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COLUMN: Anti-vaxxers, deniers can't see the forest for the trees

In face of climate crisis, we need leadership with conviction, but 'in Canada, we're a silent majority that has earned the uninspiring minority' it deserves, says columnist
john epstein sequoia
John Epstein, in synch with a giant sequoia, a mere sapling compared to “General Sherman,” Sierra Nevada, California, 2018.

I awoke to a news item on CBC’s World Report the other day that detailed the dire straits of a rather famous friend of mine. He resides in California. We met during a trip to the Golden State in March 2018; spring there, winter here.

More accurately, Sherm’s really just an acquaintance, and mere at that too. I was considerably more impressed with him than he was with me.

He’s native American, has a neat place in the mountain range paradise of the Sierra Nevada, and some notable Canadian cousins – also in the news – at Fairy Creek, directly north in B.C.

Sherm’s closest friends call him “The General” – he’s an old-timer after all – and the scientists among them suggest he’s 2,000-plus years old. Sherm’s a giant sequoia, who predates Christ. He’s the world's largest tree, measured by volume, and stands 275 feet tall.

As spectacular as the sequoias are, one discovers these grandeurs of Creation in a stealth-like manner. This, in stark contrast to the in-your-face largesse-ness that explorers of Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon experience. As stunning as those two wonders are, their effect dissipates more quickly than one might care to admit.

While climbing the winding road in my small truck, up and around the sides of the mountain that also bears Sherm’s name, I’ve got my left eye on the edge of the road, but more so, on the cliff just inches beyond it, as I peer into the forest with my right eye, searching for the sequoia. While one’s eyes may be of intelligent design, they cannot do the ‘splits.’

Fleeting glimpses of the red-barked behemoths, set back from the road, are visible between the grey-brown trunks of towering pines, impressive in their own right, making me recall a scene from Jurassic Park in similar woods, when, suddenly the pile-driver foot of the monstrous Tyrannosaurus rex slams thunderously down, dwarfing all things in its midst.

A delectable distinction here, is the cathedral-like quiet of the Sierra Nevada.

These intermittent views of the sequoias are mystifying and captivating. Then, when the narrow road winds around, right up beside one, it’s enthralling. I leap from my truck and respectfully slap its side, just as one does with a horse, instantaneously appreciating the notion of “horsepower.”

Conversely, in the company of the sequoia, the only notion is incomprehension.

The sequoias’ vertical stance, arm-like branches, and thick, wild-hair canopies of green needles, combine with the sun, the shadows, and the lightning-strike scars to create discernable faces, enhancing the palpable presence of other living beings, whose magnificence accentuates one’s insignificance.

This magical aura does not dissipate; it mounts by the minute. Naturalist, John Muir, put it best – “And into the forest I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”

With a feeling of chagrin, it’s apparent to me that Sherm’s missing an arm, has scars galore, and a nasty black-eye, courtesy of that lightning-strike carbon from 1942 or 1492, one cannot be sure.

I smile broadly, I laugh a little. I clap and I yell. It’s emotional and it’s sensational. Odd as this may sound, I truly liken the experience to witnessing the adulation heaped upon a seemingly as ancient Maurice Richard, at the closing of the Montreal Forum in 1996, when I was moved in precisely the same way.

Sherm’s in the news now for the high-tech foil being wrapped around his tremendous trunk’s 36-foot diameter, as wildfires menace a mere mile away.

The scale and intensity of such fires burning across the western U.S. are “staggering”, states a scientist quoted in a National Geographic article chronicling the impact of climate change’s warmer air temperatures, lower precipitation and stronger winds, on these increasingly devastating forest fires.

These fires consumed an area in California three times the size of Prince Edward Island in 2020.

In the midst of such calamity, how outrageous, then, that climate change denial is. Defined by Wikipedia as dismissal, or, unwarranted doubt that contradicts the scientific consensus, including the extent to which it is caused by humans, poignantly parallels the incredulous anti-vaccine movement, based as well on a lack of understanding of vaccines, and outright refusal to vaccinate, in spite of overwhelming scientific consensus (that phrase again) in support of their life-saving merits, demonstrated decisively in the eradication of polio and smallpox. 

These anti-vaccine adherents are too quick with their cries of “Freewill!”, a stance, that more quickly still, collapses into a free-fall of “hear-says” and “what-nots,” of “hoaxes,” and “you-knows,” when advocates for it are pressed as per the “greater good,” a tenet that’s toxic to their me-first mentality.

Such sputterings, and the minimalization of the threat, are tactics common to those that deny and defy, in spite of straight-forward science that’s presented in graphs compellingly conclusive.

Left unchecked, anti-vaxxers raise the risk of variants mutating into more lethal strains with greater rates of transmission, one day soon perhaps, beyond science’s reach, again, just as climate change denial endangers all as well.

Such tenuous times call for leadership with a conviction that’s just and fair, resolute and right. Instead, here in Canada, we’re a silent majority that has earned the uninspiring minority that it deserves. And, along with it, there’s a tripling of support for a populist platform that imperils my buddy Sherm, and the rest of us too.

John Epstein is a former, 25-year Orillia business owner who left southern Ontario for the north years ago, and has never been back. He is now a freelance writer, whose column will appear monthly in OrilliaMatters.