy control the society; collective responsibility for all members of a society and opposition to the cult of individualism and selfishness; class dimensions of environmental, economic and social issues; etc.
Opposing the negative ideas of the Left: e.g. human-centered world view; hostility to population reduction; Nature having no intrinsic value or worth unless transformed by human labour; seeing capitalism, not industrialism, as the main problem; lack of an alternative economic model; hostility towards Earth spirituality; denial of personal responsibility for ecological destruction or social actions, etc.
The Earth can belong to no one – the fiction of “ownership” of the Earth and its life forms. (Bahro, Livingston and Naess) Moving to usufruct use, accountability to a community of all beings. Defining the ecocentric Left, the NECESSITY that it be a vital component of a radical deep ecology movement.
The primacy of ecocentric consciousness and that social justice, while very important, is secondary to such a consciousness. Ecocentric justice as much more inclusive than human justice.
Critique of “social environmentalism” in the mainstream environmental movement, where social justice is upheld over environmental justice: social ecology, eco-Marxist and ecofeminist positions. 

Chapter Seven: The Ecofascism Attack on Deep Ecology

Supporters of deep ecology are uncomfortable and on the defensive about ecofascism. “Ecofascism” as an attack term, with social ecology roots, against deep ecology and the environmental movement; linking deep ecology with Hitler’s “national socialist” movement, i.e. the Nazis. “Fascism”, a term whose origins and use reflect a particular form of HUMAN social, political and economic organization, now with a prefix “eco”, used against environmentalists. On the other hand, for supporters of deep ecology the concept “ecofascism” conjures thoughts of the violent onslaught against Nature and its non-human life forms, justified as economic “progress”; the so-called “Wise Use” movement in North America, which sees all of Nature as available for HUMAN use. Different views of deep ecology and social ecology on ecofascism, the love of Nature, spiritual transformation, non-coercive population reduction, controls on immigration, etc. Deep-green German ecophilosopher and activist Rudolf Bahro (1935-1997), accused by social ecology supporters of being an ecofascist and a contributor to “spiritual fascism”. Bahro’s conflict with left and green thought orthodoxies and his interest in building a mass social movement. How Bahro saw left “ecosocialist” opportunists, for whom ecology was just an “add-on”, without a transformation of world view and consciousness. Bahro’s resignation from the Green Party, because he saw that the members did not want out of the industrial system.

Chapter Eight: The Left Biocentric Forest Vision

A vision of animals and plants, along with rocks, oceans, streams and mountains having spiritual and ethical standing. Industrial forestry model to be phased out in favour of low impact, value-added, selection forestry. Appropriate social policy alternatives for forestry workers and communities to be deep-ecology inspired. Sustainable forestry in a sustainable society. Questioning some ecoforestry positions: that forests need be managed or “restored”; that forests can be managed in an ecologically sensitive way. Why forests should be left “unmanaged.” Forest “certification” as a “green” marketing gimmick. What is a deep-ecology inspired forestry, and the need for primacy of non-economic interests in maintaining a living forest. For example, see the article “Some Conservation Guidelines for the Acadian Forest” on our web site.

Chapter Nine: Animals and Earth Spirituality

Deep ecology supporters as defenders of wild animals and their habitats. Placing animals in an ecological, political, economic and cultural “context”. Opposing hunting in protected areas and parks, and uniting with traditionalist aboriginals against the “resourcism” of industrial consumerist society. Acceptance of subsistence hunting, subject to the status of a species. Problem with ethical social relativism. Earth spirituality, animals and organized religion; the Abrahamic faiths and the Vedic religions. Modern day religious fundamentalists, who aim to re-sacralize human societies, not the natural world. The pre-industrial past. How deep ecology supporters want to re-sacralize Nature. The need for a new language and a new philosophical and spiritual outlook. The need to respect all animals as an integral part of preserving the community of life.

Chapter Ten: Religious and Economic Fundamentalism

The need to understand religious fundamentalism and economic fundamentalism and how they relate to each other, their threat to the world. Both fundamentalisms are antagonistic to the goals of the deep ecology movement. Fundamentalism as a form of “security” in religious conformity, as refuge when cultures are falling apart. Different kinds of religious fundamentalisms. Grievances in the Islamic world, inequality between Arabs and Jews; the subservience of Arab states to U.S. foreign policy, etc. The oil issue. Economic fundamentalism as an attempt to impose, if necessary by force, one economic model on the world. U.S. economic fundamentalism and its rhetoric of “freedom,” “democracy,” “individual initiative,” etc. The threat posed by U.S.-style economic fundamentalism to the well-being of the planet and its diverse inhabitants. Globalization and how its opponents are being “squeezed” by Islamic and US economic fundamentalism.

Chapter Eleven: Tributes

Tributes to Winin Pereira, Richard Sylvan and Rudolf Bahro – three people from India, Australia and Germany, who had an important influence on the conceptualization of left biocentrism. The tributes were written on learning of their deaths and are brief testimonials to this influence.  [I would now also include Arne Naess, from Norway.]

Conclusion: The Present Situation for Left Biocentrism and Deep Ecology

An assessment of the current situation for the philosophy of deep ecology as an influence on the green and environmental movements. Also, a look at the status, at this time, of the theoretical tendency of left biocentrism within deep ecology.


