Hitched to Everything

John Muir observed that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” This delightfully colloquial ecological aphorism acknowledges the human desire to possess, to mark some limited object or detail as special and personal. And then Muir emphasizes that an apparent uniqueness is pushed, and pulls—is hitched—to all of everything.

The seventeen short essays in The Nature of Canada shrewdly pick out resonant particulars, and then point to everything else. One essay focuses on cod and beaver; others, for example, discuss agriculture, mining, and gender. To pick out a few anythings from my own reading: I was startled by the extent of the “physical, emotional, and financial effects” of polio in the 1950s; distressed to realize that propylene glycol, used to de-ice airplanes, will “deplete dissolved oxygen” in wetlands near airports; amused that beavers may build twenty dams in just one kilometre of a slow-moving stream. But such particulars are hitched, both tightly and tentatively, to Apollo 8 astronauts, climate change, energy sources, and pathogens.

In its transcontinental and cosmic connecting, The Nature of Canada provides both summary and surprise. Adopting a relaxed yet energetic stance, the contributors consolidate the aspects of nature that have shaped Canada and relate them approachably across disciplines and among theoretical concepts. In total, the essays trace the nation’s complicated environmental history. In its breadth and variety, The Nature of Canada makes a fine companion for the veteran Canadianist, and an ideal introduction for the novice.

While many of the book’s authors recognize the importance of the “environmental imagination,” readers of a journal focused on literature will not find much discussion of literary or artistic versions of nature in Canada. Mentions of, for example, Moodie, Atwood, Emily Carr, and Stan Rogers are brief and incidental rather than sustained reflections on what artists might reveal that others do not. But however limited its attention to fiction and poetry, this book is almost always, as the title of Julie Cruikshank’s marvellous piece has it, “listening for different stories.” Listening for, she explains, demands “attention, engagement, reflection, and curiosity.” The Nature of Canada breathes engaged attention: it teaches us what we already know, and points to connections we have never pondered. It’s a guidebook and a friend: you want to have this book handy, to mull again, when your class touches on farming or climate or women and disarmament, on activism, politics, or the myth of the North. All such informed hitching is hauntingly evoked in Heather E. McGregor’s closing meditation on the paradoxes of nature in Canada. In her resonant teaching, McGregor reveres story: “[p]eople . . . will need to see and make sense of themselves in the stories of climate change, in the stories of humanity living within a crisis, and in the stories that guide our actions to mediate it.”

This review “Hitched to Everything” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 17 Jul. 2020. Web.

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