At the end of each year many of us reflect, on what has happened, what we have lost, what we have gained. We smile at the wonderful memories, and we cry over the pains that we have endured. On some occasions, perhaps when remembering the breakdown of a relationship, the loss of a loved one, or a decision gone wrong we struggle. Above all however we strive to make sense of what has gone on and to put things in order with the hope of starting anew with the turning of the coming year.
In reflecting on the past year it is easiest to say that we collectively endured. 2020 was challenging in different ways for all of us. Yet how we responded, as individuals and as communities, was a reflection of our society, and who we are. It also left us with the question – where do we go from here?
In the past year, we have watched as wildfires, natural disasters, and environmental crisis continued at record levels. Many have begun the important process of relearning our collective histories and understandings of our communities as the weight of coming to terms racism in our society for people of colour and Indigenous peoples across North America (yes including Canada) was brought front and centre with the events surrounding George Floyd in the United States and the Wet’suwet’en protests in Canada. And of course we have all, wittingly or not, been caught up in the political divisions and rhetoric of this year's Presidential elections.
Yet undoubtedly, and unsurprisingly, the defining events of the year were shaped by the unexpected, invisible and seemingly random nature of Covid-19. Within months, the virus led to a transformation of our society and our way of life - shifting how, and whether, we work, how we go to school, and how we remain a society when struggling with lock-downs, social distancing, and isolation. The consequences being that many, if not most, of our fellow citizens are dealing with the realities of losing jobs, their homes, their life savings, confronting hunger, and the loss of security amid this outbreak. At the same time our innumerable essential workers are exhausted and worn out, and for so many more they are simply tired of the uncertainty. We now see that even our ‘civilized’ and ‘modern’ world – despite its advances – is very fragile. This year has shown us that it still takes only a small disruption for the aqueducts to once again stop running and for the bonds of society to fray.
It is no wonder that by now we are all anxious, nervous, and tired. If the music I listen to and shows I stream are any indication, I think we have all begun to become nostalgic for the past and the sense of stability we seem to have lost in the last year.
In response, it seems that people begin to take stands on issues that have little actual bearing in our world, for the simple reason that it makes us feel that we have a position on the major topic of the day. In a period of such uncertainty being able to stand up and – regardless of our actual understanding of issues, the contradictions of our attitudes, or the consequences of our comments – and take a firm position makes people feel that they are in control – of at least one thing.
As a result, if we have come to see anything in this past year, it is that while the online world is wonderful for staying connected it is also a terrifying mechanism for sowing dissent, venting vitriol, and increasing anxiety. Taken in regularly the shear mass of online material can lead us see the world through only dark lenses, viewing people - our neighbours, our brothers, our sisters, our parents and our leaders – as entirely flawed, incompetent and self serving individuals.
To be honest, I understand this perspective of people – after all they can be both surprising and disappointing. In the past year, I too have been disheartened. Early in the pandemic I was punched by a senior citizen buying toilet paper in a store, we spent an expensive month been threatened with legal action by an organization for participating in a Black Lives Matter fundraiser, we found (and removed) dozens of racist posters in one of Canada’s largest and most beautiful cities, in one town we were harassed, physically searched, and questioned by the police for ‘being homeless and owning a camera’, and at one point we were attacked by anti-maskers for being ‘sheeple’ (a term I had to look up) when we tried to be socially responsible. And amid all of this we have continued to receive our daily doses of online vitriol, persecution from old flames, critique from former colleagues, and the usual commentary from ‘anonymous’ individuals in social media. There is no denying, that once you have seen this side of people it is hard to get your optimism back.
Ultimately however, in response to all of this all you can do is decide whether to join those screaming and ranting or to try to change the tenor of the world one step at a time. And so, despite the events of 2020, I also know that I have seen and experienced so much more beauty in Canada than this year or these moments can take away from. I have come to see that the vast majority of Canadians are in fact at their best in a crisis. I have come to know, from experience, that our nation is naturally beautiful, that its people are kind and generous, and that because of our diversity we in fact are Stronger Together.
also come to see that positive change comes from unexpected places. While 2020 was a year in which we were all
dramatically forced out of our comfort zones it was also a period in which so
many grew tired of their screens, cell phones, Zoom calls, and social media - and
in the process rediscovered nature, local trails, parks, forests, and of course
birds. As a society we came to see, in
the midst of a social distancing and isolation bubbles that digital landscapes
are no replacement for natural landscapes. As the year progressed amid lock-downs people returned in huge numbers
to nature, began to explore their communities, and took up new hobbies. Those who couldn’t leave their houses took to
bird feeder watching as a way to stay connected to nature while being responsible
and safe. These
days the news is full of stories of people enjoying that there is less traffic,
less air pollution, and more time to slow down and reassess what is really
important. Online searches show that inquiries
about sewing, cooking, and birding have increased exponentially throughout the
last year. In the six months we were on
The Great Trail this year we received thousands of emails asking for advice on
how to get youth back outdoors. In the month
before the holidays we were emailed and messaged over 400 times with questions
about which bird guides or binoculars we would recommend. While at the same time we had over 550
inquiries about which trails and parks in Canada were the best to visit in
What this shows is that in the wake of these challenges many people have found new outlets for creativity, renewed old hobbies, and are making new plans for the future. What this also means is that despite the uncertainty of the moment we each know that we can still each shape and change the world around us with our actions. So as we turn toward a New Year our goal must not simply be to return to ‘normal’, but instead it should be to set a new course. We need to address injustices were they exist, to improve our support for social issues in our own communities, to make sure our society and nature are inclusive as well as accessible to everyone, and to maintain our connection to those things that we have come to hold dear during this period. (And of course to keep filling our bird feeders!)
What we need now is to move into the future towards a ‘new normal’. The fact that so many people have renewed interests, new goals, and new hope means that we can take this opportunity to shape what comes next. It means that we can Build Back Better.
Tonight we reach January 2021, not clear of the challenges of the past year, but certainly with renewed hope. With hope comes possibility, and with possibility comes the unwritten opportunities of the future. Tonight is the one night in which nothing is decided, nothing is set in stone, the entire year ahead of us is a blank slate waiting for us to fill it with wonder. The question being - what will we do with the lessons and experiences of 2020 and which direction will we strike out towards in the coming days and months which lay ahead of us?
As the clock strikes midnight and the calendar turns to a New Year we venture forward, hopefully more empathetic of others, thankful for those essential workers who strive tirelessly to keep our world on track, mindful of those who we have lost and the challenges we have overcome, and grateful for all the blessings that we enjoy. Tomorrow our collective adventure continues again, but tonight we can celebrate knowing that we made it through 2020 and that means that together we can make it through anything!
Happy Holidays and Happy New Year!