The Last Whistle: Hillcrest Lumber Company Ltd. 1917-2018 (Self-published 2018) $29.95 / 9780228500735
See ORMSBY REVIEW for a review of this title.
Wrote the business story of a sikh immigrant and former labourer building B.C.’s largest and most successful independent lumber company: Asa Johal and Terminal Forest Products: How a Sikh Immigrant Created BC’s Largest Independent Lumber Company (Harbour 2019) $28.95 978-1-55017-889-0
It’s not the first book ever written about treeplanting and silviculture in B.C., but Greg Nolan’s Highballer: True Tales from a Treeplanting Life (Harbour $26.95) is likely the most far-reaching. After his twenty-seven years as a top-ranked treeplanter – hitting the thousand-trees-a-day mark as a rookie in his first week—and as a foreman, project manager and finally as a contractor and co-owner of Rainforest Silviculture Services Ltd., Nolan recalls being nearly mauled by grizzlies in Bute Inlet and surviving hurricanes, landslides, hostile loggers and whirlwind romances. His mom drove him 750 kilometres to his first job in northern B.C. when he was nineteen, in 1983; the industry has changed a lot since. For years Nolan, who now lives in Victoria, would be haunted by his indirect role in a multiple-fatality vehicle accident, throwing him into a deep depression. It wasn’t all gruelling isolation and danger in a largely unregulated industry; there were also lots of hijinks in those secluded campsites. Nolan spills the beans. Highballer looks at the practices and people of the vital treeplanting industry through the eyes of a man who has planted 2.5 million trees. Eat your heart out, Johnny Appleseed.
Highballer: True Tales from a Treeplanting Life (Harbour 2019) $26.95 978-1-55017-868-5
Harley Rustad, originally from Salt Spring Island, is an editor at The Walrus magazine whose work has appeared in The Walrus, Outside, the Globe and Mail, Geographical, the Guardian, CNN, and elsewhere. He received a silver National Magazine Award for an article about a logger at Port Renfrew who saved one of the largest trees in Canada (Big Lonely Doug) and an honourable mention for a feature on digital mapping in the Belcher Islands, Nunavut (Where the Streets Have No Names). The article on the Port Renfrew logger led to Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees, which was named a best book of 2018 by the Globe and Mail. He is a faculty editor of the Banff Centre mountain and wilderness residencey and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Big Lonely Doug: The Story of One of Canada’s Last Great Trees
by Harley Rustad
Toronto: House of Anansi Press (Walrus Books), 2018
$22.95 / 9781487003111
Reviewed by Mark Forsythe
An immense, solitary Douglas fir stands inside a vast clear-cut. Sun-bleached slash stretches in all directions; the tree’s shadow reaches for a nearby second growth forest. Branded Big Lonely Doug by the Ancient Forest Alliance, photographs and posters of this giant crystallized a campaign to help preserve some of Vancouver Island’s remaining old growth forests. The Douglas fir, worth about $50,000 in lumber, was actually saved from the chainsaws by a Vancouver Island logger.
Dennis Cronin was a 40 year veteran of the woods. In 2011 he was surveying cutblock 7190 near Port Renfrew, marking trees to be cut, stream setbacks, and deciding where roads should be built to haul out trees. As he crunched through the underbrush, a mammoth Douglas fir stopped Cronin in his tracks. He estimated it stood 20 storeys high, and was probably 1,000 years old. Author Harley Rustad calls these trees “natural skyscrapers in a dark forests,” and recounts what Cronin did next in Big Lonely Doug:
He walked around its circumference, running his hand along the rough and corky bark. He looked up at a trunk so broad and straight it would hold some of the finest and most valued timber on the coast. Instead of moving on, Cronin reached into his vest pocket for a ribbon he rarely used, tore off a long strip, and wrapped it around the base of the Douglas fir’s trunk. The tape wasn’t pink or orange or red but green, and along its lengths were the words LEAVE TREE.
Why would someone who is paid to harvest trees decide to spare this one? Rustad’s Big Lonely Doug makes us wait for the answer. What began as a 3,000 word story for The Walrus was later crafted into a book that delves into forest ecology, industrial history, government policies, forest practices, environmentalism, pursuit of Indigenous rights, and the ongoing struggle to create sustainable forests and communities.
