The Real Thing: Robert Maher Examines the Book “The Real Thing” by Briony Penn

Over Christmas, I had the opportunity to go ‘off island’. One of the pleasures of visiting Victoria, British Columbia is to go into Munro’s bookstore and to browse the shelves. In the same time frame, I received a gift, the book by Briony Penn entitled ‘The Real Thing. The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan’. book

Penn is a writer of creative non-fiction and a geographer living with her family on Salt Spring Island, BC. She has been actively involved in a number of community mapping projects, including the community atlas of the Salish Sea. The Real Thing is a highly recommended tome of over five hundred pages documenting the life and times of Ian McTaggart Cowan. It is one of two biographies on Cowan published this year.

As a ‘natural history’, Penn has adopted a species approach to describing the activities of Cowan in relation to conservation in Western Canada and beyond. She has had remarkable access to diaries, collections and individuals.

In October, Penn was interviewed by Amy Reiswig for (October 2015).

In Penn’s own words:

‘The most important thing about the book is that it shows people that as Canadians this is as much about our heritage as being hewers of wood. We were not just pioneering people who would destroy everything. Conservation is also a very strong tradition.’

‘We need to reclaim our identify as people who actually care about things – the environment, education, kindness, scientific and naturalist traditions – because they inform us about how well we’re going to live in this world’.

‘When people start erasing history, this is what they want to erase because it’s dangerous to them’.

Penn does an excellent job of describing the history of conservation in British Columbia through the lens of McTaggart Cowan.

Our year on Haida Gwaii is almost up. It is time to return to the East coast.

Access to the descriptions of wild, beautiful British Columbia found in the biography of McTaggart Cowan raise a number of ‘to be answered’ questions about the natural history and conservation on the East coast. We have been fortuitous to have had the opportunity to see again the Canadian landscape from both sides of the continent, along with the associated cultural and community context.


Briony Penn. 2015. The Real Thing. The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan. Rocky Mountain Books

Wayne Campbell, Ronald Jakimchuk and Dennis Demarch.(ed). 2015. Ian McTaggart Cowan: the Legacy of a Pioneering Biologist, Educator and Conservationist. Harbour Publishing.

Sheila Harrington and Judi Stevenson (ed). 2005. Islands in the Salish Sea: A Community Atlas. Land Trust Alliance BC. Forward by Briony Penn.

Amy Reiswig. October 2015. Interview with Briony Penn in Focus magazine.


About our Author: Robert Maher

Bob Maher obtained his Ph.D in Geography from the University of Western Ontario. He subsequently went to teach at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Department of Geography – Quantitative Methods, Computer Mapping and Biogeography. In 1980, he joined the faculty at the Nova Scotia Land Survey Institute and was instrumental in its transformation into the College of Geographic Sciences (COGS). Between 1988 – 1999, he was a GIS consultant in Indonesia, and worked for ESRI in the United States, and across Canada with universities and government agencies. He returned to COGS in 2000 taking up the position of Senior Research Scientist in the Applied Geomatics Research Group (AGRG). He retired from AGRG in 2011. Bob contributes to GoGeomatics through a regular monthly column on geography education.

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