||June 2011 issue
Out to sea
British author Simon Winchester’s books range from finely crafted travel writing (Stones of Empire;
Small World) to histories of geologic events (Krakatoa; The Fracture Zone) and stories of much smaller things,
such as The Meaning of Everything, about the making of a dictionary. Omnivorously curious and given to fascination
with intricate workings, both within tectonic plates and inside the human mind, Winchester is at the forefront of a movement
redefining non-fiction as literature, equal to the celebrated novels. It isn’t an idea that would have surprised
Herodotus or Thucydides, but subsequently, it seems to have been partly forgotten how uninvented narratives,
narrated artfully, can do anything fiction can. Indeed, in some instances, when abstraction is the writer’s enemy, they
can do more.
Great Sea Battles, Heroic
Discoveries, Titanic Storms,
and a Vast Ocean of
a Million Stories
By Simon Winchester
In Atlantic, Winchester
tosses a lifeline to the old
Russian conception of the
sprawling novel in the
guise of non-fiction. He
begins the book where
he, too, began as a young
man: in the geology. The
Atlantic arose as a thin
strip of salt water 190 million years ago,
widening as the mid-Atlantic ridge
pushed farther open. This is the same
process that is pushing the Americas
relentlessly westward, where they will
eventually collide with Asia and create
a new supercontinent, Pangea Ultima.
The name’s lyricism resists the geologist’s
essential insight: nothing has been forever,
nor will anything be.
People came down to the sea first in
Africa, discovering the reliable nourishment
of tidal pools and the possibility of
remaining in one place. Winchester visits
seaside caves that housed these first ocean peoples, and his account of that discovery
sets the human story of Atlantic in
motion. The maritime tradition was born
here, in the Atlantic, where it will endure,
presumably, so long as there are both
people and oceans.
It was when humans first started
going out on the sea that the character
of the Atlantic was truly understood.
The ocean’s capacity for caprice and rage
is best known by frightened sailors in
small boats. The Phoenicians’ first tentative
voyages out beyond the Pillars of
Hercules into the Great West Sea were in
search of the purple murex, the snail that
produced the royal purple dye so valued
by Mediterranean aristocrats for two
millennia. In Winchester’s compelling
narrative, these were the first ripples of
what would become an enormous wave
of mercantile exploration, preoccupying
the Spaniards, the
Portuguese and really all
the European Atlantic
nations to some extent
as they searched for trade
and wealth: tin, slaves,
cotton, gold, coffee. For
400 years, as Europe
blossomed, it burst out
into this ocean, finding
the seeds of the Enlightenment.
While it is true that humans have
deeply marked and despoiled the Atlantic
(Winchester explicates this dreary story
comprehensively), the Atlantic has also
deeply marked its adjacent peoples. In
the tolerance of the Dutch and in the
skepticism of the English can be seen
the long experience of these nations as
sea-going cultures. On a vessel in trouble
at sea, anyone who can help is a friend
and practicality must trump dogma.
An excess of certainty on approaching an
unfamiliar coast is as great a danger as an
onshore wind — and has the same effect.
Winchester’s best and most melancholy
story concerns the cod that drew the
English, Basques and other coastal
nations to Newfoundland’s Grand Banks.
There, they joined the Canadians in an
orgy of destruction rivalling that which
consumed the bison a century earlier.
Winchester is rightly unstinting in his
criticism of Canada and the way the fishery
was politicized. Blinded by greed, the
government grossly misjudged what represented
sustainable catches, then ignored
its own science when it cottoned on, far
too late, to the irremediable destruction.
This account is related through anecdote
and conversation in trademark
Winchester style, lively and immediate,
grounded in the specific but with an eye
toward the general. It forms the core of
the book’s humanism and Winchester’s
central point: the sea has largely formed
us, and yet, and inevitably, we betray
it with our neglect and rapaciousness.
A story that was already old when the
Greeks were writing it into their plays, it
remains as poignantly devastating now.
