Culture | Acadian alliteration

Harry Thurston’s Animals of My Own Kind is a poetic journey into the Nova Scotian countryside

With the onset of spring, the average person embarks on a rediscovery of nature, as temperatures rise and the snow disappears. It’s also a good season for discovering the poetry of Nova Scotian Harry Thurston. Thurston has for a long time been considered one of Canada’s best nature poets. Animals of My Own Kind, a 2009 collection of Thurston’s poetry, gathers almost 30 years of his work, with poems dating from 1980 through to brand new material.

In its structure and tone, Thurston’s nature poetry differs greatly from British and American Romantic traditions, embodying distinctly modern and Canadian ideals. Thurston’s affinity for his native landscape is characterized by loving renditions of the green fields, hills, rocks, and seascapes of rural Acadia. Thurston’s portrayal of nature is not so much idyllic as it is raw and moving – qualities that are also found in his poetics.

Thurston’s biology degree from the University of Acadia gives him the unbiased perspective of someone who not only understands the human world around him, but also its scientific realities. This unique perspective informs the peculiarities of Thurston’s poetry, which communicates in vivid, unsentimental language the landscape, people, and animals that inhabit his home.

“The Marsh Suite”, a collection of eight short poems in Animals, each exploring a distinctive feature of the Acadian landscape – from its tidal pools to a wood duck – is particularly representative of his relationship to nature. Thurston’s poetry about the present wonders of his home carries with it a certain longing for a mythicized regional past. “A Ship Portrait,” another highlight of the collection, is a novella-in-verse of an imagined conversation between the long-deceased Maritime painter John O’Brien and a contemporary Maritimer. This exploration captures the poet’s fascination with his regional culture and its icons, building a bridge between the past and the present.

In “Atlantic Elegy,” Thurston muses that “perhaps only a poet could love the Atlantic’s sombre palette.” As an Albertan who has only ever seen the Atlantic out of the window of a plane, I can neither agree nor disagree. But I do remember, before coming to Montreal, what it was like to live closer to nature. Thurston has a way of capturing his environment with a matter-of-fact sensibility that speaks out of understanding on an intellectual level, as well as immense pathos for the natural world. In a landscape that is often hostile and unforgiving, Thurston seems to find life and beauty where others might have only found emptiness. There are no divisions between man and nature in Thurston’s poetry, only a symbiotic and occasionally tragic unity.

For an urban reader, Animals of My Own Kind is a window into some of Canada’s finest natural wonders. In a city where the largest swathe of green surrounds a hill onto which humankind has proudly planted its cross, it’s easy to forget the subtle cruelty or overpowering peace of a distant nature. Through his whirlwind tour of Nova Scotia’s cultural and natural landscape, Thurston lets the reader rediscover (or discover) the region, as well as nature in general, reminding us that perhaps the most precious thing about nature is that it is not and cannot be ours.