The more you read environmentally inclined literature, the less you are surprised by the details tracing the downward spiral of the planet’s ecological health. And yet the world is wide enough, nature fathomless enough that, given time to do the research, a good writer can still surprise you. J.B. MacKinnon’s The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be sets a high mark. There are astounding images and facts on nearly every page. One of them nearly got me run over.
“It can take fifty years for a huge carcass to fully decompose, meaning that a whale can ‘live’ after death as long as it did in life.” Walking while you read has its dangers, but usually I can reserve enough consciousness to handle downtown traffic. Whales, though, have a way of filling up the mind. With the massive carcass there at the bottom of the sea in my brain releasing its carbon slowly over 50 years, there was nothing left for navigation. A voice yelling “Ever see a ‘don’t walk’ sign, jerk?” brought me back to the surface.
If The Once and Future World were merely an assemblage of astonishing facts about the more-than-human world and our less-than-humane treatment of its creatures and ecologies, it would still be worth reading, but of course it is much more. MacKinnon, best known for his co-authored The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating, has blended historical ecology, memoir and environmental essay to remind us what the world once was and could be once again.
One of the great virtues of environmental writing is that it can help us to remember what has been lost over time as the advance of human civilization altered ecological relationships and landscapes and wiped out plants and animals on land and sea. Not a happy remembering—try reading Farley Mowat’s Sea of Slaughter—but a vital one if we hope to get to the next steps of reconnecting and rewilding that The Once and Future World proposes.
Hopping back and forth from continent to continent and island to island to make his case, MacKinnon gives a lucid account of why we forget and why remembering matters. Like many of the most respected environmental writers, he takes care to point out that even before the much-maligned industrial age, the wild world had already been severely modified by us. With each generation, he says, the baseline of what is natural or normal in any landscape shifts. From the Pleistocene mega-fauna extinctions to the reports in last week’s Guardian that Jamaica’s poor are eating the island’s crocodiles into extirpation, we are drifting mindlessly toward a world that will be much less wild than today’s already-tamed biosphere. That pernicious drift, MacKinnon knows, is caused by the incremental and uncounted decisions of human beings, some choosing survival instead of a healthy environment, others simply choosing greater -comfort today without seeing or caring about what those choices will do to tomorrow.
Looking back intelligently is even more uncommon and vexed by the usual problems of reading history. Not that long ago, romanticism and the idea of a nobler past allowed us a tincture of pleasure in remembering. In recent years, though, Jared Diamond and Ronald Wright have applied the latest evidence in archaeology to disabuse us of all fuzzy notions of there ever being a human civilization that lived in harmony with nature. Discovering that we are not that different from our pre–industrial ancestors is the coldest of comforts, especially if we then conclude that destroying nature is part of human nature.
MacKinnon takes us to that brink gingerly in the latter sections of the book as we go from the more recent cautionary tale of Hawaii to the older lessons of Easter Island, the example most often used in these discussions of our apparent inability to stop ourselves. Then, to consider the possibility of reversal—no matter how remote that seems—he asks the reader to imagine another island, one that is as yet undiscovered and teeming with all of the abundance and diversity now missing from most of the planet. After describing the place in detail and discussing the pressures for exploitation that would make preservation difficult once the island is found, MacKinnon gets to the moral imperative contained in his “remember, reconnect and rewild” injunction: that is, to make such a turn and live in a wilder world, “we’ll have to find a way to weave nature into our identities, until guarding against harms to the natural world is as innate as watching out for ourselves, our families or our communities.”
The matter of how we weave nature into our identities MacKinnon leaves aside, at least for this book. That question takes us to trickier terrain, cratered with our failed attempts—political, moral, civic, philosophical and religious—to take a culture from unenlightened selfishness to enlightened self-sacrifice.
This fall I attended a gathering of poets, nature writers, naturalists, scientists and activists in British Columbia’s Wells Gray Provincial Park. After recounting the rapid decline of the park’s mountain caribou as well as of many other creatures and ecologies across Canada, we discussed the political and social issues we face in trying to hold onto scraps of nature, eventually, inevitably arriving at how we might begin to turn things around and live well with wildness.
At one point, poet Tim Lilburn spoke up and said he thinks a lot about our prehistoric ancestors, the ones who made the great cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet. They journeyed deep inside the earth, farther than they had any practical reason to go, risking encounters with cave bears much larger than our modern grizzly. “What were they doing in there all that time?” Tim asked. The era of this cave painting practice extends for 20,000 years or more, twice the span of agriculture as part of the human journey.
Early on in the book, MacKinnon expresses his own awe at “the great mysteries of the early cave paintings in Europe and Australia … the way they represent details of large and dangerous animals.” He suggests that to observe nature so closely “would have required a human being to be just another species on the landscape.” Given that observation, and still haunted by Lilburn’s question, I have let myself wonder if the cave painting period was part of a crisis of awakening in the human journey that parallels our current moment of truth. In awe of the very animals they eventually hunted to extinction, our ancestors went back inside the womb of the earth, in a spiritual descent in which they would discover that that they were, for good or ill, emerging from that natal intimacy with the rest of nature, bearing more tools and consciousness than the other animals, and dreaming forward from that rebirth to whatever might come next.
The Once and Future World is a worthy contribution to the growing list of books that address the juncture at which we find ourselves—the words we are writing on the subway walls, so to speak. What would it take for us to make another descent to more beautiful depths where we might imagine forward from within the earth’s long dreams for its human dimension?