Return of the Scythe

Canadians are pulling the plug on lawn-care power tools and turning to eco-friendly reel mowers and even the Grim Reeper’s favourite instrument

Globe Life
The Globe and Mail
Friday, August 31, 2007

Peter Vido is trying to save the planet one lawn at a time. His weapon: a 1,000-year-old implement that is also handy for peasant uprisings or if you happen to be the Grim Reaper.
That’s right. Mr. Vido cuts his lawn with a scythe.
It almost went the way of the flintlock rifle, but in a time of futuristic robot mowers, Canadians are increasingly turning to more environmentally friendly tools - such as non-powered push mowers and, to a lesser degree, rudimentary implements such as the scythe to maintain their lawns.
Enthusiasts say non-powered tools are catching on because of growing environmental concern about fumes from gas-powered cutters.
A gas mower emits the same amount of smog-causing emissions each hour as 40 new cars over the same time, according to the California Environmental Protection Agency.
About 2.7 million Canadians mow their lawns each summer weekend, using 40 million gallons of gas annually, Environment Canada says.
“We have definitely noticed an increased interest in non-gas-powered lawnmowers. There has been a shift toward more environmentally friendly thinking,” said Maeve Burke, a spokeswoman for Canadian Tire.
Home Depot Canada has tapped into the trend with its six-year-old “Mow Down Pollution” program, offering anyone who turns in a gas mower a $100 credit toward a new electric mower or non-powered reel mower, which has blades that spin as the mower is pushed by hand.
The program, running two weeks each April, saw a record 5,000 gas-powered mowers brought in this year, Home Depot’s John DeFranco said.
Reel mowers produce healthier, more lush lawns, said Mr. DeFranco, and are favoured at many golf courses. “They provide a better cut for the lawn because of the way the blade contacts the grass. It puts less pressure on the root [than a gas mower].”
Aficionados also like the fact that non-powered mowing equipment isn’t noisy and has fewer parts to maintain. As well, they say an experienced user can cut a lawn as fast as with a powered mower.
For the self-described “eco-missionary” Mr. Vido, an organic farmer in Lower Kintore, N.B., a decade-long international campaign to revive the scythe has resulted in brisk sales through his website
“[Business] almost doubles from year to year,” he says. “There is definitely a growing interest.”
Mr. Vido says he’s had to turn away orders for his custom-made wood scythe handles because he can’t keep up with the demand.
At another major scythe retailer, Maine-based, sales have been growing 20 per cent each year, totalling 800 or 900 scythes in 2006, owner Carol Bryan says. Clients range from urban dwellers to farmers and country folks with a small piece of land, Ms. Bryan says. Thirty per cent are women.
“The modern version of scything is very ergonomic,” said David Patriquin, a biologist at Dalhousie University who switched to a scythe and a reel mower for environmental reasons.
Only one of his 12 neighbours in Halifax still uses a gas mower, he said.
“It’s a lovely thing to do. [The scythe] is very pleasurable and a very, very precise tool.”
Mr. Vido acknowledges reel mowers are probably more suited to most Canadians than scythes are, but he said both tools are helping people take a greener approach to their lawns.
Ms. Bryan agrees. “The weedwhacker tried to replace the scythe. Now, the scythe is replacing the weedwhacker.”
Special to The Globe and Mail

Mowing toys and tips

A growing variety of non-powered mowing equipment is available from major hardware retailers. “Vendors are creating a lot more innovation around this category,” Home Depot’s John DeFranco says.
The most ubiquitous is the reel mower. Also known as push mowers, they have gotten a lot lighter over the years and are available in a variety of sizes at most major retailers. Big sellers include models by Scotts Classic, Brill and Yardworks.
While some rural hardware outlets still offer scythes, aficionados recommend also shopping around online. Be sure to get one custom-fitted to your height, with a lighter, European-designed blade and handle. Online retailers also usually offer instructional material—a necessity because scythes are tricky to use and maintain for newbies.
Alex Roslin


The New Back-to-the-Landers

A growing number of people are saying goodbye to Quebec’s biggest cities for a slower, cheaper life in the countryside

Montreal Gazette
Saturday, July 28, 2007

Lying on a hammock on an island in the Bahamas was a good place to find inspiration.

“Why should we live in paradise for only a couple of weeks of vacation a year?” my wife, Rhonda, asked. “We should live in paradise all year-round.”

And so we decided to move with our two kids out of our apartment in the Mile End.

We are going back to the land. We’re moving into a beautiful old house in the Eastern Townships.

It turns out we’re part of a back-to-the-land renaissance that is transforming rural Quebec.

The new urban refugees aren’t quite the commune-dwelling Luddites of the ‘60s. They are often yuppies or have young kids and just want to get away from noise, pollution and crazy real-estate prices. Many work at home as writers or artists and rely on the Internet to stay in touch with clients. Others are willing to commute an hour or more to the city.

The newcomers are also often babyboomers looking for a slice of country paradise where they can host kids and grandchildren.

“We’ve noticed a return to the land and smaller communities,” said Chantale Girard, a demographer at the province’s Institut de la statistique du Québec who is studying the trend.

Montreal, Laval and Longueuil are losing thousands of residents to rural areas and smaller communities that lie beyond the region’s traditional ring of suburbs, according to newly available data that Girard is studying on migration patterns within the province.

The information comes from provincial health-insurance records, and it challenges the common perception that the countryside is being depopulated as young people migrate to urban centres in search for jobs.

While many people are indeed fleeing resource-dependent regions like Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Lac St. Jean, other rural areas like the Townships, Laurentians, Lanaudière and Outaouais are actually projected to grow faster than the provincial average in coming years.

Montreal lost 22,700 people to interregional migration last year, while the fastest-growing region, with 6,900 people gained, was the Montérégie, which stretches from the South Shore to the ski village of Sutton and the U.S. border.

For us, it was not an easy decision.

Mile End is pretty close to perfect for us, with cultural diversity and a cool friendly vibe. Rhonda and I have called it home for 25 years between us. Every time we stepped outside we were bound to bump into a dozen people we knew. Rhonda’s brother calls it Sesame Street.

But we needed more space for our growing family, and we felt sick about spending the kind of money needed to buy a house there or in any of the neighbourhoods we liked on the island.

Besides, our vacation inspired us to realize we loved being around nature.

