While many Canadians were watching news coverage of the May 2016 Fort McMurray wildfires and discussing the apocalyptic imagery, the heroism of rescuers, the economic impact of the halt on oil production, and debating climate change, Alice* was siphoning gas from her neighbours, hoping to escape the fire with her son in tow. Rob was imagining driving his SUV, with his wife and small children on board, into the Athabasca River. Joanne was thinking about mushrooms.
I met these individuals while conducting research about foragers on the hunt for morel mushrooms in May and June 2017, one year after the 590 000-hectare wildfire that caused the evacuation of over 80 000 Fort McMurray residents and $2.6 billion in damages. Morel mushrooms are edible fungi popular with Ukrainian grandmothers and elite French chefs alike, commanding some of the highest prices for wild mushrooms globally. The mushrooms draw thousands of foragers to the burnt forests of North America every spring. Morels are known to follow fires in the boreal; some species experience mass fruiting following wildfires in a short interval from late May to early June. This unique, disaster-seeking ecology of the fungi means that for foragers, large, disastrous forest fires can come with a silver lining. That is, if you’re willing to hunt in the sooty, blackened forest come spring.
Some of the foragers I met in Fort McMurray, including Alice and Rob, are hobby foragers: they live locally and hunt for mushrooms through the burnt forest near their homes. They hope to find morels to eat with friends and family, reconnect with nature, recover from the trauma of disaster, or earn a bit of money on the side. Others, like Joanne, are commercial foragers, traveling across Northern Canada, from burn site to burn site, hoping to pick enough mushrooms to sell for cash as their main source of income. All of these foragers search for morels among the same blackened trees and share similar stories of growing up wandering through forests and caring about the natural world. However, in Fort McMurray, whether they hunted for a hobby or for a livelihood changed foragers’ views, not only about mushrooms, but also the community of Fort McMurray and the environmental uncertainties of our times.
As for me, I was wandering the northern boreal forest after spending a year away from my home in Alberta. I’d left the province to study for a graduate degree at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford. For months, I was away from my Albertan roots and surrounded by international environmental experts and activists. I studied climate science, energy systems, and geography from world-class academics, and learned the extent to which the oil sands were incompatible with a safe climate. These perspectives informed my research on foraging around Fort McMurray, as I aimed to connect the scientific realities of environmental degradation in Northern Alberta with the experiences of those living and working there. Understanding the lives of Fort McMurriates is, I believe, critical to creating momentum for a much-needed transition to renewable energy in Canada. After all, there are few Canadian communities which are as entangled in the ecological, political, and economic uncertainties of oil production as Fort Mac. There are also few communities in Canada which are as negatively mythologized. I hoped that studying foragers in Fort McMurray would allow me to explore their work lives and environmental views, without the emotional and political walls that tend to arise in direct conversations about oil and climate in Alberta.
“You see a lot more people at the Food Bank. You see a lot people leave. I don’t know if that was the fire or the economy, but [there are] a lot of people leaving, a lot of people working more than one job.”
Of course, barriers to discussing climate change in Alberta abound. Fort McMurray is within one of the most climate change-denying regions of Canada, and has a reputation as a transient boom town. Despite this reputation, there are many permanent residents of the community who have faced two major challenges in recent years, beginning with the drop in oil prices between 2014 to 2017. Because Fort McMurray is so closely tied with the Athabasca oil sands, the dip in Albertan oil prices to as low as $16.30 per barrel in 2016 led to mass job losses, the cancellation of community infrastructure projects, and a large exodus of workers and families. Major oil companies are failing to see long-term profitability in the oil sands. Shell divested from the region in 2017 and TransCanada withdrew its application for the Energy East pipeline in the same year. While oil prices have begun to recover in recent months, many within and outside of the industry remain wary and uncertain about its future.
Fort McMurray also recently experienced an environmental disaster of unprecedented scale in Canada: the 2016 wildfire. Wildfires are a kind of natural disaster which is becoming more common globally, and are a symptom of the increasing environmental precarity that comes along with climate change. While there have been no scientific studies directly attributing the Fort McMurray wildfire to carbon emissions, climate scientists have demonstrated that forest fires are made more likely due to climate change in Northern Alberta, and that these fires can be attributed to human emissions.
Together, the economic and environmental crises have challenged Fort McMurray to recover and move on. During my time there last spring, I saw homes that were beginning to be rebuilt, heard laughter coming from the school playgrounds, and hung out at bars that were busy on Friday nights. But I also saw a town which was eerily quiet, with vast open parking lots, empty walking paths on even the nicest of summer evenings, and countless “for sale” signs on front lawns. As Rob, who has lived in Fort McMurray for the last ten years, put it, “You see a lot more people at the Food Bank. You see a lot people leave. I don’t know if that was the fire or the economy, but [there are] a lot of people leaving, a lot of people working more than one job”. And, unbeknownst to many, a lot of people wandering the surrounding forest looking for mushrooms, too.
