Prologue Preview

IMG 1112In the opening pages of his 1956 handbook The Mammals of British Columbia, Ian McTaggart Cowan encouraged us – his readers – to join him in “unravelling the innermost secrets of the lives of mammals.” This book is a continuing invitation to reveal not only the innermost secrets of the lives of animals, but of the man himself and the lives of his gentle, paradoxical and radical cohort of naturalists who influenced British Columbia in more ways than I ever imagined before starting this project…


These naturalists… were interested in small things, in the natural world, in sharing their knowledge, and they cared enough to speak out to protect that world. These were the broad shoulders upon which many of us cobbled our careers and vocations, and Ian McTaggart Cowan’s name was ever present. In the course of those years, I got interested in the culture of these naturalists and started to collect their stories...


Book publishers begged the question: Why should anyone care about these naturalists? First of all, they were funny and curious – almost radical qualities these days. These were people that hadn’t adopted the prevailing pioneer mentality to go out and conquer the landscape. They liked what was already here, and that included the indigenous cultures and the wildlife. Their story might throw some light on how to encourage this. It is an important question of the twenty-first century. It may be the only question our grandchildren will thank us for trying to answer.


I also knew people were feeling despair at the state of the world and would want to hear how [the early environmentalists] coped. Finally, I was interested in a question that deserves the best minds that we can find to answer: What is a useful thing to do, given the extraordinary challenges we face today? While conducting the interviews in 2000, I was told, “You have to talk to Dr. Cowan.” After nearly a century of witnessing and contemplating these issues, he had an influence that was legendary…

File folders
library
Briony at Computer


In many cases, the fauna of the localities Cowan worked in have indeed vanished and his journals are poignant reminders of what we have destroyed. The field journals of the Okanagan grasslands describe the quiet diggings of badgers under a full moon amongst the Antelope Brush, much of which now lie under strip malls and vineyards. The journals describing the Ootsa, the Kootenay and the Peace River valleys are ghost landscapes. Much of it now lies underwater. Field notes from the Mackenzie delta or the forests of Vancouver Island tell us what was there before dams, highways, pipelines, logging and mining carved up the landscape. The journal of the fauna of Point Grey or Richmond points to a Vancouver that is almost unrecognizable. The journals also give us some sense of what could be restored should we have the inclination. In some cases, like the islands off the central coast, we have a benchmark that hasn’t changed so drastically, accentuating the importance of these last intact ecosystems, allowing us to celebrate the restoration of populations like the Humpback Whales…

IMG 1109Because Cowan had seen more flora and fauna around British Columbia than virtually any human being could have before or will again, his stock of stories was almost inexhaustible. He also witnessed the impacts of overhunting, pollution, pesticides, logging, dam construction, oil and gas development and climate change that pointed to an increasingly impoverished future. Not surprisingly, he was always one of the first – if not the first – to raise the alarm. As Canadians we haven’t done a good job of crediting our scientists as leaders, prophets or innovators of ideas… In fact, Cowan was well familiar with the suppression of scientists that had occurred during different political cycles of his long life… In the parlance of the biologist, he was the alpha male. He was a keystone species unto himself, upon which the entire ecosystem relied. It was time to interview Dr. Cowan.


Fifteen years later, you are now invited to unravel the innermost secrets of the life of Ian McTaggart Cowan.

 

Above photos: Marylou Wakefield
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