March 3, 2005 [Slightly revised April 30, 2011]


Saturday, April 2, 2011

What makes an activist? (Part 1)


I have sometimes been asked, what events made me turn out the way I am – an environmental and social justice activist, interested in theoretical questions, and still going at the age of 77? More generally, I have often thought about what makes a person the way they are? Why choose one direction in life rather than another? What fosters in a person a sense of injustice, either human or ecological? What makes a person renounce the general sentiment of this society, which is to keep one’s head down and basically pay most attention to personal advancement? Also, what is the role of an activist’s partner or partners in life? Does it necessarily mean that the partner gives up their own self-direction, in order to play a supporting role to the activist? This amounts to basically subsidizing with their lives the life of the activist – is this acceptable? What makes someone say what they believe, no matter how unpopular, to stand up to power, and to public opinion if necessary? Why is it that today, Earth preservation turns out to be of overwhelming importance for some people and not for most others? Are there common factors to explain why someone remains an activist throughout their life, or is this a highly individual path?

Given the fundamental change in my personal health, with the early March diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, I’ve decided to look back on my life and write out what seem to be the significant events that helped shape the way I am. I hope others might find this of interest.

Significant Events in my Life

- 1934, born in Portsmouth, southern England. An industrial city and the main naval dockyard in England at that time. There were four kids, all boys, in our working class family.

- Second World War (1939-1945). Our family spent some of this time in Portsmouth, but us kids were also “evacuated” to the countryside occasionally. My father was not drafted, but worked “on the bench” at an aircraft plant in Portsmouth.

- Failed the “11 plus” exam, which streamed kids into the “grammar”, “technical” and “secondary modern” school systems. I’m not sure how, but I ended up at Portsmouth Technical School. I disliked the school, with its concentration on preparing students to enter the industrial world. I was not much good at “shop” work. However, the school had a field club run by an energetic teacher, Gus Gates. We went on expeditions from Portsmouth into the English countryside. I was already somewhat primed for this, because of an earlier interest in nature. In Portsmouth, near where I lived, we had the mudflats of Langston Harbour and not too far away was Farlington Marshes, with its many ducks and geese. Opposite our house was Baffin’s Pond – a large pond with willow trees, swans, ducks, geese, carp and eels. I left the technical school at 15, at my father’s urging, to enter Portsmouth Dockyard as a shipwright apprentice. My father had a saying that “everyone should have a trade.”

- Portsmouth Dockyard, five-year apprenticeship, 1949 entry. There were approximately 44 apprentice shipwrights. On graduation, I was listed as tenth. Although the apprenticeship covered all aspects of the shipwright trade in the dockyard, ranging from building 14-foot sailing dinghies, to working “afloat” on various naval vessels, and a stint in the drawing office, I never felt “competent” as a tradesperson. After finishing the apprenticeship, I worked for one year in the dockyard as a shipwright. From 1952-55, I studied in the evening at Portsmouth College of Technology, seeing this as a “way out” of the industrial life. I am not sure now how it happened, but in 1954 I passed “Ordinary Level English”. This would be most unusual for someone with my educational background at that time. I like to think it reflected my reading of writers like D.H Lawrence, as well as poetry, as a dockyard matey. Also, my best friend at that time, Alan Marshfield, not a dockyard matey, was a poet. I decided at some point to seek entry to Durham University, which was geared to teaching naval architecture, as a way out of my Portsmouth life. I used the College of Technology qualifications I had earned (basically rote learning) – Ordinary National Certificate and First Year Higher National Certificate – to gain entry to study in the first year at the then Newcastle-on-Tyne campus of Durham University, called King’s College.
- Southsea Rowing Club. My elder brother Harry, who had attended grammar school, and later Bristol University to study dentistry, became involved in rowing. Reading Rowing Club was one of the places where he rowed. He introduced me to the Southsea Rowing Club, a sea rowing club in Portsmouth, when I was a dockyard apprentice. This sport became a passion and a significant influence in my life. Club members at Southsea Rowing Club were not working class, and this is perhaps signified by my nickname in the club – “Matey”. Rowing introduced me to a love of the sea, camping in the Isle of Wight, and working with others in a collective sense, in order to become a successful racing crew. During training outings we explored extensive areas of the coast around Portsmouth Harbour. We often rowed over to the Isle of Wight in larger clinker boats, called “galleys.” In summer, we raced at regattas all along the South Coast. We usually travelled to the regattas in the back of a lorry, with the racing shells lashed to a wooden frame over our heads.

- Durham University. I attended the university for the academic year 1955-1956, in the first year of the course leading to a B.Sc. in Applied Science (Naval Architecture). I remember the university official who spoke to the large incoming class of students saying, “Look left and then look right, only one of the three of you will be here next year.” The government covered the course fees and living expenses. I lived with other students, some of whom were Norwegian, in a house off campus. I enjoyed rowing/sculling while in Newcastle and spent a lot of time hanging out with Arts students. I failed the first examination in all subjects in June 1956. When I took the exams for a second time in September 1956, as was then allowed, I passed in chemistry but failed again in mathematics and physics. This was the end of Durham University for me, as I was out of my depth in the science subjects, given my background and general lack of interest.

