Tina Loo. States of Nature: Conserving Canada's Wildlife in the Twentieth Century. Foreword by Graeme Wynn. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2006. xiii + 280 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-295-98654-8; $93.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7748-1289-4.
Reviewed by George Warecki (Department of Social Sciences, Brescia University College)
Published on H-Canada (June, 2008)
Of Wildlife and Wilderness
A number of excellent works in Canadian environmental history have emerged in recent years, offering course instructors rich materials from which to choose assigned readings. The roster includes Jean Manore and Dale Miner's anthology on The Culture of Hunting in Canada (2007), Jamie Benidickson's The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage (2007), and George Colpitts's Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940 (2002). But the crown jewel in this treasure is Tina Loo's States of Nature (2006). Winner of the prestigious 2007 Sir John A. Macdonald Prize awarded by the Canadian Historical Association, it provides a long overdue reassessment of wildlife conservation in the twentieth century and, in the process, contributes strongly to an ongoing debate over the significance of centralized, state-run conservation programs.
The author, an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, developed her book from what she calls a "love of 'wild' places, from the woods behind the Ontario house" where she was raised to "the mountains" of British Columbia (p. xiv). Loo is keen to explore the social implications of environmentalism. She was inspired by such American historians as William Cronon, who in the 1990s criticized the perceived "duality between nature and culture" fostered by North American environmentalism (p. 2). The critique held that an emphasis on wilderness in both scholarship and advocacy distracted many people from critically examining their own relationships with nature on a local basis. Like Cronon, Loo identifies with those who seek "a truly sustainable relationship with the environment, one that has a place for people, and more importantly, one that does not equate using nature with abusing it" (p. 2). This bias in favor of people who made a living from nature "hands-on"--what historian Richard White called "'know[ing] nature through labor'"--is a dominant theme in the book (p. 70). It serves to counterbalance previous work on Canadian wildlife conservation, which emphasized government policy, administrators, or scientists.
States of Nature analyzes the "shifting and conflicting attitudes toward the natural world" held by "the state, urban sportsmen, and rural peoples, from resource workers to First Nations" (p. 4). For Loo, the interaction of these interests reveals human "values, judgments, and power" (p. 6). Wildlife conservation, she argues, was a "normative project of social, economic, and political change" (p. 6). It was sometimes directed by powerful social groups who had little regard for negative effects on less privileged people. This line of inquiry places the book alongside a growing body of international scholarship that reexamines conservation of wilderness and wildlife from the perspective of social equity. Loo has previously published major articles on this topic and now adds fresh research and more fully developed arguments. The book is a major synthesis of many diverse works, but its main target for revision is Janet Foster's classic account, Working For Wildlife: The Beginning of Preservation in Canada (1978). Now in its second edition, Foster's book celebrates the conservation efforts of an elite group of visionary, federal civil servants. Loo's approach is much more inclusive of other social groups, and effectively builds on a foundation laid in the United States by historians Karl Jacoby and Louis Warren, and in Canada by Bill Parenteau, Alan MacEachern, and Colpitts.
Three major arguments propel the narrative. First, wildlife management shifted during the twentieth century, away from its nineteenth-century roots as "a highly localized, fragmented, and loose set of customary, informal, and private practices" by individuals and groups (p. 6). The state now took a more active role, establishing structures for "a more coordinated, encompassing, systematic, and ultimately more scientific approach" (p. 6). Science gradually overtook statute law as the key force. In this "colonization of rural Canada," local "customary uses of wildlife" became marginalized (p. 6). The second argument is more surprising and, perhaps, Loo's most revisionist. Despite the rise of the state and slow emergence of scientific management, "private individuals and organizations carried out some of the most important wildlife work in Canada" (p. 6). Her third position is that wildlife management "was about the values that should govern humans' relationships with nature ... and the values that would come from conserving it" (p. 7). Conservation enabled people "to connect meaningfully--emotionally--with their own natures and with other people" (p. 7). Many wildlife advocates were, in fact, prescribing ideal "ethical human communities" (p. 7). Not the exclusive purview of government biologists, debates over wildlife were joined by a wide range of interests, each offering its own views and sentiments. This is a significant and healthy widening of the stage to spotlight more historical actors beyond what traditional accounts include.
The book is organized chronologically and thematically. Chapter 1 carefully traces the legal and social framework for wildlife conservation to 1945, reaching back to English law and highlighting, in convincing fashion, the influence of both Progressivism and antimodernism. Loo's blunt language gives readers a sense of the crisis faced in the late nineteenth century. Wildlife, she writes, was "pushed, parched, burned, starved, and blasted out by European settlement," and "gunned down and served up to meat-hungry settlers" (p. 17). The response by the state was systematic. A more centralized and bureaucratic approach disrupted local traditional uses of wildlife, causing social upheavals similar to those in the United States described by Warren. However, because the division of powers was different in Canada, wildlife did not become a "national commons" but rather "several centralized commons controlled by the provinces" (p. 36). These were administered by "practical men," like naturalist Percy Taverner and game warden Nathan Sabean, and influenced by local sportsmen's groups (p. 36). The chapter is particularly strong in its interpretation of conservation regulations and "the sportsman's creed" as expressions of morality (p. 26). Both sought "a principled relationship between human beings and the natural world" (p. 26). Unfortunately, Loo laments, subsistence and commercial hunters were pushed "to the moral margins" (p. 26). In the author's attempt to synthesize a sweeping narrative from the many provincial storylines, she overlooks some previously published material. For example, the utilitarian approach to wildlife management practiced in Ontario by provincial park staff--harvesting deer meat during WWI, building up zoos or aviaries, destroying wolves, and attempting to curb poachers--would have been relevant to include.
