By Van Andruss —
Every now and then a book comes along that seems meant for me. Such a book is James B. MacKinnon’s “The Once and Future World: Nature as it was, as it is, as it could be” (Random House, 2013).
James MacKinnon is a gifted writer already known for the previous best-seller, “100-Mile Diet.” He was brought up on the bunch grass prairie around Kamloops. In his wanderings as a boy, he believed he was surveying a wilderness. It was only later in life that he came to discover how much his native landscape had changed over time, and not only by human settlement. A deepening interest in these changes sent him down the path of ecological research.
The overall theme of “The Once and Future World” could justly be called Historical Ecology. While MacKinnon’s manner of writing has genuine educational value, it is by no means academic. The style remains personal, communicative, and friendly. Among the 13 chapters, we learn of the fantastic richness and diversity of life in the deep past. We may have heard these tales of abundance before, but they never cease to astonish. The book is full of life-histories of place: Easter Island, Hawaii, the Wadden Sea off the coast of the Netherlands, the savannas of Africa, including a neat summary of ecological developments in MacKinnon’s own prairie home place.
Hearing of what we have lost of Earth’s abundance can be depressing, but the author keeps the narrative moving. We are led onward to questions of conservation and of “re-wilding.” We might wish to restore an area to its pristine condition, but what we find is that the “baseline” of wilderness is illusive. Landscapes, even landscapes in the recent past, keep changing, often in surprising ways. As a long-time teacher I reserve space in my mind for “The Once and Future World,” which occupies a category of books that I would love to see offered as part of the curriculum in high schools. (I count in the same category Bill Bryson’s “Brief History of Nearly Everything,” Wade Davis’s “The Wayfinders,” and Ronald Wright’s “A Short History of Progress.”)
Founder of 350.org, Bill McKibben is one the most outstanding leaders in the consciousness-raising campaign around global warming. The number 350 stands for 350 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. Bill’s latest book, “Oil and Honey; the education of an unlikely activis” (Henry Holt and Company, 2013), traces the progress of his career from writer and college professor to tireless activist. The “Oil and Honey” story centers on the movement against Big Oil and the corporate giants who have dominated U.S. politics for at least the past 20 years. It was 350.org that stirred opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, culminating in the largest environmental rally ever assembled at Washington, D.C., in February of 2013 (only to be surpassed in Sept.14 by 400,000 people in New York). The book’s parallel theme, honey, takes place on a local scene in Vermont where the author makes his home. Here, we become acquainted with an ingenious beekeeper finding ways to husband his charges organically. Bill McKibben is an exceptional speaker and writer of 13 books, one of those Americans remarkable for clarity of vision grounded in common sense. “Oil and Honey” includes a set of facts about global warming guaranteed to surprise you.
In a less urgent vein, let us consider Wade Davis’s latest effort, “Into the Silence: the great war, Mallory, and the conquest of Everest” (Vintage Canada, 2012). The inexhaustible Wade Davis is an ethnobotanist, explorer, and world traveller, and unquestionably one of Canada’s most outstanding lecturers and writers. “One River” was an earlier, unforgettable account of Davis’s researches into hallucinogenic plants in the Amazon Basin. It seemed puzzling, therefore, that the author had chosen to write about climbing Mt. Everest in the 20s of the last century.
I don’t know for sure but I’m supposing it was the adventure of the undertaking that fascinated the man, as well as its location in Tibet—in the 20s a territory truly unexplored and unmapped by Westerners. The principal characters in this story are meticulously portrayed, with of course special attention to George Mallory, who had the best hope of reaching the summit. The British expedition was initiated soon after the First World War in hopes of raising the spirits of a morally depressed England. The book is long and detailed. There were moments when I didn’t think I was going to make it to the end, but then I kept returning to find out if Mallory actually reached the summit. In the end, despite continued reservations, I read every page and the tale made an indelible impression on me. So if you feel like being distracted from your habitual occupations during your winter hibernation, no more effective contrivance exists.
The reader has likely heard of Nelson Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” (Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company, 1994). In these pages the author recounts his political career as a member of the African National Congress (ANC) standing in opposition to Apartheid in South Africa. Included is a portrayal of his 20-some years locked up in prison. He concludes that the worst of that experience was being separated from his family and the joys of ordinary life. A true martyr, like Leonard Peltier, in the cause of social justice, he was eventually freed and honoured, if not worshipped, for his accomplishments. Besides the appeal of keeping company with a person of outstanding character, I seemed to learn a lesson in this book as to what it takes to bring about basic changes in the social/political structure of the nation state. I think of Canada in this regard and wonder, would it take the same sort of struggle here to move this society away from a condition equally fundamental, to wit, the Fossil Fuel Economy? What sort of effort do we imagine is required to achieve environmental sanity in Canada?
I can’t leave this article without mention of Elizabeth May’s recent “Who We Are: reflections on my life in Canada.” Elizabeth May is one of the two Green Party MPs in Canada at this time. No one better understands the ills of the nation. Although the book starts out with autobiographical chapters—her mother’s deep political convictions, Elizabeth’s years of work with the Sierra Club—the subject matter soon expands into the plural “We” of her broader identity as a Canadian. I think of this book as principally educational. Again, it falls into my category of books ideal for young people who need to consider where they stand in relation to their provincial and federal governments. Included are first rate essays on the history of the environmental movement in Canada, the corporate betrayal of Canadian institutions, global warming, the exclusion of science from policy-making, and our lamentable descent into a species of Petrostate. Serious business, yes, but in the hands of a thoroughly creative and optimistic thinker, more illuminating than depressing. I can’t recommend the book more highly.
‘Tis a pleasure to offer this brief list of titles both thoughtful and entertaining. All are easily found at your local library.
Van Andruss is editor of the magazine Lived Experience. He enjoys the bioregional life and community in historic Moha outside of Lillooet, B.C.