Reviewed here: The Once and Future World, By J.B MacKinnon (Random House Canada, 272 pages, $29.95) and Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, By George Monbiot (Allen Lane, 256 pages, $30).
A few weeks ago, I noticed a bee clinging to the screen of my bathroom window. It was dusted with yellow pollen, drunk on the stuff, and I brought my face in close to look. But I was busy, just taking a quick break, so after a few seconds I blew gently on the screen; the bee buzzed away. Immediately, I wished I’d watched it for longer.
Human beings are shortsighted by nature. We experience our brief lives as vast expanses of time, even with a knowledge of history measured in billions of years. Our attention spans are in tatters because of smartphones and tidbit media, and it’s harder and harder to find sustained moments to just look at the world beyond our screens.
The shortsightedness, and the bee thing: Both figure into Vancouver writer J.B. MacKinnon’s new book, The Once and Future World. MacKinnon likes to keep nature close. With Alisa Smith, he co-wrote the bestselling 100-Mile Diet, which helped to launch the local eating movement. He also wrote the narrative for the NFB’s online wildlife surveillance documentary, Bear 71.
Here, he advocates for an even deeper connection to the land we live on, and a longer knowledge of what we take from it. The Once and Future World argues that, when it comes to natural ecosystems, we are continuously forgetting what the Earth really looks like, and as such have forgotten what it is capable of. It is one of those rare reading experiences that can change the way you see everything around you, recommended for anyone interested in anything that lives and breathes.
MacKinnon’s book has a place in a wider movement called “rewilding.” The term is a slippery fish. It can refer to a conservation approach that favours restoring large-scale wilderness areas and connecting them, to protect the habitats of so-called keystone species – animals, like elephants or beaver, which play a role in engineering their ecosystems. It can mean the reintroduction of native species to an area from which they have disappeared, such the return of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park. It hints even further, toward human efforts to resurrect long-extinct creatures such as the dodo, using preserved DNA.
In the recent book, Feral: Rewilding the Land, Sea and Human Life, British writer George Monbiot defines it (in part) as a passive movement, an attempt to let ecological processes resume. In other words, to stand back a bit and watch what happens. MacKinnon keeps it similarly vague, but adds poetry in his description of efforts “to give nature fuller expression in a world in which it is muted.”
Perhaps what MacKinnon and his fellow rewilders are addressing transcends precise definition.
Of course, there is plenty of science involved. A lot of it is packed into The Once and Future World. We learn about trophic cascades, domino-like impacts that originate with a single species (often a large predator) and reverberate down the food chain. Delving into ecological history, MacKinnon spins out a long parade of fascinating specimens that are either extinct or on their way. Some are long gone: the short-faced bear of the Pleistocene era, tall enough on all fours to stare a grown adult in its eyes. Some are more recent, such as the thylacine, a hyena-like beast that was the largest carnivorous marsupial of modern times, the last of which was captured on film in 1933 before dying in captivity in Tasmania. There even are several bona fide sharknados. The ironic result of this ghosted menagerie is a book is so filled with life that at times it seems to wriggle in your hands.