Frightening natural history essays offer hope

Mice with human genes, global warming, plague, famine, Arnold Schwarzenegger clones, the triumph of technology over humanity, and of dogma over…

Mice with human genes, global warming, plague, famine, Arnold Schwarzenegger clones, the triumph of technology over humanity, and of dogma over religion, species extinction… No, those aren’t visions I’ve plucked from the Book of Revelations; they’re among the topics addressed by Wayne Grady in his new collection of essays, Bringing Back the Dodo.

You would think that 234 pages of such doomy prose would leave one hopeless. But this isn’t the case, in large part because Grady is, himself, not hopeless, and also because he’s such a lucid, vital prose stylist. Laughter accompanies the shudders, and one comes away from the book eager to put a shoulder to the green wheel.

“If I thought there was absolutely no hope, that there was no way that certain scenarios I was lamenting could be turned around, or slowed down, then there really wouldn’t be any point in writing,” said Grady in an interview from his home in rural Athens, Ontario, on the weekend — shortly before he was to weed the garden and feed the chickens.

“Writing is an act of hope. Certainly publishing is an act of hope,” said Grady, a prolific author, journalist, editor, and Governor General’s Award winning translator.

The former Yukon public libraries writer in residence has traveled to the North Pole to witness the effects of rapid climate change.

He wrote about this expedition in The Quiet Limit of the World: A Journey to the North Pole to Investigate Global Warming.

He has studied extinct animals from Alberta to China to Argentina, as recounted in The Dinosaur Project and The Bone Museum.

He has observed drastic changes overtake the Yukon and fields and forests closer to his home, and read widely in scientific literature about genetically modified food, people, mice… and corporate duplicity.

Temperatures soar, fossil fuels are being used up at an alarming rate, and George W. Bush is president of the world’s most powerful, wasteful country.

Does Grady ever feel despair? Does he ever feel hopeless?

“Yes, I do. You’d have to sort of be insensitive or shallow to read about some of the things that are happening, not just politically, but also technologically, not to feel despair — no despair is going a bit far — just worried, frightened.

“It’s sort of like worrying about your children; you know they’re probably out there doing something you know they shouldn’t be doing.

“You can feel despair, throw in the towel, but probably a more useful response is to talk to them and point out some of the ways they’re getting themselves and other people in trouble and hope that the message gets across.

“That’s what the act of writing is

for me.”

Anyone who knows Grady, admires his informed humour, even when it runs dark.

“I think the light-hearted answer to your question is, ‘Yes, sometimes I feel despair about technology taking over, but I figure global warming’s going to get us first anyway,’” he said.

Not surprisingly, he went on to qualify that. “Nature is not about change. Nature is all about change, but it’s about slow change.

“Nature can adapt to very, very slow changes. So if we can just keep the rate of global warming to a very slow rate, I think nature can adapt and we can adapt, but if we allow it to reach that tipping point, I think we’re in for a whole new definition of civilization.”

I reminded him of Stephen Harper, Dick Cheney and Ralph Klein, and then mentioned Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie returning from Montreal where a global warming conference had been held, to announce to the territory that global warming had happened before.

Grady chuckled grimly and said that with us pumping fossil fuels into the air, changes that once took thousands of years are now taking 150 to 200.

Maybe Fentie is feeling more smug because he lives in the North, said Grady. Maybe he doesn’t realize that global warming hits harder the farther north you get.

“Every degree of average temperature rise on Earth translates into eight degrees on the North Pole.

“I’m not really writing for the politicians. We don’t really have to wait for politicians to make laws prohibiting us from using fossil fuel,” he added.

Grady recalled the 1960s when people took to the streets against racism, poverty and war, and the ‘70s when a portentous glitch in the oil supply got people working on alternative fuels and energy conservation — we can mobilize again. In humanity is hope.

“I remember when people started proposing that people separate their garbage and everyone said, ‘No one’s going to do that. No one’s going to go in their garbage bags and separate the plastic out and put it in this box, and tin cans….’

“It may seem like a little thing, but it is actually a large thing, when you think about how people are willing to change, to inconvenience themselves for the good of the environment.”

Significantly, the most frightening aspects of Grady’s vision and book concern technology, which is an amoral thing, not a human one.

“I heard someone recently say, ‘In the old days, we used to come up with a problem and then try to come up with a technological solution to try and deal with that problem. But what we are doing now is coming up with the technology and then looking around for a use for it.’

“To me that’s a very scary change, because it means that technology is now replicating itself and then looking around for someplace to be used and that’s a very dangerous position to be in, because technology has no ethics, no morals, it will allow itself to be used wherever it has a function. That function doesn’t necessarily have to be beneficial for humans.”

Grady has few peers when it comes to making beautiful science, and its dangerous cousin, ugly technology, comprehensible to laypersons.

The result is that throughout Bringing Back the Dodo, lights go on as he discusses genetics and other powerful disciplines.

Another result is that when he says, “Could we, on some not-so-future hike into the wilderness to observe nature at close range, come upon a hepatitis-ridden rodent with a human brain?” we realize how possible such a horrific scenario is.

Let Grady re-introduce you to the Harvard mouse. What do we do?

“Don’t vote for politicians who have no opinion on genetically modified food, for example. You go to an all candidates meeting and ask, ‘What do you think about genetically modified organisms, should they be allowed in the market place? And half these people don’t even know what you’re talking about.”

While too many “environmentalist” writers are preaching to the converted, polluting the dialogue with boring prose, lucid writers like Grady are making a difference.

They give us the information we need to get ourselves and our planet turned around.

It’s an uphill process, for sure. But Grady recalled that, not long ago, major newspapers would run big ads for oil companies denying climate change and encouraging further fossil fuel use.

The papers would run editorials basically claiming, “The jury is still out on global warming.

“It was completely untrue,” said Grady. “For every one scientist who would come out and say, ‘I don’t think global warming is a reality,’ you could find 99 scientists who would say, ‘We better do something about it quick.’”

Newspapers would run features on the one dissenting scientist and ignore the other 99, he added.

“Ten years later, even five years later, the Globe and Mail is running editorials saying, ‘Why isn’t the government doing something about global warming?’”

And that’s why Grady keeps writing these energizing essays. The information does get out there. Lights do go on for the most influential people, and for — the even more powerful — masses.

One by one, folks turn to public transportation, make better use of blue boxes, demand organic produce, vote corporate flunkies out of office… As long as we have the essential information, we have hope.

Bringing Back the Dodo: Lessons in Natural and Unnatural history, by Wayne Grady, McClelland & Stewart Ltd. 234 pages, $29.99 cloth.