Retro Natural History Artwork

25 03 2011

As a child I spent countless hours browsing through the world atlas and set of natural history encyclopedias that sat on my mother’s cluttered bookshelf. Nowadays websites like Wikipedia do an admirable job satisfying (and fuelling) this sort of wandering curiousity, and Google Earth is a pretty amazing update on the old-fashioned globe, but computer screens lack the pleasure of gliding your finger along the glossy coastline of Patagonia or a tiger’s gleaming tooth. (Then again, I don’t have an iPad. Yet.)

So I was thrilled when, a few years back, I came across a full set of the Illustrated Natural History of Canada at a garage sale here in Whistler. Unfortunately I was biking home fully-loaded with groceries, so I could only carry home two of the series’ nine volumes. The series was organized according to our nation’s broad environmental zones, so naturally, I chose “The Pacific Coast” and “The Mountain Barrier.”

What a find. I definitely need to track down the rest of the volumes through an on-line used book store.

"Eocene Life Fleeing a Volcano." Growing up, dinosaurs were probably my most serious mania. I really enjoy the thought that this exact scene, depicting the wave of volcanic activity that formed the Coast Mountains a few dozen million years ago, occurred just up the street from where I live today.

Beyond the inherent interest of the subject matter, I really enjoy browsing older environmental literature and educational materials for the window they offer into changing popular environmental attitudes. Published in 1970 by Natural Science of Canada, the series offers a cool expression of the growing concern for environmental degradation that followed such landmark events as Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and which was reflected by major shifts in North American environmental policy.

The Illustrated Natural History of Canada, the publisher claimed, was “devoted to explaining and illustrating the entire natural formation and development of our country…. ” Beyond this popular science component, the series was clearly inspired by a desire to instill in the Canadian populace an appreciation of our nation’s natural wonders, and a concern for their imperiled state. Each volume concludes with a chapter outlining major conservation concerns in its respective region, offering as a scathing condemnation of the era’s over-zealous “development-at-all-costs” economic policies.

The science and advocacy are well-written, if a little dry, but the series’ major success lies in its wonderful use of images to fully express the drama and wonder of our natural landscapes. The publisher even went so far as to claim on the dustjacket that the series was an “important and unique event in Canadian publishing history” which constituted a “landmark in the visual portrayal of the full range and splendour of our natural history.”

I often find myself leisurely browsing through my two volumes, no less entranced than I was by Wings, Paws, Hooves, and Flippers two decades earlier, so I figured I’d scan a few of my favourite images and post them here.

"Nootka Whale Hunting"

"Mountains in the Making"

"Many Mountain Shapes"

"The Mountain-bound Indians." A completely accurate portrayal of day-to-day life of the region's indigenous peoples.

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