This week, the RBC Charles Taylor Prize will be awarded to one Canadian non-fiction book from the past year. We spoke to the nominated authors about their craft and the process of writing their shortlisted book. Here, an excerpt from J.B. MacKinnon’s The Once and Future World.
It has been said that a nature writer is a person who sees the same things as the rest of us but thinks he sees them better. There is a grain of caustic truth in that, but it hardly decides the argument. The issue today is not whether you see heaven in a wildflower, but whether you look at the flower at all.
To many, the idea of paying deliberate attention to nature may sound ridiculously old-fashioned. So is breathing, I suppose. An awareness of nature is not first and foremost a sentimental or spiritual practice, but a profoundly realistic one – a way of binding ourselves to the simple truth that human beings depend on ecological systems for our survival. Awareness is a countercurrent to the feedback loop of modern life. Pay attention, and we will value nature more. When we value nature more, we work harder to reverse its declines. Reverse the decline in variety and abundance, and nature becomes steadily more fascinating, more spectacular, more meaningful.
Awareness can be its own reward. One particularly endless February, when the grey and damp of the season had crept into life itself and good news seemed to have gone out of fashion, I noticed that the heads and necks of glaucous-winged gulls were changing, almost overnight, from the smudged brown of winter to the waiter’s-apron white of breeding season. The traditional harbinger of spring at northern latitudes – the first robin – was weeks away, but here was a more subtle, much earlier sign that, yes, one day the sun would again beat down upon our backs. There is much to be gained and nothing to lose in these small acts of reconnection.
Nature remains a more hopeful place than the news about it might suggest. I recently joined three professional biologists for twenty-four straight hours of birdwatching (or birding, as aficionados call it, because the birds are often identified by sound rather than by sight). We started at 1 a.m., climbing high into the mountains in order to spend the day descending through every possible kind of habitat on our way back to the valley floor. By the following night, we had encountered 117 species of bird. The biologists were disappointed, but to me, it seemed miraculous. One hundred seventeen species. It was more kinds of bird in a single day than I had knowingly seen in my entire life. They were everywhere, from spruce grouse pecking across the snowfields to an enormous great horned owl, outraged we had discovered him in his canyon lair.
There was a time when religious scholars sought to relate every species to the primacy of human beings – lice are our incentive to cleanliness, deer keep our meat fresh until we need it, horse shit smells sweeter than other turds because horses are chosen to live alongside us. For the most part we have left such thoughts behind, yet the way we shutter ourselves away from nature has much the same effect today, making it easy to believe that only our own species is at the centre of creation. It’s a difficult worldview to sustain in the presence of the ruby-crowned kinglet, a bird that weighs less than a handful of coins and sings in forests so cold and high that no human culture in history has ever lingered there for long.
The biologists and I didn’t only see birds. We saw bats and beavers and a pine marten. We saw snakes, and two black bears. We saw what is not meant to be seen: the twin tips of a mule deer’s ears where it hid in a stand of cattails, and a doe in secret stillness on her day bed. And we were able to see with our own eyes the vulnerability of so many creatures: the way that Lewis’s woodpeckers appeared only in a solitary gully of wildfire-blackened trees, or cliff swallows gathered the damp clay to mud their gourd-shaped nests from a single puddle between a highway and a parking lot.
So much life, and such precariousness of life. In only a single day of careful observation, the wild landscape came to seem infinitely more alive, more abundant, more full of purpose than I had remembered, and because of that, more worthy of care. It remains a beautiful world, and it is its beauty, far more than its emptiness, that can inspire us to seek more nature in our lives and in our world.
Excerpted from The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be. Copyright © 2013 J.B. MacKinnon. Published by Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.
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