Nancy Turner, The Earth's Blanket

Nancy J. Turner is one of the best. By training she's an ethnobotanist, specializing in the intersections of plants, food, and First Nations in British Columbia, but she does some work as well in the fields of linguistics, social justice advocacy, environmental advocacy, and who knows what else. Her new book, The Earth's Blanket: Traditional Teachings for Sustainable Living, represents a bringing together of everything she does.

Which is of course a good thing, but I came away a little discomfitted. Not like with passionate writings that leave me self-castigating and guilt-ridden, which is what I expected, but just ... not as delighted as I thought I would be.

Most of the chapters are descriptive. They talk about stories told by the Wsanec people (Saanich) about their home places; about how to harvest bark or berries or fish; about how to prepare things for eating or weaving; that sort of thing. Great stuff, all of it, but there's no guiding message, like I'm used to from Derrick Jensen or Carol J. Adams or Terry Glavin or Wallace Stegner. Instead the first seven of her eight chapters function as a kind of apprenticeship. The final chapter addresses programs and actions, but I think it only makes sense fully if it's read after all the others. Much like Turner herself had to serve a lengthy apprenticeship with her friends and sources among the First Nations peoples of B.C., we have to serve a surrogate apprenticeship with her before we can come to understand what she's telling us.

I think I knew enough that I could have received the final chapter without preparation, so I was champing at the bit all the way through wanting to get on to something other than description, but that just means I'm not her target audience with this book. It has sold fairly well, I think, and it's had some positive reviews (like this one in the Georgia Straight by Glavin, even though it's more focused on two other books).

Besides, it's not a traditional non-fiction book; this is how she writes her academic books and articles, descriptively rather than prescriptively, with an eye toward increasing other people's knowledge about a subject. Her academic writing is lovingly detailed and accessible, though her love for details can make it run longer than you think is absolutely necessary -- and while I enjoyed this book, and can see myself giving it as a gift, I kind of preferred her academic work.

Which may, of course, say more about my own geek status than about Nancy Turner....


jo(e) said…
I'm going to have to read this one myself. I think I might like her approach.

Have you read Robin Wall Kimmerer's book _Gathering Moss_?
richard said…
No, I haven't read Kimmerer, but the bits of description and review I just pulled up made her book sound wonderful!

Nancy Turner is one of my very favourite people; her academic writing is clear and thorough and still warm, so is her non-academic writing, but if I'm honest, I don't feel like I get much extra from her non-academic work. Well worth your time, though.

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