A Borealis Magazine Wilderness & Wildlife Classic
If there is a lesson that I have drawn from my travels it is that diversity is far more than the foundation of stability, it is an article of faith, a fundamental truth that indicates the way things are supposed to be.
If diversity is a source of wonder, its opposite, the ubiquitous condensation to monoculture that I have witnessed in all parts of the world, is a source of dismay.
Travel offers a unique perspective, for if done carefully it allows one to stretch history across space. With a little effort, one can place oneself at almost any moment in this historical progression.
In the course of an afternoon I have travelled from an indigenous society first contacted peacefully a decade ago, to a neighbouring tribe, a broken people whose ranks have been ravaged by disease and exploitation for centuries. In eastern Ecuador I lived in a Cofan village that was destroyed in a single season by the discovery of oil. The shaman I once worked with died of polio and when I returned a year later his son had a job with Texaco. I've seen Waorani children playing in a schoolhouse with piles of DDT dispensed by government health officials, Tukanoan men reduced to coca-growing serfs, Chimane women in absurd missionary dress servicing the military posts in eastern Bolivia, Bora hunting lands stripped of vegetation and infested with cattle, and nomadic Penan dwelling in shacks of wood, ripped from the trees of their forests, the bodies of their ancestors.
The French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once wrote, 'We in the first world send out our youth and they return, their currency being the miles they have travelled and the side shows they can put on, (they) maintain the illusion of a wild planet that no longer exists but that must be presumed to exist to avoid the indictment of twenty thousand years of human history.'
In truth, there are no lands untouched, and certainly no places or peoples still wet with the innocence of birth.
Some time ago at a symposium in Barbados, I was fortunate to share the podium with two extraordinary scientists. The first to speak was Richard Leaky, the renowned anthropologist who with his mother and father drew from the dust and ashes of Africa the story of the birth of our species. The meeting concluded with astronaut Story Musgrave, the first physician to walk in space. It was an odd and moving juxtaposition of the endpoints of the human experience. Dr. Musgrave recognized the irony and it saddened him. He told of what it had been like to know the beauty of the earth as seen from the heavens. There he was, suspended 200 miles above the earth, travelling 18,000 miles per hour with the golden visor of his helmet illuminated by a single sight, a small and fragile blue planet enveloped in a veil of clouds, floating, as he recalled, 'in the velvet void of space.' To have experienced that vision, he said, a sight made possible only by the brilliance of human technology, and to remember the blindness with which we as a species abuse our only home, was to know the purest sensation of horror.
Many believe that this image of the Earth, first brought home to us but a generation ago, will have a more profound impact on human thought than did the Copernican revolution of the 16th century, which transformed the philosophical foundations of the western world by revealing that the planet was not the center of the universe. From space, we see not a limitless frontier nor the stunning products of man, but a single interactive sphere of life, a living organism composed of air, water, and earth. It is this transcendent vision which, more than any amount of scientific data, teaches us the Earth is a finite place that can endure our foolish ways for only so long.
In light of this new perspective, this new hope, the past and present deeds of human beings often appear inconceivably cruel and sordid.
Shortly after leaving Barbados, while lecturing in the midwest of the United States, I visited two places that in a different, more sensitive world would surely be enshrined as memorials to the victims of the ecological catastrophes that occurred there. The first locality was the site of the last great nesting flock of passenger pigeons, a small stretch of woodland on the banks of the Green River near Mammoth Cave, Ohio. This story of extinction is well known. Yet until I stood in that cold, dark forest, I had never sensed the full weight of the disaster, the scale and horror of it. At one time passenger pigeons accounted for 40% of the entire bird population of North America. In 1870, at a time when their numbers were already greatly diminished, a single flock a mile wide and 320 miles long containing an estimated 2 billion birds passed over Cincinnati on the Ohio River. Imagine such a sight. Assuming that each bird ate half a pint of seeds a day, a flock that size must have consumed each day over 17 million bushels of grain. Such sightings were not unusual. In 1813, James Audubon was travelling in a wagon from his home on the Ohio River to Louisville, some sixty miles away, when a flock of passenger pigeons filled the sky so that the 'light of noonday sun was obscured as by an eclipse.' He reached Louisville at sunset and the birds still came. He estimated that the flock contained over 1 billion birds, and it was but one of several columns of pigeons that blackened the sky that day. Audubon visited roosting and nesting sites to find trees two feet in diameter broken off at the ground by the weight of birds. He found dung so deep on the forest floor that he mistook it for snow. He once stood in the midst of a flock when the birds took flight and then landed. He compared the noise and confusion to that of a gale, the sound of their landing to thunder.
