My father lives in rural Saskatchewan, and when I was visiting recently, he took me down to the basement. “I won’t be here forever,” he said. “Someone needs to know how to use this stuff.” “This stuff ” referred to a cream separator from our old family farm
(“In case you can get your hands on a cow”). It was one of many references to offthegrid living: on a shelf were heritage seeds in waterproof bins and a wood stove that could be hooked up to the house’s centralheating system.
Back in Toronto the following week, The Walrus editors gathered to review the stories in this issue for the first time. There were stories about the opioid crisis in Alberta and about the commercialization of “go bags” — emergency foodandsupplies kits that were once the purview of doomsayers and are now sold on Amazon. “The End of an Empire,” a powerful essay by Stephen Marche, reflected the culmination of the author’s thinking since the election of Donald Trump: Is that country poised for another civil war? Even a review by André Forget of Randy Boyagoda’s new novel, Original Prin, seemed to underscore the decline of modern universities as places for independent thought.
After a moment, someone glumly said what we were all thinking: “It’s like we’re expecting the end of the world.”
It’s true that, like journalists elsewhere, we feel a renewed sense of responsibility to cover serious issues. The current American administration, among other factors, has forced a discussion of immigration, international relations, and threats to democracy (digital and otherwise). Still, I don’t think we’ve reached peak doom. We are experiencing a time of rapid political, technological, and social change, which puts a corollary strain on our institutions and ways of thinking. If talking about such subjects has a purpose, it is not to dwell on despair but to inform our progress toward newer, better ways of doing things.
In his largeformat images, Edward Burtynsky has always balanced information and activism. His cover story “People vs. the Planet,” with text coauthored by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier, explores the environmental and economic paradox of the global forestry industry. The Anthropocene Project, which is also featured this fall at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the National Gallery of Canada, refers to the term some have adopted to describe this period in the Earth’s history, which they argue is defined by the effects of human activity on the planet. The project, which also includes a film and a 360degree augmentedreality installation, is a primer of sorts on major environmental issues facing the planet, including urbanization, manufacturing, and agriculture. We are fortunate to be participating in this ambitious effort (our third collaboration with Burtynsky in the fifteenyear history of The Walrus).
In the current climate, it’s helpful to look at examples of how we’ve survived calamities in the past, such as in Harley Rustad’s moving story about his grandparents, “All My Love,” set against the backdrop of the Second World War. There are other indications about how far we’ve come since. In “Palette Cleanser,” art critic Caoimhe Morganfeir writes of In the Making, a daring and innovative CBC program that shows the rise of diversity in the arts in Canada.
Equally, there are times when struggle has no silver lining, but we must find ways to carry on regardless. When I saw a message of condolence that Father Tom Gibbons, a Paulist priest now based in Los Angeles, posted to the people of Toronto after the Danforth shooting, I asked him to write about how people in his position know what to say in times when there are no words. His response (“Call to Comfort”) is not to simply acknowledge the violence but to give people reasons to go on.
A few days ago, I called my father to make sure I had understood his intentions in sharing the supplies. “Do you really fear the worst?”
“I grew up with it, and it was always just part of my life,” he said, referring to the nature of Saskatchewan farmers to prepare for fire, flood, or any infrastructure failure that would require them to subsist independently. “I don’t think the world is actually going to come to an end,” he added. “It just changes.”