The morning I went foraging with Alice and her husband, Hamish, was a sunny and hot one in early June. The couple were in their mid-fifties and originally went looking for morels hoping to eat a few and sell the rest for a bit of cash. They told me they frequently picked bottles to recycle for the deposit on their walks and figured it was worth a shot to hunt for the lucrative fungi as well. During the fire, Hamish had been working out of town and unable to help Alice with evacuation; she had been frightened by the experience of a community in chaos. While their house had extensive exterior and smoke damage and dealing with the insurance company had been difficult, when compared to others around them, they felt lucky.
We were looking for morels along a creek where geological cuts into the riverbank revealed oil sands, which were warm and soft under our feet. The heavy smell of tar mixed with the fresh spring air. Despite having lived in Alberta for most of my life, I hadn’t seen, touched, or smelled oil sands before. I picked some up, and in the summer heat, was able to form it into a small, smooth ball. The smell lingered on my hands. Hamish, who has worked in the oil industry in Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Russia, is employed as a supervisor in a nearby extraction site. He could see my interest in the sands, and chatted with me about the environmental responsibility of Albertan oil when compared to the other countries he’d worked in. He also explained that the oil sands have always been near water in Northern Alberta, in the soil by creeks like the one that flowed beside us. If the oil sands have always been by our water, he said, maybe there can’t be that much of a problem with contamination now?
Alice and Hamish were a delight to forage with. We found no morels that morning, and the two suspected the mushrooms had already withered back into the ground with the recent heat and lack of rain. However, they had managed to fill two large bags full of plastic bottles. On the drive back into town, Alice and Hamish told me that they were happy to be able to spend time in nature and proud to be cleaning up the forest.
I first met Rob at a coffee shop downtown in the beginning of June, and it took a bit of time for him to become comfortable talking with me about the wildfire. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from the disaster, he explained. It had taken him months after his return to Fort McMurray to work up the courage to walk into the forest behind his home. In the time since he first walked through the blackened trees, however, he had begun to use foraging as a way to heal from the fire, even bringing his two toddlers along with him as he hunted for mushrooms. Experiencing the fire completely changed the way he viewed the forest where he lived. As he put it, “…I’m in awe of it a lot more. It seems a lot bigger than it used to be. It seems like it’s got a lot more to offer… It gives you a calming feeling. Like, go for a walk in the woods and, you know, it evens you out, it straightens you out”.
When we finally foraged together, I could see what he meant. Any remaining nervousness disappeared, and Rob was chatty, relaxed, and incredibly curious about morel foraging and wild foods. He’d brought along a friend, Sam, and I could tell looking for mushrooms was a time they used to connect with each other, nature, and talk about the fire. Rob even showed me the part of the Athabasca River he had planned to drive his car into, if it had become dangerously hot during the evacuation.
Rob and Sam were chefs. They didn’t work in the oil sands, but the number of hours they were able to work, and the benefits they received in the service industry, fluctuated along with the economic success of the oil industry. When we spoke, Rob was unemployed both as a result of his stress from the fire, as well as slow business in the restaurant industry. And, in this conversation, my new foraging friend told me about his views on climate change and the role of the oil sands in disasters like the fire, which had caused him so much suffering. When I asked him about the connections between climate change and fires like the one he lived through, Rob replied, “Do I think there’s climate change? Ah, I think climate has been changing on the earth forever. So no, I don’t think there’s climate change. Sorry, no, I don’t think humans play as large of role in climate change as everyone says. I don’t know. Is it getting worse? I think yeah, is the climate changing. Why? I don’t know”. Then, as is natural in Northern Alberta, the conversation shifted from climate change toward Rob’s concerns about the future of the oil sands: “I think [the oil industry] won’t grow like it has been… I could be wrong, but I’m a little nervous, I’m wondering, you know, should I get out of town?”
When I wasn’t chatting with other mushroom pickers in Fort McMurray, I spent time foraging alone, where I hunted for morels and let my thoughts wander. I often found myself confused about the hobby foragers I’d met. After all, the stories they told me about wandering forests, climbing mountains, and picking mushrooms were incredibly similar to the stories I’d heard from anti-oil activists. What were the factors that led some of the nature-lovers I knew to support the oil sands and others to protest them? The answer, I found, was further down the mushroom trail, in the world of commercial foraging.
