Alan MacEachern review’s Nicholas Guitard, The Lost Wilderness: Rediscovering W.F. Ganong’s New Brunswick

Nicholas Guitard, The Lost Wilderness: Rediscovering W.F. Ganong’s New Brunswick (Fredericton: Goose Lane Editions, 2015).

by Alan MacEachern

“Everything which concerns New Brunswick interests me,” wrote W.F. Ganong in a paper for the Royal Society of Canada in 1895.[1] Although he spent almost his entire career as a professor of botany at Smith College in Massachusetts, his working life was dedicated to the province of his birth. His summers were spent exploring the “wilds” of New Brunswick, and his school years poring over its documentary record. He was its foremost historical and physical geographer, as well as a leading scholar on the Acadian era, on place-names, and on Maliseet and Mi’kmaq languages. He edited and translated primary source collections, and he dabbled in geology and climatology – as long as it was New Brunswickiana. In Nicholas Guitard’s words, “No one before or since has studied the natural and physiographic history of the province in such detail” (22).

ganong

Nicholas Guitard, The Lost Wilderness: Rediscovering W.F. Ganong’s New Brunswick.

Guitard is a landscape photographer who shares Ganong’s devotion to New Brunswick and adds a parallel devotion to the botanist himself. In The Lost Wilderness, Guitard tells of retracing almost every field trip that Ganong took between 1882 and 1929 that were the basis of his more than 140 notes in the Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick. Guitard’s book intercuts passages from Ganong’s published descriptions of remote woods, waterfalls, rivers, and mountains with his own twenty-first century depictions of the same locations. There is a related rephotography series throughout, showing how places Ganong photographed have changed. Add to that photographs from both sets of field trips, copies of Ganong’s maps, and journal entries by Ganong’s travel companion Arthur Pierce, and the result is a very attractive introduction to the New Brunswick that W.F. Ganong explored.

Perhaps the most affecting moments in the text come when, having recounted Ganong’s difficulty in reaching an isolated spot, Guitard tells of reaching it easily on one of the logging roads that now scribe the province. The appearance of clearcuts, radio towers, and four-wheelers remind us that much has changed in New Brunswick in the past century. More surprising is how often, in the text and the accompanying rephotographies, the locations appear to have changed relatively little.

The author has made two decisions that are likely to lessen some readers’ interest in the book. The first is to eschew Ganong’s extensive field notes, now in the New Brunswick Museum, on the grounds of their “age and difficult penmanship” (11), in favour of the published products of his fieldwork. It is not just that this takes us a step farther removed from Ganong’s direct experience of the field trips. It is not even that, since the Bulletins are now available online, it lessens the contribution The Lost Wilderness would otherwise make by bringing more of Ganong’s writing into the light.[2] It is that Ganong’s published writing tends to be clinical and detached.[3] The juxtaposition of Ganong’s starched prose and his companion Pierce’s spirited diary entries make the latter seem, ironically, a more fully-developed person. And perhaps he was. Ganong time and again pushed Pierce to extend their field trips farther and faster. In the summer of 1908, having bushwhacked for weeks in solitude, the two came upon an occupied camp. Pierce wrote, “G. as usual was frightened at the thought of seeing anybody and made tracks hastily to disappear. I was mildly wrathy – in private – because encounters of that sort are my delight in the woods” (153).

Guitard’s second decision is not to evaluate most of Ganong’s interpretations. When a passage has the botanist hypothesizing – or openly speculating – as to the geomorphology of a river forks (139) or the location of a Mi’kmaq and later French portage (163) or the occurrence of the Eastern panther (188), for example, the reader is not treated with any information on whether the last century of scientific and historical knowledge has proven Ganong right or wrong. The unfortunate suggestion is that it really doesn’t matter, that Ganong is memorable more for how he sought knowledge through his endless touring of the province than for what knowledge he found. If that is the takeaway, the same could be said of The Lost Wilderness. The journey is the destination.

Notes

[1] William F. Ganong, “A Plan for a General History of the Province of New Brunswick,” Proceedings and Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada 2nd series, volume 1, meeting of May 1895 (Ottawa: John Durie & Son, 1895), 91, http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/item/40773.

[2] Volumes of the Bulletin of the Natural History Society of New Brunswick may be found at http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/ and https://archive.org/.

[3] Ganong said so himself. He gave up on writing a history of New Brunswick because “mine would be coldly scientific, precise, classified, complete; but it would lack the life and form and colour which should distinguish a history for the people.” Ganong, “A Plan for a General History,” 91.

—–

Alan MacEachern teaches History at the University of Western Ontario. He can be reached at amaceach@uwo.ca.

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