We’re reminded that the Pacific Temperate Rainforest is the largest biomass on the planet, home to large carnivores like wolf, bear, cougar, deer and elk. Its trees are draped with lichen and moss, utilized by endangered species including marbled murrelets and goshawks. Massive fallen trees become a nursery to new forests. The old growth trees are also huge carbon sinks, absorbing more carbon dioxide than younger trees. Rustad’s Forestry 101 is often evocative: “The western coastline of Vancouver Island ripples like the scalloped blade of a serrated knife.” Massive trees like Western red cedar, Sitka spruce and Douglas fir grow for centuries on Vancouver Island because of its ideal combination of sun, ocean mist, and storms. “While the fog is the texture of this coastline, it is the rain that is the driving force of life.”
It’s no secret that old growth forests have been heavily logged over the last century and a half. Depending on who you believe, there are one — possibly two — decades of logging left in the remaining pockets of old growth. “Today, 99 percent of the original Douglas firs on Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s south coast have been logged.” Its commercial value was seen from earliest contact when James Cook sailed into Nootka Sound and made repairs to a broken mast; timber exports from the Island began as early as 1788. By the mid-1800s, a single 21-metre log could return £100 (about $12,000). Even streets were paved with Douglas firs, from Victoria to San Francisco. A classic gold rush mentality set in as the supply appeared endless, much the way people once regarded salmon. In 1884, the province handed over 750,000 hectares to the E&N Railway to develop the railway. Robert Dunsmuir’s E&N sold its properties to timber investors and coastal logging companies, and by the 1920s, British Columbia was producing half of Canada’s timber.
Forest conservation may seem like a recent impulse, but in 1912 people were already worried about over-harvesting, including Winnipeg native William Roderick Ross, Minister of Lands. He told the legislature that an epoch of “reckless devastation” was drawing to a close. While introducing a new Forest Act, he claimed its priority was “forest conservation” in order to deliver to future generations “their vast heritage of forest wealth, unexhausted and unimpaired.” The act also demanded that timber be cut in local sawmills to help communities prosper — as did Island centres like Lake Cowichan and Port Alberni. This “appurtenancy” clause would eventually be axed by the provincial government, clearing the way for the closure of more community sawmills — and for more log exports. This province’s struggle to add value to its primary resources continues.
The forest industry also became more efficient, moving from hand axes to crosscut saws and from chainsaws to feller-bunchers. City-sized clearcuts (some viewed from space) reflected the new reality in the 1970s and 80s, an industrial onslaught that paralleled the rise of environmentalism. People pushed back on forestry practices and demanded preservation of the remaining old growth forests. To industry, old growth was “decadent” and needed harvesting to prepare for second growth.
To the environmentalists, these rare ecosystems had multiple values: preservation for their own sake and recreational opportunities, while others attached a spiritual significance to them. Indigenous people had utilized and managed these old growth trees for millennia — many ancient cedar trees still carry the marks of being harvested for clothing, baskets, bentwood boxes, and canoes. Campaigns to preserve forests often aligned with the pursuit of Indigenous rights on traditional territories, but as seen with the Pacheedaht on Vancouver Island, old growth forests also provide jobs for their people at their own sawmill.
Big Lonely Doug chronicles various campaigns — from South Moresby to Vancouver Island’s Carmanah, Walbran, and Clayoquot. Figures like Paul George from the Western Canada Wilderness Committee make appearances. (He equated old growth forests to being inside “living cathedrals”.)
Ken Wu, a former campaigner with WCWC, left the organization to form the Ancient Forest Alliance, hoping to connect with broader groups of people that included business owners, people of faith, and those from multicultural backgrounds. Rustad also details some of the sophisticated media campaigns and strategies — logging blockades, tree sitting, court challenges, dangerous tree spiking, and counter campaigns like “Forests Forever” from the Council of Forest Industries.
