Book Review: ‘Original Highways: Travelling the Great Rivers of Canada’ by Roy McGregor.

34127974Marci and I read this one together. It wasn’t what we were expecting, but it was very good.

Roy MacGregor takes a close look at sixteen iconic Canadian rivers: the Columbia, the Fraser, the Bow, the North Saskatchewan, the Red, the Dumoine, the Ottawa, the Don, the Grand, the Niagara, the Muskoka, the Rideau, the Gatineau, the St. Lawrence, and the Saint John. He writes as a journalist, with an eye to current events and contemporary stories. but he is also well aware of the history behind these rivers. I actually expected more history (and would have welcomed more), but what was there was accurate and well-written, and I suspect most Canadians would learn more about the story of their country from reading it. He also writes as a keen canoeist who has paddled many of these rivers. This hands-on perspective adds what might be called a water-level view to the narrative, and I enjoyed it.

This book also tells a sad story. Most of these rivers are in difficulty because of human activity. Some of them have been brought back, but some have not. We depend on the water from these rivers, but we continue to pollute them with industrial waste, sewage, garbage, and chemicals. In the words of Jacques Courcelles (whose family have lived near the Red River in Manitoba for five generations), “Sometimes you have to think beyond your lifetime”. Some Canadians are getting this message. Many, sadly, are not. It’s ironic that many of the same people who get agitated about leaving government debt for their grandchildren to deal with seem to have no such qualms about leaving their grandchildren to deal with the consequences of their (our) environmental irresponsibility.

I would recommend this book to all Canadians who want to earn more about our country’s history and geography. I would also recommend it to newcomers to this country. If you want to find out about the soul of Canada, this is a good place to start.

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‘To Care for What We Know…’ (a poem by Wendell Berry)

To care for what we know requires
care for what we don’t, the world’s lives
dark in the soil, dark in the dark.

Forbearance is the first care we give
to what we do not know. We live
by lives we don’t intend, lives
that exceed our thoughts and needs, outlast
our designs, staying by passing through,
surviving again and again the risky passages
from ice to warmth, dark to light.

Rightness of scale is our second care:
the willingness to think and work
within the limits of our competence
to do no permanent wrong to anything
of permanent worth to the earth’s life,
known or unknown, now or ever, never
destroying by knowledge, unknowingly,
what we do not know, so that the world
in its mystery, the known unknown world
will live and thrive while we live.

. . .

And our competence to do no
permanent wrong to the land
is limited by the land’s competence
to suffer our ignorance, our errors,
and – provided the scale
is right – to recover, to be made whole.

(Wendell Berry: A Small Porch, Part I, VIII, 9, p.24)

I know that this is the sustainability creed that Wendell Berry lives by. I feel in my bones that it is the wisest way to live. I don’t live by it myself, but I know I need to work hard at coming closer to it.

The problem is, this way of life is not compatible with the modern economy of Canada, especially of Alberta. Whether the governments are right-wing or left-wing or centrist, they all seem to take for granted that doing violence to the earth is an inevitable part of modern life, and they all close their eyes and ears to the consequences.

It seems to me that if we think in the long term, our refusal to live by the philosophy Wendell Berry outlines in this poem leaves us with a limited number of choices:

Choice #1: As the planet becomes unliveable due to overpopulation and environmental destruction, the human species becomes extinct.

Choice #2: We hope like hell that before we arrive at Choice #1, we’ve found the means to leave the planet so we can go find another one to rape and destroy.

Some Christians would add Choice #3: Before we reach Choice #1, Jesus will come again and rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity. But since he has taken a lot longer to come again than most people thought he would, and, moreover, since he has had lots of opportunities to rescue us from the consequences of our own stupidity before now, but hasn’t done so, I wouldn’t bet the farm on that one.

 

‘Planted: A Story of Creation, Calling, and Community’, by Leah Kostamo

planted-by-leah-kostamoThis book is both the story of A Rocha Canada and also a good primer on a Christian approach to creation care. Early in the book the author names four theological principles on which the work of A Rocha is based: (1) The earth is the Lord’s (Psalm 24:1), (2) Creation is good (Genesis 1:31), (3) Everything is connected (Hosea 4:1-3), and (4) We are to have hope (despite the fact that ‘knowing what conservationists know, it’s only logical that they would be tempted to despair).

The data about the deterioration of our natural environment seems overwhelming at times, but nevertheless I came away from this book with a sense of hope and a feeling that there are things – maybe even just little things – that everyone can do. But I particularly resonated with Leah Kostamo’s three recommended attitudes: (1) Practice Gratitude, (2) Practice Generosity, and (3) Practice Keeping the Sabbath.

Like many people, I’m in favour of creation care in theory but often take the easy way out. This book gave me both a sense of hope and also a few things to be working on.

Leah Kostamo’s website is here.

Planted can be purchased from Amazon.ca here.