Andrew Nikiforuk reads through the archives at the Museum at Campbell River

How can Haig-Brown possibly still be relevant?

Former writer-in-residence is working to preserve the memory of one of the most influential Campbell Riverites

Some would say – and few would argue – the world we live in has never changed more quickly than it has in the past few decades.

If that’s the case, how would the writings and life of a man living beside the Campbell River in the 1940s – writing books about fishing – be relevant today? After all, Roderick Haig-Brown died in 1976 – five years before Mark Zuckerberg, inventor of Facebook, was even born.

Winner of multiple national magazine awards, a Governor General’s Award, a Rachel Carson Environment Book Award and past Haig-Brown Writer-in-Residence Andrew Nikiforuk will examine just that at this year’s Haig-Brown Lecture Series event Nov. 24 at the Tidemark Theatre.

Haig-Brown, Nikiforuk says, was “a visionary with a prophetic voice,” who goes under-appreciated even within his own community.

“We’ve reached a point where Roderick Haig-Brown is becoming a fading memory here,” he says. “I think people have forgotten what an important figure lived here, how he was moulded by this community and how he actually reflected the values of this community and found a national stage to express them. That’s something that everyone in Campbell River needs to be reminded of, I think.”

Nikiforuk has been spending many of his days in the basement of the Museum at Campbell River doing research in preparation for his talk, and says a big part of what makes Haig-Brown so fascinating is how relevant his writings and activism still are.

“Anything you read – his essays, his speeches, his books – they have a timeless quality to them,” Nikiforuk says. “I mean, this was a guy who really captured something really vital and important. He talked about how destructive boom and bust economies could be – not just to your soul, but to your community and to your environment – long before any other Canadian writers made that a theme.”

More than anything else, Nikiforuk says, Haig-Brown’s legacy is that he saw how humans and the natural world are intimately connected.

“He recognized that for 50,000 generations we were hunters and gatherers, and then for 500 generations we became farmers. It’s less than 20 generations that we have worked in boxes with machines.

“So nature is still part of our psyche,” Nikiforuk continues, “and he just found great joy, wonder and pleasure being in the bush, and one of the reasons he did is because he recognized that as a fundamental human activity – you cannot keep your soul, you cannot keep your humanity if you are not in touch with the world that made you as a species, and that’s pretty revolutionary thinking. In an industrial society, that’s revolutionary thinking.”

And it’s the kind of thinking that we could use more of these days, he says.

The other thing that fascinates Nikiforuk with Haig-Brown is that he changed his worldview drastically over time while living in this place.

“He came here as a colonial,” Nikiforuk says, “and in a sense was reborn in the woods. At first he was part of the pioneer ethic of ‘let’s dam it up or cut it down and run off with the cash,’ and he became increasingly critical of that approach, to the point where he came to the idea that we need to come up with a whole new ethic for living. We need a whole different economic way of thinking and behaving and we need to respect the places we live in.

“That’s obviously a radical way of looking at things, because we’re still nowhere near even approaching that ethic yet. We’re stumbling over the place even just trying to figure out how we respond to climate change, which is a clear and present danger to our way of living.”

Haig-Brown had a solution to climate change way back in his day, Nikiforuk says, that we still, as a society, can’t seem to figure out.

“His solution was to remember that you live on a small and finite planet. We’re going to have to humble ourselves and live less grandly. We have to re-localize and conserve and appreciate what we have. And we have to restore the abundance that was once here and make it work for future generations.”

As for what he’s hoping people will take away from the talk, Nikiforuk says he’s absolutely not intending on preaching.

“Mainly I’m just going to tell some stories,” he says. “I don’t think I have too many messages, other than what Haig-Brown would say, which is ‘go out and observe.’ And if you find somebody draining a wetland, step up and do something about it. If you find somebody polluting a watershed, step up and do something about it. If you find somebody poaching fish, step up and do something about it. But most importantly, maintain your human values by engaging with the natural world.”

Nikiforuk will be joined by award-winning photographer and visionary author Ian McAllister.

Tickets for the event are $15 and are available at tidemarktheatre.com or by calling 250-287-7465.