What we needed was a Mile End somewhere in the countryside. So we started looking for a house in the Eastern Townships. Three weeks later we were signing the paperwork to buy a house in the historic village of Knowlton.

We fell in love with the spacious stone and cedar home built by the region’s pre-eminent stone retailer, who happens to be named Mike Stone. It stands on an acre of land backing onto a forest and is nestled into the side of Sugar Hill overlooking picturesque Lac Brome.

All this for less than the cost of a tiny condo with no yard in Mile End. We moved in last week.

Our real-estate agent, Peter Reindler, was a kindred spirit. He quit Montreal 30 years ago to settle in Sutton.

This was back in the day of the first back-to-the-landers—the hippies inspired by the band Canned Heat and its hit Going Up the Country.

“I’m gonna leave the city, got to get away,” the song goes. “I’m going, I’m going where the water tastes like wine.”

People aren’t just leaving the big city.

They’re also quitting many suburbs for more rural areas. For example, Longueuil last year gained 2,600 residents from Montreal, but it lost even more people—2,800—to more farflung parts of the Montérégie.

The biggest beneficiaries were Haute-Yamaska (which includes Granby and Bromont) and areas around St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Chambly and Beloeil.

Bridget Wayland is a former Montrealer who settled in a distant corner of the Montérégie with her family. She knew she was done with big-city life after her son was born.

Her cramped second-floor apartment in the Mile End had no yard access. She and her husband, Chris, couldn’t afford to rent a first-floor apartment with a yard, much less buy a house. Little Sebastian would have two choices—playing on their small balcony or at the park four blocks away under an overpass.

“Oh God, this is not how I want to raise Sebastian,” Wayland recalls thinking.

So they decided to move into a historic house built before 1870 near Frelighsburg, at the end of an idyllic country road just 200 metres from the U.S. border.

Wayland, a writer, works from an office in the barn, while her husband, a teacher, found a job in nearby Cowansville. They raise chickens and grow veggies and herbs that they sell at the local farmer’s market.

“It’s much more calm,” she said of country life. “We love the day-to-day quality of life. When you go to bring the garbage out, you look up, and it’s the Milky Way and gorgeous stars—whereas in the city you never look up.”

Tom Cruikshank, editor of the magazine Harrowsmith Country Life, is a former Montrealer who moved seven years ago to a 75-acre hobby farm with a century-old house a couple of hours northeast of Toronto.

He and his wife both work from home and keep 10 chickens for eggs and 11 sheep for fleece and meat.

“I like the manageability of the smaller setting,” he said. “You can be more relaxed. People bump into each other again and again, so they tend to be nicer to each other.”

There are some drawbacks to country living, though.

Lyle Stewart and his family gave up their Plateau apartment and lived for a year in their cottage deep in the woods outside the Lanaudière village of Chertsey to save money to buy a house in the city.

They enjoyed the fresh air and being surrounded by nature, but the downside was being stuck in their car for everything from grocery shopping to commuting to work in the city, said Stewart, a union communications official.

“The commute is a killer,” he said of his two-hour daily roundtrip.

It was a big change from life in the Plateau, where they could walk or bike almost anywhere they needed, he said.

“Country living may look nice and green, but you’re burning a lot more energy and contributing to global warming (through driving),” Stewart said.

But not all the newcomers become more dependent on cars. Stéphane Tardif and his wife Eloise took a bold path when they moved from Montreal to Knowlton five years ago.

Now relocated in Cowansville, they refused to buy a car and rely instead on walking, bikes and the regional bus service to get around with their two small kids. “It’s a radical way to be in the country. People always said it was impossible (not to have a car here). But we did it,” Tardif said.

Tardif, a youth counselor, even recruited his bike for work when he got funding to start Biblio-Vélo, a service to bring books to local youth, towed along on a wagon.

“We changed our rhythm of life (by leaving the city). We have picnics, walk in the forest and look at the animals. There was a real gain of time and family life.”

Where They’re Going

The Eastern Townships, home to vineyards, pretty country drives and charming villages soaked in history, is one of the regions luring many Montrealers moving to the country. Some of the choice spots for the new back-to-the-landers are:

Sutton: The outdoor enthusiast’s mecca around this laid-back skiing village attracts lots of environmentally conscious young families and artists, drawn by the area’s pure mountain-top lakes and 150 kilometres of hiking trails.

Bromont: This rapidly growing village at the doorway to the Townships sits at the foot of the ski hill of the same name. Just 45 minutes from the Champlain Bridge, it’s attracting people who commute to Montreal.

Knowlton: This tony village boasts heritage architecture, vibrant cultural life and charming boutiques. You can also gape at the ridiculously expensive estates around Lac Brome.

The region also has some hidden gems that are little-known to outsiders but beloved by locals:

Owl’s Head: The out-of-the-way area around this ski hill has a fanatical following among residents. Attractions include breathtaking country vistas, nearby Lac Memphrémagog and a golf course with panoramic mountain views.

Glen Sutton: Considered one of the most scenic spots in the Townships, this 300-resident village has been enticing nature lovers and landscape painters since the 19th century.

Glen Mountain: This spectacularly beautiful area surrounds the ski hill of the same name but is also close to services in Knowlton.

Bruce Cockburn

Christian soldier finds hope in a fallen world
by Alex Roslin
Prairie Dog News

August 2, 2007

“I was never a pacifist. I think peace is better than war and that non-violent solutions are much better if you have the option of finding those… But I think sometimes it comes down to you have no choice.”

We all know Bruce Cockburn is a deep guy. Hey, he’s the dude who sang about rocket-launchering “some son of a bitch” after a visit with Guatemalan refugees in Mexico during the U.S.-sponsored death-squad wars in Central America in the ’80s.

“How many kids they’ve murdered only God can say,” he sang. “If I had a rocket launcher, I’d make somebody pay.”

Heavy stuff for sure, but I bet you weren’t aware just how deep Cockburn really is.

Did you know, for example, that Cockburn has six honorary doctorates — the latest one in divinity from Queen’s University? Or that Cockburn became a devout Christian in the early 1970s and still is today? Or that his politics and love ballads alike are rooted in a deep spirituality that also draws on Sufism, Buddhism and C.S. Lewis?

Mind you, Cockburn isn’t the same kind of Christian as George W. and his buddies. He’s, well, you know, the deep kind — a hippy Christian, one might say.

