Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

Remembering Our Place in the Natural World


It was well below zero outside and dark, and my breath, quickly turning to cloud, seeks its forebears in the heavens above. But even though walking in this landscape makes me at times fancy myself a walker in our mythic North, straddling alongside “the Dorset giants who drove the Vikings back to their long ships,” Bank Street, however cool, is still an incredible stretch of the imagination away from Al Purdy’s North, or the tundra of Lopez’s Arctic Dreams. Perhaps owing to that dissimilarity, I don’t carry food in my backpack, but instead a small copy of notes from the journals of Thoreau—that inimitable man, that Harvard graduate who gave up human boundaries to make himself at home in the woods. And I think I have Gary Snyder—the poet laureate of Deep Ecology—in there too, somewhere.



That Beat of a poet,

that bead-wearing monk

of a Zazen poet

Part mountain ranger,

                                                                part “intro-naut”


Later, sitting in one of the front pews in Southminster United Church, the time at least 5 minutes past 7, I wonder why J.B. Mackinnon hasn't taken the stage yet. But, having come to a talk on nature, perhaps I had someone the likes of John Muir or Edward Abbey in my head, and am a bit surprised when Neil Wilson, the director of the Writers’ Festival, introduces J.B. and a young looking fellow in a plaid shirt steps onto the stage.


Mackinnon has just recently released his book The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be . As the title might suggest, it is a work of historical ecology, or the history of nature, today and into the future. The bookseller blurbs say that “The Once and Future World began in the moment J.B. MacKinnon realized the grassland he grew up on was not the pristine wilderness he had always believed it to be.” I feel however that it has its genesis a bit before that; before he realized that the wilderness he had seen in his childhood was far from “pristine” and closer to an illusion. When James once returned to his home in the interior grasslands of B.C., he discovered that the land had been turned into a housing development. It was this personal encounter with a memory hijacked by development that led him to his research, only to realize that what he remembered was in itself artificial.


In his childhood, he had seen the Red Fox as the biggest beast on the land, but when he started looking into the matter, he found out that the Fox wasn’t even a native species, and was instead introduced to the grasslands in the 1700s. In fact, it was the Grizzly Bear that was the biggest native animal. 


How many of us have been fortunate enough to see a whale…in the wild? Mackinnon says that 150 years ago, the whale population was thriving, and the Great Whale used to swim into Vancouver waters. But by 1908, the abundant whale population had been hunted into obscurity. And by now, our present time, the disappearance is normal, as if this is the way it has always been. But, Mackinnon says, “if we are aware of their presence in the past, then their absence would seem abnormal.


As he expands his research, Mackinnon finds that this capacity to readily forget is characterized by the term “Shifting Baseline Syndrome,” a term that was initially coined by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly in 1995. Pauly describes the syndrome thus: “Each generation of fisheries scientist accepts as baseline the stock situation that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species…"


Generation after generation our reference points slip, and we accept compromises for reality. “We excuse, permit, adapt — and forget” writes Mackinnon. What we need, he says, is a process of Re-wilding, reacquainting ourselves with the natural world. While the idea is not at all new—Thoreau firmly believed that in wildness lay the salvation of the world—Mackinnon applies it on a large scale, perhaps knowing full well that the human species, for the first time in its history, has become an inhabitant of cities—homo urbanus—as the majority of the world’s population now lives and dies far from the woods of Thoreau and Emerson.


Diana Beresford-Kroeger has come to speak about her latest book The Sweetness of a Simple Life and one thing she says early on in her talk holds my attention. “I’m not a very wealthy person,” she says, “nor do I intend to be.” This reminds me of Thoreau’s words in his Journals: “Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his tend toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity. I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb-nail.”


Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, published in 1973,is in the same vein of thought—voluntary simplicity and frugality—as Beresford-Kroeger’s thought and challenges our progress-based economics and the myth that happiness is purchased through higher levels of consumption. She belongs to an ancient family in Ireland, part of the Druidic tradition, and has long committed herself to the protection of the world’s forests, as can be seen from her earlier work. She now tells us a story about her search for the sacred tree of the First Nations People. The Red Cedar tree, also known as the Tree of Life for its diverse benefits, was almost completely wiped out of existence—like the whales and the grizzlies of B.C.—as a result of European and post-European contact. While it might be difficult for us to imagine the significance and sacredness of a tree, some would say that that sense of sacredness and meaning can be evinced through the portrayal of the “Tree of Souls” in James Cameron’s film Avatar.


The subtitle of Beresford-Kroeger’s book reads “Tips for Healthier, Happier, and Kinder Living Gleaned from the Wisdom and Science of Nature,” and that might by itself paint a portrait of the lady on stage. She speaks with the wizened air of a grandmother, doling out advice to her eager-to-run-around child, advice that though might seem silly and naïve, contains truth nonetheless. 


In the end, we must remember the beginning, and all that has passed since. We need a process of “active remembering,” to keep alive the wisdom of the ages, and not be deluded into accepting our own present-day reality as the absolute truth. Those who have spoken about the need for a simpler existence, unfettered by modern day contrivances which sell on account of their plastic packaged purpose of “simplicity” and “happiness,” these speakers are chastised for propagating a return to the stone-age. But this accusation itself is based on what Mackinnon has spoken of as the shifting baseline and totally abnegates the past. The now-as-it-is becomes the norm. But “when we talk about a ‘norm,’” says Gary Snyder, “we’re talking about the grain of things in the larger picture. Living close to earth, living more simply, living more responsibly, are all quite literally in the grain of things… I will stress, and keep stressing, these things, because one of the messages I feel I have to convey—not as a preaching but as a demonstration hidden within poetry—is of deeper harmonies and deeper simplicities, which are essentially sanities, even though they appear irrelevant, impossible, behind us, ahead of us, or right now."


“Right now” is an illusion, too.” Snyder’s point connects the thought and purpose of Beresford-Kroeger and Mackinnon: we need to remember that we once lived simpler lives, and that was better for all of us. And that no matter how outrageous it might seem now, given especially our proclivity for social amnesia, it is still possible to live that way.