Author Harry Thurston – On Sand and Sea

Harry and Cathy Thurston

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing author Harry Thurston, who has had a long career as an environmental writer and as a poet, contributing to such well know publications as Equinox, Audubon and Harrowsmith.  He recently completed ‘The Atlantic – A Natural History’ which should be out later this year.  He and his wife Cathy, who hail from Nova Scotia, are staying at the Haig-Brown House until the end of March this year (2010) as part of the  Writer In Residence program, organized through the Campbell River Museum.  As Writer in Residence, he has been busy mentoring other writers and speaking at events like the Words on the Water Festival. 

Thurston feels quite at home in the Haig-Brown House and is well acquainted with the writings of Roderick Haig-Brown, Campbell River’s famous author, who wrote extensively on conservationism and who was strongly influenced by his natural surroundings and by living next to the Campbell River.  Thurston feels that Haig-Brown was “ahead of his time, and underappreciated”, discussing environmental theories that were 30 years ahead of any ‘environmental movement’. 

Thurston is a writer who has also been strongly influenced by his surroundings, having grown up on a saltwater farm on the east coast, and from a young age observed the link between progress and the devastation of his beloved fishing spot near his childhood home.  Currently, he and his wife live by a river near the community of Tidnish Bridge, which is on the isthmus connecting Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  Although geographically the locale of their home and that of the Haig-Brown House differ (their area being flat, and the Tidnish River is more placid than the Campbell River) yet Campbell River is reminiscent of home – the nearness of the ocean, the same issues facing the environment linked to ”forestry and the protection of the forest” and fishing. 

Thurston has travelled extensively throughout his career, living in different parts of Canada like Guelph, Ontario where his wife Cathy completed her masters degree in Child Psychology.  With their divergent careers, (Cathy Thurston was the Regional Director for Mental Health in Nova Scotia) she wasn’t always able to travel with her husband, but now that Cathy is retired, this opportunity in Campbell River has allowed them the  spend time in another community together. 

“One of the most remarkable places I ever spent time in” says Thurston, was close to home, on an island called Sable Island, located 300km south of Halifax.  Sable Island is about 40km long and roughly 2.5 km wide (and takes its name from the French word for sand).  It is known for the numerous ship wrecks that are buried in the sand there, that appear and disappear with the shifting of the sands, and for its population of about 400 wild horses, commonly known as Sable Island ponies.  Thurston says that although they are referred to as ponies, many are quite large.  He was there on assignment with Audubon to do a story about a Tern colony, (Thurston has a background in biology) but ended up writing what he refers to as “an impressionist piece”. 

This would come as no surprise to those who know Thurston has a prose writer, which he refers to as a second career apart from his journalistic career.  He began writing prose in university, when he was studying biology, and at one time he both published and edited a poetry journal.  In fact, while at the Haig-Brown House he held a well received workshop on prose writing.  His latest prose project, that he has been working on while at the House, is entitled ‘Lost River’, which consists of a group of fictional stories dealing with fishing and our relationship to the natural world. 

Perhaps a time when the two writing careers converged was during his sojourn in the Sahara desert, when he stayed at an intriguing oasis called Dakleh, that had been continuously occupied by human beings for over 400,000 years.  Although he went there initially in the late ‘80’s a to write a feature article for Equinox he “realized then, that this is a book”.  He returned in 2000 and archaeologists were there conducting a long term study.  While it may have seemed incongruous for a coastal person who normally wrote about the enironment to be writing about an archaeological project in the desert, for Thurston “this is an environmental story – it’s a story about the use of water”. On the Dakleh Oasis Project website, it is stated that “The environment is seen as one of the most important influences on all human activity”. 

Yet the science was not all that intrigued the author. “The desert has a horizon like the ocean with undulating dunes like waves” he explains, and the beauty of the desert was so inspiring, that he “wrote a poem every night.” His wife Cathy was able to join him there for part of the sojourn and was fascinated to find remains of sea life in the form of shells and fossils in the dry sands.  In fact it has been said that the sand surrounding Dakleh predates the history of the Sahara. 

‘Island of the Blessed’ (the title is taken from Herodotus) is the book that was born out of his research there.  “People gravitated to that place” because it is an aquifer (a porous deposit of rock containing water that can be used to supply wells); but today that source “is being tapped aggressively” for the purposes of modern agriculture, and Thurston predicts “it’s possible that its history of occupation is coming to an end”. In ‘Island of the Blessed’, he writes that “An oasis… is also an island, a place with definite borders and finite resources. Survival depends upon wise management of those resources, for there is no way off this island.” 

And in the following poignant analogy, which sounds like pure poetry to me, Thurston concludes: “The oasis is a microcosm for the challenges we face globally. Earth is an island of fertility in outer space.” 

If you would like to hear Harry Thurston in person, he will be speaking at the Heriot Bay Inn on Saturday, March 27, an evening event which will include dinner.  You can call the Inn directly to make a reservation –   250-285-3322 .  If you are unable to hear him in person, the following is a condensed version of the above interview from the Kasha’s Corner Audio Series:  Click Here to Play Interview with H Thurston.

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