A caged canary in a coal mine was once an early warning system for deadly methane leaks. When the bird dropped dead in those deep, damp pits, miners quickly evacuated.
But humans, sometimes, become canaries, too.
Asbestos miners who developed lung diseases and children whose baby teeth contained radioactive strontium-90 — as discovered by Canadian Dr. Ursula Franklin — are just two examples. And many of us can name others whose lives have been warnings. Nobody sets out to be a canary, of course. Certainly not Reverend Lori Erhardt.
I met Erhardt in 1998 when she was the minister at Sunset United Church in Regina. There, with the Sunset Healing Circle, she recorded Dream Child, a fundraising CD for the Aboriginal Healing Fund. Congregations may know of Erhardt's soul-felt music through other CDs, such as Opening Time, or know her compositions in Voices United and More Voices United.
Erhardt moved to a farm near Oxbow, Sask. shortly before the oil and gas industry increased their work in the area. Today, Erhardt's song is sometimes silent; it depends on the wind.
Since 2010, Erhardt has suffered debilitating, mysterious conditions that have been diagnosed as everything from asthma to vasculitis, fibromyalgia, Hashimoto's thyroiditis, atypical pneumonia, arthritis and more. All sorts of chemicals, including benzene, fly in the Prairie wind. Periodic leaks of hydrogen sulphide (H2S) contribute to a toxic mix that can make it difficult for one’s body to recover.
"That rotten stench in the air? That's the smell of deadly gas and secrecy," reads a recent Toronto Star headline
. Secrecy about the location of leaks, severity and effects on human health make for a damning story. And leaks have increased exponentially.
According to the Star, there is no shortage of people in south Saskatchewan whose health has been affected by leaks. Just take industry worker Michael Bunz, who was killed by a sour gas leak on the job. Still, people are reluctant to speak out for fear of losing their job or being shunned. Erhardt carefully notes that not everyone's health is overwhelmed by chemicals. But I wonder, “how many canaries have to get sick or die?”
Erhardt lost her voice and experienced profound weakness, weight loss, pain, tremors and loss of balance. She had difficulty swallowing, was unable to lift a tea kettle and ached at not being able to hold a baby. "I became useless," she told me. “That wasn't my gig.”
Erhardt continued: “When you deteriorate physically, people become scared. I didn't have energy for fear, and I didn't want to end up in a wheelchair on oxygen." Listening to her body's messages, Erhardt travelled abroad in 2012 to begin an extensive series of alternative therapies such as Ayurveda. "Qi gong and yoga gave me physical and spiritual sustenance, and pain relief. Al Anon continued to buoy my prayer life. Months of Buddhist Lovingkindness meditation brought me back to Jesus's command to love God with heart, soul and mind . . . and neighbour as self. I needed to love my self deeply, at the cellular level, before I could care for others. That was a deep shift. Illness creates solitude. I discovered in that solitude that I am in good company."
In 2014, she returned home without asthma puffers — and with her voice. Neighbours help sound the alarm about emissions now, and she continues slowly healing in the company of family, friends, birds, bees, dogs, living skies and trees.
Although Erhardt still lives with some weakness and pain, she is grateful to be able to sing again. Her song is one of healing for all beings on this blessed Earth.
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