Crawford Lake Anthropocene

This is Kionywarihwaen, which means “where we have a story to tell” in the Wendat language, also known as Crawford Lake. Chosen for its exceptional characteristics as a possible “golden spike” —proof of a paradigm shift in geologic time— Crawford Lake is global ground zero for the ongoing Anthropocene debate.

Popularized by the late scientist Paul Crutzen, the term “Anthropocene” was proposed by interdisciplinary researchers, Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), to replace the current geological time unit, Holocene, based on the undeniable and irreversible effects human activity has wreaked on the planet. This week, the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy (SQS) voted against ratifying “Anthropocene” as a new geological epoch for reasons including lack of widespread evidence of significant impact specifically on the geological record during humanity’s brief existence relative to other geological periods in Earth’s history typically spanning a few million years.

This by no means makes “Anthropocene” any less relevant as a label for, if not a fixed “epoch”, an ongoing catastrophic “event”, even as experts continue to debate over perhaps more accurate terminology and dates. Nor is it evidence that human activity —specifically colonial capitalist extractivism— doesn’t continue to be that of a slow boil ecocide.

It really goes without saying, but I was dismayed this week by climate crisis deniers sharing articles with irresponsible clickbait headlines like, “Are We in the Anthropocene, the Human Age? Nope, Scientists Say” (New York Times) or “Goodbye, Anthropocene? Scientists vote against new epoch” (CBC) as if to say “Nah nah, told you so!” knowing most people won’t even read the rest of the article. Words, especially those that officially carve up time, are inherently political.

Crawford Lake was chosen as a potential “golden spike” of the Anthropocene out of nine candidate sites from California to China to Antarctica. A collapsed limestone sinkhole, tiny but deep, locals used to say it was bottomless and that anything dropped into it would fall till the end of time. At 23 odd meters deep, it has a highly unusual depth to surface area ratio. As a meromictic lake, it has two distinct layers of water which do not mix due to their unique chemistry. The top mixolimnion stratum is fed by springs, a stream, rain and wildlife. Warmed by the sun and mixed by the wind, it circulates like an ordinary lake. The bottom monimolimnion stratum is fed by oxygen-rich water that seeps up from the bedrock. The dark, cold waters below are home to very little life, so seasonal couplets of sediment, each topped with a layer of calcite every summer, come to rest on the lakebed almost completely undisturbed and perfectly preserved. Capturing regional and global impacts from the atmosphere, these layers of sediment, called varves, form a historical record with a precise calendar as storied and legible as the rings of a tree trunk.

“The lake is like a wise Elder to us all, speaking not with words but with sediment.”

"photo by beingcompiled" photo by beingcompiled

Inscribed in the mud of Crawford Lake is a long history of human activity. Traces of soot, corn pollen, and goose droppings reveal two centuries of early agriculture by First Nations people. Later, European settlement and increased timber harvesting is reflected in declining traces of white pine pollen. Even the devastating drought of the 1930s Dust Bowl has left its mark. Since the 1950s, the sediments tell of irreversible losses: surges in radioactive plutonium from nuclear weapons testing, pollution from industrialization, ash from fossil fuel burning, microplastics, and chemical fertilizers used in modern agriculture.

“What we have measured, in a very objective and quantitative way, is we are living in a world with conditions that are no longer within the last 11,000 years of natural variability … We are in the Anthropocene, irrespective of a line on the time scale … behaving accordingly is our only path forward.” —McCarthy, AWG.

Experts, such as Zoe Todd, an anthropologist and Red River Métis from Alberta, find the concept of the Anthropocene problematic. “Anthropocene” implies that human impact on the environment —including traditional and indigenous ways of living— is historically and geographically uniform and inevitable as “human nature”. It obscures destructive behaviours and decisions specific to colonial capitalism —mainly that of the global north to the detriment of the global south and future generations— and its ongoing practices of extraction, dispossession and genocide. In line with environmental scientist Erle Ellis, who resigned in protest from the AWG in 2023, Todd criticizes the efforts at Crawford Lake as outdated and scientifically reductionist, lacking a nuanced, decolonial perspective that addresses the real social, economic, and political roots of environmental crisis.1 SQS’s decision to vote “no” to “Anthropocene as geological epoch” has made an even stronger statement that we need to broaden our understanding of the Anthropocene beyond such a narrow definition reduced to a thin line of sediment in a single lake.2

Near Crawford Lake, at Nassagaweya (river with two outlets) lookout along the Niagara Escarpment, Stephen Paquette of the Anishinabek Nation has a story memorialized that tells of a people who once lived in the shadow of the land of ice that rose to the sky.

“It was these people, the Wendat, who found a small and beautiful body of water nestled amongst the forest, a reminder of times past. They say the lake spoke to them; it reminded them of their ancestors and their connection to those sacred places atop of the land that rose up to the sky. It made them happy and they stayed and built a village they called home. And while the great walls of ice and never-ending bodies of water were long since gone, they remembered those sacred places where their ancestors spent time, atop the land that reaches up to the sky. There they did ceremonies and imparted, to those that chose to walk in their footsteps, the sacred responsibility of remembering those stories.” —Paquette

The Wendat story emphasizes the importance of memory and storytelling in maintaining a sacred relationship with the land – a connection that, while enriched by scientific understanding, remains sacred regardless of scientific labels.

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  1. Todd, Zoe. “Impermanence is the Opportunity”. Link 

  2. Ellis, Erle. “Why I Resigned from the Anthropocene Working Group”. Link 

This post is licensed under CC BY 4.0 by the author.