My smartphone pings. My sister has texted me, reminding me that I’m supposed to make a salad for our family dinner this weekend.
Another ping — this tMy smartphone pings. My sister has texted me, reminding me that I’m supposed to make a salad for our family dinner this weekend.
Another ping — this time from my electric car, letting me know it’s fully charged.
I could go to the store for lettuce, but instead I spend the time watching a peregrine falcon nest on the roof of the Radisson Hotel via webcam. I’ve been binge-watching the chicks since they hatched.
So far, according to Munich-based writer Alexander Pschera, I’ve just accessed three different Internets: Human, Internet-of-Things and Animal.
Pschera has written several books about the Internet and media in his native German, but Animal Internet is the first one released in translation in North America.
There are a few facts that underlie Pschera’s examination of the Animal Internet. The first is that according to the World Wildlife Fund, Earth has lost half of its animals in the last 40 years. The second is that the average American child spends over 50 hours per week on electronic devices and less than an hour outside.
To Pschera, those are the results of ecology. He believes that attempts to protect endangered animals by separating them from people has only distanced us from the natural world and hasn’t slowed the rate of species loss. And the Human Internet has only widened the gap between people and nature.
"But I watch kitten videos and look at pictures of wild animals on a regular basis," one could protest.
Pschera counters that images of something are not the same as the thing itself.
"Over the last two hundred years, the real animals have been replaced by likenesses. The process is dialectical: the further we distance ourselves from nature, the more we produce, reproduce, and disseminate images of animals — all without moving a single step closer to nature in the process."
What’s needed, Pschera says, is direct access, either in person or online, via the Animal Internet.
Pschera thinks that being able to watch a peregrine webcam or "follow" a wolf on Facebook will allow people to connect with animals in a way that nature documentaries and information-dense signage at provincial parks can’t. "Seeing creates knowledge and knowledge leads to action," he writes.
His logic is that interest in a single wolf leads to affection for wolves in general, which leads to advocacy that will protect wolves and the ecosystems they need to survive.
Pschera also believes that gathering data on hitherto-unstudied species, particularly migratory animals, will enable us to better plan for their protection.
But what are the ethics of the Animal Internet?
Pschera claims that there are currently nearly 50,000 wild migratory animals equipped with GPS units. Will having a large population of plugged-in animals enable us to better predict and therefore protect against natural disasters like earthquakes or avalanches? Perhaps. But does having a better early-warning system justify capturing and attaching sensors to ever-increasing numbers of wild animals?
Also, how will we go about monitoring the wealth of information created by the Animal Internet? Pschera says a global monitoring system is needed and quotes German scientist Martin Wikelski, who is attempting to partner with the European and German space administrations to implement this idea.
Are there dangers inherent in the Animal Internet? Yes. For instance, poachers could use the information provided to them by GPS units to more easily find their prey. And allowing people into land trusts and conservation areas might result in paved strips in the wilderness blanketed with discarded Tim Hortons cups.
Is the Animal Internet the answer to our environmental problems and increasing use of the Human Internet? It’s hard to say.
What is certain is that Pschera is an interesting guide to the issues — technological, scientific and philosophical — that derive from such radical thinking.
This review appeared in the April 23 books section of the Winnipeg Free Press....more
Chocolate got American environmental journalist Simran Sethi through a divorce.
Chocolate, coffee and the occasional cigarette got Sethi through everyChocolate got American environmental journalist Simran Sethi through a divorce.
Chocolate, coffee and the occasional cigarette got Sethi through every page of her intriguing first book, Bread, Wine, Chocolate: The Slow Loss of Foods We Love.
"Staples like rice, corn and wheat make up over two-thirds of the world's diet," she notes in the introduction. "But they aren't what get me out of bed in the morning or help me celebrate at night."
And so, after working as an environmental correspondent for NBC News and anchoring the PBS series Quest on science and sustainability, Sethi took three years to focus on five "intimate" foodstuffs: wine, chocolate, coffee, beer and bread.