“Other Christians might not call me a Christian,” Cockburn tells me from England, where he is on tour before he comes here for the Regina Folk Festival on Aug. 11.

“Now I don’t really know what I am,” says Cockburn. “But I am someone who feels that God is important and that spirituality is something around which life centres. What bears paying attention to is the force around which the cosmos turns. I want to know what that force is and how it bears on my life.”

And if you’re wondering if Cockburn has mellowed out or something silly like that, fear not. He hasn’t. Twenty-four years after his 1983 hit “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”, the 62-year-old Cockburn may have 29 albums under his belt and be an officer of the Order of Canada. But he says he still believes in the same principles.

“I was never a pacifist,” he says. “I think peace is better than war and that non-violent solutions are much better if you have the option of finding those… But I think sometimes it comes down to you have no choice.

“I can say for myself, ‘You go ahead and shoot me; I don’t care. I’m not going to raise a hand against you. The guilt’s on you.’ But I can’t say that on behalf of my granddaughter … If I’m in a position to try to defend her, I have to exercise that choice. This is where the notion of pacifism breaks down for me… Sometimes you just don’t have the choice.”

Does Cockburn see anywhere today where he feels a rocket launcher is warranted?

“I don’t know of a situation I can think of readily where it’s clear cut,” he says. “[But] what happens if the equivalent of the Taliban becomes ascendant in North America? What do we do about it?”

By Taliban, Cockburn is talking about some of the Christian fundamentalist types who support George W. Bush. As you can see, he doesn’t like some of his co-religionists much.

“[Their] desire to inflict on the world this rigid, narrow view of things can’t be tolerated,” Cockburn says.

“I could see that somewhere way down the road that might turn into a situation that involved violence,” he adds. “I think we’re a long way from that actually, but I could imagine a scenario where that might become viable. I see it as something I would resist if it came my way or, more specifically, if it came in the direction of my female loved ones… I’m not going to put up with a lack of intellectual freedom, and I’m not going to put up with a whole bunch of other things. So sooner or later, that attitude might get me into a violent confrontation with someone.”

Apparently, despite views like that, Cockburn isn’t on the no-fly list. At least not that he knows.

“So far, no one’s told me,” he says, laughing. “I got here on a plane.” How is that possible, you ask? What kind of dumb-asses are they hiring at the CIA these days?

Cockburn says he’s never even noticed anyone following him in dark glasses. “The only time I felt I was followed around was in Pinochet’s Chile.”

Cockburn’s latest album, Life Short Call Now — his first studio album in three years — bares his thoughts on life, love, the environment, and Iraq, which he visited in 2004, and includes a duet with fellow guitar virtuoso and politically minded songwriter Ani DiFranco (who, incidentally, headlined last year’s folk festival).

He chose the title because it highlighted the loneliness he felt at the time (he was between relationships) and the “precariousness we live with at the moment,” he says.

“[But] if you bother to think about things, life is always precarious, and it’s a reflection of that too... Partly, it’s to do with age. The further you get from zero, the closer you get to the other zero.”

As for Iraq, Cockburn thinks Bush is going to hell. “It was a horrible thing to set in motion. Bush and company have a lot to answer for. They had problems [in Iraq under Saddam Hussein]. But they had a level of security that they sure don’t have now. We should be protesting. We should be voting against it and trying to mitigate it however we can,” he says.

But Cockburn is heartened that today’s anti-war movement stacks up well against the peace movements of the ’60s and ’80s. He says he saw few protests during his tours of the U.S. when the war was first launched, but that’s now changed.

“For a while it looked discouraging. All the people with official voices couldn’t wait to fall in line behind the war. Touring the States in that period, you felt fear everywhere,” he said.

“That’s changed. Now, while there is fear, people are speaking out much more.”

At the same time, Cockburn believes we get the kind of society we deserve and that, moreover, we all have the seed of evil within us. Cockburn included. “I do have it within me for sure,” he says. “I’ve been lucky. I never had a situation where that was fostered. I’m certainly capable of fits of unthinking anger. [But] I’ve had good teachers and good role models.”

After his shows in Western Canada — his tour includes stops in Alberta and B.C. —Cockburn’s busy schedule includes heading to Argentina for a six-week Spanish course and a trip to Nepal with a Canadian humanitarian-aid group.

During his convocation speech at Queen’s University in May, Cockburn talked about an earlier trip to Nepal. He said he was hiking in the foothills around Mount Everest when he came across an elderly American former seminary teacher who had come to Nepal 25 years earlier to preach the Gospel and was returning to the U.S. “He was bitter and seemed diminished,” Cockburn said. “He said that in 25 years he had not made a single convert. His words were, ‘These people don’t want to know about God.’

“I felt terrible for him, as he appeared so oblivious to the spiritual surroundings. He’d spent a quarter of a century not learning what he might have about God!”

Cockburn tells me he’s felt the “magic” of God — or some “bigger reality,” as he puts it — many times in his life, and that’s what gives him hope.

“There is a lot of magic out there in the world. There is incredible stuff that happens. In worldly terms, I’m not very hopeful. But where there is hope is in those moments of magic.”

Close Call

Isn’t it time you tried a straight razor?


