Flight from Grace: A Cultural History of Humans and Birds. McGill-Queen's University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Northern Light: Power, Land, and the Memory of Water. Goose Lane Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Kazim Ali’s Northern Light is the story of Ali’s return to his childhood home in Jenpeg, Manitoba. His father worked for Manitoba Hydro in the small community, damming the Nelson River to bring power to the lower part of the province. The Hydro project was eventually legally halted by the people of the nearby town of Cross Lake and the Indigenous people of Pimicikamak because the damming polluted and eroded their water supply. As Ali witnesses first-hand upon his return, the remote community of Pimicikamak continues to suffer the ramifications of environmental destruction; it faces a suicide crisis among its youth, work is scarce, and provincial and federal governments continue to refuse to take responsibility for or attempt to repair the devastation to the community’s water.
Northern Light takes up questions of belonging and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people at a personal level, and it is especially compelling in its exploration of the intersection between Indigenous and immigrant experiences. Ali’s return home is more than a chance to reminisce. He bears witness to the changes to the land: the destruction of both water and shore, but also nature’s resilience as it reclaims the former town of Jenpeg. Although Ali insists that he does not fully know the reason for his trip, it seems clear that he is searching for a way to reconnect to his childhood, a way to experience a feeling of belonging—and he finds a community of people in Pimicikamak that eagerly welcomes him home. Ali builds relationships with the people of Pimicikamak, who see him as a prodigal son and allow him into their community and lives. In Northern Light, Ali illustrates how an open, attentive approach to reconciliation might be accomplished; he listens to the people of Pimicikamak, and in turn he lets the experience of his homecoming change him.
Richard Pope approaches another nature-based relationship in Flight from Grace. He takes on the difficult task of exploring human relationships with birds through the lens of history, religion, art, and the natural world. In Flight from Grace, Pope examines our fascination with birds, from the oldest surviving cave drawings and images of winged and feathered deities of ancient Egypt, to humans obsession with flight and our love of birdsong. The majority of the book is devoted to the history of birds as sacred beings, and Pope details societies that celebrate and documente their relationship with these winged creatures. The second section of the book traces humankind’s attempts to embody and demystify the birdlike characteristics of flight and song. The final part of the book is pragmatic in its discussion of humankind’s betrayal of birds, as Pope outlines our destruction of bird habitats and questions whether we can reverse course on our path of destruction.
Pope introduces Flight from Grace as a “meditation about birds and their meaning for human beings” (viv), and although the first part of the book is more meditative and exploratory, the final chapters of the book present an argument about the current state of the interplay between birds and humans. Pope enumerates the damages that humans have caused to birds as a means to “shock us into action” (187). Humans, he argues, have not seen themselves as animals for some time, and if we do not think of ourselves as part of an interconnected web of life, we are destined to continue to abuse and exterminate nature because of our false sense of superiority. Pope’s book ends on a warning note, as he insists that our violence and greed as a species will certainly lead to further extinction and environmental exploitation, which will result in further loss of species and poisoning of resources.
Both Pope’s and Ali’s books insist on rethinking our interconnectivity with the natural world. Pope argues that “turn[ing] away from our legitimate place in nature” (227) is what precipitates our disrespect for birds and other animals, as well as our abuse of natural resources, like the waterways that Ali highlights in Northern Light. However, both authors remain hopeful that we can establish a new, sympathetic relationship with nature if we renounce the colonial belief that humans have dominion over all things. Both books advocate for a humbler, more equitable worldview as a pathway to reconciliation with one another and with nature.
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