- Army Service, 1956 to August 1957. At that time, England had what was called National Service, for a two-year period, for males in the Army, Navy or Air force. Someone could get a “deferment” to complete something like an apprenticeship or university courses. But eventually, if one stayed in England, and one was assessed as medically fit, the National Service obligation had to be fulfilled. One option facing young men was to sign on for three years as a “regular.” This meant quite a lot more pay, and also being able to choose where one could be assigned, as long as the basic qualifications for the particular job of interest could be met. I stupidly signed on for three years with the Army and chose to enter the Royal Army Educational Core. According to the Army, I was theoretically qualified, by virtue of previous educational achievements. Before entering the Educational Core for their training program, I had to complete a “basic training” with the Middlesex Regiment. Because I was quite fit from my rowing experiences at the Southsea Rowing Club, I did well and easily passed through basic training. But this was not the situation at the Royal Army Educational Core. After a total of 269 days in the Army, I was discharged because, according to my Certificate of Discharge, “his services being no longer required for the purpose for which he enlisted.” Yet the character assessment provided by the Commanding Officer, written with a view to future employment, while noting my unsuitability for being an instructor in the Educational Core, was quite positive. About Private Orton the CO wrote: “He is intelligent and has a sound academic background. Although quiet and reserved he has sound principles and convictions. His appearance is neat and his manner good. He can be trusted to apply himself well at all times.”  I was told that, after discharge, I would be recalled by the Army, to complete the two-year National Service obligation. As I did not want this, I knew it meant leaving the country, if this could be financially arranged. Recalling this from today’s perspective, the reasons I did not make it in the Educational Core, had to do with my general educational inadequacy. I would misspell lesson plans, for example. I think that while this was the main factor, a secondary factor was my attitude toward army discipline generally, and also toward the way that lessons were conducted.

- Immigration to Canada, via the Empress of Scotland. My brother Harry raised the money for my ship voyage. I sailed from Liverpool, and landed on November 14, 1957, in Quebec City. I disembarked the ship in Montreal. Being a shipwright with apprenticeship papers made it easy for me to obtain immigration status. My first job was a white collar one, as a Freight Claims Clerk with the Canadian Pacific Railway. My second job was working for Carlings Brewery, basically as a tank cleaner.

- Met Gunilla, who was Swedish and employed at the Swedish Consulate in Montreal. We eventually moved in together. This was probably in 1958.

- Became a student at Sir George Williams University in Montreal (later renamed Concordia University) in 1959. I was given credit for previous work done in England and obtained the BA in May of 1963. In school terms I did well. After graduating, I received the following letter, dated May 29, 1963, signed by the Vice Principal of the university.
Dear Mr. Orton:
Every year the Faculty Council has the pleasantly difficult job of selecting from our top scholars those who are to receive the highest academic awards in the university. Unfortunately, there can only be one winner, but we are lucky that a number of very good students every year also rank so highly in their academic achievement that they merit consideration for these awards.
I am writing to tell you that although you did not win the Birks Medal, you came very close to it, and your achievement is so fine that I felt that I ought to write to you and congratulate you upon the fine work that you have done here as a student, and to tell you how proud we are of you, whether you won this award or not. I am sure, by what you have demonstrated, that you will go far, and I wish you every success.
Yours sincerely,
Douglas Burns Clarke

I remember taking the exam for graduates to enter the civil service because I was interested in the Department of Northern Affairs. I passed the exam but then decided to go to graduate school. I became a Canadian citizen on January 7th, 1963.

- Attended the New School for Social Research, Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, New York City, from fall of 1963 to 1966. (Gunilla joined me in New York City and we eventually married. Our son Karl [named after Karl Marx] was born in New York. Johanna was born later in Montreal. We lived close to the school, on the edge of Greenwich Village.) I had tuition scholarships at the Graduate Faculty. I was granted the MA degree in 1965 (thesis not required) and received the Gelgor Prize “for outstanding student in sociology.” In 1965, I passed the Ph.D. qualifying exam, and in 1966 passed the Ph.D. oral examination. But I never submitted a Ph.D. thesis. It was a very lively political time, and I was politically active on and off campus. On campus I was involved with other students in trying to get the faculty members who were teaching us to relinquish some of their power to decide course content. It was an uphill battle. I also worked in the office of an academic Marxist magazine, called Science and Society. I taught a course at the Brooklyn campus of the New York City Community College. In the graduate faculty, I was the teaching assistant to Dr. Carl Mayer and was responsible, under supervision, for marking student papers.

- Taught at Sir George Williams University, 1967-69. This university and its sociology department were initially keen to hire me as a lecturer in sociology. I was a ‘local boy’ who had done well academically, both at Sir George and the New School. But while in graduate school, I had been quite influenced by Left politics and by the huge and very active anti-Vietnam War movement in New York. I also had been imprinted by the culture of the Village – I had a beard and hippy beads around my neck, with the casual clothes to match. Sir George at that time had a number of faculty members who were characterized by me as “house Marxists” or “academic Marxists.” Some of them were high profile socialist scholars from the U.S. I believed in a pluralistic Left approach (many roads to socialism), but that for the Leftist academic, theory and practice had to find a place together in the classroom. The house Marxists did not seem to like this viewpoint. I remember being told by one of them, that I should stop trying to organize, and instead learn German and read Marx in the original language. The first clash within the sociology department took place before I even stepped into a classroom. It concerned the reading lists for my courses, which were definitely not orthodox. I also had tentative ideas on involving students in influencing what was to be taught, how the courses were to run, marking, etc. A full meeting of the sociology department was held. I was told that “I did not share the consensus of the discipline of sociology.” This was the first of a number of clashes during the two years I was at Sir George.

