Editor’s note: This is the third in a joint series of posts on early Canadian environmental history by The Otter~La loutre and Borealia. The entire series is available here.
Some species are better to “think” with than others. Environmental activists often draw attention to their causes through reference to “flagship” or “charismatic” species. Invocations of the threatened habitat of the marbled murrelet helped galvanize opposition to logging in the Pacific Northwest in the 1990s, just as the Kermode bear subspecies has served a similar function in the Great Bear Rainforest.
The species that humans highlight tell us much about those people. Humans tend to choose larger flora and fauna, ones that are aesthetically attractive and are generally cast as being beneficial—or at least not harmful—to people. Wolves may have been considered dangerous by early modern European peasants, but they also became a charismatic species for Farley Mowat and others in the twentieth century. Few environmental activists make reference to microbes, mosquitoes or worms as a way of attracting attention to their cause, though the Monarch butterfly—appropriately named for my purposes in this essay—is certainly a useful talisman.
Human actions that decimate species of microbes or mosquitoes are much less likely to attract disapproval, though tellingly, scientists have not destroyed the last remaining, heavily guarded stocks of the smallpox virus. Such decisions are not easy ones: think of the Star Trek TNG crew’s decision on whether or not to destroy the dangerous, unique species the “Crystalline Entity.” (I won’t spoil the plotline.)
When Europeans came to North America in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they encountered some new species, and they certainly recognized different distributions of species they knew already…
Feature Image: “L’écureuil suisse, nommé dans le pays, pua ouingout.” Louis Nicolas, The Codex Canadensis, 1675-82 (detail). Public domain via Wikimedia.
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