My face was on fire, and it felt awesome. My first shave with a straight razor had left a bracing pain stabbing at my throat, cheeks, jaw, and moustache area – all borscht red as though I had hosed my face with sulphuric acid. It took a dozen more shaves – each more painful and bloody than the last – to realize my near-fatal mistake: I hadn’t sharpened my sword. Still, with a shave that was so oddly exhilarating, I didn’t care. I was addicted.
Straight razors almost went the way of the crank engine and ringer washing machines, but by God they’re back. At Ray Dupont’s, the world’s largest retailer of straight razors and accessories, business is hot. “In our first two years, business doubled every month. Now business is tripling,” he says. It seems that in a time of space-age, four-bladed “shaving systems,” men have begun gambling with their jugulars to rediscover the pleasures of an old-school shave. “Absolutely nothing is more masculine than a shave tool that can take your head clean off,” says James Whitall, proprietor of, in Aylmer, Quebec, North America’s largest online men’s grooming-products business.
But the blade is back for more reasons than machismo. If used right, it invigorates your skin and gives you a baby-smooth face. I no longer get those annoying little zits that disposable razors used to leave above my Adam’s apple, since I’m wiping my blade clean after every few strokes, avoiding the spread of bacteria. (I like to wipe it on wax paper – a tip I picked up from my barber.) Now that I’ve been using a “cutthroat” for a couple of years, I wouldn’t dream of going back to disposables. For straight-blade newbies, here are a few things to consider before you get started:
1) You’ll need a good sword and a few other basics. Check online or at a barbershop supply store – ask your local barber where he shops – for a high-quality blade, a thick shaving cream and, for sharpening, a strop and honing stone. Maintain your blade’s edge by stropping eight to twelve times on the linen side of the strop, then five times on the leather side before each shave.
2) Soften your whiskers with a hot, wet towel for a minute or two before getting started, or shave after your shower. Apply shaving cream.
3) Stroke downward on the first pass and upwards on the second. The blade should be angled thirty degrees away from the face. DO NOT slice it across your skin. Also, watch your fingers.
4) Always keep it sharp. Your blade shouldn’t ever pull and drag. “If you don’t have a good edge, you can’t possibly get a good shave,” says Dupont. After you’re done, dry off the blade with a dozen to fifteen strokes on the leather and rinse your skin with cold water. Hone your blade four times a year with half a dozen strokes to reapply the blade’s edge. You will probably also need to hone and strop a new blade.
Be patient. Your first tries will be frightening and possibly painful, but with practice you can be done in ten minutes. The point, however, isn’t to speed through it; it’s to relax and get in touch with your face. As Whitall cautions, “Rush the job and you’ll be reapplying your Adam’s apple with Krazy Glue.”

Are B.C.'s Bee Colonies the Latest to Die Off?

By Alex Roslin
August 16, 2007
The Georgia Straight
[Also read it here: Bees Vanishing]

What's happening to the bees? The fuzzy little honey-making critters are dying off like the dinosaurs, and no one knows why. In the U.S., according to a congressional report updated in June, up to 36 percent of 2.4 million bee colonies were wiped out last winter. Canadian beekeepers reported losses of one-third of this country's bees during the winter, including a 23-percent loss in British Columbia.
Scientists have dubbed this bee Armageddon "colony collapse disorder", and it's provoking worldwide alarm. CCD doesn't just mean there'll be less honey or lower chances of getting stung. The bee pandemic is "the biggest general threat to our food supply", according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
That's because one of every three bites of food we eat comes from bee-pollinated plants: peaches, blueberries, strawberries, melons, citrus fruits, apples, broccoli, squash, cucumbers–you name it. The little insects are worth $15 billion annually to U.S. farmers and $1 billion in Canada–$300 million in B.C. alone.
Pulitzer Prize–winning entomologist E.O. Wilson told the Associated Press last May that the honeybee is nature's "workhorse–and we took it for granted. We've hung our own future on a thread." If the bee collapse continues, added Kevin Hackett, head of the USDA's bee and pollination program, we'll be "stuck with grains and water".
The alarm isn't due just to the sheer number of bees lost. It's also because the cause is still a mystery almost a year after CCD hit the headlines. The finger has been pointed at everything from powerful new pesticides to genetically engineered crops, weather, mites, stress, bad nutrition, microbes, even cellphones and, you guessed it, aliens. The search for the culprit is opening a window onto the dark side of how big agribusiness gets food to our tables.
In Canada, there's another twist. Most of the Canadian beekeeping industry says the huge bee die-off here actually had nothing to do with CCD. Instead, it was simply caused by a harsh winter and an outbreak of Varroa destructor mites, a pesky little parasite that is the bane of beekeepers.
"CCD is simply not here," said Paul van Westendorp, the provincial apiculturist at the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. Van Westendorp is the man in charge of inspecting beekeeping operations for disease control. "Up to this point, I can say with confidence that we have not experienced CCD."
Jean-Marc Le Dorze isn't so sure. His 1,200 hives at Golden Ears Apiaries in Mission, did just fine last winter. In fact, his loss was a paltry five to seven percent–less than half the 15-percent norm. "In the early spring, my bees were in the greatest condition I've seen them," he said. "Things were looking very, very good."
The trouble started in mid May, when his bees were pollinating blueberries in the Fraser Valley. The bees vanished from 30 hives. No dead bees, just bee eggs and larvae left behind in hives. "The adults weren't there. Kind of like that CCD thing–large, broad, sudden, unexplained die-off of adults. That's a telltale sign of CCD."
This wasn't the catastrophic 80- to 100-percent loss that some U.S. beekeepers had seen, but what scared Le Dorze was that he didn't know the cause. It was enough to convince him not to truck his bees to Alberta for honey production as he had planned. "I brought them all home."
Asked about Le Dorze's losses, van Westendorp acknowledged he had heard "anecdotal" reports about "CCD–like" outbreaks in B.C. He said they had occurred at "less than five" beekeeping operations. "We leave open the possibility that CCD exists in B.C.," he said. "The reason I've refrained from talking about CCD is the causes are still unknown."
But Le Dorze's losses did seem to come as a surprise to Ed Nowek. He's a 30-year veteran beekeeper in Vernon and president of the Canadian Honey Council, representing 400 to 500 beekeepers across the country. Nowek had just finished telling the Straight that none of the recent Canadian bee deaths were due to CCD. "We're calling it excessive winter losses," he said. "We're not really considering it CCD. The symptoms are different."
When told of Le Dorze's empty hives, Nowek admitted it sounds like CCD. "It's pretty interesting. It's showing symptoms similar to the U.S., yes, we could say that. I've got to give him a call, then."
In fact, Nowek's little guys also did the disappearing trick. His 12 million bees living in 200 hives at the Planet Bee honey farm had a busy season last year. Their first pollination contract was in April. Nowek trucked them to cherry and apple orchards in the Okanagan Valley, where he set them loose to move pollen from flower to flower so the crops could grow.
Next up were blueberries in May, followed by raspberries and cranberries in the Fraser Valley until July, then back to the Okanagan for honey production until August. Farmers need one to four hives to pollinate each acre, depending on the type of crop, so Nowek's tiny workers were good for 100 to 200 acres of apple trees or 50 acres of blueberry bushes.
By late summer, Nowek started seeing problems. His bees were vanishing and leaving behind empty hives. Normally, when bees die from an infestation or disease, they do so in or near their hives and leave behind lots of dead bodies. This time, there were none. There wasn't even any brood in the hives to form the next generation of bee babies.
"It was unusual," he said over the phone from his honey-products store in Vernon. "The bees were just gone."
Then came fall and winter, and Nowek lost still more bees to the usual seasonal attrition that comes with the colder weather. By last spring, he had only about one million bees left in 50 or 60 hives. A typical winter loss should have cost him just 15 percent of his hives. His loss was 70 to 75 percent since the summer.
But was it CCD? No, said Nowek. He thinks the main cause was Varroa mites, which built up earlier than expected last summer and were already decimating his hives before Nowek could apply chemical treatments to kill the pests. To make matters worse, a hot July fried the flowers that bees go to for pollen, which they need for protein.