I was drawn to Big Lonely Doug by logger Dennis Cronin’s decision to spare Canada’s second largest Douglas fir. After seeing the tree inside the clear-cut, the Ancient Forest Alliance saw an opportunity and labelled the tree “Big Lonely Doug” as part of a campaign to save nearby Avatar Grove (also their branded name). However, it was Cronin who chose to let the tree stand. We finally get a sense of why near the end of the book: “It’s like a legacy, ya know?” Cronin said, four years after he saved the tree. “You’re saving something special. Even though I’m a logger and I’ve taken out millions of trees, you won’t see anything like these trees again” (p. 242).
This woodsman possibly did more to raise the profile of ancient trees than any other individual or organization might have. His lone Douglas fir revealed just how fragile old growth stands had become, and how attitudes had shifted within the industry itself. Sadly, Cronin died in 2016.
Today the Sierra Club asserts that the forests of Vancouver Island are “in a state of ecological emergency.” The organization has released maps of remaining pockets of old growth forest, which are now “as rare as white rhinos.” The former logging community of Port Renfrew now promotes itself as the “Tall Tree Capital” and sees its future tied to a large degree with eco-tourism.
This spectacular tree might yet triumph and live to inspire more tall tales. Harley Rustad thinks that the adjacent clear-cuts and remaining old and second growth forests where Big Lonely Doug stands should be turned into a park for all to see, “past, present and future.” Dennis Cronin just might approve.
Dave Butler of Cranbrook is a pathfinder in the new field of eco-fiction. Born in Penticton, he is a retired professional forester, professional biologist and photographer who has also had experience as an auxiliary RCMP officer. His mystery series features Jenny Willson, a hard-edged, caustic-witted national park warden and conservationist who is trying to succeed in a largely male-dominated. politically-charged environment.
Dave Butler’s first novel, Full Curl, a Jenny Willson Mystery (Dundurn 2017), was short-listed for the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writers award (mystery) and won the Arthur Ellis award for Best First Crime Novel in Canada in 2018. In Full Curl, Park Warden Jenny Willson discovers trophy animals missing from Canada’s national parks and initiates an investigation that leads her on a trail of deceit, distraction and murder. With the list of murder victims (both animals and human) growing, Willson’s pursues the villains across the Canada – U.S.
Dave Butler’s second novel featuring Jenny Willson, No Place for Wolverines (Dundurn 2018) is largely set in Golden, BC and Yoho National Park. A ski area is proposed for a remote valley, but all is not as it seems… The novel includes links to Red Deer, Howse Pass, pipelines, and shadowy political machinations.
Launched at Huckleberry Books in his hometown, In Rhino We Trust (Dundurn $14.95), in which Jenny Willson is seconded to work with a American colleague in Namibia, arose from the author’s visit to that country. His park warden-turned-detective becomes involved in a case of rhino poaching, leading to connections to international crime syndicates which could lead to deadly consequences for would-be sleuths as well as wildlife.
Butler is the Director of Sustainability for Canadian Mountain Holidays, a Fellow of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. His
In Rhino We Trust: A Jenny Willson Mystery (Dundurn 2019) $14.99 978-1-45974-087-7
No Place for Wolverines: A Jenny Willson Mystery (Dundurn 2018) $14.99 978-1-45973-983-3
Full Curl: A Jenny Willson Mystery (Dundurn Press 2017) 9781459739031 $14.99 Cdn
Born on January 5 1986 in Terrace, Aaron Williams grew up in Prince Rupert and attended Memorial University of Newfoundland (2008-2012, English and Poli-Sci) and University of King’s College Halifax (2015-2017 MFA in non-fiction writing). He worked as a forest firefighter based out of Smithers from 2006-2014, which is the subject of his first book.
The threat of terrorism is over-rated. ‘First responders’ were everywhere in 2017 dealing with hurricanes, earthquakes and forest fires. Aaron Williams’ Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir (Harbour $22.95) describes the camaraderie and tactics required to survive 16-hour, high-adrenaline days in apocalyptic fiery landscapes. This book topped the BC Bestseller list for several weeks in 2017.
Born in Terrace and raised in Prince Rupert, Williams spent eight years fighting forest fires in B.C., Alberta, Quebec and Idaho while based out of Smithers.
