Return to the wild

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Sometimes, on the bus ride up to SFU, you see a coyote, bear, or deer looking awfully shocked that another bus is coming up the mountain. You barely look up from the readings you had an entire week with, and seconds later when you try to glance up again because you just saw a bear, it’s gone.

But what if there wasn’t time to brush off this sort of encounter with nature? What if bears, coyotes, and deer casually roamed amongst us all the time?

Because of intense urban expansion, Vancouver is in the process of purging itself of all natural wildlife. With its most recent exhibition, Rewilding Vancouver, the Museum of Vancouver is hosting the first major museum show in Canada to explore what an urban center would feel like through the lens of historical ecology.

Through the exhibit, curator J.B. MacKinnon explores “the incredibly abundant natural world of the past and how that might inspire us to rewild the world.” Rewilding Vancouver quite literally places nature right in the middle of the bustling city and its quaint neighbourhoods.

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The exhibit comprises 12 tableaus, each pictured as “a shop front window display designed to tell a story — [it’s] a familiar scene from Vancouver, but with nature bursting through in challenging ways. It’s like a classic natural history museum — there are a lot of taxidermies — but more playful, with wild nature and human culture all mixed together,” says MacKinnon.

These displays are accompanied by videos, 3D models, and soundscapes which really bring the wilderness to the audience, challenging viewers to imagine whether or not the sound of howling wolves would be natural in the midst of city traffic.

Several installations require a moment of contemplation and perspective; one depicts a dining room with a stuffed beaver on the table. The exhibit aims to spark discussion about what it means to live in one of the world’s “greenest cities.”

Sure, we have bike-lanes and energy-efficient buildings, but MacKinnon believes Vancouverites are so interested in being green because of our access to nature; we’re surrounded by snow-capped mountains and greenery, which should not be forgotten.

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“I think of the theme of this exhibition as three ‘R’s: remember, reconnect, rewild. We need to remember nature as it was in order to set a higher bar for what nature could be in the future. We need to reconnect to nature in order to make it meaningful and valuable in our lives. And finally, we need to realize that we really can make a wilder city,” says MacKinnon.

Rewilding Vancouver urges viewers to consider what used to be familiar and how that has changed. For instance, Vancouver’s waters used to be filled with the hauntingly beautiful sounds of hundreds of whales.

MacKinnon says, “If you aren’t aware that whales lived here in the past, then the absence of the whales seems normal. When you are aware, then the absence of whales will seem abnormal — and you might start asking whether we could bring them back and how.”

Wildlife certainly does come back in the experience of Rewilding Vancouver. As you walk through, your perception of what is natural to Vancouver shifts. Ravens, coyotes, and black-tailed deer begin to settle into the city’s infrastructure; leaving the exhibit, you pass projections which ask what it would be like if streams were running through our neighbourhoods.

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