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The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be

4.30  ·  Rating details ·  787 ratings  ·  123 reviews
From one of Canada's most exciting writers and ecological thinkers, a book that will change the way we see nature and show that in restoring the living world, we are also restoring ourselves. 

The Once and Future World began in the moment J.B. MacKinnon realized the grassland he grew up on was not the pristine wilderness he had always believed it to be. Instead, his home p
Hardcover, 272 pages
Published September 24th 2013 by Random House Canada (first published 2013)
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Mar 12, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, can-con, 2014
I recently saw that J. B. MacKinnon's book The Once and Future World was shortlisted here in Canada for the RBC Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction, and I wondered at that term "literary non-fiction". Intrigued, I picked up the book and right from the beginning, MacKinnon showed me what it means:

My childhood landscape was the northernmost tip of the rain-shadow drylands that sprawl up most of western North America, and I could have stepped out of my house and walked three thousand kilometer
Nov 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
A fascinating and thought provoking exploration of humans' relationship (or lack there of) with the natural world. The book--broken into three parts: nature as it was, as it is, as it might be-- offers lyrical descriptions of the natural world as well as an examination of how human denial and "change blindness" has led to a world where countless species are either extinct or on the verge of extinction. It concludes with suggestions on how we might learn to co-exist with nature in a different, le ...more
David Sasaki
Nov 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
A few weeks ago I cycled from our downtown neighborhood in Mexico City up to the foothills of Cuajimapla, which greets visitors with expansive views of the valley floor below. On just a handful of days after the rainy season, which pushes out the city's infamous smog, the view of the valley is bookended by the massive volcanic range of Popocatépetl ("the Smoking Mountain") and Iztaccíhuatl ("white woman"). 

Riding down the steep grade at 50 kilometers per hour, those volcanoes felt so close that
Neal Aggarwal
Dec 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
The Danger Of 'Success'

What if the planet's ecosystem, as J.B. MacKinnon puts it, "is reduced to a ruin, yet its people endure, worshipping their gods and coveting status objects while surviving on some futuristic equivalent of the Easter Islanders' rat meat and rock gardens?"

Humans are a very adaptable species. We've seen people grow used to slums, adjust to concentration camps, learn to live with what fate hands them. If our future is to continuously degrade our planet, lose plant after plant,
Wen Zeng
Jan 05, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Sometimes, friends you meet on the internet will send you books and when that happens, you should not wait months to read them because they could be truly wonderful books. Thank you, internet.

"I came to realize that we, you and I, cannot hope to make sense of this thing we call nature by looking at what surrounds us, or even by seeking the wilderness. Instead, as science has begun to recognize, we need to reach back and revisit the past--tens, hundreds, even thousands of years ago. What we find
Abigail Spracklen
Amazing, amazing, amazing. It completely opened my eyes to what has really happened in nature and also what has happened and may happen with humans as apart of the natural world (or separated as we seem to be today.) Which should be changed so we can form a balance between the two so they're not seen as two but as one. ...more
Steven Langdon
Jan 21, 2014 rated it really liked it
This fine book is an urgent and a thoughtful plea to counter the ecological degradation of our world -- and to move toward "rewilding" the lands in which we live. Drawing on a sweeping range of historical, scientific and archaeological research, and on a vivid set of personal experiences from diverse countries, MacKinnon shows how, almost without realizing it, we have lost as much as 90% of the animal and plant life that characterized nature in its baseline state. "The sheer abundance of life," ...more
Jun 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Once and Future World is a book about rewilding the world. MacKinnon does a tremendous job of delving into a wealth of pre-20th (and often pre-19th) century sources to evoke just how different the world used to be. But he also does a very good job of not being too hippie-nostalgic about it and showing just how complicated a notion the idea of rewilding actually is. There are some stumbles -- like a lot of Western environmentalists he is writing from a position of rich privilege and he, along ...more
May 20, 2013 rated it liked it
Depending on what you think is the goal of this book, it's five stars or two stars. So I've split the difference. J.B. MacKinnon constantly seems on the verge of declaring humans to be a huge problem for the planet but never gets around to an actual declaration. On the other hand, if this is supposed to be a lyrical reflection on our relationship to nature without any real thesis, then fair play and may there be stars aplenty.

