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Sunday Meeting Report – 10 AM, October 5, 2014   (25 people in attendance)

by Barrie Webster

Respect for and Living with Wildlife


The Sunday talk on October 5 was given by Sven Johansson. Sven says that he is “a student of existence.” In fact, he is a student of broad experience.


He was born in northern Sweden in 1924. That makes him a nonagenarian. He took formal education up to grade 3. After that it gets interesting; Sven has had a truly multi-faceted life, and having spent 90 years at it, there’s plenty for him to put into his resume. Wilderness living with reindeer, and later, caribou was just the beginning for Sven. Soon, he sailed the North West Passage and reconstructed a 3-masted full-rigged clipper ship.  He studied, first hand, the Sami (think Lapland), Inuit, Canadian Indian, and Viking cultures, and the human situation as a whole.  He has never driven a car, but he is adept at driving dog-teams.


Sven has found that Bach, Chagall, and all of the arts: theatre, filmmaking, wild flowers, venison, fireworks, and artistic dance, are peak experiences in life.  He loves Shakespeare. Today he is the Artistic Director/Choreographer of Discovery Dance, in Victoria, which he formed after creating artistic dance “free of gravity.” It’s how he has created this illusion that is the fascinating part. If you have seen the use of his Instruments during Robert Light’s Shakespeare-by-the-Sea productions, you will have seen the result of his inventive genius.


In his teens, Sven was in the Swedish Army, and found army life to be brutal and unforgiving. This induced in him a deep depression – he had not imagined that people could be so mean to each other. After World War II, he felt the need to search for peace, and went to live in the wilderness with the idealistic view that nature was a harmonious, perfectly balanced, and smoothly running system. He lived as a hunter-gatherer and expected, naively as it turned out, to find peace and harmony.


The nature he found had a cruel, aggressive, unfeeling, and cut-throat, competitive structure – to a degree so severe that it shocked him. What he saw was death, killings, cannibalism, starvation, torture, and oppression, between and among all species and within each species. In fact, the renewal process was enormously dynamic – many died to make the ecosystem work. The concept of “super-fecundity” characterized the natural system, and the capacity for renewal, though brutal, was also restorative to a degree he had not imagined. Not only that, if the surplus population was not dealt with, a population crash ensued without exception. He spoke of an otherwise uninhabited island in the Bering Sea on which 20 reindeer had been placed to provide a source of fresh meat for Inuit fisherfolk. A few years later, the practice of harvesting these reindeer stopped; 12 animals were left. About 10 years later, there were 10,000 reindeer that had destroyed virtually all vegetation on the island. Only 6 survived the starvation that ensued, but 10-12 years later, the grass remaining having re-proliferated, there were again 10,000 reindeer. The cycle continued, but in 1983, a visiting sailboat crew discovered only two surviving reindeer: this time two bulls. Since regeneration was not now going to happen without some sort of intervention, the American Wildlife Department officers decided to kill and eat the reindeer, and restore the island to its former more stable reindeer-free condition. The cyclical geometric explosion and starvation of the reindeer population caused by their earlier introduction had been forestalled, and things ultimately returned to an easier equilibrium.


So what’s the lesson for us in an urbanized society where killing certain predators is OK and protecting the species that were the prey is too often the norm?   Respect for that wildlife, from Sven’s point of view based on his long experience in both the Scandinavian north and in Canada’s Northwest Territories led him to believe that if we destroy the predatory species in an ecosystem, we must take over that role if we want to avoid the catastrophic boom and bust, population explosion and crash, that will otherwise ensue. Urban wildlife, then, needs to be treated as if we were the predator to maintain a stable ecosystem. Protection of that wildlife – think deer, rabbits, raccoons, and Canada geese, for example – is really no protection at all. It simply dooms them to ultimate starvation, and coincidentally, leads to the devastation of our own urbanized ecosystem.


By extension, Sven sees the human race itself in a similar jam, with essentially no predators and very little being done to limit the growth of the population. He points out that we have no reason to be immune to the same fate. As a nonagenarian, he has seen the actuality of population explosion and collapse in nature through many cycles. As Humanists, who must see ourselves as a species of the animal world, we need little convincing that Sven’s observations and extrapolations are solidly credible.