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The State of Nature Writing

From our prow overlooking Boundary Pass, it’s nature and the sea around us you see. Little else. It’s a view I never tire of!

The water, with its motions, patterns, and textures, is like a symphony. It can be an adagio when it’s calm, peaceful, smooth as skin, yet suggestive of the darker currents beneath. Or a bright allegro, with the sunlight reflecting off the cresting waves rolling in from the pass, crashing against the rocks. It can be stormy, thunderous allegro crescendo, too, when the southeasterly storms blow up from the San Juans and pound the coastlines, falling trees and breaking rocks.

Ravens ranging the coastline

The sea is always present. The animals, too. Birds mostly, the shiny black ravens ranging the coastline, scavenging, shouting their otherworldly language. Stately eagles playing sentries in the treetops, and the songbirds who have regaled us all summer long with their cheerful melodies.

We see seals, otters, mink, and whales pass by — an occasional sea lion. I see sea stars on the rocks, tangles of bull kelp, barnacles and bladderwrack-covered rocks, crab, and oyster shells: Windswept Garry Oaks, struggling arbutus, thin-looking cedars, towering firs.

My feeble attempts to rapture about the natural world that surrounds us on Pender!

I’ve been reading a lot of nature writing over the past couple of years: two excellent works by Rachel Carson (Silent Spring and The Sea Around Us), Robert McFarlane (Underland and Landmarks), Richard Nelson (The Island Within), Nan Shepherd (The Living Mountain), Roger Deakin (Waterlog), Helen Macdonald (H is for Hawk) and most recently, Bernd Heinrich (Ravens in Winter). I’ve also read parts of John McPhee’s sprawling Annals of the Former World, a geological portrait of North America and the underlying forces that created the varied landscapes.

The natural world

These days, the publishing world is awash with books about the natural world — awe-inspiring stories of animals, trees, plants. They are the literary equivalent of The Blue Planet and Planet Earth television series. The words carry the written punch that the visuals tell in the nature shows, with nary a mention of the years’ degradation and loss. Viewers watch, marvel, then retreat to their safe homes.

McFarlane seems to be the leading voice among this crop of nature writers, though others have become critical of his approach. His books are descriptive and thoughtful, but he doesn’t go far enough, they say. The natural world’s essential story is that it is vanishing, while McFarlane rhapsodizes his engaging descriptions with his language.

“The country I was born into,” writes the British writer Michael McCarthy, “possessed something wonderful it possesses no longer: natural abundance … Blessed unregarded abundance has been destroyed.”

People over the age of 50 might remember the blizzard of nocturnal insects that would eventually obliterate any driver’s vision on a long car journey on a summer’s evening. The driver had to clean the windshield and front of the car to see!

Swarms of passenger pigeons … and starlings!

More remarkable are the stories of a hundred years ago of vast swarms of passenger pigeons that would darken the skies for days as they passed. Billions of them, one observer from the mid-1800s estimated. In 1871, a single nesting ground in Wisconsin covered 850 square miles, hosting more than a hundred million birds. 1

Yet 29 years later, passenger pigeons were nearly extinct. Part of this was due to their lack of genetic diversity and were unable to survive the challenges of disease and bacteria that better-adapted animals could fight off.

But the birds were pests, too. Swarms of them could decimate a nut crop. Farmers could quickly kill hundreds at a time, given enough ammunition. The last passenger pigeon died “in captivity” in 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo. Her name was Martha.

I remember images like this as a kid: swarms of starlings in Vancouver. There were thousands nesting under the Granville Street Bridge, though these were numbers not even approaching those of the passenger pigeons one hundred years ago.

Blessed unregarded abundance

Plentiful as nature is here on Pender, I am sure we haven’t seen anywhere near the level of “blessed unregarded abundance” that the British nature writer McCarthy alludes to. We have lost the ability to notice changes in the environment.

Some may appear to be subtle changes, such as the lower numbers of barn swallows. Barn swallows are not an endangered species. They are, however, included in the U.S. Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which prohibits disturbing the birds, their nests, or their eggs.

Yet my neighbours here on Southlands Drive this summer had multiple swallow nests in their eaves and their open garage. I’ve seen them, too, dozens swooping over the front grass in the evenings, feeding on tiny insects. These neighbours say there were many more swallows when they moved to Pender 20 years ago. It’s astonishing to think! Yet we have no idea of how or why so many of the swallows have dropped away.

A call to action

In a 2015 article in The New Statesman, the writer, Mark Cocker, thinks of Robert McFarlane as a kind of nature writer for wimps! Describing the wonders of nature and nothing more misses the issue, he says. The vanishing of “unregarded abundance” should appall the reader and invoke anger, sadness, and loss. Instead, McFarlane couches his stories with earnest people, paints them with reassuring words, leaves the reader feeling inspired. Real nature writing should be a call to action, whatever form that takes.

McFarlane writes to educated white people from urban settings. For both author and reader, engagement with nature is an act of remembrance rather than a daily, lived experience. His writing creates a pleasant sensation, a happy association with nature, rather than experiencing its degradation daily.2

But who is to say McFarlane readers don’t experience the latter reaction, the sense of dismay, the urgency to do something to save nature (to protect the swallows, for example).

Machines abandoned beneath the earth

In McFarlane’s recent book, Underland, he describes a vast potash mine on the coast of Britain. Machines have dug deep into the earth and followed the potash veins where they go, which lead far out to sea … underground! These machines, huge rock smashing monoliths, are sent into the depths, where they gouge and pry minerals for years until they are no longer worth repairing. Rather than bring the machines back to the surface, they are abandoned in spent mine shafts, perhaps covered with rubble, steel teeth, gears, wire, and oil, left as garbage.

The image of these human-made machines being buried so deep in the earth is poignant and profane. It is appalling, too, that the good earth is being exploited to such an extent that it becomes economical to abandon the machines fifty miles beneath the earth’s surface, fifty miles out below the sea.

This is a symbol of something! It engenders a connection to the natural world and how that natural world is injured. It is a poignant image, too, of these simple machines at rest so far.

Readers don’t need to be berated and assaulted into action against the destructive forces of humankind. The images themselves, so exquisitely drawn by McFarlane and his likes, are perhaps more effective in appalling the reader and providing a call to action to save the earth.


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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries

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#anadama #anadamabread #cornmeal #cornmealbread #metchosinbc #armstrongbc #stoneground #stonegroundflour #stonemilled #stonemilledflour #stonemilledbread #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #sourdough #sourdoughbread #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries
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Morning Breadsong (volume up!) A pile of Salish Sourdoughs just out of Mildrith, the wood-fired oven.
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#breadsinging #breadsong #woodfired #woodfiredoven #woodfiredovenbread #bread #realbread #naturallyleavened #baker #bakery #bakerslife #bbga #artisanbread #breadhead #breadmaking #breadmaking🍞 #sourdough #sourdoughbread #coboven #earthoven #earthenoven #penderisland #southpenderisland #happymonkbaking #happymonkbakery #happymonkbakingcompany #southerngulfislands #southerngulfislandsbakers #southerngulfislandsbakeries #penderisland
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  1. The story of the passenger and why it became extinct is brilliantly told by the New Yorker writer Jonathan Rosen in his 2013 article, The Birds

  2. McFarlane responded to Cocker’s New Statesman article three months later with his own article on the need for great nature writing.

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