In each of the book's sections, Sethi takes us to the places coffee, cacao, grapes, hops, yeast and wheat are grown, processed and packaged—from farmers' fields to bakeries, wineries, chocolatiers and coffee roasters.
Along the way, she asks why coffee, chocolate, wine, beer and bread taste the way they do, how they're commodified and what varieties are commonly and uncommonly grown. Which means that in addition to a cultural and personal history of each foodstuff, in each section she also writes about fair-trade practices, food distribution systems and genetic diversity.
This is a lot of ground to cover, both literally and figuratively.
Sethi's insistence that we slow down and really taste the food we're eating would be familiar to devotees of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. Her focus on small farmers and fair-trade practices as well as the real cost of our industrialized approach to food evokes Bill McKibben's Oil and Honey. And her science-driven approach to how we perceive food brings to mind Alton Brown, host of Iron Chef America and a legion of other shows.
Unfortunately, this multi-pronged approach doesn't quite cohere. Bread, Wine, Chocolate doesn't really work as travel writing for foodies or food-security-focused environmental literature. It isn't a confessional memoir or a stylish cookbook.
In addition, there is a lot of sameness in book's first three sections on wine, chocolate and coffee. They're all premium products, many of which we import, and we think and talk about them in similar ways. Though the bread and beer sections provide some variety, they come nearly 200 pages into the book.
And so while Bread, Wine, Chocolate isn't as focused or as charming as one would hope, Sethi does provide us with new ways of thinking about food.
One such tidbit is this quote from conservationist Colin Khoury: "Eating anything that's not rice, wheat, corn, soy or palm oil is radical." Another is Sethi's discussions on how we perceive food, from smell to touch to taste.
Those readers interested in broadening their food vocabulary will especially appreciate the full-colour appendix of "flavour guides," including a coffee flavour wheel (and its dark twin, the coffee defect wheel) and the guides in each section on how to set up a proper wine tasting or a coffee cupping.
—from the January 23, 2016 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press....more
Based near Kingston, Ont., James Raffan has built a career writing and lecturing on Canadian wilderness travel. He has written more than a dozen booksBased near Kingston, Ont., James Raffan has built a career writing and lecturing on Canadian wilderness travel. He has written more than a dozen books in this vein, including the bestsellers Wildwaters (1986), Summer North of Sixty (1990) and Bark, Skin and Cedar (1999), a cultural history of canoes.
In 2007, Raffan set himself a larger canvas, writing a biography of Sir George Simpson, governor of the Hudson's Bay Company from 1820 to 1860.
While researching that book, Raffan was intrigued to learn that Simpson had made an around-the-world tour in 1841-42, visiting the Arctic Circle in Russia. Later, Raffan was invited to attend a 2010 conference in Iqaluit on the issues facing the Arctic, whose delegate list was "heavily skewed towards non-indigenous men and women, like me, with addresses in the middle lattitudes."
After decades visiting the North, Raffan wanted to know how climate change and industry was affecting the land. But he also realized that many southerners knew nothing about the North, a point driven home when he saw tourists on weekend jaunts to Santa's Workshop theme parks in Finland and Alaska. He also noticed how fluffy polar bears had become the face of climate change for organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund.
As Raffan argues in his introduction, the North is more than Coca-Cola's advertising campaigns have made it out to be: "there are people who live in the Arctic, four million of them, in eight countries, speaking dozens of languages and representing almost as many indigenous cultures."
As such, Circling the Midnight Sun documents Raffan's three-and-a-half year circumpolar journey, visiting indigenous communities in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.
But make no mistake. With the exception of a long and bone-shaking ride to visit a Siberian shaman, where the driver blasted Russian techno-pop and smoked incessantly, and a fishing trip in Iceland that includes dolphin, this book is not adventure travel of the traditional sort.
Raffan spends much of his time in the book in transit, to and from his home, to and from remote Arctic communities.
