Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Close Encounters with the Natural World with Jennifer Kingsley and Deni Béchard

It’s six thirty on a Monday evening and I’m weary. I’ve spent the day sitting at a desk, sending emails, writing reports, and flicking through social media. My desk is in a cubicle, so I spent all day listening to other people send emails, write reports, and probably flick through social media.


Neil Wilson started with an introduction to Close Encounters With The Natural World by speaking about the hard work Deni Béchard and Jennifer Kingsley are doing, by taking on the frontlines of nature and reporting back to the rest of us. As someone who has never left North America and who heavily relies on a hot shower to wake up every morning, I really felt like “the rest of us” throughout the course of this event.


Béchard spoke about his time working in the Congo with the Bonobo Conservation Initiative. His talk mirrored the description of his book, The Last Bonobo: Journey into the CongoIt was part travelogue, part polemic, and part natural history. Béchard spoke briefly of his journey to the Congo, and he spoke in depth about the grim state of the bonobos there – how they came to be that way, what is being done, and what we can do about it.


He spent the most time, however, speaking on controversial subjects related to the Congo. Béchard denounced large NGOs and not-for-profits that make empty promises of conservation and spend their money instead on fundraising and administration. These organizations provide “simple” Western solutions in Africa and other countries without bothering to discover how the native way of life works first. These quick fixes often create conflict within native communities, lead to environmental breakdown, and unhappy and unhealthy residents.


Kingsley showed us breathtaking photos from her 1100km trip along the Back River in Nunavut, and spoke of the power nature wielded over her during the 54-day journey. Photographs of plagues of mosquitoes, rapids, and tents destroyed by windstorms painted a picture of adversity. But the same series of photos also inspired awe and wonder: endless herds of caribou that look like rocks against the tundra, water so glassy you can’t tell the sky from the river, and sunsets more vibrant than a new box of Crayolas.


Kingsley asked important questions of us, to think about in our own time: what is the significance of our encounters with nature? Are they based on our interpretation, or will they always be bigger than us? When are you ready for an encounter with nature? Who should be out there? Though the subject matter wasn’t so much about the scientific aspects of nature as I expected, both Béchard and Kingsley left me in self-reflection after the event.


Béchard talked about the importance of empathy, listening, and respecting other peoples’ ways of life. Our planet is in its current bleak state because of our refusal to change the way we relate to the natural world and each other. Béchard spoke of clear examples of how these three concepts are simple steps that will help us protect our earth. We can’t continue to harm and ignore each other when the common goal of conservation is so much bigger than us as individuals. (Deni also had me wondering how I can convince my fellow females to stop reproducing with aggressive males in order to domesticate our violent culture, but I think that was meant to be a side note from him.)

Kingsley had me thinking about the barriers in my life that are disguised as opportunities, and vice versa. She spoke about how, when she set out on her trip along the Back River, she knew there would be obstacles and challenges. But when we set out to challenge ourselves, the realm of that endeavor often takes place within a predetermined frame in our minds, and we are often wary to step outside of that conception. How often do we really challenge ourselves outside of that fixed agreement of what the challenge will be?


There were also lighthearted moments to the event, such as when Kingsley showed us a picture of all of her friends on the trip, naked and flexing toward the horizon, or when Béchard talked about how much bonobos liked the movie Field of Dreams Béchard and Kingsley presented two very different stories of their encounters with nature that, for me at least, were hard to imagine. I know that my 35-hour weeks in the office are not preparing me for a 54-day paddling voyage into the black hole that is the Canadian Arctic. I am also skeptical of my ability to help with viral conservation in the Congo, based on my difficulty being civil with coworkers on Monday mornings. So, I’m glad people like Béchard and Kinsgley are facing these challenges and documenting them so “the rest of us” can still be a part of it.