Reviewed by Dan Gallacher
This is a wonderful book, both for its timely subject matter and the young author’s remarkable narrative ability. It is rare to find a writer as articulate — or as heroic — as Aaron Williams, and the quality of writing in Chasing Smoke left me in no doubt of our good fortune.
Williams served as a fire ranger, mainly in British Columbia, during the summers between 2006 and 2014. Here he records his and his teammates’ front line experiences in the last of those years throughout the Chilcotin, an area notorious for devastating forest fires resulting from its placement on the central interior plateau where rainfall and snow are much less frequent than on the windward west side of the Coast Mountains.
Moreover, being in the lee, with rapid runoff into its many lakes, rivers, streams, and creeks, the Chilcotin retains little moisture on and below the ground surface, making it a vast semi-arid region. Consequently, this inherent atmospheric and terrestrial dryness sets the stage annually for widespread fire hazards.
In recent years the advent of the mountain pine beetle scourge throughout most of southern British Columbia’s forests has added an element of catastrophic fire risk. This ubiquitous pest began its most recent rampage in the early 1990s, peaking within a decade and leaving fifty percent of the province’s lodgepole pine stands destroyed. This, in turn, provided a dry and seasoned fuel susceptible to any sparks, both human and especially those caused by lightning.
If one adds the normal forest floor fuel load that builds as needles or leaves dry and fall, and grasses and bushes that die and collect, the stage is set for a perfect storm: dead burning trees that set alight both ground and canopy and send flames galloping and thrusting up hills and along ridges. Add increasing winds generated by fast-rising air and no available rain or high humidity to combat the fire’s rush, and nature will take its course. Humans can do little to stop such conflagrations. It is on the edges of these infernos that we find Aaron Williams and his fellow rangers in mid-summer 2014.
As a technician’s memoir, Chasing Smoke begins logically by describing the annual ranger training session, in this case for the author and thirteen others – “eleven guys and three girls”; – one squad of many in a highly structured apparatus of expertise and governmental bureaucratic forest protection that has existed by and large for more than a century. In 1900 the Canadian Forestry Association was formed to save lands from fires, infestation, plant disease, bad logging practice, and other disrupters to industry. The aim was not today’s definition of conservation, but forestry professionals’ goal of maximizing the resource for harvest and market.
It matters not to Williams or his gang on the fire line what the purpose for saving today’s wooded territories might be. It is their job simply to help preserve as much as possible. This credo drives their lengthy and physically demanding pace and motivates their small team on each fire line assigned to it as they attack the blaze while protecting each other and their equipment.
Williams’ account of a day’s labour cutting, slashing, hosing, digging, tamping, hauling, trekking, not to mention riding on level ground or up and down steep slopes for weeks at a time, provides an absorbing account of a fire ranger’s ways. The job often entails blinding smoke, rising intense heat, filthy sweat encrusted clothing, cut hands, blistered feet, and always a huge and unrelenting appetite for food and liquids.
At times, Williams comments on the presence of heavy equipment: bulldozers, all-terrain vehicles, water pumps, and trucks on hastily cut roadways, marshalling areas, and campsites. More dramatic are fast-appearing helicopters used for spotting fires, water-bucketing blazes, and transporting crews and equipment.
Then there are the air bombers that plunge flame retardant and roar down to spread tons of their orange chemical load directly onto an inferno. Those propeller-driven four-engine Lockheed Electras emerging like banshees from smoke-filled skies truly startle the rangers standing beside drop sites. They and the racket from adjacent ground machinery and other airborne equipment all contribute to the crews’ commitment to a massive province-wide undertaking each summer to curtail if not fully control the hundreds of wildfires alight on our frontiers.
Their dedication and courage reminds me of many years ago when our university aviation club had members who flew helicopters each fire season. One fellow, an ex-naval pilot, did likewise in a converted Second World War Avenger torpedo bomber with refitted internal water tanks to douse forest fire outbreaks. I flew as an RCAF navigator during the 1950s and 1960s before embarking upon my career as a museum history curator. My own crew’s maritime patrol duties in the early sixties rarely switched from sea to land, but we did so when investigating and reporting forest fires along coastal mountains.
