Escarpment Blues

Exclusive interview: Juno-winning singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer released her fifth album in 2010, but it was Mount Nemo, aggregate extraction and her advocacy work with PERL that she discussed with Alternatives.

The following is an abridged version of an interview with Sarah Harmer. To hear the full interview, listen to Rocking the Environment podcast!

Nicola Ross: How was the Niagara Escarpment part of your childhood?

The following is an abridged version of an interview with Sarah Harmer. To hear the full interview, listen to Rocking the Environment podcast!

Nicola Ross: How was the Niagara Escarpment part of your childhood?

Sarah Harmer: I grew up on a 100-acre farm on Mount Nemo. My brother and sisters used to hike down the trail to go to work at the local farmer’s market. We spent lots of time out in the fields and ponds. It is close to Burlington, [Ontario]– just a 15-minute drive to the city.

NR: Is there a place on the escarpment where you think “I’m home”?

SH: I come along Number One Side Road, just east of Mount Nemo; I look up at the bluff and definitely feel that it’s as good as it gets.

NR: Why does the Niagara Escarpment inspire you?

SH: It is 450 million years old and supports many threatened and endangered species. It’s under threat right now. There are many loopholes in the policies regarding aggregate extraction. We have to put our best land aside for its natural capacity and put the industrial activities in more benign areas. The escarpment is so restorative for people – hikers and climbers – it’s really important to go into those quiet places – great oxygen, great biodiversity – and it’s important spiritually for people living in more densely populated areas.

NR: Is there a book that inspires you?

SH: Oh, there’s a million. Jason McLennan has written a book called Zugunrhe [The Inner Migration To Profound Environmental Change]. It’s a German word that describes the anxious behaviour of birds before they migrate. There is a feeling worldwide that people, communities are preparing for a migration. It’s an inspirational book about getting ready and being a positive force for necessary change.

NR: Do musicians have a special role to play in environmental protection?

SH: For sure. Music can get into a lot of different hearts and souls and ears. It can be a powerful, almost a subliminal force. Right now we are in this really long hearing [in the Nelson Aggregate application to quarry Mount Nemo] and it costs tens of thousands of dollars just to have wetland biologists in the room. Musicians often get called upon to help create money out of thin air or to put on a concert and to attract people. There is that responsibility as well.

NR: What is more important – your landscape or your music?

SH: I’d give up my music first, I think. I don’t know if I could survive without my landscape: food, water, air. I could survive without my music, but I’d be sad.

NR: What is your greatest inspirational or protest song?

SH: “We Shall Overcome.”

NR: Have you written a song about Mount Nemo?

SH: “Escarpment Blues” takes place on Mount Nemo in my mind.

NR: What advice would you give to others who are battling quarries?

SH: One way that people can feel proactive, rather than just opposing something, is to actually propose something, like the certification of aggregate, as has been done with lumber and paper products through FSC [Forest Stewardship Council]. In this way, aggregate companies commit to providing thirdparty-certified “green gravel,” which meets agreed upon environmental criteria, so we fully protect endangered-species habitat, drinking water, headwaters and other natural areas.

NR: Will Mount Nemo be saved?

SH: I’m an optimist and also a realist. I think the technical side says it’s too risky and, except for the Ministry of Natural Resources, they have recognized the great risk that this proposal presents. But I don’t think the system is well-designed to protect Mount Nemo. We’re up against Lafarge (owns 50 per cent of Nelson Aggregates Co.) and they are a giant well of resources. It’s hard to hear them undervalue the ecosystem and say this quarry is good planning, but that’s what they’re trying to sell. It’s not an easy win, but I stay hopeful and with collective help, I know it’s possible. We shall overcome.

Nicola Ross is the former Editor of Alternatives Journal, and is a member of the editorial board.