Perhaps MacKinnon was earnestly attempting to be balanced and nuanced.
Karen Quinn
I found myself smiling and delighted through many passages, and feeling a strange sense of loss through others (fortunately, not overwhelmingly so). This book was illuminating and valuable as a person engaged in city-building activity. I haven't and probably will never have the kind of experiences with nature that MacKinnon describes. But I have been fortunate enough to scratch the surface of the sense of awe and admiration for nature which infuses his prose. It butts up against a lot of my sens ...more
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, animals
this book reminds me of guns, germs, and steel as far as changing the way I think about the past. there is so much astounding in it, from just sheer facts about this or that species to wider ways of thinking about human consciousness.

I think the biggest impact was just the realization that although the past century+ has been a time of incredible environmental degradation, it's not just a product of the modern world. human beings have ALWAYS wiped out species and altered ecosystems, all humans.
Richard Reese
Mar 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
J. B. MacKinnon grew up on the edge of a Canadian prairie. “I knew the prairie in the hands-in-every-crevice detail that only a child can, and it was, for me, a place of magic.” He developed a healthy relationship with the living ecosystem, an experience that is no longer ordinary. Years later, as an adult, he returned to visit home, and his sacred prairie had been erased by the Royal Heights subdivision. He could find no trace of the red foxes that he had loved so much. It hurt.

By and by, curio
Leni - The White Book Cottage
May 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: read-2017
"When we choose the kind of nature we will live with, we are also choosing the kind of human beings we will be. We shape the world, and it shapes us in return. We are the creator and the created, the maker and the made."

What an amazing book!
I really like to read non fiction books about the environment but am not the biggest fan of the books styled like a collection of magazine articles. This book was really refreshing in that way.
It is divided into three parts: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It
Sep 17, 2019 rated it it was amazing
An incredible inspiring read. The knowledge, thoroughness and messaging of this book compels me to do more and learn more.
Probably my favorite book so far this year. I loved that the book is free of the illusion that nature is somehow purer or in some sense better than humans, but instead looks underneath to show in often surprising ways how humanity has always shaped their surroundings and how the surroundings have shaped us. It reminded me of Pollan's concept that plants and animals use humans to thrive even as we use them for our own ends. He explores deeply the concept of the shifting baseline in our conception ...more
Feb 25, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Magnificent......offering ideas on how to reconcile our modern day non natured lives with a far distant path teaming with nature as we cannot remember it because we have never known it that way. A book about what an ecological human might be like and an imagined 'Lost Island,' where nature is reclaimed as 12 percent of the whole where large beasts run huge swaths of land unhampered by humans. Definitely food for thought. I live in closer proximity to nature than most of my brothers and sisters i ...more
Sep 20, 2016 rated it it was amazing
J.B. MacKinnon’s “The Once and Future World” was a very pleasant surprise. If not for a nuanced interview I heard with the author, I might not ever have purchased this book out of the fear that it—so easily labeled an essay on humanity’s responsibility for ecological change—being a preachy bore (no matter how correct it may have been). Instead, it is well-written and informative and manages to reshape perceptions and biases without ever becoming shrill or hectoring.

