Nature writing as a genre has not caught on in Canada as it has in the US. Such revered authors as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, and today's Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez, are steady sellers. In fact, since the 1990s, there has been an explosion of American nature writing anthologies, but none in Canada, and this is the void that David R. Boyd, the editor of Northern Wild, intends to fill.
Boyd is an environmental lawyer and a professor at the University of Victoria, B.C., and a former director of the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. He is also an enthusiastic reader since his youth in Calgary, when his favorite authors were Farley Mowat and Robert Service.
Boyd decided to hunt down the best of today's Canadian nature writers and began to search high and low among a mind-boggling number of books and magazines, and even by word of mouth. The result of his effort is found in Northern Wild, an eloquent anthology of eclectic essays by award-winning writers like Don Gayton and Sharon Butala, and a few nationally unknowns.
As I love this genre and have read all I can find by the best like Henry David Thoreau, I was anxious to familiarize myself with more of today's nature writers. I have learned now that in Canada, they are plentiful and passionate about their subjects, and not a dying species.
Northern Wild makes "wild Canada" accessible in its beauty and grandeur. It is a book of creative non-fiction of a high literary quality filled with drama, humor, personal facts and environmental issues that will engage any reader willing to try this mostly uncharted trail.
I was amazed at how much I could learn about my country, from the Chinook wind to the Chinook salmon. I was amazed at how useful this book can be. Just after watching a television news report that recommended DEET as an indispensable bug repellent, I read in the essay "The ABCs of Bug Protection" by Jamie Bastedo, that DEET or "Di-ethyl-m-toluamide Ówas developed in the 1940s by uniformed entomologists working in secret laboratories owned and operated by the U.S. militaryÓHigh concentration of DEET (over 30 percent) when applied as directed on the spray can label, may result in varying degrees of toxic encephalopathy, a poisoned brain."
I am grateful for that information and for much more divulged by these outstanding authors, some of whom are internationally respected scientists like John B. Theberge and his wife Mary Theberge, who co-wrote the dramatic essay "Amber Fire" which is an excerpt from their most recent work, Wolf Country: Eleven Years tracking the Algonquin wolves. We follow the movements of a wolf named Nahma 1 captured in Algonquin Park, Ontario, who was then equipped with a collar that emits radio signals. Nahma 1 eventually disappears and the scientists after many hours of searching, find its chewed-up collar in an area way out of her usual territory. They concluded that Nahma 1 had been killed and dismembered by the pack, an unusual "wolf-wolf killing".
Several other essays are written by scientists such as Pierre BTland of Montreal, Quebec, who according to the biographical notes that accompanies "Book of the Dead" "has dedicated much of his life to efforts to save belugas". Certainly, this essay, which combines personal history as well as history of the St.Lawrence River, touched me, as it recreates a trip on the ferryboat from RiviFre-du-Loup. Its description of the beauty of the river contrasted sharply with its account of how its water full of various chemicals and PCBs endanger its special inhabitants, the beluga whales.
BTland, who admits that he might be criticized by his more cautious colleagues for his "strong statements" such as, the whales are "dying of pollution", writes hauntingly: "We would not even know about the belugas' plight if we had not taken these carcasses every year to the necropsy room at the veterinary school of the University of MontrTal, far upriver, driving for hours through the night on the highway, hauling strange horizontal ghosts like gigantic alien sausages."
Other nature subjects represented are the Arctic in such outstanding essays as "Hunter of the Northern Ice" by Wade Davis, and "How Inuit Find their Way in the Trackless Arctic" by David F. Pelly; and fly fishing in "From Lines in the Water: A Fisherman's Life on the Miramichi" by David Adams Richard, and "Hundreds of Little Jonahs" by Terry Glavin.
In his extensive research, Boyd has obviously made an attempt to include authors from across Canada, though the majority seem to be from the west and there are none from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia or Prince Edward Island. Lets hope that Boyd is now at work preparing another anthology that will include nature writers from these provinces.
Wonderful women writers are contributors. Beth Powning is not a scientist but in her essay "Home", she writes in accurately observed details of a powerful snowstorm that changes the New Brunswick landscape where she has lived for twenty-five years. Her great attachment to her farmhouse and the joy she can feel just rising in the morning among familiar objects and sights, is a good antidote for our time of constant change. It communicates the value of rootedness and its connection to a feeling of home, of belonging.
She writes beautifully:
I'm longing for a blizzard. Without storms, winter creeps by dully, undelineated, and I become irritable. Storms are like the wildflowers of winter; they mark the passage of time, restore perspective and scale.
A thin, milky layer of cloud creeps across the sky, and the sun becomes pale, without presence. I smell snow on the air, and hear, on the radio, that a storm is approaching from Quebec."
The book might have been better served if the first selection entitled "Prayer" by Beth Brant, a Mohawk writer from Ontario, would have been placed at the end as it differs from the overall style and tone of the essays. It would have resonated better alongside Basil H. Johnston's Ojibwa tale "Beyond Yonder: Awuss-woodih" which completes the collection.
Northern Wild is a breath of fresh pure mountain air: it can relax and change you. Buy this book and you will have more than an exciting and entertaining read; you will also be a generous contributor for, as it is explained in the Acknowledgements, the writers "have waived or reduced their fees since the royalties of this book support the important environmental work of the David Suzuki Foundation." ˛
Anne Cimon is a Montreal writer and book reviewer. She is the author of No Country for Women and other poetry collections. She is currently at work on a biography of Susanna Moodie forthcoming from XYZ Publishing.