The majority of Circling the Midnight Sun's pages, in fact, are devoted to histories of the peoples he meets.
More importantly, it also details contemporary attempts by indigenous peoples to gain any kind of sovereignty over their traditional lands, given the influx of industry, the new shipping lanes from China, Singapore and Korea, and the changing winds of politics.
Along the way, Raffan meets with political leaders, reindeer herders, activists, spiritual leaders, museum curators, artists and engineers.
Thankfully, Raffan is a careful and sympathetic tour guide to all these varied communities. What's more, he always seems aware that his is the perspective of a white southerner, that there is more to knowing a place than canoeing its rivers, so he spends most of his time listening.
One of the most memorable moments in this book comes when Raffan is served baby horse in a Siberian restaurant.
When asked by the chef, Igor Makarov, if he likes it, Raffan says, "We have horses at home. My wife and daughters are competitive riders. They are horse-lovers. Horses are a big part of our family's life as well. But I'm not sure how they will react when I tell them that I enjoyed a meal of foal here in Yakutsk."
The chef's answer encapsulates everything that Circling the Midnight Sun attempts: overcoming culture shock, deepening our ideas about indigenous peoples, and beginning a north-south dialogue.
"Here in Sakha, horses are sacred," replied Makarov. "They are a part of who we are. They have been a part of Sakha culture as long as anyone can remember. And, for my part, I can't imagine loving a horse and not eating them."
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 1, 2014...more
In 2010, just after the release of her much-acclaimed first novel Annabel, Montreal-based writer Kathleen Winter got an unusual phone call.
It was NoahIn 2010, just after the release of her much-acclaimed first novel Annabel, Montreal-based writer Kathleen Winter got an unusual phone call.
It was Noah Richler, and he was offering her his spot on the Clipper Adventurer, a ship scheduled to travel the Northwest Passage in a little less than a week.
As part of the services offered to its passengers, tour company Adventure Canada usually added ornithologists, scientists and artists to its roster of crew members. If Winter accepted, she would be the designated writer.
Winter packed her bags, stowing her husband's duct-taped and paint-smeared raincoat and a flip-flop/little-black-dress combo in her bag and locating an insulated beer cooler that would hold her old, out-of-tune concertina.
This being Kathleen Winter, she also packed a beard: "The forms and waivers came with photos of the other resource staff. I noticed they were nearly all men, and most had explorer-type beards. I happened to have a beard I'd crocheted out of brown wool on a train trip with my mother—it was a bit more Rasputin than Explorer, but it possessed loops that fit nicely around my ears, so I packed that as well."
Because of her last-minute assignment, Winter had no formal responsibilities during the two-week journey, unlike cultural ambassadors such as Greenlandic-Canadian Inuit guide Aaju Peter, Canadian Inuit guide Bernadette Dean and Winnipeg-based singer Nathan Rogers.
Winter spent her time on board writing and sketching, trying to unpack her ideas about Canada's North and what it means to be both home and away.
This process starts when she listens to Rogers perform his father's Stan's song The Northwest Passage, with its line "tracing one warm line / through a land so wild and savage."
Though now based in Montreal, Winter spent her childhood and early adulthood in Newfoundland, where she moved with her English family as a child. As a grown-up, with elderly parents and children of her own, Winter feels like a cultural orphan, being neither fully Canadian nor properly English:
"How devoid of this warm line my life had felt, uprooted from ancestry, living in industrial cities and mill towns, not understanding messages from animals or from ancestors the way Bernadette and others appeared to do."
She confides some of this to Aaju Peter, herself a mix of Greenlandic and Inuit traditions, who notes: "It's perfectly OK to belong to two cultures. Your voice is authentic, because it's human."
Consoled, Winter begins thinking on the mixed European and indigenous legacy confronting her at every step, how the two ways of life have been intertwined in the North for a long time.
She spends her evening knitting the muskox fur she's collected into the hat she's working on. She starts listening to the land, accumulating lists of fauna with English common names, Latin names and Inuit names.