 I worked with a few other left wing faculty and students from Sir George and McGill University, to form a group called the Movement for Socialist Liberation. (Andre Gunder Frank, the left Latin American economist who was at Sir George, was part of this group.) We opposed the recruitment of students on campus for war-related industries. I remember being involved, in the name of this group, in disrupting a visit by a corporate spokesperson who was coming to campus to recruit engineering students. This disruption quite upset some of the movers and shakers in the university, who saw it as a violation of academic freedom.

When Che Guevara was murdered in 1967, after capture in Bolivia, with the involvement of the CIA, I wrote an article for the student newspaper The Georgian (October 20, 1967): “In Memoriam: Che Guevara, Communist Revolutionary.” This article landed me in considerable trouble in the university. I used Che as a revolutionary model for comparison purposes with the house Marxists. A sample quote from this article is given below:
“Che Guevara was no coffee-house revolutionary. He could not be classified as an academic Marxist. Many of these gentlemen – who may be spotted on university campuses in America and Canada, well salaried, well fed and well clothed – make absolute distinctions between revolutionary theory and revolutionary action. Academic Marxists often do not see any contradiction in such a position and apparently fail to realize the rationalization of interests involved in such a worldview. Che had an interest in revolutionary theory but he also believed in praxis. His message was brutally simple, yet profound: The revolution will be made by those who act, not by those who endlessly talk and contribute to left-wing journals, regarding strategy, tactics, objective versus subjective conditions, etc, etc. As Fidel says, ‘The duty of a revolutionary is to make the revolution.’ In Latin America there can be no peaceful transition to socialism…For Che, ‘the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love’ even if this must be balanced by a ‘cold intelligence.’ Bourgeois self-interest had no place in socialism. Moral incentives, said Guevara, were to be stressed against material incentives. It was this transformation of values in opposition to the corruption, privilege, alienation, racism and absence of meaningful democracy in bourgeois society that Che was so concerned with, that makes him a charismatic figure…”

Since writing the above, I have gained some ecological understanding. For all his positive contributions, Che still believed in “the domination of Nature”, expressing this in a letter left for his children, to be read after his death. The Marxist tradition has greatly contributed to a concern for social justice, but today, Earth preservation needs to be our guiding star.

- Sometime into teaching at Sir George, I came in contact with and started working with the “Internationalists”, who were later to become the Communist Party of Canada, Marxist-Leninist. The university did not renew my teaching contract. Not working on, or showing any inclination to produce a Ph. D. thesis, was a legitimate issue in the non-renewal. But the general sentiment towards me among faculty members was perhaps conveyed in a comment by David Sheps who wrote an article called, “The Apocalyptic Fires at Sir George Williams University” after university computers were burned as a spin-off from an anti-racism struggle within the university.  His writing helped to create the material conditions such that I would never again obtain a full-time teaching position in Canada. (See Canadian Dimension, Volume 5, Number 8, February 1969.) Sheps was then Associate Editor of Canadian Dimension and an English professor at Sir George. Canadian Dimension, which is still around, is Canada’s leading left social democratic magazine. In the paragraph below, Sheps was writing about me as a member of the Internationalists, without mentioning my name specifically:
“One of their leaders happens to be a lecturer in the Sociology department. He is a self-proclaimed Marxist Leninist who, as far as anyone can tell, has read practically no Marx or Lenin. Since he also refuses on principle to read ‘bourgeois sociology’ (which he seems to interpret broadly enough to include most left-wing sociologists), many have wondered if he has read anything at all. The Sociology department had chosen not to renew his contract, a decision every left-wing faculty member regarded as eminently sensible.”

Another reactionary article in Canadian Dimension around my time at Sir George, giving the views of the house Marxists at the university, was by the American historian Eugene Genovese. (See “War On Two Fronts”, Volume 6, Number 1, April-May 1969.) People like me were part of one of the fronts that had to be combated! (After I became involved in the ecological movement, I wrote for Canadian Dimension. Starting in 1989 I wrote about 27 articles in all, including as a columnist for two years.)

- Organizer with the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) until 1975. I eventually resigned over the lack of internal democracy in the organization. When I directly experienced this lack of democracy myself, I knew it was time to go. I ran twice in Montreal in the federal elections as an M-L candidate. Gunilla, my then wife, was also a party member. We were both on the Central Committee, and for some time, I was Vice-Chairman of the Party. Gunilla left the organization soon after I left. While in the Party, I mainly organized in Regina and Montreal but also spent some time in Toronto. In Regina, I helped organize a protest against the visit of a military band from the U.S., as an example of cultural imperialism. I was arrested and charged, but the charges were eventually dropped. In 1972, I participated in a Toronto demonstration against the Western Guard, a Nazi group who had organized a “Keep Canada White” meeting. I was arrested and after the court trial, in which I defended myself, I was sentenced to forty days, or a four hundred dollar fine. I did the time. In 1978, a paperback book by Lorne and Caroline Brown, An Unauthorized History of the RCMP, came out. The book used a house Marxist moralizing tone and said that the RCMP wanted “to prepare a case against one David Orton for sedition in February 1971.” Apparently this was based on a talk called “Revolt versus the Status Quo” that I had given at a University of Regina seminar. The university refused to turn over the tapes of the seminar to the RCMP or to testify if the case came to trial. So the sedition case was apparently dropped. (See pp. 122-124). The academics involved never let me know personally about the sedition issue, and I first found out about it in reading the Unauthorized History. After leaving the Marxist-Leninists, I worked on the Montreal waterfront as a shipwright carpenter for a couple of years, for two different companies – Montreal Ship Repairs and Canadian Vickers Limited.

