Unfamiliar territory

Humans can’t remember a time when nature was pristine

J.B. MacKinnon puts the concept of a virgin wilderness un-“spoilt” by humans to the test in The Once and Future World . The co-author of 2007’s The 100-Mile Diet uses his fourth book to argue that wilderness never was “what it was.”

Nature he says never stops. And not only is the face of the landscape and creatures upon it guaranteed to evolve but the human footprint has been a part of the landscape since our species’ beginning.

MacKinnon points this out because he believes our quest for a sustainable natural world cannot be based on a romantic fantasy of what existed before we came along to mess it up.

In the beginning of The Once and Future World MacKinnon affectionately describes the arid wilderness around Kamloops he knew as a boy. In researching this book he realized that as wild as it seemed in his youth compared to now even back then the area had already been completely transformed by humans.

“In this overlooked corner of the globe this place that seems so empty of history the natural world has undergone so much change in just the past 100 years that a person like me… wouldn’t feel at home in the original grassland” he writes. “The prairie as it was is an unfamiliar country.”

MacKinnon is keen to teach his audience that change isn’t the same as damage and if we want a healthy natural world then we must know how to repair it without fighting to return the earth to an imagined pristine state.

“What I think we can’t do is pin down any one time in the past and say ‘well that was when nature was pristine’” MacKinnon says in an interview prior to his Calgary appearance at WordFest.

He adds that his research revealed to him that life on earth even a few centuries ago was far more abundant and diverse than most of us can imagine but people still think of the wildernesses they knew in childhood as the way it should be now or they yearn to make an Eden that never was.

“We can say that there is a very different form that nature is capable of taking… but we can’t choose a year and say that’s exactly what nature should look like.” At the same time he says people can’t simply state that change is natural and therefore all changes are equal. “Nature is a dynamic ever-changing thing but then we have to look at questions of what scale and rate of change are natural” he explains.

“The goal isn’t really to try to go back we really can’t try to turn back the clock with nature. What we can do is look at the past and it can give us some guidance. The history of nature in any given place is extremely valuable in that sense. It can really give us an impression of the natural potential of that place.”