And so it goes, in a relatively peaceful fashion, until the last leg of their journey, when the Clipper Adventurer runs aground and its 128 passengers have to be rescued. Winter and her fellow passengers weren't in any danger, except perhaps of missing their pre-arranged flights home while waiting for the Amundsen, the Coast Guard icebreaker that happened to be nearby conducting research, to come get them.
But adventure is not really the point of Boundless, which was recently a finalist for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. It is a meditation in the truest sense by a skilled and ever-so-slightly strange storyteller on a two-week trip to Canada's North.
Readers who followed the discovery this past fall of Sir John Franklin's ship HMS Erebus — lost in 1845 as he searched for the Northwest Passage — will enjoy following Winter and her fellow passengers along his route, as well as Winter's account of the ceremonial unearthing of what was supposed to be the logbook from Franklin's voyage.
The long-buried box contained a cardboard box, pieces of newspaper and tallow, but like Boundless, it still makes for a pretty good story.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2014...more
These days, Ottawa-based naturalist Jennifer Kingsley builds radio documentaries about encounters with whales and is the on-board naturalist for NatioThese days, Ottawa-based naturalist Jennifer Kingsley builds radio documentaries about encounters with whales and is the on-board naturalist for National Geographic tours through the Northwest Passage.
But, back in 2005, when she embarked on a 54-day canoe trip to the Arctic with five companions, she was still trying to figure out the boundaries of what increasingly was becoming a "wilderness-bound life," saying "most of the people closest to me would never see me in the places I love most, where I am often my best and sometimes at my worst."
The record of this negotiation is Paddlenorth, Kingsley's first book. This is travel writing of an extreme sort, where the narrator describes her numb and cracked feet and bug-bitten skin with a kind of pride.
Unfortunately, Kingsley is unwilling to slip into either the naturalist or confessional modes that are de rigueur for either nature writing or memoir, and the book suffers as a result.
Though she now makes her living as a guide for other people seeking their own adventures, Kingsley seems reluctant to spend too much time describing the landscape around her or to put what she's seeing into context for the reader.
For instance, Kingsley fervently hopes that their journey on Nunavut's Back River intersects with the annual barrens caribou migration, writing over and over that this is a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity." Eventually, their group is surrounded by more caribou than Kingsley can count. But what's missing is the information that the caribou herds were in significant decline even in 2005, and that there were concerns by northern officials over how rising temperatures owing to climate change and the incursions by mining companies in caribou calving grounds were affecting the herds.
Kingsley is also unwilling delve too deeply into the interpersonal relationships among the six companions. And that's a shame, because it robs the book of much of the "resilience" and "renewal" promised in the book's subtitle. We don't really get to know more than one or two of the other paddlers and the conflict suggested by passages here and there is never fully explored.
Kingsley chooses to fill these gaps with descriptions of other travellers in the region, focusing in on British naval officer and explorer George Back, who explored the area in 1834 as well as the disastrous tenure of Catholic missionary Joseph Builiard in the area in 1949.
She also goes into great detail about the ill-conceived 1955 Arctic journey led by Arthur Moffatt, which led to his death from hypothermia.
All of these histories are interesting, but they're exclusively male and Euro-western. (Where are the Inuit and Dene stories from the region, both historical and contemporary?)
They also serve to highlight the fact that, while anyone would agree that spending the summer canoeing in the Arctic is extreme, there is very little privation for Kingsley and her companions. They have space-age fabrics, maps and plenty of food to see them through their trip.
Which leaves us with the subtitle's final hook: "adventure." Yes, Kingsley's group traverses several sets of big rapids and even capsizes a canoe early on. They also have to wait out some nasty weather, which threatens to delay their departure, but everything mostly goes as planned...
Towards the end of Paddlenorth, Kingsley writes "everybody has a different reason for committing a journey to paper, and no one has the same memory." She's talking about George Grinnell's 1996 account of the Moffatt expedition, but she could have easily been discussing her own story.