DAVID HACKENBERG HAS little doubt why his bees disappeared. He's the Pennsylvania beekeeper who went public about CCD last November. He said he started the fall with more than seven million bees in 2,950 hives. One day in late November, 400 hives were suddenly empty. Like Le Dorze, Hackenberg didn't find any bodies, just brood in the hives. By January, 70 percent of his hives had been emptied.
"I called everybody," he said on the phone from his office at Hackenberg Apiaries in Lewisburg. "Something really weird is going on here. Bees don't go off and leave their young. But they did. We're talking about a mass exodus."
Hackenberg, 59, started beekeeping in high school and has worked with bees his entire adult life. He doesn't hesitate when asked what caused his bees to vanish: pesticides, particularly a new class of powerful chemicals called neonicotinoids (or neonics), which are an artificial form of nicotine.
"My theory–and I'm just a dumb beekeeper–is something has broken down their immune system," he said. "The only thing that's new is the increased usage of neonicotinoids. Three years ago, you started really seeing it. Now, it's everywhere. It's the pesticide of choice in this country–and yours too. You can't get away from the stuff."
Hackenberg is now refusing to put his bees on farms where neonics are used. Back in Mission, Le Dorze said he doesn't know if neonics caused his bee losses. He does say, however, that the pesticide is usually sprayed on blueberries, the crop his bees were pollinating when they vanished.
This link is fuelling controversy because neonics have become widespread, mostly through their frequent use in treating genetically engineered seeds. If neonics were to blame for CCD, it would make bees the first known species to become a casualty of the biotechnology era.
Last March, the Sierra Club called on the U.S. government to fund emergency research into the neonic connection and, if GM crops are found to be responsible for CCD, to ban the plants. "You look at what's new exposure, and this is the new exposure," said Laurel Hopwood, the group's GM campaigner, from her home office in Cleveland, Ohio.
"This is big. We're talking about the food supply."
Hackenberg's claims appear to coincide with the findings of the world's largest-ever field trial of GM crops, done for the British government in 2003. The three-year study, which involved 4,000 visits to fields and the counting of 1.5 million insects and birds, found that powerful chemicals used in conjunction with GM crops were highly harmful to bees, butterflies, and birds. Fields of biotech canola and sugar beets had dramatically fewer bees than conventional farms.
As well, a U.S. study in 2003 found that chemical use on GM crops had shot up 32 percent per acre in the previous eight years, while it had fallen on conventional farms by 30 percent.
The link between CCD and neo­nics is one of the questions intriguing Chris Mullin, an insect toxicologist at Pennsylvania State University. He's a member of the CCD Working Group, a team of academic and government scientists leading research into the bee apocalypse. The group expects to release its long-awaited report in October and is zeroing in on two causes for CCD; pesticides and a new unnamed virus, Mullin said. "We've detected within the food of honeybees a lot of pesticides, including neonicotinoids," he said.
It's still too early to tell what specific role the neonics play in causing CCD, but Mullin said studies have shown neonics degrade the immune systems of bees, making them more susceptible to disease. The working group singled out neonics, he said, because CCD made its appearance shortly after the new chemical became widespread in genetically engineered crops in 2000 and 2001. "That's why we looked at those groups of chemicals first," he said.
Here in B.C., Paul van Westendorp is dubious. "Mullin may be 100 percent correct, but I should caution that I have seen highly speculative articles [about CCD]. I will wait until I have more substantial information," he said.
Instead, he blames CCD on the explosion of so-called migratory beekeeping. The practice has become a linchpin of corporate agriculture and involves trucking bees thousands of kilometres to pollinate up to 20 crops each year. "Honeybees have not evolved over millions of years to spend their lives on the backs of flatbed trailers," he said.
The heavy workload isn't just stressing the hell out of bees. It also doesn't give them adequate nutrition. That's because in the era of big agribusiness, each pollination site is a vast monoculture: just one type of crop, not the broad variety of plants that bees feast on naturally.
"It's the same thing as if you eat only bananas," van Westendorp said. "You will not only be sick of bananas, but you will have a few nutrition problems."
As the bee workload has soared, U.S. bee colony numbers have collapsed from 5.9 million in 1947 to 2.4 million last year, before CCD hit. "Like in any livestock production system, if you're stressing the animal, it will not only malfunction, it will become vulnerable to disease," van Westendorp said.
Canada is slightly better positioned to resist CCD, he said, because migratory beekeepers move bees shorter distances and fewer times per season.
Douglas McRory, the provincial government apiculturist in Ontario, agrees that U.S. practices are likely to blame for CCD. "They put those colonies on trucks and move them around the whole frigging country. The poor things don't know where they are half the time," he said. "Their beekeepers are doing stuff that has come back to haunt them that our guys don't do up here."
McRory also blames chemicals–not those used by farmers, but rather those used by beekeepers themselves. U.S. beekeepers indiscriminately use pesticides to control mites and other infestations, he said, and some are suspected of brewing their own chemicals to save costs. The misuse of chemicals has fostered drug resistance among some pests, he said.
"They've loaded up their beehives with so many chemicals down there–some registered, some not. They've got those bees resistant to everything known to man."

