Need a good book to read by the fireplace (or, more prosaically, at the boarding gate) over the holidays? As we turn away from 2018 and toward 2019, four NiCHE editors take a moment to look back over their favourite environmentally-themed books of the past 12 months, as well as those they’re looking forward to reading in the next 12 months. Read on!
I love a book that makes me fight the urge to read the entire thing in one sitting. Despite how good it is, I know I need the time to work my head around the world the author has created. Waubgeshig Rice’s post-apocalyptic novel Moon of the Crusted Snow is a story that stalks you, and if you give it time it will work on you in lots of ways.
Set in a present-day First Nation in northern Ontario during a particularly harsh winter, the novel imagines how an Anishinaabe community might experience the collapse of twenty-first-century society. As the story opens, the novel’s protagonist Evan Whitesky prepares for winter by hunting moose for his family. Others on reserve maintain a similar connection to the land, but hydroelectricity from a nearby dam provides a number of modern comforts (electric appliances, hot water, cell service, and satellite tv) that most people take for granted. Life on the reserve is still distinct from life in urban places to the south, but the community’s sense of this seems to be somewhat diminished.
After the power goes out, and the reserve is cut off from resupply, the community’s curiosity turns to trepidation, and then fear and anxiety as the reality of their circumstances sets in when visitors from the south arrive seeking refuge.
Rice’s story is a compelling post-apocalyptic thriller. But it’s much more. In making this a contemporary story, Rice captures a sense of the recent changes that have been enveloping First Nations in Canada. Increasingly pulled into the matrix of twenty-first-century Canadian culture, Rice depicts an Indigenous community finding ways to reconnect with its language, its culture, and its relationship to the land. Losing power and being cut off from settler colonial society highlights those tensions and emphasizes the importance of Indigenous customs and identity.
The premise of the book is reason enough to read this book, but its magic comes from the ways Rice draws on Anishinaabe language, history, and tradition to pull the reader into this world. Rice also employs a number of Anishinaabe storytelling conventions, including the windigo, to align Crusted Snow with Indigenous oral tradition. In the end, the power of Rice’s narrative is that he tells a post-apocalyptic tale that feels like non-fiction. Indigenous people in Canada already experienced and survived an apocalypse. The beauty in Rice’s story is what comes after.
I’d like to recommend—to be read to the tune of “The 12 Days of Christmas”—three books I intend to read, two books I’ve already read, and one device I use.
A book I just finished is Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin’s The Human Planet: How We Created the Anthropocene. An excellent primer on the scientific considerations driving the Anthropocene conversation, Lewis and Maslin do a terrific job of explaining complex science in an accessible way, and recognizing how the science is politicized. They weigh the various evidence and arguments for whether the Anthropocene should receive a formal designation (it should) based on the standards for past designations of past geological ages and epochs. (The 17th century gets their vote as the “golden spike” for the Anthropocene.) I’d go so far as to say that any humanities or social science scholar grappling with the concept of the Anthropocene needs to read this book.
This past fall I also read The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and their Dualing Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World. Fellow NiCHEr Andrew Watson put me on to this 2018 book, a dual biography jauntily written by noted environmental journalist Charles Mann. The eponymous wizard and prophet are Norman Borlaug and William Vogt. You may not have heard of these twentieth-century scientists, but your standard of living has been deeply shaped by them. Borlaug, for example, is often heralded as the father of the Green Revolution, while Vogt’s 1948 book Road to Survival outlined a recognition of natural limits that found voice in the burgeoning environmental movement. Both Borlaug and Vogt are important in their own right, but Mann uses them as exemplars of the two dominant strands of environmental ethos that we see today within environmentally-conscious citizenry: whether nature’s limits should be respected (prophet) or superseded (wizard). A wizard is a techno-optimist, while a prophet sees technology as the cause of, not the solution to, our environmental problems. (For what’s is worth, I’m a prophet.) I find this duality very illuminating and appealing, and find that my colleagues and students tend to break down into these two camps, particularly on issues like nuclear power and climate change.
Three books that will be published early in the new year that I’m looking forward to are Andrew Reeves, Overrun: Dispatches from the Asian Carp Crisis; Jamie Benidickson’s Levelling the Lake: Transboundary Resource Management in the Lake of the Woods Watershed; and Tina Loo’s Moved By the State: Forced Relocation and the Making a Good Life in Postwar Canada.
Reeves is the editor-in-chief of Alternatives Journal, and I’ve been looking forward to a book entirely focused on the slow-motion train wreck that is the impending Asian Carp invasion. From the description, his effort combines historical analysis with up-to-date current events.
According to UBC Press’ website, “Levelling the Lake explores a century and a half of social, economic, and legal arrangements through which the resources environment of the Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake watershed have been both harnessed and harmed.” I’m particularly interested in the transborder aspects of this study.