- Moved to British Columbia in 1977, to the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii, Islands of the People) – a place of which Dave Ellis, a non-aboriginal fisherman on the Charlottes said, “this country is meant for seals, Sitka spruce and people.”

- I obtained a job with British Columbia Packers in June of 1977, as a temporary camp help. The “camp” was a floating barge, with ice facilities where trawlers unloaded and sold their catch. The camp closed down in the middle of October. My job was to see that the fish were iced sufficiently, so they remained in good condition. My family lived with me on the camp. The work brought me, an outsider, in contact with an important section of the fishing community. I also became interested in the position of the Haida towards environmental issues, and particularly when these issues clashed with their land claims. Moving to the Charlottes greatly stoked my interest in environmental issues. I decided to re-focus my organizing work on environmental issues and not social justice politics. I took part in whatever environmental meetings I became aware of. I made organizational contact with the British Columbia Federation of Naturalists and agreed to do some theoretical work for them. One very hot issue was around seeking park status for South Moresby. I eventually wrote a 30-page report for the B.C. Federation of Naturalists, presenting various contradictions in the position that the environmentalists were advocating on the Queen Charlottes for their wilderness proposal. My report was called “The Case against the Southern Moresby Wilderness Proposal”. While in the Charlottes, Gunilla and I decided to go our separate ways. It was a difficult, although friendly, parting. (She eventually took our children, Karl and Johanna, back to Sweden.) I had met Helga earlier, while in CPC-ML. When I broke up with Gunilla, Helga and I decided to get together. Helga brought a two-person kayak up to the Charlottes and we took it into the Southern Moresby Wilderness Proposal area. We mainly lived off edible plants and the fish we caught from the kayak. It was a pretty unplanned trip, with no life jackets or signalling gear, just a compass and a map. This forced us to confront and adjust to some extreme weather, plus the natural rhythms of the oceans. I believe this trip was important in developing my environmental consciousness. It was also a bonding trip for Helga and I.

- Moved to Victoria in the fall of 1977 to join Helga. In Victoria, I did environmental work and joined the local naturalists club. I also worked with a fisherman, Scotty Neish, who was on the Executive of the British Columbia United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union. I went fishing with him once. Scotty was a social activist and an environmentalist, and a member of the Communist Party of Canada. We took on the Tsitika Watershed issue in Northern Vancouver Island. We went to a number of meetings, clashing with the loggers and logging industry representatives, and trying to defend the ecological integrity of this watershed.  I tried to mobilize the Federation of Naturalists around this issue and wrote an article about the Tsitika for their newsletter. I had come to really oppose the land tenure system, exploited by the logging companies in British Columbia, who used their forest land “crown leases” to demand millions of dollars in compensation when a park or protected area was proposed. I also wrote a number of letters on wildlife and forest issues in local newspapers. When we left for Nova Scotia in September 1979, I was the regional vice-president for the Federation of Naturalists, responsible for the Vancouver Island and Gulf Islands clubs. I found the naturalists generally quite conservative on environmental issues. They liked observing nature, but did not want to fight in its defence.

Closing Thoughts

The evolution of my environmental consciousness speeded up in British Columbia, even though I had not yet come in contact with deep ecology. This did not happen until the mid-1980s in Nova Scotia. But, in B.C., I was starting to see the natural world through a non-human focused lens. Why was this? The South Moresby kayak trip showed me that, for survival on that trip, it was necessary to understand Nature’s rhythms and to adjust to them. I also came to understand, through involvement in forest issues, that the forest companies’ mantra of “forests for the primary production of timber” made it hopeless to try to engage with them, unless we had extensive social support and an alternative set of values in defence of wild nature. This particularly came home to me when one logging company, in its literature, proposed putting up nesting boxes in its clearcuts.

My experiences at Sir George Williams University and at the New School, gave me the confidence that I could analyze and make up my own mind about various issues, even if I had to stand alone.

I had to leave Portsmouth and the dockyard on an unknown personal journey, to change my consciousness and to have different opportunities for some life choices. All the various events that happened to me, helped to shape who I finally came to be. My two long-term personal relationships in Canada, with Gunilla and Helga, made it possible for me “to do my thing.” They have both been a crucially important part of my life. Both supported and contributed to the values I struggled to articulate.

End of Part I

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

How we live

"As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but Nature's sources never fail."  (John Muir)


We live on a 130-acre old hill farm in Pictou County, Nova Scotia, which has gone back to forest and a habitat for wildlife. A close friend of mine, with whom I have worked on environmental issues ever since moving to our place about 27 years ago, has repeatedly told me that how I live is reflected in my writing – that is, how I analyse the world and respond to environmental and green issues. He felt my day to day living would also be of interest to those who follow my thinking, and that I should write something about this to share with others. This is what this post is about.

