To me, living in this present moment on Earth is, on some low level like a constant background hum, a painful experience — and I know I’m not alone in this. Those of us who love the living Earth are no longer free to bask in the beauty of the natural world without that newly-named experience of solastalgia — the mental or existential distress caused by environmental change and loss.
It follows that the more one knows about healthy natural systems, the more opportunities exist for painful recognition of how much damage has already been done, and how at-risk are the remaining pieces. This is one reason why Changing Tides: An Ecologist’s Journey to Make Peace with the Anthropocene is such a valuable and genuinely hopeful book: it’s written by an ecologist, Alejandro Frid, who has had to grapple with such knowledge – and who has, through his experience working with First Nations on BC’s Central Coast, had to renounce the simplicity of an only-dark view of things.
By Frid’s own admission, he is “cursed with inside knowledge, in intimate detail, of the damage caused by human actions on the planet.” As a parent, he’s had to do some clear-eyed reckoning: “By the time my daughter turned eleven, I had jettisoned my nostalgia for the Earth I was born into in the mid-1960s – a planet that, of course, was an ecological shadow of Earth 100 years before, which in turn was an ecological shadow of an earlier Earth.”
However, his feeling of resignation has been leavened through his experience working collaboratively with and learning from the Wuikinuxv, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, and Kitasoo/Xai’xais Nations of BC’s Central Coast. It’s through coming to understand the (at least 14,000 year) long history of human presence in the area, and the rich world views and stewardship practices of his Indigenous friends and colleagues, that he’s come to believe that merging science with Indigenous knowledge might just help us change the story we tell ourselves about who we are and where we could go.
An example of such knowledge is the Heiltsuk customary laws know as Gvi’ilas. Heiltsuk hereditary chief Dúqva̓ísḷa (William Housty) explains in the book that according to Gvi’ilas, “Heiltsuk have been present in traditional territory since time began and will be present until time ends.” In Frid’s understanding, “the moment you believe – in your spirit, your gut, your whole being – that the surrounding lands and waters are where your people have lived ‘since time began’ and that those very same places are where your people will stay ‘until time ends,’ a cascade of commitments and responsibilities begins to flow.”
While this book is, in a sense, a vehicle for the author’s coalescing thoughts and understandings, it is grounded by being based in physical and temporal reality: analysis of rockfish, salmon, and herring populations past and present, a visit to a Tsilhqot’in hunting camp at Teztan Biny (Fish Lake), on-the-ground illustrations of ecological concepts, portraits of Indigenous history and cultural resilience… the book is wide-ranging but comes together as a highly-readable, cohesive, and intimate portrait of the ecosystems, species, and human cultures of the Central Coast.
Frid is aware of the limitations of his own viewpoint: “The likes of me will never become Indigenous; nor should we want to…. But we can become naturalized, mindful and respectful of Indigenous laws [that] provide the ‘Original Instructions’ for practicing an ‘Honourable Harvest,’ one that promotes the diversity of life and the resilience of ecosystems.”
Ultimately, the author argues, “the next many millennia on Earth will reflect the stories that we the Homo sapiens, the tool inventors and users, decide to ditch or accept into our collective identity during the second and third decades of the 21st century. We are on a knife edge, and this is the time to act.”
Paperback, 191 pages, $19.99
New Society Publishers, October 2019
This article appears in our December 2019-January 2020 issue.