Other workmates I knew in the eighties and nineties had earned their way through college by working as rangers in fire season, including one brilliant museum, historic sites, and parks exhibits designer who always doggedly bore down to ensure that no loose ends remained. This was as much a legacy of his ranger experience as his art school training.
Living now in the southern interior, I witness every year the effects of huge forest fires: in 2003, for instance, we and 30,000 others were evacuated into Kelowna for two weeks from the benches and hills surrounding Lake Okanagan while aircraft of many types, along with men, women, and machines on the hillsides, attacked — often to no avail — the tree-candling, ridge-running blazes destroying timber stands, homes, trestles, and anything else ahead of them.
Helicopters overflew our golf community house by the minute to dip for water in a large ice age remnant pond bordering a fairway, then onto the fire, then back again, a true shuttle routine of all size choppers!
This year there were at least three large outbreaks near Kelowna, but nothing to match the epic tales of fire in central British Columbia, the worst season on record, and a large reason why Chasing Smoke is stuck near the top of B.C. Bestseller List. The demand for manpower prompted Williams himself to return for final session in 2017.
Truthfully, all who live in B.C.’s Interior are bound to have such tales of their own, making Chasing Smoke a great read, a timely memoir, and a swell gift for anyone in Canada.
Aaron Williams’ words and recollections, while presented so very well, become more dramatic, impressive, and poignant given both his first-hand frontline experience as a fire ranger and his training in creative non-fiction (MFA). And he adds greatly to his account by including a score of his own excellent colour field photographs depicting the team in action.
Williams has packed into an average size book an exceptional account of the impact of forest fires upon the frontline men and women who fight them each year in British Columbia.
Dan Gallacher, Curator Emeritus at the Canadian Museum of Civilisation, is among Canada’s foremost museum historians and curators. *
The Ormsby Review. More Readers. More Reviews. More Often.
Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir (Harbour Publishing, 2017) $22.95 978-1-55017-805-0
SEE ARTICLE BENEATH THIS SUMMARY FOR LITERARY MAP OF BC ENTRY
Fabienne Calvert Filteau, born in Ontario in 1984, grew up in Ontario and graduated from the University of Victoria in 2011, having also lived in China, Ghana and Seattle. For a decade she worked as a tree planter throughout B.C. Currently she lives on Gitxsan territory in Hazelton, B.C. Her first poetry collection, Second Growth (Creekstone 2014) has inspired praise from poets such as Bernice Lever and Gillian Wigmore.
Bernice Lever describes the poems in Second Growth as both challenging and eloquent, citing, in particular, “Becoming Lovers”;, “Tonguing”;, “Grizzly on the Logging Road”; and “Saskatoons”;. Filteau’s “Becoming Lovers”; describes a mystical being circling her beach tent seven times. Her “Saskatoon”; reaches readers with ironic humour. The long poem “Tonguing”; refers to the very spacing of one’s tongue (words and speech) and searches of both inner and outer body, then the universe and back to earth. Using some lines from Earle Birney’s “Bear on the Delhi Road”; she leads readers to ‘where wild is one last freckle on the continent’s white washed brow.’
Referring to Filteau’s various poems that are derived from her annual BC interior tree planting jobs, Lever delights in her language in “Beetle Kill”; – ‘the red forest, a dead sea.’ “I also felt tears,” says Lever, “when I drove the ‘connector’ from Merritt to Kelowna, B.C., reaching that mile-high view of endless hectares of beetle-killed trees.”
Fabienne Calvert Filteau wrote as a child and had a short story story included in a “Get Writing”; anthology for youth at age 13, edited by Jeffrey Canton and Sheree Fitch. Two years later, she won the League of Canadian Poets’ Youth competition at age 15. She won a Paragon Poetry Contest in 2009.
