Book Talk: Non-fiction a societal beacon

Non-fiction illuminates the past to shine a spotlight on the present and light a path to the future

Peter Critchley

Special to The Morning Star

Some of the best non-fiction work illuminates the past to shine a spotlight on the present and light a path to the future.

The Big Oyster (2006) by Mark Kurlansky focuses on the oyster native to the New York Harbour area, once a pristine estuary of shimmering marshes and clear waters, to create a sparkling narrative of social and economic history. The coastal paradise of the lower Hudson nurtured huge populations of the now decimated eastern oyster — an inexhaustible resource Native Americans drew on for thousands of years — and contributed greatly to the mercantile wealth and renown of New Amsterdam.

The plump, tasty and cheap bivalve nourished the poor and rich alike every day and kept the water clean by filtering impurities out of the entire harbour. The international reputation of the oysters soared, markets boomed both domestically and abroad and specialized eateries, such as the city’s famous oyster cellars, sprang up to meet demand.

The bounty endured for centuries but eventually unbridled harvesting and increasing waterfront pollution virtually spelled the end of the great oyster beds by the 1920s — a natural resource that played an integral part in transforming New York from a relatively minor port into the social and financial centre of the United States.

A Geography of Blood (2012) by Candace Savage is a passionate and meticulously researched work that intersects people, landscape and natural history to create an unforgettable story of the plains and the windswept Cypress Hills of southern Saskatchewan.

The author and her partner found themselves drawn to the Cypress Hills when they first stayed in the boyhood home of celebrated American author Wallace Stegner and later bought a house in the romantic town of Eastend. Gradually, the author begins to see what lies virtually unnoticed around her, such as the circles of stones that anchored teepees for untold generations and the fossils in the bone-dry hills. And as she delves into the not-so-recent past the author feels an emptiness, an absence of the people and animals that once thrived on the plains until relatively recent times.

It is a grim past that includes the startlingly and bloody transformation of the plains in the latter 19th century when settlers streamed into the west and the wider destruction of the natural world: the wolves, birds, plains grizzly and the buffalo. Millions of creatures perished in little more than a decade and tens of thousands of humans, described as “refugees in their home and native land, launched on a journey of desolation,” vanished from the plains where they had lived for thousands of years.

The Golden Spruce (2005) by John Vaillant is a compelling narrative about one of the most unique trees in the world, the man who destroyed it and the paradox of society’s approach to nature. The Haida, inhabitants for thousands of years of the land they know as Haida Gwaii, long considered the golden spruce as an integral part of their history and mythology. But seen from another perspective, the golden spruce stood in a cut-block on Haida Gwaii, surviving in an isolated “set-aside” area surrounded by a landscape ravaged by logging.

And one cold January night Grant Hadwin, extremely skilled in wilderness survival in the temperate rainforest and a remote scout for timber companies, swam across the Yakoun River with a chainsaw and in the darkness, he cut into the tree to leave it so unstable that the wind would blow it down. A few weeks later, amidst a public outpouring of grief and anger, Hadwin set off in a kayak across the Hecate Strait to face court charges and simply disappeared.

These three titles are all available at your Okanagan Regional Library www.orl.bc.ca.


 

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