Skip to content

From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

Crusader of the Woodlands

It took a Czech botanist to spotlight Canada’s old-growth forests

J.B. MacKinnon

Canadians live closer to wild nature than almost any people on Earth, and yet the way we think about the natural world remains largely unexplored terrain. In high school we learn that our country’s history amounts to survival in a rugged land, with “human against nature” as a kind of motto. Meanwhile, ask even the most avid outdoorsperson or environmentalist whose thoughts on nature inspire them, and you will hear names such as Henry Thoreau, John Muir, Annie Dillard or perhaps the Romantic poets: voices from America and Britain.

These authors’ works contain much that is universal, but they do not—cannot—“speak Canadian.” Ours is a particular natural history. The first humans to arrive in what is now the United States, for example, invaded a true wilderness south of the continent-spanning glaciers that still covered almost all of Canada; as those ice sheets retreated, humans and other species settled the Canadian landscape nearly in lockstep. In many parts of the country, First Nations remain the dominant presence on their territories, while our twinned colonial cultures also shaped the country as different from any other. So did the land itself. America’s frontier, defined as the advancing line of colonial settlement, closed in the 1890s; by that measure, Canada’s frontier remains open. And while our American cousins largely emptied their country of wolves, bears and cougars, many Canadians still live in the presence of animals that inspire fear and awe.

Our relationship to the wild is globally unique—less romantic than nuanced, less abstracted and more concrete—and it warrants a literature to give voice to our experience. This is the quietly important contribution of Jan Drabek’s Vladimir Krajina: World War II Hero and Ecology Pioneer. The biography of a Czech botanist turned World War Two hero who later emigrated to Canada, the book begins as a tale of wartime intrigue. Its post-war chapters, however, show us Canada through the eyes of a new arrival who, his senses alive to the living world, concluded that here, too, there was something worth fighting for.

Vladimir Krajina is a biography of the friendly school; from the outset, Drabek identifies his subject as “one of my father’s best friends” and the Krajina family as tightly knit with his own. There is nothing illegitimate about this—biographies are often works by admirers, and Krajina is not so well known a figure that a serious deconstruction seems necessary. It is enough to simply hear his story told.

What a story it is. At one point, Drabek tallies the times that Krajina narrowly escaped death, and the list runs to seven. The Czech underground remains little known to the outside world beyond the stock character of Victor Lazlo in the classic film Casablanca, but it counted among its successes the assassination of the regional SS leader Reinhard Heydrich. Krajina—by all accounts a dignified, detail-oriented man—did not support that particular action, but oversaw or personally transmitted some 6,000 secret intelligence reports to London during the war. Troop movements, the production of war materials, inside information from within the Nazi ranks—this was critical information in an era when satellite photography and unmanned drones were the realm of science fiction.

He paid dearly for his participation. Krajina’s wife, the astonishingly resilient Marie, was sent to a Nazi concentration camp. His brother was executed. An innocent stranger was killed for the misfortune of being mistaken for Krajina, and hundreds more lost their lives to Nazi revenge for the resisters’ successes. Following the assassination of Heydrich, for example, the Nazis executed 1,357 people.

Krajina himself was ultimately arrested, a riveting story about which I will only say this: if you ever have to depend on a cyanide pill in order to commit suicide if captured by your enemies, make sure to keep an eye on its “best before” date. Krajina survived, even ending up back in Prague as the city leapt overnight from direst oppression to the first wave of western post-war consumer culture. “The Czechs were introduced to Hershey bars, Juicy Fruit chewing gum and canned orange juice,” Drabek writes in a passage that captures the surreal dissonance of the liberation. “Frequently there was spontaneous dancing. Boy Scout uniforms and those of the Czech patriotic Sokols—both organizations forbidden by the Nazis—appeared in profusion in the streets as young people tried to learn the strange words to ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo.’”

Too soon, however, the author adds a caveat: “It’s a good thing that humankind does not have the advantage of an immediate historical perspective. Otherwise there would probably be little joy in living.” As Czechoslovakia slipped into an eventual four decades of communist dictatorship, Krajina—a committed democrat with popular appeal as a war hero—was targeted as a threat to the new ruling order. He fled the country, followed later by his family.

It may seem difficult to reconcile a man who went from being a fearless resister of Nazi brutality to passing happy days classifying mosses, but Drabek points out that even as an underground leader, Krajina refused to carry a gun. “It was the biologist in him, in conjunction with his Christianity and humanism, which dictated this high respect for all life”—and it was in Canada that Krajina the biologist could finally find full expression.

In 1949, the University of British Columbia in Vancouver offered the exiled Krajina an appointment as a lecturer, but there was more to his interest in the country than that. Krajina arrived in British Columbia to find, on the one hand, a botanical paradise. Europe by that time had few old-growth woodlands, among them a Czechoslovakian “primeval forest” of just 666 hectares—not even twice the size of Vancouver’s downtown Stanley Park. On the other hand, Krajina quickly saw that Canadians were treating their forests as a limitless resource. “If they were doing in Europe what they practised in this province they would be thrown in jail,” he remarked.

After facing fascism and communism, Krajina was hardly intimidated by Canadian forest companies and bureaucrats. At the time, ecology was a new science, and a radical one—the domain of the “purist,” as Krajina was dismissively described by one forest company. The issues that Krajina relentlessly pursued—sustainable forestry and the protection of large, ecologically representative landscapes—remain contentious today, and if he did not live to join the logging road blockades that transformed B.C. forestry in the 1990s, he did help lay the intellectual groundwork for that movement.

As a book, Vladimir Krajina is much like its subject: straightforward and at times overly concerned with details (I could have lived, for example, without knowing the full title of Krajina’s “post-doctoral habilitation work”—in German). Some readers will find themselves wishing for a more layered, more literary touch to Krajina’s story, which might have made its underlying themes more visible. At a time of such total human domination of the planet that scientists have declared a new period in geological time—the Anthropocene, or “Human Age”—stories like Krajina’s offer critical perspective. For Krajina, what mattered most about Canada is that we have retained ecosystems that are more wild, more whole and more extensive than any other place on Earth.

Ours is a global responsibility still seeking its national voice. It is not that Canada lacks a literature of the wild—examples range from Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers to the works of Farley Mowat to John Livingston’s extraordinary Rogue Primate—as that it remains too much unwritten and too little read. Would that Vladimir Krajina mark a turning.

J.B. MacKinnon’s latest book, The Once and Future World: Nature As It Is, As It Was, As It Could Be, will be published in September by Random House. He is a past winner of the Charles Taylor Award for Literary Non-fiction and nearly a dozen National Magazine Awards.

Related Letters and Responses