I remember being invited to give a talk to the federal Green Party convention in 2006 in Ottawa. My topic was whether Left Biocentrism was relevant to Green Parties. There was a big laugh from the audience, quite unexpected on my part, when I said how we had bought our place in Pictou County in 1984, but that I did not believe in private property. One of the contradictions facing the deep ecology supporter is of accepting a basic position that humans cannot ‘own’ the Earth, yet having to use private property ‘laws’ to buy one’s own place or sometimes to acquire land in a capitalist society for conservation and wildlife preservation purposes. Using such laws can help Nature in the short term, but it can also, unless the basic deep ecology view that humans cannot own the Earth is part of the conservation discussion, foster and reinforce the legitimacy of the capitalist view, that humans can ‘own’ other species and the land itself.

As readers of my writings know, Arne Naess, John Livingston, and Rudolf Bahro – key influences for the theoretical tendency of left biocentrism within deep ecology – all emphasized this fundamental point. Livingston expressed it this way: “A man should no more be allowed to own the living soil than he now owns the air he breathes.” (Canada: A Natural History, p. 223) An industrial capitalist society, that does not recognize ecological limits but only perpetual economic expansion and has the profit motive as driver, will eventually consume and destroy itself. But we will all be taken down with it. ‘Private property’ or the idea that humans can ‘own’ other creatures and the land itself, is the ultimate human conceit, which supporters of deep ecology need to undermine, if we are to move in our societal consciousness to sharing this planet with other species on a basis of equality, not dominance. This is a primary goal for the supporter of deep ecology and necessary for real long term social sustainability.

Another theoretical issue is the importance – or lack of it – of individual or personal change as contrasted with major societal change. Do overall ecological and social beliefs held by a person have any necessary relationship to how one personally lives? I think the Left has primarily focused on institutional change and often mocked the green emphasis on being the change you want to see in others and the world. Both individual and societal change must go hand in hand. I have always felt that, to have any integrity in the eyes of others, how one lives personally, has, to some extent, to be a reflection of one’s eco-politics. How one lives should be a kind of laboratory for trying out and applying green philosophy and trying to sort out various contradictions. I believe this is implicit within the philosophy of deep ecology. But it can be hard to write about it without seeming to be a personal tub thumper, which has no attraction for me. Perhaps this is a reason I have avoided, until now, my friend’s advice. Below I will describe my personal living situation, and the routine life I share with my wife Helga. I hope others will find it of interest. 


We have lived on our place for the last 27 years. It used to be a farm, but most has now gone back to forest. Our land is intersected by a dirt road. On the side where our house is located there are 100 acres, the remaining about 30 acres are on the other side. The soil here is thin and rocky. If you walk around the place, you come across large piles of rocks, which the original settlers must have gathered by hand to clear the fields. The largest trees (biggest diameter and tallest) are on the boundary lines, and this is why they have remained uncut. Such trees give some sense of the original grandeur of the Acadian forest before the colonialists arrived.

The house is over 100 years old. It is small, but has two levels. On the main floor is the living area, and upstairs are the bedrooms, which have a gabled roof. There is also a half-dug basement, where we keep the winter firewood and which functions as a cold cellar. We heat only by a wood stove. When we moved in, we took out an oil stove – a source then of supplementary heating. When the wood stove is on, there are always three kettles of water on it. There is no indoor toilet, but we have an outhouse a short distance from the house. In winter, the temperature does not usually go below minus 20 degrees centigrade, except for a few winter nights. The house is "snug" and well insulated. Unless there is a winter storm with high winds and low temperatures, the house remains warm until one goes to bed. Making the fire in the wood stove in the morning is the first task.

Our house is set back about 200 yards from the dirt road. Once the winter snow comes, the car stays at the bottom of the unpaved narrow driveway for several months. We move the groceries, laundry, etc. up and down the driveway by sled.

About 15 years ago we had three ponds dug at our place. While my general sentiment is as little disturbance of the natural world as possible, having ponds dug does seem to encourage wildlife. All of the ponds have streams flowing into them. Beavers have periodically moved into the largest pond and we had to adjust to their activities. The beavers cut down all the fruit trees around the perimeter of this pond. They took over what was planned to also be a swimming pond for humans and filled it with alder branches for winter food storage. The beavers raised the water level of the swamp behind our house, and thus eliminated a spring we used as an alternative water source in summer, when our dug well often goes dry. At one time, we needed to unplug a culvert funnelling swamp water under the dirt road on a daily basis, as a result of beaver activity. If we did not do this, the “authorities” would have trapped the culvert-plugging beavers, as they could potentially cause a road washout. The beavers have now moved on from the pond, but muskrats, mink, herons, bitterns and ducks still make their appearance, along with frogs and dragonflies. We now make use of the second smaller pond, located a bit closer to the house, for summer swimming and washing. We also carry water to the house to wash dishes, when the well goes dry. This more or less yearly summer water shortage helps me focus on the importance of water in our life and not to take this for granted. Our third pond is way back in the woods and was really dug just for wildlife use. However, there is a large boulder by the pond which we call “thinker’s rock.” We often walk to this rock.

