J.B. MacKinnon does it again

Over the past months I have been encountering J.B. MacKinnon’s engaging writing on natural history and historical ecology in Explore, The Walrus and on his blog.  It has been refreshing and mentally invigorating to discover a young hip guy writing about natural history in a probing, intelligent and thought provoking way.

His recent story, A 10 Percent World, in the September 2010 issue of The Walrus, is a great example of the high quality material JBM is pumping out.

The story is fascinating journey through the tangled relationship humans have with nature. One anonymous comment left on the Walrus website said:

Thank you. This was so painfully, bitterly, achingly, wonderfully beautiful to read. So many writers seem to head to the extremes of romantic cliche or statistical litany when discussing the environment. This was authentic and unflinching and yet somehow hopeful. A well-constructed argument for an expanded vision that can only come from fully dissecting loss. This should be required reading for politicians, educators, urban planners, parents – everyone.

It hurt to read. It breaks my heart. But thank you for offering such a clear-headed voice to what will hopefully be a more useful discussion than we have had up to now about the environment.

If anybody ever says anything that complimentary about anything I write, I will be quite a lot more than very pleased.

MacKinnon is also the co-author of The 100 Mile Diet. The concept behind that book has quickly been woven into the fabric of our household speech, and our behaviour at food markets.  His first book, Dead Man in Paradise, won him the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

Needless to say, the guy is a great and provocative writer.  But he is also a helluva nice guy.  A few weeks ago he agreed to chat with me on Skype about writing, sharing some hard-won pearls of wisdom with me – a total stranger.  So, who is J.B. MacKinnon? Well, I don’t really know, but I can tell you he is a good writer and a nice guy to boot.

Since I just returned from the west coast of BC – gobsmacked once again by the colossal profusion of life out there – this paragraph from A 10 Percent World was especially poignant for me:

…in an estuary…among the most isolated fjords of the British Columbia, I witnessed such teeming abundance that it left me unnerved as much as elevated.  Salmon were bursting up the river, and the whole vocabulary of venery could be called into action: a sloth of bears, a route of wolves, a convocation of eagles, a pod of seals, a romp of otters, an unkindness of ravens, a murder of crows, a siege of herons, a richness of martens, a flock of seagulls. All were there. To say that the place had ten times the force of life of less remote rivers I have known strikes me as exaggeration only in the form of understatement.

I’ve singled out a paragraph that is personally meaningful because of my recent experiences, but the heart of the story has important ideas that are much more complex.  But don’t take my word for it, just read it.

I am heading to the Banff Centre at the end of this week for the “Mountain writing” residency, where I will work hard for three weeks to develop my writing, in hopes that one day, I too can write something “painfully, bitterly, achingly, wonderfully beautiful to read.”

2 thoughts on “J.B. MacKinnon does it again”

  1. I have recently thought about writing as something I should take more seriously. I am really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on your journey to become a better writer. Let me know how Banff goes!

  2. An impressive writer, this J.B. MacKinnon (sp?). I read an article recently in Reader’s Digest that was so powerful it may have influenced some basic choices in my life this year. MacKinnon re-inpires the phrase: “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

    He wrote on the bear B741, who astounded scientists with her tenacious swimming trek that inspired Mackinnon to write: “The Polar Bear is capable of survival in the same terms we celebrate in ourselves: Through the will to live.”

    In one phrase he invites the reader to identify with the bear personally, and infuses our futures, the outcome of which science has been warning us about for years, with the tragedy of what is happening to the polar bears today.

    That bear had swum 687.1 km’s without stopping, she had also forfeited the life of her cub to survive.

    One wonders, Is the Polar Bear’s current struggle our futures?

    Powerful writing.

    I wrote you this and thought that I would like you to pass it on to him, since you are colleagues. I could not see any other way to get ahold of him.

    I thought of you because it takes a great writer to recognize one.

    Cheers, Michelle.
    Children’s Dance teacher.

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