Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

RBC Taylor Prize Interview Series: J.B. MacKinnon

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J.B. MacKinnon

When J.B. MacKinnon realised that the grassland where he grew up was not the unsullied wilderness he'd always considered it to be, the spark for The Once and Future World: Nature as It Was, as It Is, and as It Could Be (Random House Canada) was born. As he began to consider the long processes outdoor spaces undergo, from the disappearance of wild species to the introduction of domesticated ones, J.B.'s passion for "re-wilding" was born.

The RBC Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction will be handed out later today, but before then we're speaking to finalist J.B. as part of our RBC Taylor Prize interview series.

J.B. tells us about the experience of winning the RBC Taylor Prize in 2006, his view of the process of "re-wilding" and what we can do to ensure our wild spaces remain that way.

The RBC Taylor Prize is a $25,000 award that honours both Charles Taylor's legacy and the finest work of non-fiction published in Canada in the previous year. The 2014 prize will be announced on March 10 and will be selected by a jury composed of Coral Ann Howells, James Polk and previous prize winner Andrew Westoll.

Open Book:

What impact did winning the 2006 Charles Taylor Prize have on your career?

J.B. MacKinnon:

I think the biggest boost a prize gives is to the author’s belief in him or herself. Most writers are probably like me: hermits with laptops who don’t have a lot of feedback systems to tell us whether what we’re doing is good or bad, valuable or pointless. An award is a sign that your work was worth doing. Also, being taken seriously by a prize jury means a lot of other people will take you seriously as well, so much so that it becomes important not to take yourself too seriously at all.


In The Once and Future World: Nature as It Was, as It Is and as It Could Be are you suggesting that the natural world is indefinable because it is always changing?


It’s important not to make the “error of the historical present,” in which we look at the natural world today and believe it is more or less the same as it always was. In many if not most cases, what we now call nature is a radically transformed and degraded version of what existed in the past. That makes the history of nature very important, because although there is no specific past state of nature that we can say is the “correct” one, we can learn from the past what a truly healthy, integral natural world looks like. It raises the bar on our understanding of what the “normal” state of nature should be. It’s imperative that we not go down the road of relativity, shrugging off all the ecological harms we do by saying, “Well, nature is always changing.”


Should we be protecting the wilderness we have now, or reversing the process to another age?


We should be doing both. Traditional conservation — the preservation of last, best wild spaces and threatened species — is critically important in an age when we face an extinction crisis and are mining resources out of even the most extreme environments, such as the Arctic and deep oceans. But even the most ambitious international targets for protected areas will set aside just 12 percent of the land and sea. To remake a natural world anything like what we know from the past, we need to rewild the other 88 percent as well, integrating nature everywhere from the city to the countryside. And we won’t be turning back the clock — we’ll be inventing the future.


Q. Define what you mean by “rewilding.”


Rewilding is the act of making a place wilder again. When people in Vancouver restored an urban creek and salmon spawned in the city after an absence of 50 or more years, that was rewilding. It will also be rewilding when bison are brought back to Banff National Park after an absence of a century. Rewilding can happen at any scale, from your backyard to the backcountry.


How can people become re-enchanted with nature?


We have to make a point of doing it. In the book I describe a few experiments I put myself through, from simply spending one hour sitting beside an urban pond and really paying attention, to swimming in the ocean once a day for a month. The David Suzuki Foundation has an annual 30x30 challenge, asking people to spend 30 minutes a day in nature for 30 straight days. There’s now a pile of research to show that time in nature is good for our mood, concentration, happiness levels, health and so on. To me, the greatest benefit has been that paying attention to nature reveals the fact that it is still around us, every day. Nature is a more hopeful place than the news about it might suggest. It is down, but not out.


Tell us about your new “Rewilding” exhibit at the Museum of Vancouver, and what is the take away for visitors?


The museum exhibit takes the ideas in The Once and Future World and applies them to one place; we believe it’s the first major exhibition on urban historical ecology in Canada. Our goal is to help people understand what nature was like in Vancouver in the past as a way of provoking discussion about the future of nature in the city. For example, very few people here are aware that Vancouver used to have a year-round population of humpback whales, all of which were wiped out by 1908. If you don’t know the whales were ever here, then their absence seems normal. When you do learn that whales were once a part of Vancouver, it become possible to imagine bringing them back again.

J.B. MacKinnon has won numerous national and international awards for journalism. As the originator of the 100-mile diet concept, he appears regularly in Canada and the USA as a speaker and commentator on ecology and food. His book, The 100-Mile Diet, co-authored with Alisa Smith, was a national bestseller and inspired a TV series in which the small town of Mission, BC, learned to eat locally. He was also the co-author, with Mia Kirshner and artists Paul Shoebridge and Michael Simons, of I Live Here, a groundbreaking "paper documentary" about displaced people that made top 10 lists in media as diverse as the Bloomsbury Literary Review and Comic Book Resources, as well as becoming a Los Angeles Times bestseller. His first book, Dead Man in Paradise, in which he investigated the assassination of his uncle, a radical priest in the Dominican Republic, won the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Nonfiction.

For more information about The Once and Future World please visit the Random House Canada website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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