The woods surround us. Since moving here all the formerly cleared fields have been reclaimed by the forest. It is quite amazing to see how fast the forest cover regenerates itself in the damp Maritimes climate. Some fields have grown back in softwoods – balsam fir, spruce and larch. There are also some older woods, both hardwoods – birch, maple, beech – and some mixed woods. For many years, I have cut trails through the woods, using a bow saw and wood shears. I have never wanted to use a chain saw. With a bow saw, one smells the tree one is cutting and can hear the sounds of the forest animals in the vicinity. Keeping these trails open after wind storms has been a constant activity. Softwoods in particular are shallow rooted and often come down with heavy winds. Where the woods have been clearcut by industrial forestry operations around our place, the wind velocity increases and the trees on our side of the boundary lines often blow over. We have these walking and observation trails so we can get around, particularly in heavy snow, and yet leave most of the woods unmolested for wildlife. Plus, it enables us to keep an eye on any logging activity around our place. We have found almost an industry predisposition to cut over boundary lines, if the forestry operator feels he can get away with it.

We have seen bobcat, deer, mink, snowshoe hare, porcupines, coyotes, fox, black bear and moose at our place. There are of course many summer bird migrants who come for the insects and to nest. In the fall, bears come around to the now wild apple trees which are close to the house. Sometimes they break branches to reach the fruit, and there are many piles of bear feces around the trees. At night, we often hear a pack (or two) of coyotes howling fairly close to the house. Yet one rarely sees these animals. We believe coyotes have eaten two of our cats, plus a goat tethered quite close to the house. In the past we also had geese, ducks and rabbits, but presently all we have are a border collie and one cat.

We have a small barn, where we keep the garden tools, bikes, cross country skis, snowshoes, and the two ocean kayaks which we have used in past summers. We carry the kayaks on top of the car, as the nearest ocean is about half an hour drive away.

This life seems a world away from industrial Portsmouth in England, where I was born and worked in the dockyard. Notwithstanding the ravages of industrial forestry which surround us, I feel I live in a simple living paradise. Our daughter is now 28. She was one year old when we moved to our place and spent all her school years living here, before going away to attend university and make her own path in life.


Since 1998, we have kept what we call “Nature Notes” – a piece of paper pinned on the wall, where we record various seasonal indicators of life and which show quite a remarkable yearly regularity. For example, we gather pussy willows sometime during the first two weeks of March; the migrating grackles usually appear around March 24th. We look for the first advance robins in the beginning of April. In early April we hear the peepers (frogs) serenading us from the swamps and ponds. I start the early salad garden about mid-April, using a bed alongside the house where the soil defrosts first and warms up. Also around this time, the marsh hawks (northern harriers), who nest in the swamp behind our house, come back to start their reproductive cycle. We have never tried to find their nest, but that spot stays the same year after year, as we see from their aerial descent. The first wild flower we see is the pink “spring beauty”, around mid-April.  The first black flies make an appearance in early May. After the flies come the warblers. Towards the end of May humming birds make their appearance. And we have flies: blackflies, no-seeums, mosquitoes and horse flies. Until the no-seeums disappear, we cannot have open the windows even on sweltering nights, because they can pass through the fly screen. Each fly species has a dominance period in the summer, and their intensity, from a human impact perspective, is quite correlated with particular types of weather. Summer garden work sometimes requires wearing a fly exclusion jacket, with a hood that encloses one’s face. The horse flies are the last to disappear towards the end of summer. Even when cycling on the roads in our area, horse flies can still successfully seek their human blood fix.


The soil here is very thin and rocky, so to grow anything, we found it necessary to build up soil in raised beds. I do not use power tools. The wood ashes from the stove go into the garden. Every spring, when the soil can be worked, I bury the winter’s compost under the soil. I then plant vegetables which need a lot of nutrients and are high producing, like zucchini and English marrow, on top of the buried compost. Eventually, over the course of the summer, it becomes beautiful black soil. I also bring mud from a stream which meanders through an alder swamp, about 100 yards from the house. When the stream dries up sufficiently, usually towards the end of the summer, it exposes rich alluvial mud side bars. For bringing this mud to the garden, I drag it in a hand-pulled garden wagon.

I have always gardened organically, using no biocides or chemical fertilizers or even so-called biological pesticides. I rotate the crops and move the potatoes, carrot and beets to different beds each year. Sometimes, despite doing this, one can lose a vegetable. This has happened with carrots, which by mid-summer can be quite wormy. The potato beetle I pick off the plants by hand. We have lots of slugs, but we co-exist. The only thinning I do is with the beet seedlings, which have to be spaced to grow to any size. When planting seeds, I usually water them with water from our pond, to give them a start. One has to keep up with the ‘weeding’ (a definition I have always liked is that weeds are merely plants out of place), otherwise the garden becomes overwhelmed. Strawberry beds seem to require continual attention in this regard. Sometimes “organic” methods do not work out. For example, when I buried seaweed gathered from the seashore to supposedly enrich the garden, it did not breakdown. However, the garter snakes seemed to appreciate the seaweed to deposit their eggs. I ended up removing the seaweed from the garden soil because it did not biodegrade fast enough.

