British Columbia, a Natural History

Norbert Ruebsaat

Natural history writers often write as if nature were a nineteenth-century corporation. Species “colonize” territory left bare by glaciers; these “pioneer species” establish “dominance,” only to be “displaced” by “opportunistic newcomers” who “invade” and replace the pioneers; new “immigrants” arrive and breed with and are “assimilated” by the former inhabitants; bugs, microbes, fungi, Douglas fir trees, mule deer, Kermode bears, slugs become “citizens” of constantly disputed territory and struggle for hegemony over it. Richard and Sydney Cannings’ British Columbia, a Natural History (Greystone Books) is no stranger to such coinage and it contains some pretty funny sentences: “Looking at the past 2, years as a whole, many of the plant and animal species of British Columbia are more correctly seen as residents of California visiting here temporarily during the warm season.” I can’t help having a soft spot, though, for a couple of brothers who grew up in the “Okanagan Ecosystem,” the “Southern Interior Eco-province” and the Bunchgrass “Bioclimatic Zone,” and who have spent their youth and adult lives trekking through and trying to make literary sense of the riddled geography of this “biologically rich” province in the idiom of the earnest English naturalist. Their book, here in its revised and updated second edition, glossy with photos and maps, is comprehensive. I don’t know if nature has a history or just an eternal present; what it has mainly, at least around here, is mythology. But I did want to find out where mountains came from, according to science, and what glaciers, in their seemingly timeless idling, actually do—if anything—to landscape, and this book gives some of the evidence. It is organized broadly in accordance with the Bioclimatic Zones typology mentioned above, albeit with eccentric exceptions—the chapter called “The World of Fresh Water,” which tells you what fish do when their world turns to ice, being one of these—and there are some happy and unhappy coincidences of scientific and a-couple-of-brothers- rambling-and-chatting-in-nature-style thinking. I read this book while in Nisga’a near the Nass River at a place called Wil Ksi Braxhl Mihl, which means “where the fire ran out.” Some kids, it is said, were playing by the Tseaux River and decided to have some fun with a humpback salmon: they slit the salmon’s back open and stuck burning sticks in it and let it loose and watched it wobble and burn through the water before sizzling out; then they slit another humpback open and stuck pieces of shale into its back and watched it swim away trying to stay upright with so much weight on its spine. Shortly after this, the mountain (which looked a little like the hump on a salmon) began to rumble and then the mountain split open and fire flowed out of it and destroyed two Nisga’a villages, killed two thousand people, dammed the Tseaux River and pushed the great Nass River five miles northward up against the mountains, where it remains to this day. Then the fire turned to stone. The Canning brothers describe what I take to be the same event when they write that B.C.’s most recent volcano erupted in 175 near the Nass in the Stikine Volcanic Belt, near the suture between the Stikinia and the Undivided Metamorphic Rock Terranes. Terranes are “exotic pieces of the earth’s crust” that in B.C. form a “jigsaw puzzle.” At Wil Ksi Braxhl Mihl the lava bed, which looks like a great grey sea flowing down to the Nass, is being colonized by lichens and tufts of bunchgrass, and in its crevasses small aspens are taking root.

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Norbert Ruebsaat

Norbert Ruebsaat has written many articles for Geist. He lived in Vancouver and taught at Simon Fraser University.


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