BACK IN PENNSYLVANIA, Hackenberg is frustrated by the Canadian response. "The provincial folks [in Canada] have got their heads buried in the sand," he retorted. He admitted that trucking bees around the country puts stress on the little critters: "No doubt about it; we've been beating these things around." But he said he's done it for 40 years, while CCD has only just appeared. As for the chemicals used by beekeepers, he answered: "We have beekeepers using the same mix of chemicals for years, long before this thing happened. We also have beekeepers who got CCD and didn't use any chemicals," he said.
"Something is going haywire."
The truth may be all of the above, according to Mark Winston, an SFU entomologist who has done extensive research on bees. "We're probably looking at multiple factors that came together in the past season in a perfect storm," he said on the phone from his Vancouver office.
The culprit, he said, is likely the combination of stressors from the rise of big corporate agriculture–chemicals, monoculture, and trucking bees around all season–which has made bees sitting ducks for diseases and infestations. "I don't know if a new virus would be popping up if bees weren't already stressed," he said. "It raises a fundamental question about mass agriculture. We've managed things to such an extent that it is biting back at us."

Black Shadow


June 2005
When J. Dan Bancroft decided to join the world’s oldest secret society, Freemasonry, forty years ago, he did so for many of the same reasons as the millions of men who had become Masons before him. Masonry is not only the world’s largest fraternity; it is also steeped in the sort of lore one would expect of a male-only organization that some say stretches back to biblical times. Who could resist becoming part of a group that is rumoured to possess a staggering secret that could change the world, a secret that has been the Holy Grail of explorers, writers, Nazis, clerics, and the paranoid for hundreds of years? How could Bancroft, an audit clerk from Toronto, pass up the chance to join a brotherhood supposedly linked to the Knights Templar Crusaders, Moses, Pythagoras, Euclid, Noah, or even Osiris, ancient Egypt’s god of the underworld? What man could possibly say no to a private club that counted Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Washington, Winston Churchill, Robert Burns, Charles Lindbergh, Ty Cobb, and Arnold Palmer as members? When have guys not yearned to hang out with their buddies in a “lodge,” learning secret handshakes and meeting the right people – all while wearing some nifty stonemason’s outfits?

It sounded good to Dan Bancroft. There was just one problem: Bancroft was black. His chances of swapping secret handshakes with his local lodge of Masons in Toronto (or anywhere else in the country) were, back in 1965, about the same as Bancroft being elected the city’s mayor, technically possible but improbable in the extreme. In fact, joining the same branch of the Masons that has counted six Canadian prime ministers and sixteen U.S. presidents among its members never even occurred to him.

Bancroft, instead, was hoping to become a new member of the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge, otherwise known as Masonry’s black Brothers. While North American “mainstream” Masonry had J. Edgar Hoover, FDR, and Jesse Helms among their ranks, Prince Hall had civil-rights leader W.E.B. DuBois, Nat “King” Cole, Duke Ellington, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Alex Haley, and Jesse Jackson on their side of the ledger. Most Masonic historians now dismiss the stories of the fraternity’s biblical origins as nonsense, pegging the founding of their “Craft” by English noblemen and burghers somewhere around 1700, placing the genesis of Prince Hall within spitting distance of the birth of their “mainstream” Brothers’ formation.

As Bancroft learned when he joined Prince Hall, his black fraternity’s history dated back to 1775 and the American Revolution. Its founder, Prince Hall, a leading black anti-slavery campaigner and businessman, petitioned to join a Masonic lodge in Boston but was turned away, a rejection widely attributed to his race. Hall was also reportedly a soldier of the Revolution, but in a twist of irony, he and fourteen other African-American men had to turn to the enemy, to a British military lodge in Boston, in order to be accepted as the first black Masons in the New World.

In those days, Masonry stood for progressive ideals. Masons had been prominent instigators of both the French and American revolutions, and most members advocated social equality and tolerance. As a result, the British granted Hall and his group a charter in 1784.

Prince Hall has a long history in Canada, too. Its first Canadian grand lodge, formed in Ontario in 1856, is only one year younger than the country’s first white grand lodge. Regardless, until recently, white Masons didn’t even acknowledge the existence of the 300,000-member black Prince Hall fraternity – which currently has 500 members in a dozen lodges across Canada – much less recognize them as real Masons or allow them into their lodges. Despite the names among Canada’s Prince Hall membership – Lincoln Alexander, the former Ontario lieutenant-governor, Alvin Curling, Speaker of the Ontario legislature, and Prince Hall’s current grand master in Ontario and Quebec, Joseph Halstead, the outgoing economic-development czar for the city of Toronto – many white Masons still attack Prince Hall as “irregular” and “clandestine” – Masonic jargon for “fake.”

By 1991, Bancroft, at age sixty-three, had become the head of the city of Toronto’s audit department and the grand master of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Ontario and Quebec. Two years earlier, after a long campaign by progressive Masons, lodges in Connecticut voted to recognize Prince Hall and allow inter-visitation between white and black lodges. While most northern U.S. states quickly moved to offer Prince Hall the same recognition, all of Canada’s provincial white grand lodges were still holding out. It was during the summer of 1991 that Bancroft found himself on a flight to Montreal, on his way to meet with the white Masonic leaders of Quebec, whose lodges supported Prince Hall privately but didn’t officially recognize Bancroft or his members as legitimate Masons, to talk about a long-standing issue: getting Prince Hall officially recognized by the white Masons once and for all.

Recognition was important to Bancroft and Prince Hall because, without it, “mainstream” white lodges and Prince Hall were unable to associate with one another, which meant Prince Hall members were not permitted to participate in “normal” Masonic events, and vice-versa. During the flight to Montreal, Bancroft had a revelation. “I heard a voice,” he says. “It said to me, ‘How long must this continue?’ I looked around, and there was no one beside me. I thought, ‘What is this? It must be something from above.’ ”

Bancroft arrived at the beautiful old St. Georges lodge on rue Sherbrooke in Montreal’s Golden Square Mile district. He had lunch there with half a dozen top-level white Masons in a meeting room adorned with old portraits of past Masonic leaders. They discussed routine business, and then, before adjourning, the chair went around the table to ask for final comments. When it was Bancroft’s turn, he casually announced that instead of waiting for white Masons to recognize Prince Hall, he had decided to offer recognition to the white Masons first. “They thought I was a bit nuts,” he says, laughing. “Everybody was dumbfounded, really.”

The white grand master, Norman Auclair, was the first to speak. “This is a damn good idea,” he said. “We can take this and run with it.” The Prince Hall grand lodge unanimously approved the resolution at its annual meeting later that summer in London, Ontario, and Bancroft got a standing ovation.

