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Author to ‘get real’ in exclusive Jasper reading

Briony Penn will be reading excerpts from The Real Thing: A Natural History of Ian McTaggart-Cowan, Sept. 27 at the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives at 7 p.m.

Briony Penn will be reading excerpts from The Real Thing: A Natural History of Ian McTaggart-Cowan, Sept. 27 at the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives at 7 p.m.

As a scholar and early activist of wildlife conservation, British Columbia’s Ian McTaggart-Cowan spent most of his life inspiring and informing generations of Western Canadians about the natural wonders around them.

During the early 1950s, McTaggart-Cowan became one of the first pioneers of science television, hosting various series including Fur and Feathers, The Living Sea and Web of Life. The scientist also reportedly started the broadcasting career of popular environmentalist David Suzuki, by hiring him for one of his shows.

When he wasn’t recording, McTaggart-Cowan was busy being a saddleback scientist, exploring Canada’s North, the Rocky Mountains and the West Coast. After his travels, he authored more than 250 publications about his ecological findings.

As a fellow Canadian environmentalist, British Columbia native, Briony Penn said she was inspired by McTaggart-Cowan’s work early in her career.

“I had been working as a writer and a journalist and I kept coming across all these beautiful British Columbians who were really enthusiastic about the natural world; who were really keen to share their knowledge and who worked hard to protect certain areas,” Penn said. “I would always ask these people what inspired them and many of them said Ian McTaggart-Cowan.

“It was kind of like all roads led to Rome.”

Growing increasingly curious about McTaggart-Cowan, Penn finally tracked him down at his British Columbia home in the early 2000s. She spent the next five years interviewing the scientist, on and off.

In the end, with the combination of hours worth of tape and many of McTaggart-Cowan’s personal field journals, Penn realized she had enough material to put together a book.

In November of last year, Penn released The Real Thing: A Natural History of Ian McTaggart-Cowan. Since then the book has snagged two B.C. Book Prizes and has left Penn travelling around Western Canada, promoting her work. Her next stop will be at the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives, Sept. 27, where she’ll be reading Jasper-specific excerpts from the book.  

“He was everywhere, but he put a lot of emphasis on Jasper because at that time it was really the park with the best reputation of both prey and predators,” said Penn, adding that she’ll also be talking about McTaggart-Cowan’s work with some of Jasper National Park’s first wildlife interpreters.

Penn will also share McTaggart-Cowan’s research on years worth of climate change and its effects throughout Canada’s Rocky Mountain parks.

“Even in the 50s, it was people like Ian McTaggart-Cowan that knew what was going on—they could see that species were changing and that patterns were changing,” Penn said. “It’s work like Cowan’s that is letting us know that there is some serious stuff going on and we have to start paying attention.”

Since the publication of Penn’s book, all of McTaggart-Cowan’s field journals have been made available online through the University of Victoria’s website.    

“The significance of that is that now anybody in the west that is interested in wildlife and wildlife populations now has access to this material that really tells the story of what wildlife populations were like starting as far back as 1929,” Penn said. “So people in the Jasper area can look and see a detailed account of what wildlife was really like in the park—you can see the number of bears, location of caribous and bird populations.

“You really get a look at how much the park has changed.”  

Penn will be reading excerpts from The Real Thing: A Natural History of Ian McTaggart-Cowan, Sept. 27 at the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives at 7 p.m. Admission is free.

Kayla Byrne
reporter@fitzhugh.ca

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