By about May 25, if all has gone well, we have the great pleasure of eating the first salad from our garden – lettuce, spinach, radishes, and spring onions. These salad vegetables can tolerate frosts. Other “cold weather” crops like carrots, beets, potatoes, peas and broccoli, are planted when the winter frost goes out of the soil and it has warmed enough for the earthworms to appear. Depending on the frost situation (the last “spring” frost can sometimes hit as late as June 20th and the first “winter” frost can hit around early September), we eat from the garden until late September or mid-October. All the usual vegetables which we have found suitable for our location and which we like to eat, are grown. We have various berry bushes (gooseberries, black and red currents) and lots of wild blueberries; a big rhubarb bed looks after itself, and we like to have a couple of beds of strawberries each year. Some years I make jams.

I plant a lot of dill and parsley and freeze them to use with various fish dishes throughout the year. I have moved from “starting” plants indoors in various flats, to trying to plant as much as possible directly into the garden. This is much less work. Usually I start cucumbers, English marrow and zucchini in flats in our sunny porch as back-up plants, if these “warm weather” seeds planted directly in the garden do not germinate. I now buy a few tomato plants from the local nursery, although in the past I grew these from seeds in flats in the house. The major vegetable we grow is green beans, which are blanched before being frozen. They last us for most of the year. The further our garden beds are away from the house, the more losses there are to wildlife, especially rabbits. Sometimes, bears have had a stroll through the garden, as we could see by their large paw prints. Having a cat (sometimes we have had two), it becomes necessary to initially cover seeded areas with chicken wire, for seeds to germinate successfully without being dug over by the cats. When the plants are up sufficiently and start growing through the chicken wire, we remove it.

Some things did not work out. For example, the soil was too shallow for the fruit and nut trees; and corn, cantaloupes and peppers never grew to a good size because they needed more heat. We always had a nice crop of tomatoes, but it was usually a challenge to get some ripe ones before the frost. Mostly, we collected them green and ripened them inside.


Paying attention to firewood and fire is an important aspect of our life. It becomes crucial in winter, along with having a swept chimney to avoid a flue fire. Wood has to be seasoned for a year, that is, kept in the open in piles raised off the ground so that the water can evaporate from it. Dry wood has to be loaded into the basement in late summer, before the fall rains come. (Burning wet wood can create a build up of creosote in the chimney, plus there is less heat given out to warm the house.) We try to clean the flue every year. 

We get about seven cords of hardwood every two years. One of our neighbours delivers this wood for us which, although cut into stove length, I still have to split into smaller pieces in the basement. As the wood seasons and dries, the bark comes off and we use it for starting the fire. Another source of kindling for the fire are alder branches. Periodically, we have to cut the alders down along our driveway to keep it open. Likewise, we cut alders from some of the trails and drag them with a rope back to the house.


As one becomes older (I am now 77) and subject, as in my own situation, to quite severe hip arthritis, I am reduced to hobbling, rather than walking. For example, I now often dig the garden on my knees, rather than standing upright. I cannot put the sock on my left foot, so I adjust to going without socks in the house. What one can do physically, as the John Muir quote which introduces this essay points out, becomes restricted. But life itself remains a source of wonder. Because of where we live, Nature’s joys remain.

My capacity to walk in the woods has become curtailed. I no longer ski, snowshoe, cycle or sea kayak. Walking down the path for the mail in the winter in deep snow can become an event. Also, getting to the outhouse, if the path is icy or there is a storm, has to be factored into time considerations. My wife and partner Helga, who shares a similar basic world view, but who is twelve years younger and with many of her own interests, has come forward to take up a lot of the physical tasks which were formerly my main domain. 

She now looks after bringing the winter wood indoors in the summer, cutting the trails and most of the snow shovelling. I still do the cooking, the dishes, the garden, wood splitting, and look after maintaining the fire in the winter. Helga, who has just retired as a nurse, does the laundry in town and nearly all of the grocery shopping. I can often see several weeks go by without going into town.

I have tried to minimize interventions with Canada’s basically excellent public health care system. Up to now, I have not taken any medications. I have a belief that one’s physical pain can help with empathy towards others who are suffering from pain. Also, I believe that as one ages, physical pain is a part of living, and that one needs to accept this. Each of us has to take responsibility, to a large extent, for our own health. This means eating properly (as well as one can afford), and being physically active. However, recently I had to access the health care system. On March 3rd, after feeling nauseous for about ten days, losing weight, and with some other symptoms, including yellowing skin colour, I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I may now have to make use of our health system for palliative care.


For quite a number of years now I have understood, through deep ecology, that coming into a profoundly different relationship with the natural world is primary for humans, if we are to overthrow the ecological and social destructiveness of industrial capitalist society. This shift in consciousness is in part spiritual. It would mean moving totally away from our society’s assumption of human dominance over other species, as well as greatly scaling down human demands on the natural world and living much more simply and self sufficiently. (Social justice for all humans, along with population reductions, and ending industrial capitalism, are a necessary part of the larger picture.)

I don’t want to elevate my individual experience above others. Many older people have similar relationships to the land, but we all have to move more in this direction.  I have tried to show what a low consumption lifestyle, and living surrounded by the wonders of the natural world, has meant for me personally and for my family. I also wanted to show how we handled some of the inevitable contradictions which we faced in trying to live in a different way. Although not discussed here, I have drawn from this practical experience in struggling publicly on wildlife and forest/biocide issues in Nova Scotia. The most recent example of this being the article “Wildlife Hysteria: Nova Scotia’s War on Coyotes”.

For the Earth,