Despite the support of Masons like the grand master of Quebec, nobody “ran with” Bancroft’s plan. It took another four years for Prince Hall to become recognized by every province in Canada except one. To this day, the country’s liberal, multicultural melting pot, Ontario, has the dubious distinction of being one of the last places – apart from the U.S. Deep South – that still refuses to accept Prince Hall members as Brothers. Fourteen years after Bancroft’s momentous meeting in Montreal, as Ontario’s “mainstream” Masons – whose membership remains predominantly white even though its lodges started to become more open to accepting black members in the 1970s – prepare to celebrate their grand lodge’s 150th anniversary this July, they are embroiled in their first-ever debate about whether to catch up with the rest of the world and accept the black brethren into the fold. It’s a debate that, for many Masons, goes to the heart of what the world’s largest fraternity is all about.

Years of waiting for Ontario to come around turned Bancroft’s wounded pride into a full-boil fury. “It gets you upside down,” he says. “We are real people. Brotherhood is brotherhood, whatever colour you are.”

Tensions between Prince Hall and Ontario finally came to a head on a rainy October day in 1997. Bancroft and three other Prince Hall officials arranged a meeting at a “mainstream” lodge in downtown London, Ontario. The four most senior white Masons of Ontario awaited them in a boardroom, and despite the business-as-usual appearance of the proceedings, along with the coffee and doughnuts, it was the first formal meeting between the two groups since they had each come to Ontario nearly 150 years before.

The meeting started off on a warm note, with an opening prayer and friendly introductions. Bruce Scott, the Prince Hall grand master at the time, chaired the meeting. The men sat around a table, and Bancroft was asked to give some background on Prince Hall and its recognition by the other provinces. The white Masons listened politely. “They did not say they disagreed” with Prince Hall’s bid for recognition, “nothing like that,” Bancroft says. “[But] they weren’t going to do anything about it. They wanted to have meetings and meetings and meetings.”

One of the white Masons said Prince Hall members should just join the white grand lodge. Bancroft and the others were taken aback. “Why should we join them?” he asks. “We are one year younger than they are, that’s all. We have a history.” The atmosphere got tense. Scott, a Detroit auto-industry executive who lives in Windsor, told the white Masons, “We don’t need to prove the authenticity of the organization.”
“It was very hot,” says Bancroft. “Bruce thought they were running him around too much. He was very, very upset.” Scott, for his part, has chosen not to talk about the exchange, saying only, “They said we should join them, not taking into account the history of Prince Hall. You wouldn’t forget about that history, to go running off.” The meeting lasted less than an hour and ended on a bitter note. It would be years before the two sides would meet again.

Ontario’s rejection of Prince Hall has always taken a subtle, distinctly Canadian tone. “It’s always couched in a very decent way that doesn’t completely humiliate you, but what they are saying is they don’t want you in the family,” says Charles Arthur Downs, a former Prince Hall grand master of Ontario and Quebec.

Prince Hall ran up against a similarly oblique rebuff in 1997, when most of Newfoundland’s Masonic lodges united into a single grand lodge, and Ontario’s white Masons helped them write their constitution. The Newfoundland lodges had been members of two British grand lodges that had accepted Prince Hall. That recognition was dropped in the new constitution.

Wallace McLeod, a world-renowned Masonic historian and professor emeritus of classics at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College, chalks much of this up to race. McLeod, who is writing the official history of Ontario’s grand lodge – to which over half of Canada’s 100,000 Masons belong – for its 150th birthday, to be celebrated in July at Toronto’s Fairmont Royal York Hotel, pulls no punches: “I can’t see any justification for non-recognition of Prince Hall except residual racial prejudice.”

McLeod isn’t the only white Mason to point the finger at prejudice. “Colour,” Nelson King, a prominent white Toronto Mason, says without hesitation when asked why Ontario rejects Prince Hall. “It’s race.” King is a former president of the Philalethes Society, a venerable Masonic research organization, and editor of its magazine. “When this thing first started [back in 1997], I would have thought Ontario would have been the first [to recognize Prince Hall]. You’ve got to correct a 222-year wrong. We’ve been damaged by this.”

Douglas Welsh, the grand historian of the white Grand Lodge of Nova Scotia, also blames racism (and, more recently, organizational inertia). “Ontario has been a conservative enclave for 200 years,” he says. “It’s very difficult to say we are promulgating the concept of taking good men and making them better if we don’t accept these men. Going forward, it’s going to have a big impact on us.”

There are, however, some interesting dissenters. Edwin Drew, a seventy-four-year-old retired Toronto insurance salesman and past grand master of Ontario, is a prominent opponent of recognizing Prince Hall. He’s had Masons in his family going back four generations, and both his sons are Brothers. He has a surprising explanation for his opposition: Recognizing Prince Hall is endorsing segregation. “I hope it doesn’t happen, because it’s a retrograde step,” he says. “[Prince Hall] came into being because of a segregated society. You can look around [white lodges in the U.S.] and see 1,500 faces and not see any non-white faces. The problem with Prince Hall is that we [in Ontario] are an integrated grand lodge,” which allows members of all colour. “Quite frankly, I think they are fine people, and I would welcome them into our grand lodge.”

When asked if recognizing Prince Hall is an endorsement of segregation, Charles Arthur Downs, the former Prince Hall grand master of Ontario and Quebec, is emphatic. “It’s not true. [Drew] will have to come up with a better one than that,” says Downs. “You have to think about how Prince Hall came about. It wasn’t the idea of Prince Hall to be segregated.”

When told that Drew would welcome any Prince Hall member into the “mainstream” grand lodge, Downs replied, “And we would welcome any of their members into our grand lodge. Drew speaks for a small rump group who have their own agenda.”

One of the key figures in the debate is the man in charge of Ontario’s white grand lodge, Donald Mumby. The sixty-five-year-old retired RCMP chief superintendent is rumoured to be progressive and open to the black Masons. When I got in touch with him at his home near Ottawa last July, he refused to answer questions on the topic. A few months later, though, in February, he was more talkative. His change of heart seems to have stemmed from a major breakthrough. He has been communicating with Prince Hall on a mutual-recognition pact, and he hopes to make an announcement at the grand lodge’s 150th anniversary meeting in July. “The time has come; the time is right,” he says.