The response of rural people to new game laws effectively illustrates how conservation exacerbated social divisions of class and race. Resistance took many forms. Some aboriginal people articulated critiques of wildlife management policy. Others openly defied the law and its underlying authority. In one fascinating passage, Loo shows how those with an entrepreneurial spirit made a living out of the new regime, selling their local knowledge and woodcraft skills as guides--providing rural entertainment for urban vacationers. During the 1930s and 1940s, corporate sponsors went one step further by staging large-scale "meets" for these guides to "showcase" their talents and promote outdoor recreation (p. 59). Loo points out that in 1934 the tourism-conscious Nova Scotia provincial government sponsored twenty-eight guides on a trip to Boston for the New England Sportsmen's Show. Here, the text might have benefited from some discussion of Toronto's Canadian National Sportsmen's Show, produced by Frank Kortright in 1948. This annual event, which generated thousands of dollars for conservation work in Ontario, surely had an impact on public attitudes to wildlife. How and why was it different from the earlier shows?
The remaining chapters feature richly rewarding case studies that combine biographical sketches with far-ranging scholarship. The sections on Jack Miner, "Ontario's first celebrity conservationist," and on the debate over predators joined by biologist Douglas Pimlott, writer Farley Mowat, and filmmaker Bill Mason, are particularly enlightening (p. 8). These figures appear notably less heroic than in earlier interpretations. Loo shows how their ideas reflect important shifts in the cultural history of wildlife.
An entire chapter is devoted to "Uncle Jack" Miner, an American immigrant who settled in Kingsville, southwestern Ontario. Loo argues that Miner's "impact lay more in shaping public opinion about conservation than in influencing government policy or ornithology" (p. 64). In 1904, he established a bird sanctuary near his family farm, and five years later began banding ducks and geese to study migration patterns. His hierarchy of values for wildlife--a love of waterfowl and disdain for predators--was an expression of his Methodist-based, Christian morality and a rejection of the "balance of nature" idea (p. 91). "Man" had "dominion" over nature for his own purposes, and therefore had an obligation to use and improve it, whether creating habitat or destroying predators (p. 91). Loo employs the concept of "folk biology" advanced by cognitive scientists to explain how Miner developed his own local ecological knowledge (p. 74). His disdain for formal education, practical experience as a market hunter and guide, and "homespun wisdom" made him immensely popular in eastern North America (p. 64). Miner's appeals to emotion and sentiment were widely disseminated, not only through pithy religious messages inscribed on his bird bands but also in "books, lectures, radio broadcasts and films" (p. 74). Both the author and publisher should be congratulated for supplementing the text with two pages of comic strips that helped to popularize Miner and his work.
Loo's most startling argument is that "the private sector represented the cutting edge of scientific conservation" before WWII (p. 94). Extending earlier studies by Lorne Hammond and Arthur Ray, she documents the influence of Oxford animal ecologist Charles Elton on the Hudson's Bay Company's (HBC) wildlife policy. The HBC's beaver preserves were remarkably successful, partly because of scientific research and also because the company "effectively and substantively integrated local people," especially the Cree (p. 94). Indeed, conservation "was as much a social issue as an economic and biological one" (p. 94). The company learned that effective management demanded "decentralized control" and a thorough knowledge of both the resource and its aboriginal users (p. 110). Loo boldly contrasts this positive working relationship with the more widely known activities of the famous beaver conservationist Grey Owl. She is far less approving of his work than that of the HBC, because while he spoke of equality with the beaver, his actions belied that stance. Readers are told that Grey Owl's treatment of "his" beaver was exploitive, and that his conservation publicity was anthropocentric, antimodern, and nostalgic. It is a gutsy interpretation, bound to unsettle less critical thinkers for whom Grey Owl's environmental message retains some appeal.
The author echoes several historians in characterizing the postwar period as the "scientization of wildlife conservation," setting the stage for more intensive management by federal authorities (p. 124). But readers might be shocked to discover the full extent of government programs. Many were directed to maximize production of marketable reindeer or bison meat, especially in the North. In the case of barren ground caribou, state efforts sacrificed aboriginal autonomy and sometimes ignored the hunting rights of treaty Indians. More extensive discussion of these and other impacts on native people in the Northwest Territories may now be found in John Sandlos's Hunters at the Margin: Native People and Wildlife Conservation in the Northwest Territories (2007).