Moved by the State is Loo’s much-anticipated follow-up to States of Nature, which garnered many accolades. She takes 5 forced relocations from across Canada in the first decades of the Cold War to analyze “how race and class, as well as attitudes about rural and urban society, shaped the meaning of a ‘good life’ and influenced the exercise of power at a time when the Canadian state was expanding.”
Finally, I want to put in a word for the 3M Document Holder. NiCHE editor Sean Kheraj got me one of these last summer, and it is a vast improvement from the $4 metal wire book holder that I’ve used for years. When taking notes from a text-based document, such as a book, this device holds it in place and can be adjusted to fit between your computer monitor and keyboard, saving a lot of strain on the neck and eyes.
Holiday reading for me is going to consist mostly of Lego superhero stories with the occasional seasonal classic thrown in. But deadlines and course prep wait for no llama, so here’s what I’m reading this month:
Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast (2018) by Thomas M. Wickman measures the winter knowledge and adaptations of the Indigenous peoples of northeastern North America, especially the Wabenaki Confederacy, against the lack of same among English settlers through much of the seventeenth century. Seasonally appropriate, if rather bleak; and a story that emphasizes the extent of Indigenous capacity in winter as well as the violence and disruption (human and ecological) of settler colonialism against a backdrop of climate history and weather. The design, use, and language of snowshoes is a metaphorical hinge: as settlers began adopting winter terms and technologies, they began to alter the landscape of power in the Northeast as well.
A History of America in 100 Maps (2018) by Susan Schulten, for a second new class on maps in as many years. It’s not exactly something you curl up with, but it’s lovely to pore over. I think I may pair this with Canada before Confederation (2017) [ETA: now it looks like I won’t, based on what the bookstore tells me it will cost. Aargh. It’s hard enough teaching about Canada in the United States; I need books!]
A Not-So-New World: Empire and Environment in French Colonial North America (2018) by Christopher M. Parsons. [Ed.: When did I become an early modernist?] I read a bit of Chris’ work for an episode of Nature’s Past and can’t wait to use more of it in my eighteenth-century class next fall. It’s a wonderfully evocative and highly accessible look at the cultivated landscapes of New France.
At some point, when I can actually get back to my own (#)$*# research, I am going to pull a couple of Judith Fingard’s classics off the shelves.
And finally, when Batman needs a break, I’ll take out the delicious, poignant Whispers of Mermaids and Wonderful Things: Children’s Poetry and Verse from Atlantic Canada (2017) edited by Sheree Fitch and Anne Hunt.
The blue-jays squeal, “More rain! More rain!”
The sky’s all blotch and stain
The colours of Earth are melted down
To dark spruce green and dull grass brown. …
“November,” Milton Acorn
In the spirit of the holiday season and because I can’t give up on fiction, despite all there is to read, I’d like to recommend some novels.
I’m a big fan of the Californian science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson, and particularly the way he marries vivid everyperson characters with environmental themes. Of his recent work I’ve especially enjoyed Aurora.
The Aurora is a generation ship. A generation ship, for all you non-nerds, is a spaceship designed to cross interstellar distances not by employing some as-yet-to-be discovered, faster-than-light propulsion, but by acting as a home for several generations of people. So the Aurora is divided into several earth-like habitats; our hero, Freya, lives in one called Nova Scotia. But the ecologies of the various habitats are breaking down, and the health of Aurorans is being compromised. When the crew discovers that the planet they were planning to colonize contains a deadly pathogen, a violent conflict breaks out. One faction wants to honour the sacrifices of their and earlier generations by continuing the voyage to another star system; Freya leads a group that argues for a return to earth. The novel ends—spoiler alert!—with Freya on a beach on Earth. As Freya struggles with the hot sun, the sand, and the violence of the ocean, none of which the pond in Nova Scotia prepared her for, she also realizes that she’s home. Of all the places we’ve seen—Nova Scotia, the zero-g corridors of the Aurora, the hostile planet, various sterile rooms on Earth—this is where Freya and her body belong. Aurora, then, is a meditation on the difficulty of engineering environments and a celebration of the Earth as our home.
Over the holidays I’m also hoping to get to a more recent Robinson novel, New York 2140.
New York has been flooded as a result of climate change; New Yorkers now inhabit a Venice-like city of canals, boat docks, and skybridges between buildings. The Met Life tower is a co-op with a farm taking up the 31st to 35th floors and a dining hall where most residents eat. But it’s still New York, one character muses; against the current craze for dystopia, Robinson displays a welcome interest in how people use their skills and knowledge to adapt to changing circumstances, even in the face of catastrophic change.
Finally, I just finished reading Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is concerned with books and Google and secret societies and the importance of friendship. It doesn’t really have anything to do with nature or environmental history, but it’s wonderful. His latest, Sourdough, looks great as well.
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