THE ONCE AND FUTURE WORLD
Nature isn’t gone. It’s waiting.
J.B. MacKinnon revisits a globe exuberant with life, where lions roamed North America, explorers crossed continents on wild animal trails, and ten times more whales swam in the sea. Tracing how humans destroyed that reality not only out of greed, but also a great amnesia, he calls for an 'age of rewilding.'
‘One of those rare reading experiences that can change the way you see everything around you, recommended for anyone interested in anything that lives and breathes.’
—THE GLOBE AND MAIL
‘A graceful volume reminiscent of Annie Dillard’s classic Teaching a Stone to Talk… a beautifully written meditation on natural history and memory, full of new revelations about familiar landscapes and species.’
—NEW YORK TIMES
Q&A WITH J.B. MACKINNON
AUTHOR OF THE ONCE AND FUTURE WORLD ››
In your new book, you travel through time into what you call the “history of nature” as a way of reflecting on nature today. What sent you down this path?
Almost everyone knows what it's like to see some wild place they loved as a child—maybe just a vacant lot in the city—get leveled in the name of “progress.” That's what happened to me. I grew up at the edge of a wild grassland, and one day I returned to my hometown only to discover that my old stomping grounds had been bulldozed and replaced with a suburb. My first impulse was to find out exactly what gets lost in these small acts of wilderness desecration. What I learned instead is that this place I had always thought of as untouched nature had actually been transformed in all kinds of ways over decades and even centuries—so much so that I probably wouldn't have felt “at home” on the original prairie. From there, I began to see that similar changes have taken place in every corner of the globe.
How can we live on such totally transformed landscapes without even knowing it?
We're all affected by a phenomenon called “shifting baseline syndrome,” or ecological amnesia. Each generation takes the natural world they experience as children as the “normal” state of nature. As a result, we recognize the decline of the natural world in our own lifetimes, but fail to see that similar declines have been playing out for decades, centuries, or even millennia. In fact, shifting baseline syndrome even affects scientists—the problem was almost totally overlooked until 1995.
How different is nature today from what it was in the past?
To imagine the natural world of the past, I like to picture a map of the world—one of those old maps with explorers' notes and drawings all over it. The first thing you notice is that there are familiar animals in places where they don't seem to belong: herds of buffalo in Florida, lions on the Great Plains, walruses on the British coast, bears in northern Africa. The next thing you see is that this older world is just bursting with life. Africa in the past had 20 times more elephants than it does today. The oceans had 10 times as many whales. Even birds—there were fully a third more wild birds on earth than we have right now. You start to ask yourself, “Did we need to lose all that to end up where we are as a society today? Or can we bring some of it back?”
Absolutely. We're all familiar with conservation campaigns that try to save the world's last, best wild places. But there's something more we can do, and that's to rebuild a wilder world everywhere, from the city to the backcountry. It's actually liberating to realize that the planet is such a changed place, because it frees us to get hands-on-to tinker with nature, using the past as a guide to what makes sense and what is possible.
Is this what's known as “rewilding”?
Yes. When the term “rewilding” was coined in the 1990s, it referred to the idea of restoring missing species like wolves, bears, and elephants on landscapes that had lost them, and to creating corridors between wilderness areas to keep them from becoming isolated “islands of green.” Today, rewilding has a more straightforward definition: “to make more wild.” It can happen at any scale, from planting milkweed for butterflies in your backyard to restoring animal migration routes that span entire continents.
You created the concept of the “100 mile diet,” which became a catalyst for the local food movement. Could something similar happen with rewilding?
A large part of what made local food so appealing was the sense that you could start changing the world right now, wherever you live. That's true with rewilding, too. History ultimately tells us that nature is a choice—we choose the kind of nature we will live with. In the past, we made that choice subconsciously, through our actions, and without knowing how extraordinary nature used to be. Now we have the opportunity to reverse course. My mantra for a new relationship with nature is: Remember, Reconnect, Rewild. We need to remember what nature can be, reconnect to nature as something meaningful in our lives, and start to remake a wilder world.
This all started with the grassland you grew up on. Is this still a personal journey for you?
I see the world now with different eyes. On the one hand, it seems like an emptier, lonelier place. On the other hand, I am more and more aware there is a living world all around me. For example, while researching this book I did an exhausting, 24-hour birdwatching marathon with three professional biologists. In one day, we saw 120 different species of bird—more kinds of bird in one day than I had knowingly seen in my entire life. Nature has been pushed to the margins of our lives, but the wild is still out there, ready to be rediscovered and erupt back into abundance. Nature isn't gone—it's waiting.
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