Can we explore our Earth and save it at the same time?
About once a week and sometimes more, I drive about 34 kilometres roundtrip to haul my kid and a few others to a nature school in the woods, so they can learn to appreciate, respect and love the natural world that sustains us all. Each trip, somewhere along the five-kilometre mark, I pass through a moment where I realize that in my efforts to raise a responsible and rounded human, I’m more than likely shooting myself and my kid in the foot.
The car ride sends about seven kilograms of carbon dioxide up into the atmosphere, and so every time I deliver him to the spot where he enriches his connection to nature, I know I’m adding a little bit more to the problem that is and will continue to upset the natural world, and our lives in it.
It’s a dilemma that came back to me as I perused this year’s crop of Atlantic books with an environmental edge, a list that reflects both our individual and collective relationships with the natural world. Some of these books are rooted in a personal connection to nature, the sometimes spiritual nourishment humans get from being part of the natural environment.
Others look for ways to manage and dramatically reduce our collective impact on the natural world. Still another looks deeply into the efforts to reconcile different ways of living in nature, including one where personal and collective responsibility are indistinguishable.
All come from different corners of human thinking and feeling about nature. Yet happily, they share a certain hopefulness, an attitude that says it’s worth taking the time to connect, to appreciate, to understand, and to be willing to change.
Eating Thoreau’s apples
In Wild Apples, New Brunswick poet Michael Pacey takes us on a walk through the journals of Henry David Thoreau, stopping to reflect and ruminate on carefully selected thoughts and observations, such as the titular “Wild Apples,” in which Thoreau notices his gathered bounty doesn’t taste quite as delicious when eaten in the confines of his cabin. Pacey draws on his own Walden-esque experience along the Nashwaak River in west-central New Brunswick, as he imagines and recreates scenes from Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond.
In Earthkeeping: Love Notes for Tough Times, writer Gary Saunders offers up a series of essays designed as a balm for the general ecological anxiety that is building in most of us, in step with the climate crisis. Saunders’s voice is wary but not panicked.
With curiosity, care and humour, he tackles the small stories — of roadside flowers, attempted turtle rescues, and the merits (or lack thereof) of growing cattle corn — and through the collection creates an ethos for a way of thinking and feeling about the larger world.
Two new collections of photography appear this fall to feed our emotional and spiritual connections with the natural world. In Wood & Water: Images to Nurture the Soul, landscape photographer George Fischer offers up a colourful journey through the forests and waterways that have served to calm and centre him in his life. Meanwhile P.E.I.-based photographer Dave Brosha abandons the colour wheel and embraces the delicacies of monochromatic photography in Tones of Grace: 100 Black and White Images from Planet Earth.
Brosha has truly traversed the globe, capturing images in myriad places such as the Faroe Islands of the North Atlantic, Chobe National Park in Botswana, the Antarctic Peninsula, and his own neck of the woods, Brackley Beach, P.E.I. There’s no formula for what might catch Brosha’s lens, from wild sheep to working miners to magnificent sand dunes.
Over on the “collective responsibility” end of the new books shelf, we find two new offerings from Fernwood Publishing this fall. In Future on Fire: Capitalism and the Politics of Climate Change, sociologist David Camfield quickly eliminates the various players in the current power structure (including occasional green-left governments) as capable of mobilizing the emergency response needed to face the crisis. Instead he points towards a politically diverse mass social movement as the only thing that could lead us safely out of the crisis and into a fairer, more just system of living.
Change the system to change the climate
Writer and professor Aaron Saad also tackles “system change, not climate change.” In Worlds at Stake: Climate Politics, Ideology, and Justice, Saad sets out on the ambitious path of defining the options for humanity to address the climate crisis and the system that created it. Like Camfield, Saad recognizes the need for building a politically diverse movement and begins his journey with an effort to break down and understand the various ideologies that populate our social and political universe.
Both Camfield and Saad occupy a hopeful place. Like relationship counselling for a nearly broken marriage, it might seem like a hopeless effort to demand change from a system that seems bent on destruction.
But a good therapist will tell you that learning to do relationships better will be worth your while, no matter which anniversary you end up celebrating next year. Likewise, an effort to remake our system of living into something fair and sustainable will not go to waste, regardless of what kind of physical world we manage to salvage. The point, for Camfield and Saad, is not to give in to despair, but to try to come out better on the other side.
If there was ever to be a crash course in the challenges of system change and of managing our collective impact on our natural environment, the Atlantic fisheries could easily serve as the case study. Contested Waters: The Struggle for Rights and Reconciliation in the Atlantic Fishery takes as its starting point the violent events that took place in the fall of 2020, when angry non-Indigenous crowds burned fishing boats and buildings belonging to Mi’kmaw fishers. The book looks forward and back from the crisis, bringing in a huge array of voices to tell the story of how the policies and politics of the wild fishery, and colonization itself, came to that violent moment, and where they go from there.
Editors Richard Williams and Fred Wien have gathered perspectives ranging from long-time fisheries observers to legal experts to Mi’kmaw elders to academics. The various essays go a long way toward building understanding of the particular viewpoints, and in doing so also start to expose the complexity of the challenge facing the fishery: decolonization.
The hill to climb includes real recognition of the Peace and Friendship treaties, and real understanding of the radically different ways of thinking that Indigenous nations and settler governments bring to the table. Like any good resource, Contested Waters finishes on a note of constructive “what next” proposals that seem to shine a light of a possible solutions.
All in all, the fall bookstore shelves hold lots of promise for those who, like my kid, need some time to soak in the beauty and promise of the natural world. And equally for those who, like me, are looking for a path forward in the seemingly gargantuan task of system change.
Truth be told, the most likely scenario is that we all need a bit of both.
Erica Butler reports the local news in Sackville, New Brunswick, where she spends the rest of her time walking around the Tantramar marshes and keeping an eye on sea level in the Bay of Fundy.