This cover from one of Needham’s collections was drawn by Duncan Macpherson (now there’s an old style Canadian name), a truly great editorial cartoonist.

My old Morocco X friend, Reed Erskine just left a thoughtful comment on my last post, And Monarchs to behold the swelling scene, and I began to reply to it only to find my response demanded more space than a simple comment, so I am adding it as a new post.

People all over the world should do what they can for the health of the planet. Reed crossed the Atlantic in a sailboat, sailed the Mediterranean, crossed the Sahara by vehicle, worked in Guinea, and God knows what else, so the fragility of the natural world is one he knows personally and intimately.

Monarchs are becoming endangered and often cannot help themselves. We as individuals can help them by doing simple things such as letting the goldenrod grow and growing patches of milkweed. Two years ago a professor of biology from the University of Maryland gave a public lecture at Niagara University, just a few miles from here. He presented his research showing that many suburban areas had become food deserts for native birds, and adding to the many other man-made hazards for migrating species. Since most birds feed their young with insects, even seed-eating species, having trees that produce those insects in abundance, especially caterpillars, and, at the right season, is crucial to the survival of their nestlings. In the same vein, migrating in the autumn, birds often eat berries. Having berries with the right nutrients and food value at the right time is important for their survival. Suburban gardens often have the wrong types of shrubs and trees, coming as they do from other regions of the States or even other continents, and even local species vary greatly as to the quality and quantity of food they offer.

My response to this was to resolve to plant only the most helpful species that met our garden needs, and over the last two years I have planted a dozen red oaks and catalpas, the latter known in some places in the States as “bait” trees, as they were once planted intentionally to provide fishermen with caterpillars. The next trees I plant will be pin oaks and maples. Our home is in a rural area, but recent development along the lake tends to echo suburban tastes, clearing brush and forest for lawns, and making formal ornamental gardens. Maybe the next owner of this property will cut them all down, but I surely hope not. Along the eastern edge of our lot, I have let the hedgerow expand and encroach upon the lawn, and it harbors many kinds of wildlife. As I write, the wild grape vines are ripening, and there are grapes and berries of various sorts everywhere.

The survival of humanity is a different story. I don’t doubt that we are endangered and that the planet’s sixth great extinction is now happening. Whether humanity is a part of it remains an open question. It certainly will happen if the oceans die, since they are the earth’s greatest source of oxygen.

By way of contrast, this is a humanitarian issue, where survival concerns a group, not the human race. The death of migrants will not lead to extinction. Nor do most of us keep them in our consciousness all the time. They are just another news item, and only when enough of them die does the disaster make the news. Many of us don’t know them. We don’t know the circumstances they left nor what obstacles they face migrating to and settling in new homelands. I think of them often, perhaps because through life in Morocco I came to know some of them personally. And I would never begrudge them their chance for a better life for their families.

Years ago, still in college, I traveled with my Nagra reel-to-reel tape recorder to the offices of the The Globe and Mail, then and still, Canada’s national English language newspaper. I had been traveling about Canada, and actually living for long periods there, collecting interviews for a radio show on our college station, at the time an important one small corner of northern New England. Canada was celebrating one hundred years of nationhood in 1967. Having recently adopted a national flag and anthem, the federal government and the provinces were embroiled in difficult negotations concerning the repatriation of the British North America Act of 1867, an act of the UK parliament which created an independent Canada and provided a constitutional basis for the creation of a federal system of government. The BNA Act was unilaterally repatriated in 1982 without the consent of the Quebec government which, thirty-eight years later, has still not signed on.

The Globe was a conservative paper, read by the bankers and brokers of Bay Street, the Wall Street of Toronto, but conservative in those times meant something more reminiscent of Edmund Burke than Donald Trump. There was an editorial page writer, Richard Needham, who certainly would have looked out of place among the bankers. He wore second-hand suits and lived in an eight-dollar-a-week Chinese boarding house, despite having a regular salary as a humorist for Canada’s largest newspaper and royalties from publishing collections of his daily articles. Needham loved to poke fun at people, mores, and institutions, not simply to make his readers chuckle, but often with a deeper message about what he thought was important.

Sitting in his office with late-afternoon light streaming through the windows behind him, Needham expressed his confidence in Canada, but also criticized it. He thought that Canada should throw open its borders and open its vastness to much more new emigration. At the time it seemed so radical that I discounted it, but his comments have never left me, and Canada has since been changed, all for the better, by a huge influx of immigrants. The scale has not matched Needham’s hyperbole, but for me, as an observer, it seems to have confirmed the soundness of his advice, advice that was kind and generous, and born out of common humanity, and not concern for development or economic gain.

Richard Needham is gone now, but I will never forget him, nor the Moroccans whom I knew who sought a better life in France. My only regret is that over the many years I have lost touch with them.

If the name of Richard J. Needham is foreign to you, Wikipedia has a sympathetic portrait.

Author: Dave

Retired. Formerly school librarian, social studies teacher, and urban planner.

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