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magazine / jun11

June 2011 issue


Out to sea

Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, and a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories
By Simon Winchester
495 pp.,
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.

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

Water world

The Essence of Life
Edited by Cristina Goettsch Mittermeier
Earth in Focus Editions
299 pp.,
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.

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



Confronting the World’s Water Woes

By Robert William Sandford
Rocky Mountain Books
304 pp.,
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.

The History of a Modern Abstraction

By Jamie Linton
UBC Press
352 pp.,
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.

Adam Shoalts

A Practical Handbook for Healthy Water

By Clive Dobson and Gregor Gilpin Beck
Firefly Books
152 pp.,
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.

Michelle Hampson


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