When your first memory involves buying camping supplies, it may be no surprise that nature – and the nature of things – shapes your life. David Suzuki's first memory involves a trip downtown, in Vancouver, with his father – to buy gear for a camping trip. He was four.
"We pitched a tent right on the floor there and crawled in," Suzuki said during an interview last week. "What was so exciting to me was Dad was just as excited as I was. When we crawled in, he just held me in his arms and I felt so comfortable. As a kid, that was the most exciting moment of my life. And of course ever since then, camping has been a huge part of my life."
The reason for the look back is an upcoming birthday: Suzuki turns 80 on Thursday. To mark the milestone, The Nature of Things, the show that made him famous, will air a documentary, Suzuki@80, that looks at his work as a scientist, environmental activist and television host – and his private life. The doc paints Suzuki as a reluctant celebrity, doting grandfather and devoted environmentalist. (He also loves to wash dishes – including Ziploc bags, which he of course reuses.)
When I spoke with Suzuki – who was on vacation in Port Douglas, Australia – he had not yet seen the documentary. The plan is to watch it at home with his family on his birthday. Not that birthdays are a big deal to him. A year after that camping trip – they went to Loon Lake, B.C., and Suzuki caught his first (tiny) fish – life changed irreversibly. The family was forced out of Vancouver with the internment of Japanese Canadians. Birthday celebrations were not a priority.
"We were down to bare bones in the camps. I just don't remember birthdays," Suzuki said.
That experience was life-defining in a profound, terrible way, he explains.
"It was everything. It gave me all of my hang-ups. You have to remember now, here I am six to nine years old in camps, and all of the propaganda has pictures of this slant-eyed, bucktoothed Japanese guy sitting in a plane yelling "die Yankee" – and I was that image. I looked in the mirror and I had these tiny slit eyes and I was ashamed of who I was. When we got out and moved to Ontario, I wanted to have an operation on my eyes and wanted to dye my hair and change my name. I mean, we were the enemy and we were despised by Canada."
The irony is he experienced racism for the first time, he says, in the camps – and that helped shape him in ways unimaginable at the time.
Because his parents were born and raised in Canada, they spoke English at home. Most of the kids in the camps had parents who had come from Japan. "So the kids would beat me up because I couldn't speak Japanese," Suzuki explained. "The result of that was that I preferred not to play with these kids and spent a lot of time in the woods, which happened to be a beautiful area that is now Valhalla Provincial Park. That's really where I got to bond with nature, because I was a loner."
Suzuki studied science in the 1960s – with an undergraduate degree in biology and then a PhD in zoology. After a stint as assistant professor in the department of genetics at the University of Alberta, he took a position in the department of zoology at the University of British Columbia. This returned him to Vancouver, the city that had been his childhood home until internment.
"When I … accepted the job, I called my father immediately and his immediate reaction was, 'They kicked us out of there when the war started.' But when I moved there, I invited my mum and him to come, and when they came out for the first visit they were just enchanted," he recalled. His parents eventually moved back.
"For me it was magical because suddenly names that my parents had talked about – Granville Street, Hotel Georgia and all these places that had been important to them when they were living there, suddenly the names became real."
Suzuki, who is now professor emeritus at UBC, began working as a broadcaster in the 1970s – with the TV show Suzuki on Science on CBC and the CBC Radio science program Quirks and Quarks. In 1979, he became host of The Nature of Things – a position he still holds. Along the way, he established himself as an important voice in environmental activism. He is a prolific author, sits on numerous boards and has won a long list of awards and honours. His assertion in the documentary that his worst fault is laziness seems hard to believe.
Suzuki lives in a home on prime waterfront Vancouver real estate. Seeming to address the criticism that living in a dream house on a multimillion-dollar property may be at odds with his environmentalism, Suzuki points out in the film that he has lived there for more than 40 years; that his father-in-law planted his raspberries and asparagus; that he placed the ashes of his mother and a niece in the garden. "Every year when the clematis blooms, I know my mother and my niece are there." A friend carved the gate handle; his father brought in the hemlock treelings that now form the hedge.
"It's not a piece of real estate," he says in the documentary. "It's my home."
As he nears 80, Suzuki is occupied with his beloved grandchildren and continues to be preoccupied with climate change and the future of the planet. With time running out (in our interview, at least), I end by asking him for his thoughts on the issue that has helped define his life.
"There are many of my colleagues now who are saying it's too late; we've passed too many tipping points. And my response to that at my age is I don't have to worry about it in the sense that … I'll be dead when things really kick in badly. But I don't think anyone should say it's too late, because that's a hopeless prognosis. And we don't know enough to say it's too late. It's very, very urgent. But don't say it's too late. Because we have to have hope."
Suzuki@80 airs Thursday at 8 p.m. on The Nature of Things on CBC.