Mumby denies that Ontario’s white Masons have resisted Prince Hall. “I wouldn’t call it resistance,” he says. “I guess I would call it skepticism about the benefits.” He denies racism was involved. “I like to think our grand lodge is colour-blind. We’re just always very cautious. It’s fine for other people in other provinces to recognize Prince Hall when they don’t have any [of their lodges] in their area.”

As for Mumby’s big proposal, no one’s breaking out the champagne just yet. There have been disappointments before. Last September, North Carolina was widely expected to recognize Prince Hall, but the resolution got only 53 percent of the votes, less than the two-thirds needed for approval. Edwin Drew is unsure that Mumby’s Prince Hall proposal will pass. Whether Mumby takes the vote to senior Masons or the membership at large, the outcome is still uncertain. “There is not really a consensus at the present time,” says Drew.

Still, Bancroft is “very, very happy” with Mumby’s plan. “It’s good to hear that,” he says. “We are moving forward. It took someone to be bold.”

Masons love to say they never change. But the recognition of Prince Hall isn’t the only issue rocking tradition. How Masons deal with their black brethren is part of a larger debate dividing Masons about what their group is all about, and its future. Masonry, like most churches, is having an identity crisis as ageing devotees pass away, young people lose interest, and membership numbers crash. In its heyday forty years ago, Masonry had close to 300,000 Canadian members and 4.1 million Americans. Today, it’s down to 100,000 in Canada and 1.6 million in the U.S. The average age has shot up from the forties to the high sixties and early seventies, so numbers are expected to continue sinking for years.

On another front, Masons are under siege in their two strongest bastions, the U.K. and U.S. In the mid-1990s, British Labour MPs demanded (unsuccessfully) that civil servants register their Masonic membership because of concerns they might give preferential treatment to fellow Brothers. Then, in 2002, the archbishop of Canterbury condemned Masonry as “incompatible” with Christianity because of its secrecy and “possibly Satanically inspired” beliefs. Across the sea, the Shriners, America’s highest-ranking Masons, came under fire in the late 1990s over revelations that just a quarter of their $8-billion charity endowment – the world’s biggest – went to charitable activities, particularly the network of Shriners hospitals. And American Masons are still reeling from a 1993 inquiry by the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention that denounced Masonry as “sacrilegious” because of its “pagan” and “occultic” rituals: The churches accuse Masonry of being a quasi-religion that prays to a composite Masonic deity, the Great Architect of the Universe. Masons deny they are a religion, but some Masonic writers say the fraternity is a kind of meta-religion that combines Christianity, Judaism, and beliefs of ancient pagans, Egyptians, and Greeks.

In a bid to find new members and fend off attacks from the church, Masons are hiring PR experts, talking to journalists, running ads on TV and highway billboards, and setting up info booths at plowing competitions and in subway stations. The 150th anniversary celebrations in Ontario will even include a “Mason Idol” contest. Osiris would be rolling in his grave, if only he weren’t undead.

One of the biggest changes has come from the Shriners’ organization. In 2000, the Shrine eased membership rules and became open to almost any confirmed Mason; some grand lodges will now usher up to 1,500 uninitiated men through thirty-two degrees of Masonry and into the Shrine in a single day for US$400 and the cost of a fez, a process that normally used to take a decade or two and cost thousands of dollars in fees.

But some Masons say the changes don’t solve Masonry’s deeper problems. “Masonry has lost its moral leadership,” says John Slifko, a twenty-five-year Mason who is working on a Ph.D. in cultural geography at UCLA and was once a Democratic Congressional staffer. “You cannot believe the racism in the South [among Masons]. It’s sickening. You’re not going to get the brightest and best of the American campuses to join this antiquated organization.”

Not everyone agrees. Douglas Collins, sixty, a retired Dallas police detective and a prominent Mason in Brownsville, Texas, has just finished a term as Worshipful Master of the Texas Lodge of Research. His state is one of the thirteen in the South that still don’t recognize Prince Hall, and Collins says it’s going to stay that way for a while. “This is one thing that a lot of you guys up in the Northeast or in Canada have to understand,” he says. “There is a distinct culture between the races. Now we’re all Americans, and everybody’s equal, but in many cases, let me just put it this way – we’re not as well liked by them as they are by us.”

When asked why his grand lodge doesn’t recognize Prince Hall, Collins stammers. “I’m just kind of uncomfortable answering that one because obviously I don’t want to say the wrong thing,” he says. “They’re using [it] as a racial thing to try to embarrass us into doing it. They’re free to do what they want, and if Texas does not agree with what they do, all we got to do is sever fraternal relations with them.” Collins later acknowledges that race is one reason many white Masons in the American South reject Prince Hall. “There’s a lot of the old South bias in ’em. Can’t deny that.”

John Slifko hopes to save Masonry by returning it to its radical roots. He is setting up the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Center for the Study of Civil Society and Freemasonry, an international team of like-minded progressive scholars. Slifko believes that ending Masonry’s legacy of racism is just the first step. Next, it should let in women. He says, “The issue of blacks and women in Freemasonry is a barometer.”

“Let me stop you short on that right now,” Douglas Collins replies, when asked about women in Masonry. “Freemasonry is a fra-ter-ni-ty – ‘frater’ meaning male brothers. Period. [Accepting women] will literally be over my dead body. Any mainstream grand lodge in the United States pulls that stunt [allowing women], they’re going to be dropped from fraternal relations by the rest of them. They’re going to be an outcast grand lodge.”

But if Masonry doesn’t catch up with the world, the world may soon catch up with it. The Brothers could one day have no choice but to let sisters into their family. In 1987, the Rotary Club, which has 1.2 million members worldwide, was forced to accept women in America when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a law that said clubs that operate in a business capacity can’t be men-only. The same thing could happen to Masonry, says Richard Fletcher of the Masonic Service Association. “I can tell you from a Masonic point of view it isn’t going to happen,” he says of allowing women. “I can’t tell you what the government laws will do. It could be a court decision.”

Back in Toronto, Dan Bancroft is flabbergasted at the idea of female Masons. “I have never thought of that, really,” he says. “This I wouldn’t touch.” He prefers to focus on the Prince Hall recognition vote this summer in Ontario. He hopes that this struggle, at least, may finally be over. “I don’t know why it takes so long,” he says. “I want to see this before it is my time to pass on.” As for women, that may be a battle for the next century.

Alex Roslin is a freelance journalist living in Montreal.