Buying into Canada’s wilderness
More than 9,000 academics are in Vancouver this week to present research on everything from gender roles to the sociology of first names. In a weeklong series on the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences, the National Post showcases some of the most interesting research.
At the height of the postwar cottaging boom in the Muskokas, Ontarians who fancied themselves nature lovers doused their land with insecticide, tore up the Canadian Shield for man-made beaches and filled their lakes with detergent, power-boat oil, non-native fish stocks and raw sewage, all while identifying as members of an “anti-modernist, back-to-na- ture” movement. Today, the Canadian nature lover spends millions on gadgets at Mountain Equipment Co-op, which preaches an environmental ethos and social conscience in its popular catalogue, but ultimately only encourages its members to shop.
The complicated hypocrisy of the Canadian wildlife lover is the focus of two papers being presented this week at the country’s largest annual gathering of academics.
In one, Peter Stevens, a PhD student at Toronto’s York University, characterizes those who led the unprecedented cottaging boom after the Second World War as middleclass “nature worshippers” seeking an escape from city life, and yet who took it upon themselves to fix nature’s shortcomings and, ultimately, domesticate it.
“One of the central attractions of cottaging was that it let city people temporarily es- cape the modern complexities that alienated them from the natural world,” he writes in his paper.
But once there, their relationship with the natural world often became “complex and contradictory,” and involved going to great lengths to create “the kind of nature that they desired.”
Despite the fact that many of their Muskoka properties sat on the Canadian Shield — cottages perched atop steep rock faces plunging into the lake — many cottage owners insisted on sandy shorelines, bulldozing the waterfront or dumping truckloads of sand along the water’s edge to create the desired beaches.
With the help of the Department of Lands and Forests, many cottagers’ associations stocked lakes with pickerel, trout and bass for recreational fishing. But they also used the lakes as dumping grounds, routinely heaving old stoves into the depths, and also used them for bathing, washing clothes and even their cars.
The same lakes were also brimming with pesticides, aerial sprayed to combat insects, fertilizers to produce better lawns, boat engine oil and human waste leaching from outhouses and septic tanks.
By the mid-1960s, Mr. Stevens writes, it was “increasingly clear that cottaging was threatening the very physical environment that had attracted cottagers in the first place.”
So why did Canadians do it? Mr. Stevens says their reasons “were both inadvertent and intentional,” and having spoken to dozens of them at local association meetings over the past two summers, he has some sympathy.
“Cottagers regularly described their activities as having improved upon nature,” Mr. Stevens concludes. “Nature was ‘wild’ and ‘messy’; it needed ‘help.’ Behind this assessment lay an assumption that humans had both a right and a responsibility to alter the natural world.”
Today’s wildlife lovers demonstrate similarly contradictory attitudes toward nature, suggests research on those who frequent Canada’s revered outdoor emporium, Mountain Equipment Co-op.
Marie Vander Kloet, a PhD Candidate at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, went through 20 years of MEC catalogues (1987-2007) to see how modern Canadian nature-lovers construct themselves.
What she outlines in her paper, “All in a trip to the Coop: The production, consumption and salvation of Canadian wilderness,” is someone who feels redeemed by the company’s ethical sourcing, organic cotton clothing and hefty conservation efforts, but who ultimately does little for the environment but shop.
Ultimately, she argues, today’s nature lover exploits the wilds for the same escapist purposes as city dwellers of the post-war era.
A study of the relationship between Canadians and the outdoors finds we will go to great lengths to create the nature we desire.