Unfamiliar territory | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Unfamiliar territory

Author J.B. MacKinnon’s latest explores our ever-shrinking, increasingly unnatural world

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 3, 2014

J.B. MacKinnon, 43, already a RBC Taylor Prize winner, in 2006 for Dead Man in Paradise, is nominated again this year for The Once and Future World. It’s a sustained meditation on how humanity is inexorably becoming dislocated from the diminishing natural world, simply by forgetting, from generation to generation, that it is shrinking. “We need to remember, reconnect and rewild,” the Vancouver author says. “But in that order: first, we have to recall what nature once was.”

Not long ago, I sat down with my father to ask about his boyhood on the North Atlantic shore. We were at my kitchen table; a bottle, increasingly empty, stood between us, and every few minutes we would hear the distant howl of the city’s monorail. Dad was remembering the smelt that used to run up a creek near his family’s home to a pool the locals called MacGillvary’s Pond. Those were days of celebration, he said, when every kid in the district—it had the unpromising name of Low Point—would turn up with a basket or a bucket to fill with the little silver fish, and by evening smoke from the oil dripping into cooking fires would be hanging over the bay. He doubted the smelt still spawned there, and I replied that ours was an age of emptiness—“an ugly world,” I called it. He looked at me then with the fierce eyes that used to turn me to stone as a child. “I don’t live in an ugly world,” he said. “I live in a beautiful world.”

It’s an easy truth to lose sight of. A few days later, I made my way from that same apartment to a patch of green in the heart of the city of millions where I’ve lived for more than a decade. A small lake is tucked away in the park, and though I had walked around it many times before, this day would be different. I had resolved to spend 60 minutes, just a single hour, giving nature my fullest attention.

The results were immediate. I’d always noticed that the pond was home to that most familiar of ducks, the mallard. Now I carefully examined every bird on the water, and was surprised to count 10 other species, among them geese, mergansers, coots, cormorants and the northern shoveller with its oversized, spoon-shaped bill. It was a peaceful scene, the ducks push-pushing across the surface or dunking their heads to feed in the shallows. Then the lake exploded. Every bird was in motion, scrambling for the reeds, diving, bursting upward into flight. In the trees along the shoreline, the songbirds spiralled down into the undergrowth, and the air rang with chittering and honking and squawking. I saw the shadow first—a dark triangle rippling over the unquiet water, and then the eagle itself, sweeping downward as fast as I could lower my eyes.

A bald eagle hunting ducks. It tipped its wings uncertainly, then bore down with terrible speed on three dabblers, which desperately laved the water with their wings and piped a call that spoke to me more of dignified effort than of terror. At the last instant the raft of ducks split apart, and the eagle weaved at one, then another, and in that moment of indecision all three ducks disappeared into the reeds. The eagle glided upward, talons empty. Then it circled back the way it had come and settled in again to watch the pond from a line of trees.

Life, death, the great wheel of eternity! Here it all was, in the heart of the city. Yet one observation stood out above all others. Dozens of people surrounded the pond—women jogged, children played, men threw sticks for their dogs to retrieve. Not one of them showed the slightest sign of having noticed the drama that had just played out before their eyes. If I considered that I had walked around the water’s edge perhaps a hundred times, then 99 times out of those hundred I had been just as oblivious as everyone else.

The crisis in the natural world is one of awareness as much as any other cause. As a global majority has moved into cities, a feedback loop is increasingly clear. In the city, we tend not to pay much attention to nature; for most of us, familiarity with corporate logos and celebrity news really is of more practical day-to-day use than a knowledge of local birds and edible wild plants. With nature out of focus, it becomes easier to overlook its decline. Then, as the richness and abundance of other species fade from land and sea, nature as a whole becomes less interesting—making it even less likely we will pay attention to it.

Maclean's March 3, 2014