Tuesday, October 1, 2013

J.B. MacKinnon's "The Once and Future World"

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.

MacKinnon applied the “Page 99 Test” to The Once and Future World and reported the following:
I was pleased to discover that page 99 of The Once and Future World is at least a little bit funny. I’ve written a book about what we so clinically call “the environment” — not a topic area that’s famously quirky or playful. Yet there on page 99 is a footnote about a man who ate broiled porpoise on Cape Hatteras in 1885, wrote about the experience for a scientific journal, and registered his complaint that the “golden age of gastronomy” faded away with the days when a proper feast included stewed eagles, braised foxes, and the eggs of the now-extinct great auk.

To hell with the rest of page 99, then: the footnote alone is enough to reveal “the quality of the whole,” as Ford Madox Ford would have it. This is a book about the natural world of the past and what it tells us about nature today, and here is a man not only lamenting the lost abundance of the living planet, but asking aloud whether we might not want to seek to regain it. He is doing so, please note, 128 years ago. He is mindful of science, but not only of science — our footnote protagonist’s views also draw on history, geography, philosophy. Most importantly, he does not draw a clear line between culture and nature. He has, after all, come fresh from the real and bloody business of eating a broiled porpoise.

This was the great joy of writing this book: the natural world of the past is such an extraordinary place to spend time, full of oddities and wonders. It is also the most forgotten of all our histories. What a relief, then, to see that page 99 really is run through with the question that I tried to infuse in the book’s every word: What would it be like to remember? And page 99 also holds an answer: “An extraordinary moment,” it tells me, “a kind of rebirth.”
Learn more about the book and author at J.B. MacKinnon's website.

--Marshal Zeringue