As a child, I spent countless hours crouched at the edge of a pond, just down the hill from our ramshackle trailer. I remember that pond life largely resembled a daytime soap opera, albeit of the insect and amphibian variety. There were heroes, villains, glamour and intrigue. Innocent tadpoles slowly growing legs. Water striders that slid across the pond’s surface like skater bros, nonchalant and cool. Fat frogs that hung out in the mud croaking out sanguine commentary. Minnows, nervous and flighty as preteen girls, and even a Darth Vader-like super villain in the form of the giant water bug.
This creature was almost as big as my fist, a beady-eyed character, with long curved pincers that looked like miniature scimitars. According to my handy bug identification guide, these serious-looking weapons could deliver an incredibly painful bite. The giant water bug was a rare sight. It was large and threatening enough to take out a good-size frog, and even a glimpse of it was enough to send a shudder through my body. Naturally, I was desperate to capture one. One day, I sent an innocent, and rather gullible, young friend out into the middle of the pond, tin can in hand, to see if he could find one, scoop it up and bring it back for closer inspection. I neglected to mention the poisonous bite information. The end of the story is that no one got hurt, I failed to capture the dastardly bug and the life aquatic went on. Until my grandfather decided to fill the pond with a load of gravel. After that, all the vibrant action on display simply disappeared.
My point is that when human drama and animal drama intersect, most often it is the wild things who bear the brunt of these encounters.
This is the season where animals and people crash into each other with frightening regularity. Bears invade backyard swimming pools or take a swipe at boneheaded humans who insist on taking photos of them. Or even worse, offering food. Or being food. Also, don’t get between a mama deer and her baby.
I tell you all of this by way of introduction to a new exhibition at the Museum of Vancouver called Wild Things: The Power of Nature in Our Lives.
According to the show’s co-curator Viviane Gosselin (MOV’s director of collections and exhibitions), everyone has a story. And, this is how the show begins with a series of stories about human and animal encounters. Some good, some bad, most simply curious. The moment I set foot in the show, they come swimming to the surface, tangled up with lines of memory and roped with emotion.
Anyone who has grown up in a rural part of the world usually has a vast collection of animal tales. It’s a little like opening an overstuffed suitcase — all manner of stuff comes flying out. Such as the story about my grandfather pulling a cougar’s tail when it got stuck in the chicken shed. The sighting of a mama grizzly and her two cubs ambling alongside the highway atop the Blueberry Paulson summit. Or the time I watched a bunch of horses play an extended game of chicken, or maybe it was tag, with a pack of coyotes. The horses would trot after the coyotes, who would retreat a bit and then start their weird yipping taunts. It was unclear who was actually winning this odd contest, but all parties seemed to having a gay old time.
Gosselin is remarkably patient as I tell her about the time my sister almost tripped over a big fluffy coyote loping down King Edward in the early morning hours. The coyote seemed little fazed by the meeting, but we humans were all agog. She has her own story to contribute about an owl attacking her in the woods, apparently mistaking her pony tail for that of a squirrel. She describes it as the longest 10 minutes she ever spent in the forest. Other tales (tails) of unexpected encounters include a man who mistook a sleeping bear for a dead bear and gave its fur a nice hearty tug. Whether that man is still among the living is unclear.
Gosselin and her co-curator Lee Beavington have foregone the usual ‘70s-style dioramas that haunt your childhood — glassy-eyed taxidermy nightmares, dead deer stuffed and mounted, wolves caught for eternity in a ferocious snarl. Sights familiar from many a forced march school field trip. Instead, Wild Things takes a more modern approach, concealing and revealing with clean lines and varying levels so that you’re forced to peer into the displays, much like you would the outside world.
The exhibition, designed by architects Daniel Irvine and Chad Manley, is bisected into two main components, The Encounter Room and The Engagement Room.
Of the two, The Encounter Room is the more effective, bound up with recreations of the physical world, be it an endless rainstorm on a thin blue tarp, the patterns and sound of the water moving all around you or a First Nations woman recounting the process of killing and butchering a Roosevelt elk. The exhibition is cleverly designed with climbing walls, peepholes and crawlspaces. You have to work to catch a glimpse of some of the creatures here, be they sea otters, wolves or birds. It is sly and subtle and works on multiple levels, both sensorial and emotional.
The Engagement Room offers a more conventional series of interactive stations wherein folk can read, watch, open drawers and regard the specimens on display up close and personal. A wall-sized map of the city is peppered with miniature flags that indicate the location and type of animal encounters in the city.
One of show’s main narratives is that there are animals everywhere. But some are easier to see than others.
Most Vancouver-dwellers have had some local fauna experience. Whether it’s stumbling home from a night of cocktails, drunk as a skunk, and tripping over a real live skunk; being attacked by crows on a daily basis on route to the SkyTrain station; or leaping away with a barely contained “EWW!” from the ratty jamboree that takes place every night on the corner of Commercial Drive and North Grandview.