It is difficult now to imagine the ravages of man that over the course of half a century destroyed this creature. Throughout the 19th century, pigeon meat was a mainstay of the American diet and merchants in the eastern cities sold as many as 18,000 birds a day. Pigeon hunting was a full time job for thousands of men. The term 'stool pigeon' derives from a standard killing technique of the era. A hunter would sew shut the eyes of a living bird, bind its feet to a pole driven into the ground, and wait in the surrounding grass for the flocks to respond to its cry. When the birds came, they arrived in such numbers that the hunter could simply bat them out of the air with a club. The more affluent classes slaughtered birds for recreation. It was not unusual for shooting clubs to go through 50,000 birds in a weekend competition; hundreds of thousands of live birds were catapulted to their death before the diminishing supply forced skeet shooters to turn to clay pigeons.
By 1896, a mere 50 years after the first serious impact of man, there were only some 250,000 birds left. In April of that year, the birds came together for one last nesting flock in the forest outside of Bowling Green, Ohio. The telegraph wires hummed with the news and the hunters converged. In a final orgy of slaughter over 200,000 pigeons were killed, 40,000 mutilated, 100,000 chicks destroyed. A mere 5,000 birds survived. The entire kill was to be shipped east but there was a derailment on the line and the dead birds rotted in their crates. On March 24, 1900 the last passenger pigeon in the wild was shot by a young boy. On September 1, 1914, as the Battle of the Marne consumed the flower of European youth, the last passenger pigeon died in captivity.
When I left the scene of this final and impossible slaughter, I travelled west to Sioux City, Iowa to speak at Buena Vista College. There I was fortunate to visit a remnant patch of tall grass prairie, a 180-acre preserve that represents one of the largest remaining vestiges of an ecosystem that once carpeted North America from southern Canada to Texas. Again it was winter, and the cold wind blew through the coneflowers and the dozens of species of grass. The young biology student who was with me was familiar with every species in that extraordinary mosaic -- they were like old friends to him. Yet as we walked through that tired field my thoughts drifted from the plants to the horizon. I tried to imagine buffalo moving through the grass, the physics of waves as millions of animals crossed that prairie.
As late as 1871 buffalo outnumbered people in North America. In that year one could stand on a bluff in the Dakotas and see nothing but buffalo in every direction for thirty miles. Herds were so large that it took days for them to pass a single point. Wyatt Earp described one herd of a million animals stretched across a grazing area the size of Rhode Island. Within nine years of that sighting, buffalo had vanished from the Plains.
The destruction of the buffalo resulted from a campaign of biological terrorism unparalleled in the history of the Americas. U.S. government policy was explicit. As General Philip Sheridan wrote at the time, 'The buffalo hunters have done in the past two years more to settle the vexed Indian Question than the regular army has accomplished in the last 30 years. They are destroying the Indians' commissary. Send them powder and lead, and let them kill until they have exterminated the buffalo.' Between 1850 and 1880 more than 75 million hides were sold to American dealers. No one knows how many more animals were slaughtered and left on the prairie. A decade after native resistance had collapsed, Sheridan advised Congress to mint a commemorative medal, with a dead buffalo on one side, a dead Indian on the other.
I thought of this history as I stood in that tall grass prairie near Sioux City. What disturbed me the most was to realize how effortlessly we have removed ourselves from this ecological tragedy. Today the people of Iowa, good and decent folk, live contentedly in a landscape of cornfields that is claustrophobic in its monotony. For them the time of the tall grass prairie, like the time of the buffalo, is as distant from their immediate lives as the fall of Rome or the battle of Troy. Yet the destruction occurred but a century ago, well within the lifetime of their grandfathers.
This capacity to forget, this fluidity of memory, is a frightening human trait. Several years ago I spent many months in Haiti, a country that as recently as the 1920s was 80% forested. Today less than 5% of the forest cover remains. I remember standing with a Voodoo priest on a barren ridge, peering across a wasteland, a desolate valley of scrub and half-hearted trees. He waxed eloquent as if words alone might have squeezed beauty from that wretched sight. He could only think of angels, I of locusts.
It was amazing. Though witness to an ecological holocaust that within this century had devastated his entire country, this man had managed to endure without losing his human dignity. Faced with nothing, he adorned his life with his imagination. This was inspiring but also terrifying. People appear to be able to tolerate and adapt to almost any degree of environmental degradation. As the farmers of Iowa today live without wild things, the people of Haiti scratch a living from soil that will never again know the comfort of shade.
From a distance, both in time and space, we can perceive these terrible and poignant events as what they were -- unmitigated ecological disasters that robbed the future of something unimaginably precious in order to satisfy the immediate and often mundane needs of the present. The luxury of hindsight, however, does nothing to cure the blindness with which today we overlook deeds of equal magnitude and folly.
