Ronald Rees was born in Wales and for the past twenty-five years, he has lived in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. New Brunswick Was His Country: The Life of William Francis Ganong (2017, Nimbus Publishing) is his latest book.
The name of William Francis Ganong was unfamiliar to me until I read Nicholas Guitard’s book The Lost Wilderness (2015, Goose Lane Editions). In that book, the author set out to trace a few of Ganong’s wilderness trips in New Brunswick. It did include a short biography of the man, but it was more about his field trips to study and document the uncharted wilderness of New Brunswick that he undertook in his summer holidays, away from his teaching post at Smith College in Massachusetts. Mr Rees’ book is a comprehensive look at the life of a most interesting, and for the most part, an unsung man of his times on either side of the border.
Ganong was not one to be found in laboratories and dusty archives. Rather, he was a naturalist who loved nature, loved being immersed in it, and most of all loved his home province of New Brunswick. So much so that he set out to put it on the map by exploring and documenting its uncharted forests, lakes and mountains every summer for years. He was also extremely interested in place names and researched their etymology to get them set to rights, favouring local usage over official ones. For example, Cains River which is pronounced almost as one word over Cain River, one he had never heard spoken or seen in print on any historical map.
“Ganong was that rarity, a scholar of extraordinary range and depth who was also the people’s mentor,” Mr Rees writes in the introductory chapter. “As an empiricist, he was at ease only with what could be seen, touched and measured: shorelines, boundaries, maps, settlements, the objects and features of the tangible and visible world. He had no gift, as he readily acknowledged, for writing compelling, narrative history. The facts and analysis he could provide, but not the stirring or engaging narrative.” Perhaps this is why Ganong was not more widely read at the time. He was not a seeker of notoriety, even objecting when an associate wanted to nominate him for the Royal Society’s Gold Medal for History in 1929, believing that others were more deserving. Later, he reluctantly accepted the award in 1931.
An excellent companion book for the aforementioned The Lost Wilderness, New Brunswick Was His Country combines historical photographs, Ganong’s own maps and drawings, and contemporary images to produce an enjoyable and insightful book to read. Mr Ree’s writing is authoritative, but never dry or humourless. A resident of New Brunswick as well as an adjunct professor at Mount Allison University, Mr Rees well emulates Ganong in his love for the “Picture Province” of Canada.