These kind of encounters may not be quite as exciting as being scalped by a mama grizzly, but there are plenty of creatures living in the margins of the city that are thrilling. I had no idea that Stanley Park was home to a species of flying squirrel. As Gosselin explains, the squirrels live very high up in the forest canopy and are nocturnal, ergo, they are rarely seen. It might also be the fact that when they’re not gliding through the air, they have to drag their flaps of skin along the ground. “They look very funny when they’re walking,” she says. Indeed, even the taxidermy example looks vaguely pained, its small squirrelly face scrunched into an embarrassed grimace.
The exhibition is filled with facts, details, maps, films and a variety of displays that elucidate how animals manage to function within a major cosmopolitan centre. But as I walk through the show, another darker series of feelings begins to emerge. Namely the idea that, at some point in the future, perhaps not that far off, all that will remain of the natural world will be housed in museum displays. As if on cue, there is a stuffed and mounted specimen of a passenger pigeon, a sleekly beautiful creature, whose beaded eyes offer a mute statement of warning. A tell-tale heart story of mass extinction and loss.
Looking at the taxidermy figures of wolves, cougars and bears, one cannot help but wonder how long they have before they too join the ranks of the passenger pigeon. Species vanquished and then vanished from the planet.
The news that another new baby orca died this week was shared widely in the media. It points out not simply the brute facts of animals under threat, but more deeply the pain that the ongoing whittling away of the natural world, species by species, animal by animal, enacts. The story of the mother whale, nudging her dead newborn to the surface for hours, joins a long line of similar stories. An orangutan fighting off a bulldozer in an Indonesian forest. An emaciated polar bear searching for food.
These images and stories snag hard in the mind, eliciting a kind of psychic pain that goes deeper than just simple empathy. It is a kind of soul sickness that leaches through your entire body. I have to admit each time one of these stories emerges, I can’t look away fast enough. But perhaps that is part of the problem, the human ability to ignore, to pretend, to run away, because it simply hurts too much or is simply too horrifying to contemplate for long.
Author/activist George Monbiot summed up this behaviour in a recent article:
“I have been averting my eyes. Because I cannot bear to see what we have done to nature, I no longer see nature itself. Otherwise, the speed of loss would be unendurable. The collapse can be witnessed from one year to the next. The swift decline of the swift (down 25 per cent in five years) is marked by the loss of the wild screams that, until very recently, filled the skies above my house. My ambition to see the seabird colonies of the Shetlands and St. Kilda has been replaced by the intention never to visit those islands during the breeding season: I could not bear to see the empty cliffs, whose populations have crashed by some 90 per cent this century.
“I have lived long enough to witness the vanishing of wild mammals, butterflies, mayflies, songbirds and fish that I once feared my grandchildren would experience: it has all happened faster than even the pessimists predicted. Walking in the countryside or snorkelling in the sea is now as painful to me as an art lover would find her visits to a gallery, if on every occasion another Old Master had been cut from its frame.” Monbiot has built his entire career on documenting the natural world, its ebb and flow, but increasingly a note of despair has coloured his work.
I feel you, George.
It’s hard to force yourself to engage, dutifully and consistently, with this information. Outrage collapses into bleak humour and finally a kind of paralysis, an emotional inertia that just wants comfort, forgetfulness and large doses of Netflix and wine. Even writing this feels like risking being a major bummer.
But as entire ecosystems tremble on the verge of collapse, you have to wonder about the human capacity for change, and, Monbiot writes, memory.
What was here before and has since been vanished? Covered over, disappeared, not unlike what my grandfather did to my beloved childhood pond. In the case of Vancouver, a city that prides itself on being the greenest of urban environments, what does this really mean to the animal populations that live among us? Although, the crows and the rats seem to be doing just fine, other species are long gone. The idea that the Southern Orca may soon join their ranks must be faced.
The constant refrain is what can we do? Here is where a show like Wild Things helps, not simply as a reminder of what other creatures share this landscape, but even more directly of how to do things better.
In the case of the MOV, the museum has taken steps to build in greater sustainability. In fact, this is the first exhibition that will put into place a new approach to sustainability. Wild Things is built from reclaimed construction materials and supported by the Upcycle Vancouver program. It is a new initiative launched by the Vancouver Economic Commission with the stated intent of creating a no-waste city.
Monbiot’s book about Rewilding is another useful reminder that people can reverse the damage done with even the simplest of efforts.
The MOV exhibition is a poignant indicator of how much is still here, as well as how important beauty and wilderness are to the human experience. In addition to the exhibition itself, there are a number of ancillary activities all over town including bird watching expeditions in Vanier Park, workshops, nature walks, drawing classes and film screenings. Other events on offer this summer include a festival for people who like staring at birds. Just don’t be a twitcher about it.
For a generation who has grown up largely indoors, Wild Things is yet one more reminder, as if you needed another, that once this planet is wrecked up there is nowhere left to go. Not just for us squalling human masses, but for everything else — all of the killer whales, polar bears, Humboldt squid, three-toed sloths, timber wolves, humming birds and giant water bugs. We share this place with a world of other beings, haired, furred, feathered, and finned creatures, deserving of our care and respect.
And if you do decide to leave your house, and traipse about in the woods, you might just get to see a flying squirrel. Or get eaten by a bear. That would be interesting too.
Read more: Environment