Second Growth (Creekstone 2014) 9781928195009 $18
UtsÃ¡m’ Witness was a series of camping weekends held in Nexw-Ã¡yantsut–meaning “place of transformation” in the Squamish language–that mixed Coast Salish peoples with “settlers” on disputed territory. This exercise in cross-cultural activism, supporting the preservation of 50,000 hectares of forest, has been documented and celebrated in Picturing Transformation: Nexw-Ã¡yantsut (Figure 1 2013), a self-published coffee table book jointly credited to Chief Bill Williams, Nancy Bleck and Katherine Dodds. According to publicity materials, “It’s both a visual testament to the power of collaboration and a lesson in the possibilities for resolving conflict peacefully, now and in the future.”
Picturing Transformation: Nexw-Ã¡yantsut (Figure 1 2013) by Nancy Bleck, Katherine Dodds and Chief Bill Williams $39.95 978-0-9918588-0-4
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
Picturing Transformation: Nexw Ayantsut
In the aftermath of the landmark Nisga’a Treaty of 1998, more land use agreements have been signed within the ongoing BC Treaty process, resulting in increased Aboriginal participation in resource management in both B.C. and Canada, particularly concerning forests. The rise of forest companies managed by aboriginal communities is one of the phenomenae examined in Aboriginal Peoples and Forest Lands in Canada (UBC Press 2013), co-edited by D.B. Tindall, an associate UBC professor in both the Department of Forest Resources Management and the Department of Sociology.
Review of the author’s work by BC studies:
Aboriginal Peoples and Forest Lands in Canada
Aboriginal Peoples and Forest Lands in Canada (UBC Press, 2012) co-edited with Ronald L. Trosper and Pamela Perreault. $95 978-0-7748-2334-0
[BCBW, 2013] “Resource Policy & Politics”
Maleea Acker lives in Saanich, BC, where she caused consternation to some of her neighbours by transforming her yard into a small Garry Oak meadow. According to her publisher:
“Accustomed to the dark, dripping stands of Douglas-fir, spruce and hemlock that blanketed the Hudson’s Bay Company outposts on the remote western coast of the “new World”, the first Europeans were surely startled to see the wide-open landscapes of the Garry oak meadows they encountered on Southern Vancouver Island — landscapes that might have reminded any explorers who had ventured into the African savannahs of what they had seen there.
“Though slow in comprehending what they had stumbled upon, the Europeans immediately recognized the deep, rich deposits of black soil that extended many feet below the surface, and James Douglas chose the site as the ideal location for the HBC’s new fort, and settlement.
“What the newcomers failed to appreciate is that these meadows were not the work of nature alone, but of the Coast Salish peoples who had been living in these parts for millennia. With the establishment of the fort of Victoria began an encroachment on these Garry oak meadows, built up over centuries if not millennia, a process that continues today.
“In Gardens Aflame, Victoria writer and environmentalist Maleea Acker tells us about this unique and vanishing ecosystem, and the people who have made it their life’s work to save the Garry oak and the environment — including the human environment — it depends on.
“Acker tells us about the Garry oak species and its unique habits and requirements, including its unusual summer dormancy period, when all the surrounding plants are coursing with life. We learn something about the scientists, arborists, and Garry oak-loving volunteers who have dedicated themselves to this tree; and about Theophrastus, Humboldt, and their other forebears who are still reshaping our notions of nature and humans’ place in it.
“And in the course of Acker’s story, we see her fall under the spell of the strange beauty woven by these magnificent trees, and the ecosystems they tower over — until, in the final act, she decides to turn her own backyard into her own version of a Garry oak savannah, defying City Hall and the neighbours, and bringing to a head in 2011 all the issues raised 150 years ago when Europeans first saw the open meadows of Southern Vancouver Island.”
Acker has worked in a variety of cultural, political and environmental areas, writing and designing for social and arts organizations and teaching poetry at Camosun College. Her non-fiction and poetry has appeared in various journals and magazines in Canada and Mexico. She holds an MFA in Poetry from the University of Victoria.
Acker is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has received awards and fellowships for her writing from granting agencies and arts residencies in Canada, the USA, Mexico and Spain. Garden Aflame is Maleea Acker’s first non-fiction book.
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast
The Reflecting Pool (Pedlar Press, 2009) — poetry
Gardens Aflame: Garry Oak Meadows of BC’s South Coast (New Star 2012 / Transmontanus) $19 9781554200658