Review: Just People

What happens when you put a group of artists and historians in a room and ask them to write about science? The result is Sustaining The West, a fresh and eclectic collection of essays on the environment. “If we are going to be honest about the environmental crises we face, the problems before us lie with people,” note editors Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones of the University of Alberta.

The people behind Sustaining The West are poets and naturalists, authors and filmmakers. “The role of humans in twenty-first century environmental change is clear,” editors write. “Framed as such, who better to grapple with the cultural issues at the core of our environmental crises than artists, writers and scholars in the humanities?”

Cabinet points to climate change as one of the nation’s foremost worries, though the impact is uneven. If farm production is at historic levels, Regina naturalist Trevor Herriot notes 80 percent of prairie grasslands have been ploughed up as cropland – a loss rate four times greater than the vanishing Amazonian rainforest: “What this means, of course, is that native biodiversity of the prairies is in rapid retreat.”

Sustaining The West is an eloquent collection of vignettes that cite astonishing fact, odd tales and compelling human stories woven together on an environmental theme.

Readers learn the Douglas fir is named for a hapless 19th century English botanist who misidentified the tree as a sugar pine and later perished under peculiar circumstances in 1834: “His body was found, lifeless and trampled, at the bottom of an open pit dug to trap wild bulls near Mauna Kea in Hawaii,” write Zac Robinson and Stephen Slemon of the University of Alberta. The circumstances “fueled speculation of foul play, even suicide.”

Contributor Nancy Holmes, of the University of British Columbia Okanagan, recounts the tale of the 22-acre Woodhaven Nature Conservancy of Kelowna established in 1973 by a couple determined to save groves of red cedar, cottonwood and ponderosa pine from local developers. Disaster struck when city planners diverted a creek to prevent basement flooding in nearby subdivisions: “Rare groves of western red cedar in the park began to die,” Holmes writes. In a surprising epilogue, managers worked out a compromise that sees trees watered a few months a year.

Sustaining The West even honours Ontario’s original fruit baron Ernest D’Israeli Smith, a son of pioneers who kept meticulous weather records documenting the micro-climate of the Niagara Escarpment from 1853. The number of frost-free days varies 10 percent or more depending on the location of orchards within the same county: “Smith recognized that to succeed as a fruit grower he would have to move to a more suitable location,” write the U of A’s Shannon Studen Bower and Sean Gouglas. The peach farmer grew to glory as founder of E.D. Smith Foods Ltd., still in business after 130 years.

Environmental issues at their core are human stories. The challenge of “how to equitably support ever-growing populations is just one part of a much larger canvas of catastrophe with fingerprints strewn across,” editors conclude.

Sustaining The West traces the prints.

By Holly Doan

Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments, edited by  Liza Piper and Lisa Szabo-Jones; Wilfrid Laurier University Press; 380 pages; ISBN 9781-5545-89234; $32.24

Back to Top