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The Pattern of Man: Enduring Wilderness and National Park History

Reviews

This post was written by Dr. Claire Campbell, a professor of History and Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax. It is the first post in a series on Ernest Reid’s 1963 film, Enduring Wilderness, written by contributors to the forthcoming A Century of Parks Canada, 1911 – 2011 (University of Calgary Press).

According to the 1963 NFB film Enduring Wilderness, nothing says a bear quite like a timpani.

The film reminds me of a ballet, when symphonic cues announce a dramatic moment, or signal a new character.  It alternates between percussion-worthy scenery (alpine or ursine) and woodwind-esque accents (such as wildflowers).  It’s quite lovely to watch, and quite a pleasant way to pass twenty-seven minutes.

Its musical score has dated a bit better than its script.  Like the film as a whole, there is relatively little of a human voice; we see and hear waves crash more than we see or hear people. (Millions visit the parks every year, we are told – but no more than half a dozen are ever shown at once.)

When the narrator speaks, though, it is a wonderful example of a history of Canada and its national parks that could only have been written before 1968:  “Only four hundred years ago the first settlers came … seeking a home in the brooding forests of the new land.  But before man could take over he had to tame the wilderness … Gradually as civilization spread the pattern of nature gave way to the pattern of man …”

There were also “farsighted men of the last century who set aside [some] areas when the country was new.”  National parks have preserved pieces of Canada “in their original state”:  pieces of wilderness which, quoting Thoreau, will refresh us with its “inexhaustible vigour.”  That’s certainly appealing; it’s February, and I could do with a little inexhaustible vigour inspired by piping plovers or the Athabaska Pass.

But the panoramic vistas are oddly disquieting, possibly because they feel somehow illusory.  A year after Enduring Wilderness appeared the first national parks policy stated that any action in the parks must “minimize impairment.”  Four years later, the National and Provincial Parks Association (later the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) sponsored a landmark conference which demonstrated growing concern that the “pattern of man” had been stamped too heavily on these places, especially the mountain parks, by precisely the agency tasked with their stewardship: the National Parks Branch.

In other words, Canadians were becoming uncomfortably aware that national parks were not sanctuaries of pristine wilderness, even though we persisted – and persist – in thinking of them as such.  Such anxiety creeps even into Enduring Wilderness, whose hopeful title and wilderness photography is belied by the narrator asking, “How can we use the parks without spoiling them?”

This, as they say, is the 64,000$ question, and the dilemma facing Parks Canada since its inception.  In 1911 Canada became the first country in the world to create an agency devoted to managing its national parks, and for most of the past century it has struggled with a dual mandate of preservation and use so succinctly and so fundamentally entrenched in the National Parks Act of 1930:  “the parks are hereby dedicated to the people of Canada for their benefit, education and enjoyment…[and] shall be maintained and made use of so as to leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Interestingly, the film’s title was translated in French as Jardins Sauvages – in some ways a more accurate description of national parks than “enduring wilderness.” Because Canadians have been making use of these wild gardens since the creation of Rocky Mountain Park in 1885 in all manner of ways, from the privileged few staying in the Canadian Pacific Railway’s châteaus to the millions unpacking their cars in campgrounds.  Accordingly, the parks have absorbed, mirrored, and responded to moments and trends in Canada’s history – moments of political strategy and scientific critique, trends of recreation and environmental concern – as well as those of the non-human world.  For example, with environmentalism moving into the political mainstream, as many new parks were created in the ten years after Enduring Wilderness as in the preceding forty; meanwhile, a Canada increasingly preoccupied with the resource and sovereignty politics of the far north saw its first national park in the Yukon.

Yet we do not possess a great deal of history about our national parks.  The emphasis on wilderness and, more recently, on ecological integrity has prevented us from seeing the ways in which we humans encounter nature in these places.  Ironically, our desire to see parks as “enduring wilderness” may have hindered our ability to measure our impact on their very capacity to endure.  We need to identify and acknowledge the “pattern of man” in order to fully appreciate our effect on places traditionally thought as set apart and considered ever more vulnerable.

The centennial of Parks Canada, then, invites us to explore the history written into our national parks.  Parks history can tell us a great deal about ourselves as Canadians and what we have learned from over a hundred years of actively managing designated “wild” places.  Here we do share Enduring Wilderness’s final message:  “The national parks are museums that we visit to gain knowledge of ourselves, to weigh the value of our civilization against the ageless splendour of the wilderness.”