“What came first, the poem or the egg?” I ask, eliciting a laugh from Harry Thurston. I’m sitting in his home in Tidnish Bridge, leafing through his latest book of poetry, entitled Ova Aves, which is Latin for bird eggs. Some of the poems in this new magazine-sized book are nominated for a National Magazine Award in poetry; the winners will be announced tomorrow in Toronto.
(I hope Harry’s poems win. His poetry is lovely, very accessible and understandable, not obscure or trying too hard. I’ve heard him read his poems out loud and they are meant to be shared.)
You might be surprised, then, to learn that Harry is also an award-winning journalist. His latest book, The Atlantic Coast, recently won an Atlantic Book Award for non-fiction. Inspired by where he lives, he is first and foremost a Maritime writer. His first non-fiction book was about the Bay of Fundy while another award-winning book, A Place Between the Tides: A Naturalist’s Reflections on the Salt Marsh, came out of the journal he kept about the salt marsh in front of his house.
“I’ve been writing since university,” Harry explains. “I started to write my first poems when I was 19 and started to publish in my early 20’s. At the same time, I also started to work as a freelance journalist, doing magazine work, and that eventually developed into books.”
His first book, a collection of poems, was published in 1980 when Harry was 30. Now in his fifties, he’s published a total of 23 books, seven of which are poetry while the rest are non-fiction. The common theme running through all of his books is a deep interest in the environment.
So Harry is a poet and a journalist but he trained as a biologist with the intention of going to medical school. What happened to that road not taken?
“It was partly the times,” Harry says. “The whole environmental movement was just getting started, this was the late sixties, so most young people were getting sensitized to the environmental challenges we faced. And as I started working as a magazine writer, I was writing for magazines whose focus was on the environment. That basic training in biology has been very helpful to me. Then I’ve followed my own personal interest. Giving up medicine was a difficult decision. I had been accepted at medical school but I decided my life’s journey was going to take a different direction.”
That direction took him from his childhood in Yarmouth County, growing up along a tidal river called the Chebogue, to Acadia University, then to Cumberland County (by way of Westville) 22 years ago. A couple of reasons brought him and his wife Cathy to this art-filled home along the Tidnish River.
“We loved the location, here on the river across from the salt marsh. I eventually wrote a book about the marsh. The other reason was the fact that we had good friends living across the way. Two couples with children the age of our daughter so it was the ideal situation.”
Although he has covered environmental issues for thirty years, Harry has one particular project that has occupied his non-writing time.
“I’ve been involved with a group of citizens called Cumberland Wilderness and we’ve been working for the last seven years to save the Chignecto Game Sanctuary.”
The group formed to respond to a decision by the previous provincial government to eliminate game sanctuaries but the group decided not to save the game sanctuary; instead, they are creating a larger wilderness area under the protected areas legislation of the province.
“There’s been controversy, there’s been resistance,” says Harry, “because it’s an area people have used recreationally. In fact, they’re going to be able to continue to use it recreationally because it’s not going to be cut down and turned into pulp. In the long-run, it’s going to be a real asset to the county. There are fewer and fewer places that provide that kind of solitude.”
Harry says an announcement is imminent about the new wilderness area, which covers more than 61,000 acres (25,000 hectares) including a 36 kilometre swath of the Fundy coastline currently not protected. Although a quiet, soft-spoken man who has travelled to Egypt for a story, Harry is most passionate about the environment in which he lives.
“As a writer, I do my work about those kinds of issues but this [wilderness area] has been an effort as a citizen What makes Cumberland County so exceptional are the large unpopulated areas. Plus we have two coastlines, the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Bay of Fundy. That’s pretty cool if you think about it.”
Living in the Maritimes, in rural Nova Scotia has not hindered Harry’s career at all.
“What I discovered as a freelance writer was that it was an advantage to be here,” he says. “National magazines needed someone in the region who had local connections, who had some insight and overview of what the region was about. You’d think being stuck at the end of the road wouldn’t be a good thing but it turned out for me that it was.”