It's unclear what Kingsley's reasons were for writing about this particular trip, especially as she's since been on dozens of others and because she seems so guarded about what seems to have been a largely uneventful trip.
My wish for her is that the next time she writes an account of her travels—and I'd like to read that next book— that she trusts both her readers and herself a little more.
From the September 6, 2014 edition of the Winnipeg Free Press' Books Section....more
In 1960, 24-year-old Jane Goodall arrived in Tanzania to study chimpanzees.
Sent by British scientist Louis Leakey, the former secretary initially hadIn 1960, 24-year-old Jane Goodall arrived in Tanzania to study chimpanzees.
Sent by British scientist Louis Leakey, the former secretary initially had to be chaperoned by her mother. Goodall later obtained a PhD from Cambridge University in ethology, a branch of zoology that studies animal behaviour, based on the her work at the Gombe Stream National Park.
Goodall began by studying our closest relatives, discovering their propensity for using tools and hunting small mammals for meat. These were startling revelations in their day, since it was believed that using tools was a human trait and that chimpanzees were vegetarian.
More than five decades later, Goodall is still far from home, and still part of the conversation about what it means to be human.
The octogenarian spends 300 days a year on the road, lecturing on conservation and raising funds for both the Jane Goodall Institute, which funds ongoing research at Gombe, as well as Roots and Shoots, a global youth-education program.
This spring sees the publication of her 25th book, Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants, the third book she's co-written with journalist and former spirituality editor for Amazon.com, Gail Hudson.
Refreshingly, Goodall is upfront about her credentials: "Of course I am best known... for the study of the Gombe chimpanzees... But there would be no chimpanzees without plants - not human beings either, for that matter. And the chimpanzee might never have materialized for me had I not been obsessed, as a child, with stories of the wilderness areas of the planet and, most especially, the forests of Africa."
And so, in Seeds of Hope Goodall (and her co-writer) describes her specific history while also presenting a brief history of the different kinds of plants and trees, and how they have been cultivated over time. Goodall relies heavily on stories from the environmental and community groups she works with.
She also delivers a handful of big ideas with her anecdotes: Organic food is healthiest, the effects of GMOs on humans aren't fully known, mono-cultures aren't sustainable over the long term, we need our forests to be fully human.
All these big ideas bear repeating; the problem with Goodall's approach to these issues, however, is that readers aren't left with a big picture. The material hopscotches geographically between England and Africa, the two poles of Goodall's life, with stops nearly everywhere her tour bus has paused in between - but there's very little cohesion.
Also, although Goodall is reliably charming, the sections that include material outside of her first-hand experience and/or limited areas of expertise feel like they were written by an inexperienced speechwriter.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Goodall and her collaborators were accused of plagiarism last year by the Washington Post after the American edition was released.
Goodall subsequently apologized and pledged to work with editors to correct future editions. Potential readers will be glad to hear the Canadian edition has received a relatively thorough going-over.
But even that last-minute tinkering wasn't enough to save Seeds of Hope; though its authors are earnest, the book isn't half as compelling as it should be.
Those looking for a local equivalent should dip into The Global Forest by Ontario-based botanist Diana Beresford-Kroeger, who is also interested in working with storytelling and environmental advocacy.
J.B. MacKinnon's The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be, shortlisted for this year's Charles Taylor Prize for non-fiction, is also worth a read as it digs into the archeological record and challenges some of the assumptions underlying the main tenets of conservation.
This review appeared in the Books Section of the Winnipeg Free Press on April 5, 2014. ...more
I'm currently re-reading my book. So I can do readings from it, in the weeks and months ahead. So I can get the poems off the page and into my mouth,I'm currently re-reading my book. So I can do readings from it, in the weeks and months ahead. So I can get the poems off the page and into my mouth, words and cadences and line breaks. (Half-memorizing poems for readings is a much difference process than writing/editing them...)...more