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The Once and Future Great Lakes Country: An Ecological History

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by John L. Riley

McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 2013 484 pp., illus., $39.95 hardcover

Caution: This book is not about all the Great Lakes. Riley makes only brief, scattered references to lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron, apart from Georgian Bay, yet he takes us to the Atlantic coast and the watersheds of the Hudson, Ohio, and Mississippi rivers. Nor is it a history of the evolution of plants and animals over the eleven to fourteen thousand years since the lakes were created by melting glaciers. Instead, it is a history of the devastating impact of European settlement on the land, wildlife, and Native peoples in the fertile lands around Lakes Erie and Ontario.

Quoting the journals of some of the first European explorers and traders, Riley portrays an earthly paradise where peaceful and prosperous Native peoples cultivated corn, beans, and squash, harvested nuts and berries, and burned the dense forests to create prairies attractive to game birds and animals. The Europeans, greedy for land and its resources, extirpated the Iroquoian settlements through disease and warfare, then treated paradise as a real estate development.

This story has been told before — Riley’s bibliography is forty-seven pages — but his argument is that the European invasion was a triumph not of civilization but of what he calls “the manufacture and sale of land ownership,” the transformation of Earth into a commodity to be exploited.

An experienced conservation scientist, Riley is familiar with the consequences: the clear-cutting of the oak and pine forests, the disappearance of native birds and fish, soil erosion, the draining of marshes, the coming of invasive species, including wild pigs, and, currently, urbanization.

The scope of this book is so gargantuan that it loses focus, and Riley, moving back and forth in space and time, has little feel for geography. Where are we? He fails to describe the extraordinary appearance of the Great Lakes, and their individual characters. Not until page 299, in his discussion of the current climate, does Riley refer briefly to the dramatic cycle of warming and cooling that shaped the lakes’ postglacial ecosystems for millennia. Where are the mines, Sudbury and Elliot Lake for example, and the cities with their ghastly history of pollution? Chicago gets a few paragraphs, Toronto slightly more.

Like many ecologists, Riley tends to sound more like a preacher: We have sinned, but there is hope for salvation. As a senior scientist with the Nature Conservancy of Canada, he is at the forefront of efforts to restore and preserve forests, wetlands, and wildlife. Riley even sees climate warming in a positive light: It might stave off the inevitable advance of another ice age.

— Heather Robertson (Read bio)

Heather Robertson's latest book is Walking into Wilderness: The Toronto Carrying Place and Nine Mile Portage, which covers the war between the French, English, and their First Nations allies in the Great Lakes watershed.


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