Historically it’s been all too easy to write off Alberta as a province of redneck oil mavericks in big trucks, concerned more with quadding the back forty than with environmental conservation and land use reform. This stereotype is the starting line for Kevin Van Tighem’s new book, Our Place: Changing the Nature of Alberta, a collection of the author’s previously published essays and new works on the subject of our troubled relationship with the land.
In a province where our financial security is arguably more closely tied to the ravaging of the natural world than most others in Canada, Our Place is a call to action and awareness, a celebration of Alberta’s positive (and oft-forgotten) history of land conservation, and an admonition against complacency in a boom-and-bust economy. Van Tighem encourages readers to dig deeper into the histories underlying our land use narratives, and instead of simply pondering what can be gotten from the land at the land’s expense, or giving up in frustration at what has already been taken, “to understand the nature of this wounded place we call home, and to put that understanding to work in restoring its health and diversity.”
Our Place chronicles the evolving viewpoints of one conservationist across his career, including time as super-intendent at Banff National Park. Van Tighem’s earlier essays lie alongside more recent works, providing a clear look at how his perspectives have shifted with time. In some cases, the environmental catastrophes he feared in his earlier works have come to pass; in others, we’ve managed to hold back on decision-making that could damage the land (and our own interests in the long run). In this regard, the book acts as a time capsule of environmental policy in the years the various essays were written, making for a fascinating and layered read.
We’re a province built on an historical silencing of Aboriginal ways of knowing, reading and stewarding the land, and Van Tighem’s book speaks to the wounds left when traditional ways of knowing the earth are pushed aside in favour of development. These 44 concise essays, reflecting on what he has learned as a conservationist, represent Van Tighem’s way of getting these kinds of stories into circulation again. As he acknowledges, “Who controls the word controls the story—and a culture is the product of stories. As Alberta struggles once again to shape a sustainable future in the face of yet another greed-fuelled economic bust, it might be well to revisit the stories by which we define ourselves. Our best stories… don’t derive from a maverick tradition; they come from caring stewards of the land. We have lots of those stories. They have much to teach us.”
—Jenna Butler wrote A Profession of Hope (W&W, 2015).