J.B. MacKinnon, The Once and Future World, Random House Canada (2013)
We live in a 10 per cent world. Said again, we live in a world in which 90 per cent of the natural environment is gone. It’s a mean average, and it’s tough to fathom. Still, it’s a level claim that J.B. MacKinnon makes throughout his book The Once and Future World, ((Excerpted here.)) which is shortlisted for the 2014 Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction. Consider the grey whale. With an estimated population of about 25,000 of them lumbering along the Pacific coast of North America today, the species is considered to have fully recovered in the region. But analysis also suggests that the grey whale once numbered many times more. “Imagine: seventy-five thousand whales making the yearly migration from their breeding grounds off Mexico to the food-rich waters of Alaska,” writes MacKinnon.
In this rich and readable book, an awareness of the natural world — what it was, what it is, and what it can be — is rendered in elegy and sentiment, but is always grounded in detailed exposition. We’re introduced to the work of psychologists and sociologists, biologists and ethnobotanists, and in surprisingly digestible ways. But in total, MacKinnon probes a particular point. “To many, the idea of paying deliberate attention to nature may sound ridiculously old-fashioned,” he writes. “So is breathing, I suppose.”
It’s true that human beings depend on ecological systems for survival. The problem is that the systems we’ve built are the trees that obscure our view of the forest. We don’t understand the world that we’ve lost, MacKinnon informs, even as it changes before our eyes. Environmental amnesia weighs on the present as new views of normality erase the old. I simply can’t imagine a pod of whales swimming 75,000 strong. It’s impossibly foreign.
Though we associate closeness to nature with tribes of hunter gatherers and to our distant relatives, we forget that not long ago — just before the Industrial Revolution — we had an intimate relationship with the natural world. We could read and see its tidings and artfully express its behaviour. “The lark’s habit of flying into the air to sing was known as ‘exalting.’ The nocturnal song of nightingales was called ‘watching,’ from the idea of keeping a watch through the darkness,” writes MacKinnon.
To bring back this attitude, MacKinnon advocates for “rewilding.” In order to make us aware of the state of the present world, we must physically ground it in its past. That means, populating regions of the world with species (or their relatives) that haven’t lived there for millennia. “Reintroduce” elephants to the Great Plains in place of their distant relatives the mastodon. Bring lions and bears back to Europe, grey wolves back to Yellowstone. ((Check the embedded video for the amazing trophic cascade effects of wolf reintroduction at Yellowstone.)) It would make for a spectacle, but that’s just the point. Acquaint us with the wild again, MacKinnon suggests, and it will stay in our mind and “give nature fuller expression in a world in which it is muted.”
Image: The Rocky Mountains. Fontxito.