Among the Thorns

What grows in the Sunshine Province

Albertans are keenly aware of our reputation. We are undertaxed pipeline fanatics who drive pickups, vote Conservative, and care less about climate change than about stopping Ottawa from stealing our oil money. This half-truth persists, in part, because even we sometimes see our largest industry as a stand‑in for Alberta itself. But the land existed before the fossil fuel craze, as it did before the agrarian projects that initially drove European settlement.

With Wild Roses Are Worth It, Kevin Van Tighem insists that Alberta’s ecosystems should receive at least as much consideration in policy debates and the public imagination as its economy. One would be forgiven for cringing at the book’s title. Is this a manifesto for the return of the right-wing political party that wanted to take the Progressive out of “Progressive Conservative”? Van Tighem quickly dispatches that possibility in his introduction. He explains that he loves the iconic flower, whether it be the “deep pink Rosa woodsii of the northern forest” or “the larger Rosa arkansana of the prairies” or the “dense tangles of Rosa acicularis” in the foothills. He also reminds readers that the rose won a popular vote to represent the province in 1930 and that licence plates identified Alberta as Wild Rose Country for decades. It was only later that “politics intervened” in the form of “an upstart political party of the sort that sprout regularly in this province.” Those summer blossoms, he tells us, should not be given up so easily.

As a former superintendent of Banff National Park and a prolific writer, Van Tighem has long been an advocate for conservation over extraction. This book brings together columns and features that he penned between 2012 and 2020 for the socially conscious magazine Alberta Views. The selections are grouped thematically, and though a few pieces are preachy or forgettable, the overall result is more unified and satisfying than most compilations of this sort. Van Tighem combines precise odes to nature with an insistence on locally rooted environmentalism, and his occasionally heterodox positions save the material from predictability.

There is no mourning here for the days of sky-high oil prices. Indeed, Van Tighem’s evaluation of his home province’s declining fortunes is scathing: “Alberta had become so smug and complacent, so certain that we were a chosen people for whom oil-soaked prosperity was a birthright and a guarantee, that we had no fallback plan when the rug got pulled out from under us.” But he also points out that the resource economy has long been cyclical; it’s described as boom and bust for a reason. The current shift may help residents remember “all the other things about Alberta that I liked — things that unfortunately tend to get crowded out by oil and the greed it inspires.”

Above all, Van Tighem extols the natural landscape of Canada’s sixth-largest and fourth-most-populous province. He details his childhood wonder at lesser sandhill cranes and then bemoans the endangered status of the black-throated green warbler. That bright-faced bird, which is “barely as long as an avocado,” emerges in the book as an emblem for nature’s vulnerability: it is “just feathers, hollow bones, some muscle, and a fierce little heart.” At times, the language is mystical, such that photosynthesis becomes a form of “life-renewing alchemy” and the changing of the seasons “a living symphony with near-perfect timing.” Yet Van Tighem’s vocabulary and his outlook are sufficiently informed by science to save the writing from New Age platitudes.

Van Tighem catalogues the wide range of ­enemies lined up against Alberta’s natural beauty. These include new pipelines, of course, as well as the urban sprawl that turns cities into “infestations of asphalt, vinyl and strip malls.” He also takes aim at gly­phosate, a herbicide that forestry companies spray to kill off unprofitable plants. While Van Tighem’s scorn for selfies reads as simply grumpy, his polemic against off‑road vehicles (think dirt bikes and quads) manages to be both quaint and convincing. The most scandalous piece in the collection is a long one on coking coal. To exploit this key ingredient for steel production, companies have taken out new leases for strip mines in the Rockies and foothills. And what does the public gain from destroying these habitats, Van Tighem asks? A mere $5 million in royalties in 2018.

The greatest strength of Wild Roses are Worth It is Van Tighem’s willingness to depart from conventional wisdom in favour of local dynamics. He criticizes environmentalist movements based in the cities for their simplistic attitudes, and he praises some ranchers as key stewards of the land. Most notably, he makes the intriguing case that eating grass-fed beef is a better way of fighting climate change than going vegetarian. Meat substitutes often rely on peas, which are mass-produced through monocultures that destroy prairie habitats, themselves a natural carbon sink. But herds, managed properly, can fill the ecological niche left behind by decimated bison populations; their grazing is actually beneficial. The problem with cattle is that they are usually sent to feedlots to be fattened on grain. Pay more for beef from local ranchers who keep their livestock on grass, and you can eat your burger and have your emissions targets too.

Van Tighem encourages his readers to identify with Alberta’s natural environment and to have a sense of ownership over Crown lands. “We are this place,” he writes. “This place is us.” Yet his pride in being a fourth-generation Albertan also raises a question: What about Indigenous peoples, with their own claims to territory?

He does, in fact, address colonization in several pieces. In “Hunting in Jasper,” for example, he describes how the Stoney people were banished from Banff National Park in the early twentieth century, and he celebrates a recent traditional hunt by the Simpcw, in Jasper, as setting an important precedent for ­reconciliation. In “Don’t Fence Me In,” he looks at efforts to bring back wild bison, while foregrounding the animal’s importance in many Indigenous ­cultures. Here he includes an interview with the Blackfoot elder Leroy Little Bear, who helped draft the Northern Tribes Buffalo Treaty, which was signed in 2015.

Still, Van Tighem shows no hesitation about belonging to his place of birth — and he wishes that more Albertans would feel a more specific attachment to their environment, so they might protect it from the predations of transitory resource companies. His detailed descriptions of the landscape are, in and of themselves, an effort to combat alienation from the natural world. People fight for what they value, and it is hard to value what they cannot even name.

Oil prices have been trending up again, and the recent referendum on equalization payments suggests that many Albertans are doubling down on the resource economy. In this context, Wild Roses Are Worth It is a timely reminder that there is more to the province than its history of extraction. Fighting for conservation in a region still drunk on royalties is no easy battle. The good news is that Kevin Van Tighem is far from alone.