Writer-in-residence Harry Thurston puts nature on the page
Award-winning writer takes residency at Dal
Katherine Wooler - September 20, 2012
“I wrote a whole book on my backyard,” says Harry Thurston as he sits in his Amherst home for a phone interview, taking in his backyard view of the tidal river and marsh on the Northumberland Strait.
An acclaimed author of both non-fiction and poetry, Thurston is bringing his love of nature to Dalhousie, beginning his semester-long position as writer in residence this week.
Considering that he began his scholarly life as a science student with no intention of writing creatively, Thurston has come a long way in the literary world.
A finalist for this year’s Lane Anderson award, his latest book, The Atlantic Coast: A Natural History, also won the Dartmouth Book Award for Non-Fiction in May and has been nominated for the Richardson Prize (which he's no stranger to — he's won it three times.) Thurston has authored more than a dozen books and seen his poetry and articles appear in numerous publications.
Co-published by the David Suzuki Foundation and released in October 2011, The Atlantic Coast is part of a series being developed by Vancouver publishing company Greystone.
“The book is looking at ecology and wildlife; looking at what we’ve done to the Atlantic since Europeans arrived and what we might do to restore it,” says Thurston.
He explains that he used the resources at Dalhousie to a great extent while writing The Atlantic Coast, and much of the material for the chapter on conservation came from the work of Dal researchers.
“There is a lot of cutting-edge work being done at Dalhousie,” he says.
Bridging the divide
Thurston’s nature-writing background has encouraged a first for Dalhousie’s writer-in-residence program: his residency is co-hosted by the College of Sustainability.
“There is a unique opportunity at Dalhousie to engage with students who are involved in looking at sustainable practices and environmental issues,” says Thurston, who is excited to explore the variety of writing at Dalhousie.
“I switch back and forth constantly between engaging in the arts and exploring the sciences,” he says. “I think the divide between the arts and sciences is an artificial one.”
Thurston earned a BSc in biology from Acadia and it was during his time at university that he began to write poetry. He then became a freelance journalist and magazine writer, specializing in environmental writing.
“The stories in science are so fascinating. They’re very human stories,” he says.
He continued with environmental writing, hoping to raise public awareness.
“They were issues I was interested in as a writer and as a citizen.”
Thurston has previously completed residencies with Acadia, Mount Allison and Saint Mary’s Universities, as well as community residencies at the Pictou-Antigonish Regional Library and at Campbell River, Vancouver Island.
He's also well travelled due to his time spent as a journalist. Adding to his nature-writing repertoire in 2003, Thurston visited the Dakhleh Oasis in Egypt and produced both a work of non-fiction and a collection of poems.
However, the Yarmouth-born writer hasn’t lost his sense of awe for the Nova Scotia landscape.
“There is incredible natural variety in a very small space,” he says. “I’m very attracted as a writer to this place. It’s my natural habitat.”
The Dal residency, which is funded by Dalhousie and the Canada Council, requires Thurston to spend 40 per cent of his time engaging with the writing community and 60 per cent of his time working on his own writing projects.
His current and upcoming projects include a new collection of poems, another non-fiction work and his first piece of fiction.
Besides making himself available every Tuesday and Wednesday this fall semester, Thurston will also be attending some creative writing classes as a guest speaker, offering public poetry readings and presenting a lecture at the College of Sustainability.
“I am looking forward to meeting with other writers,” he says. “I hope I’m able to provide some inspiration and some guidance.”