Loo's final chapter, focused on western Canada, is about the shift from wildlife to wild places (habitat). She discusses "private, grass-roots initiatives" by Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) since the 1930s, and by two "outfitters-turned conservationists," Tommy Walker of British Columbia and Andy Russell in Alberta (p. 184). Although DUC's "managerial approach" was similar to that of the state, its reliance on local people to implement the work earns the author's favor. It is here that Loo returns, full circle, to her previously stated admiration for those who sought to build a positive ethical relationship with the land, respectful of human social relationships. Like Aldo Leopold, the American "father" of wildlife management, Walker and Russell had no qualms about using nature to make a living. Unlike Leopold (and most Canadian preservationists), they actually lived in the habitats for which they sought protection.
The "shift from saving wildlife to preserving wild places" brings to mind another precedent that might have been discussed (p. 181). In 1934, the Federation of Ontario Naturalists (FON, established in 1931) published a pamphlet entitled "Sanctuaries and the Preservation of Wild Life in Ontario" that argued for a radically different approach to conservation. Instead of the typical focus on conserving a particular species, FON promoted the establishment of sanctuaries to protect all forms of flora and fauna in their natural habitats, primarily for their own intrinsic value. Strongly influenced by British and American scientists, these Ontario conservationists articulated a concept of wilderness (or "wild life," as they put it) that deserves some discussion in Loo's book. As it stands, Loo mentions only one FON leader. All we learn about University of Toronto biologist J. R. Dymond is that he was criticized in 1957 by Manly Miner, Jack's son, for eating butterflies in Convocation Hall to prove a point. Loo overlooks Dymond's many contributions to conservation, perhaps because he seemed representative of the Toronto-based, scientific elite sometimes disparaged by the new revisionist perspective. However, neither he nor FON should be so easily dismissed. Dymond was raised on a farm in Kerwood, Ontario, and, before his university years, attended school in nearby Strathroy. His rural roots were typical of the federation's founders, drawn from member groups in diverse locales. That FON eventually secured political influence among provincial authorities does not detract from its significance as an organization of people who represented grassroots vitality and who took initiatives to preserve habitats in their own communities. In that sense, the federation would have fit nicely with Loo's thesis that significant wildlife work was generated outside the state in local areas.
Despite this minor oversight, States of Nature is an excellent contribution to scholarship. The book rests on a solid foundation of primary material gathered from archival collections across the country. For specialists, the footnotes and bibliography, providing a comprehensive checklist of secondary works, are worth the price of the book. As with other recent publications in the Nature/History/Society series by the University of British Columbia Press, Graeme Wynn provides an elegant and thought-provoking foreword that encourages readers to reconsider some basic notions about nature and humanity's place within it. For these and other reasons, the book is an invaluable pedagogical tool for senior undergraduate courses in environmental history. My students enjoyed the book's clear historiographic perspective and its sensitivity to issues of social equity. In discussion, they responded well to the photo essay that graphically revealed the hunters' sense of achievement, if not to Loo's stated message that humans are connected to the natural world of wildlife. A final plea might be made. Regrettably, for students in more junior classes, let alone in secondary or primary schools, the subtle lessons of this book are virtually inaccessible. Environmental historians in this country might well follow the lead of others in the United States, who have begun to interpret their work for younger audiences. It remains for some enterprising scholar to synthesize a new undergraduate survey--or even a high school text--on Canadian wildlife, in the same way that a younger generation once rewrote curricula to include the "new" social history.
. Among the many works, see Karl Jacoby, Crimes against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves and the Hidden History of American Conservation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Theodore (Ted) Binnema and Melanie Niemi, "'Let the Line Be Drawn Now': Wilderness, Conservation and the Exclusion of Aboriginal People from Banff National Park in Canada," Environmental History 11 (October 2006): 724-750; and Ramachandra Guha, The Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
. Tina Loo, "Making a Modern Wilderness: Conserving Wildlife in Twentieth Century Canada," Canadian Historical Review 82, no. 1 (2001): 92-121; and Tina Loo, "Of Moose and Men: Hunting for Masculinities in British Columbia, 1880-1939," Western Historical Quarterly 32, no. 3 (2001): 296-319.
. Louis S. Warren, The Hunter's Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997); Bill Parenteau, "A 'Very Determined Opposition to the Law': Conservation, Angling Leases, and Social Conflict in the Canadian Atlantic Salmon Fishery, 1867-1914," Environmental History 9 (July 2004): 436-463; Alan MacEachern, Natural Selections: National Parks in Atlantic Canada, 1935-1970 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2001); and George Colpitts, Game in the Garden: A Human History of Wildlife in Western Canada to 1940 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2002).
. See Gerald Killan, Protected Places: A History of Ontario's Provincial Parks System (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1993), chaps. 1-2.
. Ibid., chaps. 2 and 4; George Warecki, Protecting Ontario's Wilderness: A History of Changing Ideas and Preservation Politics, 1927-1973 (New York: Peter Lang, 2000), chap. 2; and Gerald Killan and George Warecki, "J. R. Dymond and Frank A. MacDougall: Science and Government Policy in Algonquin Provincial Park, 1931-1954," Scientia Canadensis 22-23 (1998-99): 131-153.
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