And this fine book is just that.
— Kevin Patterson
Part coffee-table tome and part encyclopedia,
Fresh Water is dedicated to
exposing threats to fresh water
around the world, with accomplished
photographers and expert writers providing
a snapshot of global issues. Show -
cas ing work by the International League
of Conservation Photographers, the
book advocates for freshwater protection,
through conservation and legislation.
The Essence of Life
Edited by Cristina Goettsch
Earth in Focus Editions
Canada makes for an interesting study.
We are condemned because of tar-sands
pollution but hailed as a leader for protecting
rivers such as British Columbia’s
Flathead. Although our water wealth is by
no means assured, it stands out when we
look at pictures of the parched earth in
Mali or of cattle searching for moisture in
the deserts of Madagascar.
Indeed, Fresh Water’s strength lies in
its photography. Images of exotic animals,
plants and locations depict vastly
diverse uses of fresh water, from the fury
of hydroelectric dams to the mist that
keeps golf courses green. The text, a mix
of science, history and law, makes the
point that freshwater ecosystems are the
ultimate biodiversity hot spots, but the
facts and tables deployed may prove too
intimidating for the average reader. After
all, a picture is worth a thousand words.
— Kelly Greig
In the eco-political release Restoring the
Flow, Alberta-based UN water expert
Robert Sandford presents a series of cautionary
tales from around the world to
illustrate the looming crisis facing
Canada. Employing detailed case studies
from countries such as Australia and
Spain, he examines how poor water management
and increasing human demand
could cause similar droughts on Canada’s
prairies. The book also explores problems
such as wetland loss in Manitoba and the
danger that tar-sands development in
Alberta poses to Great Slave Lake, N.W.T.
Alternating between the anecdotal and
the polemical, Sandford’s unflinching
account paints a vivid and sobering picture
of what will happen if there is no
water policy reform in Canada.
RESTORING THE FLOW
Confronting the World’s Water Woes
By Robert William Sandford
Rocky Mountain Books
— Marc Ellison
It’s never a good sign when a foreword cautions readers not to see the book they just picked up as “yet another convoluted and ultimately irrelevant exercise in academic hair splitting.” Despite the disclaimer, many will likely see this warning as an apt summary of Jamie Linton’s What Is Water? The crux of the book is that the modern water crisis has been brought on by our flawed understanding of water as a mere abstraction, H2O, thus divorcing it from all social context. Linton, a Fellow at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Policy at Queen’s University, contends that in order to solve the water crisis, we need to rethink how we see water and rediscover earlier social conceptions of water. But how exactly this will fix the water crisis isn’t made clear. Nor does his argument shed much light on Africa’s severe water problems, a subject that he says little about. Linton’s book may interest readers with a thirst to know more about different views of water throughout history but is unlikely to enlighten those interested
in contemporary global water issues.
WHAT IS WATER?
The History of a Modern Abstraction
By Jamie Linton
— Adam Shoalts
You flush the toilet, then go to the sink and get yourself a glass of water — water that may be coming from the same place your toilet content was just sent. Perhaps being a little more educated on watersheds and how to protect them isn’t such a bad thing. Watersheds: A Practical Handbook for Healthy Water, a heavily illustrated recent re-release of a 1999 book, touches on a wide range of topics, from how seasonal temperature patterns affect oxygen levels in lakes to the many ways in which humans negatively alter natural cycles — releasing substances that cause ozone depletion and acid rain, clear-cutting forests and, yes, treating sewage without properly filtering toxins. The book is full of tips on how to ease your ecological footprint — for example, instead of using road salt, try sand on your steps or, say, an old-fashioned shovel. Watersheds may be too basic for established environmentalists, but it will be appreciated by curious readers concerned about what happens to their toilet water when they flush.
A Practical Handbook for Healthy Water
By Clive Dobson and Gregor Gilpin Beck
— Michelle Hampson
Can Geo POLL
How do you plan on spending your summer vacation?