Thursday, October 3, 2013

J.B. MacKinnon

J.B. MacKinnon is the author or coauthor of four books of nonfiction. His latest is The Once and Future World: Nature As It Was, As It Is, As It Could Be. Previous works are The 100-Mile Diet (with Alisa Smith), a bestseller widely recognized as a catalyst of the local foods movement; I Live Here (with Mia Kirshner and artists Michael Simons and Paul Shoebridge), a ‘paper documentary’ about displaced people that made top 10 lists from the Bloomsbury Literary Review to Comic Book Resources; and Dead Man in Paradise, the story of a priest assassinated in the Dominican Republic, which won Canada’s highest prize for literary nonfiction.

Last month I asked the author about what he was reading. MacKinnon's reply:
First I have to define reading. On my desk right now for urgent consumption are books like California Condors in the Pacific Northwest, In the Company of Crows and Ravens, and the 1955 classic Birds and Animals of the Rockies, which brims with that decade’s pop-o-matic rhythms: “He is no fish hog, Rattles of the huge top-notch. He catches only what he can use for food, which is the sanest bag-limit ever devised. A sportsman to the core, the Belted Kingfisher is always a most enjoyable companion at the Old Fishing Hole.”

These are the books I read in order to write about historical ecology, or what I’ve come to think of simply as “the history of nature.” It’s often a pleasure, but it isn’t “pleasure reading,” and at the end of the day I seek relief in books where the human relationship to nature is explored only obliquely (it’s always present, of course).

I always have at least two such books on the go. Right now, I’m reading The Orenda, Joseph Boyden’s new novel about the intertwined stories of 17th century European missionaries and aboriginal people in what is now the province of Ontario. The experience reminds me of when I read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: there are times when the sheer brutality of some scenes almost forces me to close the covers. This is a far more compassionate book, however. Every character, whether a French Jesuit or an Iroquois girl captured by her people’s enemies, is given so much humanity that it becomes pointless to parse good and evil. Instead, I find myself contemplating the relationship between our actions and the larger forces that weigh on us, today as much as 300 years ago.

The other book I have open right now is The Kalevala, the traditional epic saga of the Finnish people, from whom I am partly descended. I sometimes read books aloud to my wife Alisa (including, if you can believe it, Simone de Beauvoir’s The Mandarins, which took more than a year), and the The Kalevala was meant to be recited. Here’s how it begins:

I have a good mind

take into my head

to start off singing

begin reciting

reeling off a tale of kin

and singing a tale of kind.

It has a wonderful matter-of-factness, but also mermaids and giants and something called “the demon’s elk.” I read The Orenda while the sun’s still up. The Kalevala puts me to sleep on a bed of moss.
Visit J.B. MacKinnon's website.

The Page 99 Test: The Once and Future World.

--Marshal Zeringue