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A Companion for Long

Road Trips

by MC Davies



Like most people my interest in natural history began as a child, mucking around in spring streams searching for salamanders, capturing globules of translucent frog eggs in mason jars and watching them transform into frogs. To this day I can remember vividly the smell of spring in the Ontario woods, the unearthly delight of finding a tiger lily or a trillium blooming after the long gritty melts of winter snow.

The larger portraits of nature, the grand brushstrokes of the landscape came to me by way of my father, who was a geologist. Summer for our family usually meant a long treck northward wedged into the backseat of a car stuffed with two sisters, tarpaulins, tents, woodstove parts, pots, pans, mosquito net - all the assorted gear needed for a season in the field, somewhere remote and surely blackfly-ridden - in northern Ontario, or Quebec. The trips were long and hot and in between bouts of bad temper, sibling squallings, threats and aimless swats from my mother in the front seat, my father lectured. For him every blasted cut in the highway was a passage of time written in the colour, shapes and texture of rock layers. Even a dull hump in the middle of a farmer's field told him about glaciers scraping over the landscape we now crossed. Lakes were not just lakes, but depressions formed by one great geological event or another. Boulders were not just lumps of matter but had some grand story about how they came from some time and some place else.

Not that I understood much. My father was much attached to the big, the formal, the scientific names for things. He loved to hear the polysyllabic enunciations roll out of his mouth. But like bright marbles, the sounds spilled out without the small simple words needed to string them together, and upon me the meaning was often lost.

What I did retain was the knowledge that the earth's great story is all around to be noticed, to be learned, to become familiar with. I can't say that I ever achieved the kind of very particular study that my father had made of geologic history. But, I did become curious and alert to the natural world around me, and succumbed many years ago to an inner impulse that drew me out of the cities and into a wilder place.

So it was with a sense of déja-vu that I found myself this past summer, again packed into a vehicle (this time a 4x4, pickup truck, sans siblings) and headed north in British Columbia. I must also have harboured some long lost habit to have a knowledgeable guide alongside, for in the door-pocket of the truck, wrapped in a plastic bag, I stuffed British Columbia: A Natural History.

And I am happy to report that the best thing for me about this book is that it doesn't rely on big words and technical language. Nor does it emote. Authors Richard Cannings, a biologist, and his twin brother Sydney Cannings a zoologist, are wonderful companions to have along on a long train/car trip. Their book is full of simple, clear, interesting writing about British Columbia's intriguing natural heritage.

It is easy for photographs of the BC landscape to be spectacular, but this is no coffee table book. Each photograph has been carefully chosen to emphasize or illustrate a part of the story - a relationship of a creature to its habitat, an adaptation of a plant to its environment, an animal's most interesting habits, or its sex life.

The book starts from the very beginning, 200-million years ago, when there was no BC. With pictures and graphic illustrations, the authors build the big picture - the colliding of tectonic plates, the uprising of the mountains, the explosions of volcanos and the carving of glaciers.

From the open ocean, to the seashore, on mountain peaks, in great river valleys and in all the variety of forests and across the grasslands, the Cannings illuminate the landscape and its wild inhabitants.

For local readers, the base line information on geological formation, glaciation, weather, climate, and biogeography is clarifying. There are also some sections in the text that highlight Haida Gwaii/Queen Charlotte Islands.

The book builds its structure upon the relationships between the past and the present, the pieces with the whole, one ecosystem with another. The structure of the book allows for a long serious read, or a short dip, looking at pictures or graphic explications. There is a good index and also a comprehensive "further reading" list.

Throughout its 300-pages, A Natural History is a well-spoken homage to the world of nature. But the Cannings are not blind to the impact human beings are having on this "small corner of the globe" and our responsibility for shaping the future.

"Knowing more about the natural world helps you listen objectively to conflicting media reports about forestry practices, new housing developments and vanishing species. All of us need to know more about this world."

Knowing about nature and reconnecting human beings with life-giving ecosystems is important the Cannings state, both for joy and enjoyment itself, as much as interest for the future.

And then in the middle of my summer journey, one of those moments the Cannings talk about located me. Standing atop a long mountain pass we came to the end of the Rocky Mountain Trench. And with our maps and guides help, we looked out over the arising of one of the continent's greatest features, mountains marching southward for thousands of miles and we knew where we were- in time, in place and in the landscape.

By sunset, we had left the spectacle behind. Out on the Liard plateau across the Yukon border, we were picking wild strawberries by the roadside all in a golden glow. And it was not any the less grand; but the mosquitos were ferocious.


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