MacKinnon starts from a very
Sep 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
MacKinnon uses an array of lenses to examine humans' relationship with the natural world: sometimes a journalist's; sometimes a scientist's; sometimes an artist's. These are all important, but the author is most effective, when he forgoes the lenses and chooses to relate things from the point of view of a simple observer... when he relates, for example, what happens in a city park during the sixty minutes he decides to give nature his fullest attention. MacKinnon is at the edge of a pond in a ci ...more
Mar 08, 2017 rated it it was amazing
If you like reading essays about nature from someone who gives a shit and don't want to be caught up in the collective amnesia that our society has about the natural world...oh...and if you are interested in how to maybe possibly start correcting our course as a species, check it out. Whales for life. ...more
An interesting reminder that we suffer from landscape amnesia, forgetting that living memory and photographs are but a tiny slice of how the world has looked and changed over thousands of years.
Nov 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nature, environment
This book is an ode to nature and wildlife from that increasingly rare breed of biophiliac individuals. I count myself as one and so our values are aligned when it comes to viewing mankind as just one among the pantheon of lifeforms on Earth not deserving of special treatment. Though I cannot help feeling that it would only appeal to those already sympathetic to the plight of our disappearing wildlife, and ineffective at making the majority feel the same regret. As the author puts it, it seems s ...more
Aug 24, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book was recommended by Linda Nagata, a science fiction writer whose opinion I respect highly, so I picked it up and finally gave it a whirl. I must admit: I was hoping for more "future" in the author's discussion of our natural world. While the writing itself is beautiful and chock-full of fascinating facts (I had never come upon the concept of ecological amnesia before, but it makes total sense; I never knew that Polynesian swimmers knew to punch a shark on the snout to make it go away; I ...more
Jan 20, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An excellent book. I rarely give 5 stars on here, but this one deserves it. The writing is great, and that plus the always interesting topic make it a page turner. I won't say it didn't leave me feeling depressed at times, but it's an important thing to actually feel that pain a bit, to really acknowledge it. That is the sign you still care, and maybe might start to act on it.

I really appreciated most the parts that discussed how our baseline feeling for normality in our local ecosystems has sl
Gabriel Eggers
Mar 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, nature
Eye opening. This book gave me a deeper appreciation for the history of life on this planet, our place in nature, and what we might be able to create in the future if we set our minds and hearts to it. I had never considered how animals might be part of the social fabric of life, how the question of rewilding How important is it to have a direct experience of nature in order for people to care about the natural world and be able to appreciate it's significance in their lives, and how many people ...more
David Wen
Jul 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
J.B. has a way with words and is a wonderful story teller. He makes a compelling argument that the nature we think is "normal" is just one slice of time that we're able to glimpse. Conservation and "rewilding" of nature is just taking is back to that time and might not even be the "normal" state. Even if we were able to bring it back to how it once was, we might not even want to live in or visit it. A great thought provoking book about what "natural" means and his title captures it perfectly. ...more
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book!

J. B. MacKinnon writes in such an informative and conversational way. It felt like sitting on the porch watching the sun come up with a relative you've never met, drinking tea and chatting... then all of a sudden you're stargazing together. It was easy to read and engaging. So much of the information I learned on these pages stayed with me, probably due to the storytelling format.

Great read, highly recommended.
A Mig
Mar 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
A must read. A fascinating and sad journey into the rich but lost Past of our planet. What I will remember from this book are the vivid imageries of ancient fauna, described from old travel logs. What is even sadder is that most of those old 18th-19th century descriptions were of a natural world already corrupted by centuries of human activity. The complexity of ecosystems is described in depth and shows the difficulty of correcting past mistakes.
Apr 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A lovely, if dispiriting meditation, stuffed full of fascinating facts and anecdotes. MacKinnon delights in questioning assumptions of what is truly natural, and showing the harrowing impact that humanity has had on the species around it since the beginning.

It's a clear-eyed view with enough reverence for the aesthetic and spiritual pleasures of the natural world that it becomes a gentle yet firm advocate for revolution.
Jun 29, 2017 rated it it was ok
While there were interesting sections of the book, I did not care for the author's style of writing. He would start going down an interesting path and then seemed to start rambling. He was all over the place, like putting together random thoughts, and I would find myself getting frustrated and thinking where the heck is he going with this. Really an odd style to put a book together. ...more
John Geary
Mar 01, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Excellent book that combines natural history, ecology, and of course, some human history. Very easy to read but also very informative and thought provoking. At times it paints a very bleak picture of what the world may become in the future without nature as we seem to grow more and more disconnected from it, but it does have suggestions as to how we might change that. An excellent read.
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The Once and Future World vs. Wild Ones? 1 7 Nov 16, 2013 07:16PM  

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Journalist and author J.B. MACKINNON coined the term "the 100 Mile Diet," and his book Plenty is widely considered a catalyst of the local foods movement. His essays on natural history have appeared in Orion, Reader's Digest, and other magazines. He is based in Vancouver, Canada. ...more

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