The forward-thinking proposition of restoring our planet to its more natural state– of “rewilding” it– lies at the heart of J.B. MacKinnon’s latest book, The Once and Future World. His first work of creative nonfiction, Dead Man in Paradise won the RBC Taylor Prize. His second book, The 100-Mile Diet, co-authored with Alisa Smith, became a bestseller. The Bloomsbury Literary Review and Comic Book Resources called his third work, I Live Here, a “groundbreaking ‘paper documentary.’” MacKinnon has also been published in many magazines and is a past senior contributing editor of Explore, Canada’s outdoor magazine. In short, he knows a thing or two about great creative nonfiction, and how humans interact with our natural world. Adam Hayman recently had the opportunity to question MacKinnon about his work and ideas.
To say you’ve had your finger on the pulse of the environmental scene for a number of years would be an understatement. What about last year made it the right time to publish this book?
Writers are lucky: our role in society today is to dig deep in a culture that constantly encourages people to stay on the surface. A few years ago I sensed that traditional conservation had lost its edge—it had become the depressing art of hanging on to the last wild places and fading species, what one scientist called “managed extinction.” People were beginning to talk about the need for a newer, bigger vision: not just fighting for what was left, but rebuilding what’s been lost—rewilding the world. That inspired me, and obviously it inspired several other writers at the same time, in different ways, such as George Monbiot in the U.K., and Jon Mooallem, Miles Olson and Emma Marris in the U.S. Suddenly, rewilding has its own bookshelf.
You mentioned during an interview that the reading of captains’ logs and explorers’ journals was, for you, an interesting part of the research for this book, but you also had to research and report on some gruesome stuff, like live auks thrown onto fires as fuel; living tortoises being stacked like barrels in the hulls of ships for a year at a time with no food or water. The list is long, and in such a comprehensive book it certainly is necessary, so how was the research process for you on a whole?
The challenge with writing about emerging ideas is that the pieces of the puzzle haven’t yet been put together, and you have to do that work yourself. It feels risky—you’re constantly asking yourself what gives you the right to say these things. So, out of a sheer lack of self-confidence, I researched everything to death. I spent two weeks just reading about whale shit for what ends up being a page or two in the book. At the end of that, I was probably one of the world’s leading experts in whale shit.
What I’m always looking for in my research, though, are those little details that bring information to life—a scientist’s poetic reference to whale feces as “flocculent plumes,” or a pioneering scuba diver’s memories of sea bass rising from the depths, singing their spawning chant. Who knew that fish made noises? Not me. It’s these little discoveries that can make 12 hours in the rare books section of the library feel like an adventure.
The question “which nature?” stayed in my mind after finishing this book. Which nature do I want to live in? I thought it was very honest and realistic question to ask, and something that environmental skeptics and supporters should ruminate on. If you had the chance to ask two people this question who would they be?
First, I have to say that we can’t ask ourselves that question without first knowing what our options are. Much of what I try to explain in The Once and Future World is that nature as we know it today is a skeletal version of what it was in the past. In other words, our choice of which nature is much broader than almost anyone imagines: we can live with astounding natural richness and diversity, or in a grossly simplified and degraded version of nature, or somewhere in between. But we at least need to be honest about what our choices really are.
So, assuming everyone on earth has read my book — ha! — I would want to ask the which nature question of someone with real power: the president of the United States, say, or the CEO of the world’s largest corporation. Just out of curiosity. My other choice would be the next stranger I meet, because this is a question I feel we all need to think about, and one that I hope will infiltrate our culture.
You’ve mentioned the efforts of building nature into the cities we inhabit, which is a great step for those looking to add a bit of rewilding to their city lives. Hearing about the “bee boles” and other past and present “Habitecture” was fascinating. Have you seen or heard any advancements since the release of this book?
I’m constantly hearing new examples. In my hometown of Vancouver, there’s Habitat Island, an artificial island park that became the city’s first herring spawning ground in decades and may have helped bring whales and dolphins back to urban waters. I recently learned that some First Nations in Eastern Canada traditionally built shelters on raised platforms to house pine martens in their communities. Dark-sky cities, where constraints are put on artificial light, are a form of habitecture, as many species depend on darkness and the stars in various ways. Digital technology is making it possible to imagine fenceless fields, which could revive the incredible long-range herd animal migration routes that used to criss-cross the continents. Then there’s “daylighting,” or bringing streams buried by development back to the surface—Seoul, South Korea, tore up a freeway to bring a river back to the heart of the city. And all of this is just the beginning.
As a pop-culture lover I smiled when I saw you used an Arcade Fire lyric as a quote, and I couldn’t help but assume, (even if the reference was unintended) that the section on the hypothetical “Lost Island” – an interesting section where you try and introduce humans onto an untouched island without losing the island’s biodiversity – was a reference to the TV show Lost. My question is, have you seen rewilding grow into pop culture since this book came out the same way the 100-mile diet did?
It’s definitely moving in that direction. I find it amazing how quickly people embrace the word “rewilding”: I gave a talk to a group of architects, and by the end they were talking about rewilding as if it had been part of their lexicon for 20 years. People are giving the term their own meanings: for some people, it’s about rewilding the landscape, and for others, it’s about rewilding themselves or their families—getting back in touch with nature. And sure, it’s showing up in pop culture, too, from Adbusters magazine to NPR’s Radiolab to interviews with Shailene Woodley, the star of Divergent.
What was most exciting about the 100-mile diet was the way it blossomed into a million different experiments, some personal and some community-based, that ultimately showed that a different food system was not only possible, but could offer us all a better quality of life. I hope something similar happens with rewilding. Thinking and talking about an idea are important, especially in the beginning, but it’s when ideas are lived out loud that we truly reinvent our world.