I met Joanne, a commercial forager, in a coffee shop in Edmonton on a stormy Canada Day, long after the morel season had ended in Fort McMurray. She was soft-spoken and kind and wanted to tell me everything she knew about morels. Joanne cared deeply about the other commercial foragers in the field who were often unprepared for the unpredictable conditions in remote forest locations. She often found herself cooking large communal meals and caring for other mushroom pickers who would congregate wherever she and her husband set up camp. Prior to her visit in June when she hunted for morels, Joanne had never been to Fort McMurray. She was critical of the community and was worried about contamination from oil sands affecting her morels. She was concerned about climate change, too, having lived in the Yukon and experienced a change in weather over the years. Her views were similar to most other commercial foragers I met; they saw the towns they visited as ends-to-the-means, and were very concerned about environmental degradation from extractive industries. When it came to Fort McMurray, commercial foragers were worried about the ecological and climate impacts of the oil sands, and many expressed disdain at Fort McMurray as a community because of its environmental reputation.
The disdain between commercial and hobby foragers was reciprocal, however. While most hobby foragers were ambivalent to the existence of commercial pickers in the area, some of commercial pickers’ habits were seen as environmentally irresponsible by those who lived in Fort McMurray. These hobby foragers criticized the professionals’ litter, their tendency to pick mushroom patches clean for themselves and leave nothing behind for others, and how they are less likely to use perforated buckets, believed to help with spore dispersal when the mushrooms are mature enough, to carry their harvests. The hobby foragers were also concerned with strangers coming through their community without caring for it.
Last spring, I learned that the act of morel foraging is wandering together through lands burnt by forces greater than any of us alone, working toward a common goal, and sharing in both failure and the bounty of success.
All of the foragers I met in Fort McMurray loved nature. However, they demonstrated this love in different ways: the professional foragers worried about the impacts of climate change on mushroom ecology, while the hobby foragers were concerned about pickers trampling the forest floor. These foragers openly questioned each other’s opinions when it came to issues like the oil sands and the decision to leave a few mushrooms behind to regrow. However, while they criticized the environmental behaviours of other foragers, they described their own actions as benign and necessary to their work. There are many reasons why these foragers held different views on whether climate change or spore dispersal should take priority as environmental issues in Fort McMurray. One answer in particular challenged my perceptions of oil workers and my approach to activism. A driving force behind the foragers’ environmental views was not a lack of information or care but, simply put, the need to make a living.
To be clear, there are obvious distinctions between the oil and mushroom industries in Northern Alberta. To remain within the internationally agreed-upon target of 2ºC global warming, climate scientists have estimated that 85% of Canada’s oil sands must remain in the ground. While the veracity of the claims are still under debate, Indigenous communities, including in nearby Fort Chipewyan, have reported worryingly high rates of cancer, which some suspect are the result of contaminated water. Further, some ecologists have expressed concerns about the long-term success of the reclamation efforts to restore ecosystems after oil projects end. These issues are not ecologically nor morally equivalent to debates about spreading mushroom spores with perforated buckets. However, when we examine the way capital and nature interact in a less contentious activity and see how commercial foragers adopt views inconsistent with their values in a similar fashion to oil workers, we should not be surprised that many oil sands employees deny climate change.
The need to make a living in uncertain times, whether one is at the mercy of the price of mushrooms or the price of oil, can lead workers to adopt environmental views they may not hold if their livelihoods were not in the balance. The hobby foragers I met are, in many ways, environmentalists; they picked litter from the forest and worried about the sustainability of mushroom picking. They also felt as though their future, and the future of their children, relied upon the success of the oil industry. These realities co-exist in Fort McMurray. Interpreting climate skepticism as a lack of care for the environment does little to draw oil workers, who experience the economic and environmental uncertainties of the industry first-hand, into conversations about climate change. Understanding the ways economic reliance on oil influences residents’ views of nature and recognizing workers as environmentalists is critical to climate activism in Alberta’s oil sands.
Beyond the necessary work of skills training for new industries and creating viable income opportunities outside of the oil sands, I suggest our approach to environmental activism in places like Fort McMurray feel like the mushroom trail. Last spring, I learned that the act of morel foraging is wandering together through lands burnt by forces greater than any of us alone, working toward a common goal, and sharing in both failure and the bounty of success. Foraging requires collaboration, the sharing of skill and care, and provides an opportunity to learn how our foraging partners view their lives and care for the world around them. These lessons are critical to activism. Unfortunately, like the few short spring weeks where one can hunt for morels, our window of opportunity to act on climate is narrow. For some environmentalists, searching for climate solutions with those who work in extractive industries may feel as uncomfortable as wandering into a burnt forest with strangers. I hope, like on the hunt for morels, we can overcome this discomfort to find the climate solutions we need before they wither away under the hot summer sun.
*All names have been changed in order to protect the privacy of my participants