Yet for all of its sinews, McKinnon again and again turns the question of how we live in the natural world to one of how we hold it in our minds and our memories. In essence, the book is a love story, maybe the oldest one: between humankind, conscious and curious, and the stuff that grows around us, invoking and sustaining our desires, informing our ideas of who we are. McKinnon puts it thus: “The lone person on a wild landscape is a baseline of human liberty, a condition in which we are restrained only by physical limits and the bounds of our own consciousness.”
In Feral, Monbiot refers to the phenomenon of ecological boredom brought on by “restraint and sublimation” of those instincts that carried us through a not-so-distant past devoid of technological conveniences. Monbiot’s life is full of intrepid adventure, and it’s sometimes hard to relate to a man who strides around hauling dead deer up onto his shoulders. (Several chapters of Feral are largely accounts of really exciting fishing trips.)
MacKinnon knows the same ache, but – perhaps as someone who lives in the lush greenness of British Columbia and not on a continent gardened into submission – his tone is less crazed, his gaze wider, more awed. At times, he writes like a fabulist (“Once, in Argentina, I saw a city disappear”) and his prose is a reminder that the gifts of nature are also gifts to language. We meet quokkas and numbats and glyptodonts, and a wave of stampeding beasts fearsome enough to drive away an invading armada – “tortoises, snakes, lizards, voles and mice, armadillos, foxes, wild cats, ground birds, songbirds, even vultures, even locusts … a storm lit from within by the flash of teeth and the whites of eyes.”
The diagnosis that emerges from the oasis is revelatory: When it comes to nature, ours is a failure of the imagination. Although the process is physical, our combined butchering, razing and consuming of the Earth’s total biomass is a feedback loop eating away at our capacity for wonder. Our memory of nature is in tatters; we can’t conceive of what we’ve lost, even as it disappears before our eyes.
McKinnon tells a story about beekeepers in central China. When their bees started to disappear (the mysterious “Colony Collapse Syndrome”) they hired workers to pollinate the blossoms by hand, using chopsticks tufted with feathers. A study conducted 15 years later found that the farmers preferred the efficiency and obedience of human workers to the natural whims of the bees. Human pollination was better for the bottom line. (To their credit, the researchers concluded, “Market valuation is an exercise for people who have lost all sense of ecological embeddedness.”) At the heart of both books is a term for our ongoing forgetfulness. First described by University of British Columbia fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly, Shifting Baseline Syndrome is what happens when each generation grows up believing what it started with is normal, rather than one step in a long story of human impact. Over the generations, monsters that actually lived turn into tall tales.
There’s great sadness in humankind losing the capacity to be awed by anything but ourselves. In the culture at large, you can sense a certain yearning for a wilder life, closer contact with what the Romantics called the Sublime. It is there in Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe’s Doppler, about a man who takes to the woods to live with a moose. Or in Paul Bogard’s book The End of Night, a quest for darkness in an electrified world. It’s also the best explanation I have found for why people are willing to endure cottage country traffic for a few hours among the pines.