The real thing

By Amy Reiswig, October 2015

Briony Penn’s new biography of beloved BC conservation hero Ian McTaggart Cowan.

A friendly, knowledgeable voice, perhaps somewhat mysterious, encourages you to explore deep secrets in hidden places. For a child, it’s the stuff of dreams and adventure—an invitation to Wonderland. Such was the young Briony Penn’s first meeting, in words, with BC biologist-naturalist Ian McTaggart Cowan (1910-2010) who, in his influential 1956 handbook The Mammals of British Columbia, invited us to join him in “unraveling the innermost secrets of the lives of mammals.” 

It was an offer that entranced Penn and perhaps played a role in showing the future geographer and environmental journalist how important things like language, story and even love can be in science. Now, in an almost 600-page authorized biography called The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan (Rocky Mountain Books), Penn follows Cowan’s lead, inviting us to unravel the secret life of an under-celebrated Canadian legend.

Most Focus readers already know Penn, a regular columnist here and formerly at Monday Magazine, who has built an award-winning career speaking out about the environment and the people who work to protect it—people like Cowan. A field biologist and educator (among many other roles) who has won more awards than any other Canadian scientist, Cowan introduced people at home and around the world to the exciting new world of ecology—a young science in his days of the 30s, 40s and 50s. His university lectures were standing-room-only; he undertook ground-breaking wildlife surveys, some of which provided the first, last or only biological reports for areas that were later flooded by dam projects; and his hugely successful natural history TV programs ran globally, from New Zealand to the United Arab Emirates, well before Attenborough and Suzuki became household names. Called “the granddaddy of environmentalism” and “the father of wildlife conservation and ecology,” Cowan led the way for and inspired generations of people like Penn.

Penn met Cowan in person only when he was 90 and she interviewed him in his Cadboro Bay home for Focus. She was later granted unique access by Cowan’s family to his private papers in order to specifically dig into his mysteries. As she explains at her idyllic home tucked-away in the forests of Salt Spring Island: “Basically, I was invited into his study, and they said, ‘Here you go.’” She spent a full year reading and cataloguing Cowan’s field journals, files, letters, lecture notes, family pictures, scrapbooks—everything—most of which is now digitized and publicly available at UVic. It took two more years to try and fit almost a century of extraordinary life (Cowan died just two months shy of his 100th birthday) into one extraordinary volume. 

The result is an incredibly intimate book. We see it in extensive citations from Cowan’s personal archive and in Penn’s interviews with him, his friends, family, colleagues and students. Structured chronologically around the field journals, the book takes us through huge changes in BC between 1910 and 2010. We see the province, from its pocket gophers to its policies, through Cowan’s eyes and hear commentary in his voice and the voices of those who knew him. As if in Cowan’s backpack jostling among cameras, guns, dissecting instruments, weighing scales, vials and fixing fluid on one of his “saddlebag science” forays, we  enter, for instance, “the national forest, passing up over one of the lava escarpments that radiate out from the heads of the valleys like the rays of the sun coming through the cloud.” Less lyrically, we share a chilly giggle as he describes nakedly nabbing a beaver he’d shot that had drifted downriver toward a carload of tourists: “With the temperature of the water there would have been little evidence as to whether I was a male or a female anyway, but I didn’t want them to see my dead beaver.”  

And so we’re also initiated into the intimacy of Cowan’s field practice; what he did goes far beyond “work.” A man who could tell a fur’s species with his eyes closed, he knew the animals he studied so well, right down to the ticks on their eardrums or the plastic in their bellies. “I interviewed all these people,” Penn says in awe, “and they all said: ‘No one knows what he knew.’”

More importantly, Penn allows us to intimately observe Cowan in his natural habitat and thus understand his values and relationships—with his wife of almost 70 years, the people he influenced, the specimens he collected, the wilderness he loved. Whether it’s hobnobbing with Prince Philip or investigating animals’ nasal passages for botfly larvae, Cowan is shown as a man of infinite adaptability, curiosity and commitment who used science to protect and promote the beauty of the province. 

“He loved this place. He loved every inch of it,” Penn tells me with visible admiration. “I’ve gone places where the scientific tradition says if you care for something, you’re not a scientist. As a little girl I really noticed that.” But Cowan wasn’t alone in that love.

One of Penn’s biggest surprises was discovering Cowan’s role in a secret society of hunter-conservationists called the Brotherhood of Venery (or simply “the B”) who shared in that emotional experience of nature. Holding high-ranking positions in government and organizations all across the UK and North America, they were shaping policy, protecting land and bringing young naturalists like Cowan into the fold. “I’m so fascinated by them,” Penn says excitedly about the group she jokingly calls “the conservation mafia.” “They were all activists as well as scientist-naturalists, and they were a little bit more open to people’s love of something. If you look at their language, kindness comes through all the time. That really struck a chord for me because I think there are times when there’s so much brutality, like right now. Kindness is really undervalued—courtesy, patience, all these kinds of qualities.”

To Penn, those human qualities are as sad to lose as any species or old-growth stand. “During John Muir’s time, it was okay to have a spiritual connection to nature,” she explains. “Then you watch corporate interests realize that that’s a very dangerous sentiment because it gets in between our resources and the market. Discrediting that became very popular. It’s all so current! How many times have I stood up at something and been shot down by: ‘It’s all about the economy, stupid.’”

Penn shows that what Cowan fought against during his long career—clearcutting, pesticides, trophy hunting, inadequate environmental assessments, industrial expansion—are ongoing battles for us today, affecting our environment and our values, especially when scientists face financial cuts and even censorship by the federal government. Co-founder of The Land Conservancy, Penn says that what motivated Cowan and “the B” was essentially what motivates her: “I had this beautiful childhood where I could roam free [on the as-yet-undeveloped Christmas Hill], and you just want that for the next generation. It’s as simple as that.”

Cowan often said that if the public doesn’t know what’s out there, they can’t be expected to miss it when it’s gone. Penn doesn’t want us to miss important culturally binding qualities under threat either. “The most important thing about the book,” she tells me, “is it shows people that as Canadians this is as much our heritage as being hewers of wood. We were not just a pioneering people who wanted to destroy everything. Conservation is also a very strong tradition. We need to reclaim our identity as people who actually care about these things—the environment, education, kindness, scientific and naturalist traditions—because they inform us about how well we’re going to live in this world. When people start erasing history, this is what they want to erase because it’s dangerous to them.”

Penn shares Cowan’s deep love for this province. With thoughtful, graceful storytelling, sombre at losses but ultimately hopeful, she  invites us to explore another kind of Wonderland, another set of intimate, secret lives. It’s an opportunity to be, as Penn was as a child, amazed at where science can take your mind and heart.

The daughter of a marine biologist/taxonomist, Amy Reiswig was similarly entranced in her childhood by friendly experts making nature’s marvelous secrets visible.