As a younger man in Canada I spent a long winter in a logging camp on the west coast of Haida Gwaii, or the Queen Charlotte Islands as they were then commonly known. It was a good life and it put me through school. I was a surveyor, which meant that I spent all of my time far ahead of the loggers in the dense uncut forest, laying out the roads and the falling boundaries, determining the pattern in which the trees would come down. At the time I had already spent more than a year in the Amazon and I can tell you that those distant forests, however immense and mysterious, are dwarfed by the scale and wonder of the ancient temperate rainforests of British Columbia. In the valleys and around the lakes, and along the shore of the inlet where the soil was rich and deep, we walked through red cedar and sitka spruce, some as tall as a 25 story building, many with over 70 million needles capturing the light of the sun. Miracles of biological engineering, their trunks stored thousands of gallons of water and could be twenty feet or more across at the base. Many of them had been standing in the forest for more than a thousand years, the anchors of an extraordinarily complex ecosystem of mountains and rain, salmon and eagles, of squirrels that fly, fungi that crawl, and creatures that live on dew and never touch the forest floor. It is a world that is far older, far richer in its capacity to produce the raw material of life, and far more endangered than almost any region of the Amazon.
To walk through these forests in the depths of winter, when the rain turns to mist and settles softly on the moss, is to step back in time. Two hundred million years ago vast coniferous forests formed a mantle across the entire world. Then evolution took a great leap and the flowers were born. The difference between the two groups of plants involves a mechanism of pollination and fertilization that changed the course of life on earth. In the case of the more primitive conifers, the plant must produce the basic food for the seed with no certainty that it will be fertilized. In the flowering plants, by contrast, fertilization itself sparks the creation of the seed's food reserves. In other words, unlike the conifers, the flowering plants make no investment without the assurance that a viable seed will be produced. As a result of this and other evolutionary advances, the flowering plants came to dominate the earth in an astonishingly short period of time. Most conifers went extinct and those that survived retreated to the margins of the world, where a small number of species managed to maintain a foothold by adapting to particularly harsh conditions.
Today, at a conservative estimate, there are over 250,000 species of flowering plants. The conifers have been reduced to a mere 700 species and in the tropics, the hotbed of evolution, they have been almost completely displaced.
On all the earth, there is only one region of any size and significance where, because of unique climatic conditions, the conifers retain their former glory. Along the northwest coast of North America the summers are hot and dry, the winters cold and wet. Plants need water and light to create food. Here in the summer there is ample light for photosynthesis, but not enough water. In the winter, when both water and light are sufficient, the low temperatures cause the flowering plants to lose their leaves and become dormant. The evergreen conifers, by contrast, are able to grow throughout the long winters and since they use water more efficiently than broad leafed plants, they also thrive during the dry summer months. The result is an ecosystem so rich, so productive, that the biomass in the best sites is easily four times as great as that of any comparable area of the tropics.
Inevitably there was, at least for me, an almost surrealistic quality to life in our remote camp where men lived away from their families and made a living cutting down in minutes trees that had taken a thousand years to grow. The constant grinding of machinery, the disintegration of the forest into burnt slash and mud, the wind and sleet that froze on the rigging and whipped across the frozen bay, etched patterns into the lives of the men. Still, no one in our camp had any illusions about what we were doing. All the talk of sustained yield and overmature timber, decadent and normal forests we left to the government bureaucrats and the company PR hacks. We used to laugh at the little yellow signs stuck on the sides of roads that only we would ever travel, that announced that twenty acres had been replanted, as if it mattered in a clearcut that stretched to the horizon.
My immediate boss used to joke about getting rid of the trees so that we could see something. He told a story of a hermit he had known on the raincoast of Vancouver Island. The man had lived alone in a small glen in the forest for most of his life. The edge of the clearcut grew closer each year until finally it enveloped his home; a few trees at his doorstep survived only because of the decency of the faller. One sunny day my boss stumbled upon the old man, sitting quietly on a stump in the slash, staring up into space. He had a wry smile on his face. 'Forty years in this country,' he said, 'and finally I can see the sky.' Everyone knew, of course, that the ancient forests would never come back. One of my mates used to say that the tangle of half-hearted trees that grew up in the slash no more resembled the forest he'd cut down, than an Alberta wheatfield resembled a wild prairie meadow. But nobody was worried about what they were doing. It was work, and living on the edge of that immense forest, they simply believed that it would go on forever.
If anyone in the government had a broader perspective, we never heard about it. Our camp was nineteen miles by water across an inlet from a backroad that ran forty miles to the nearest forestry office. The government had cut back on overtime pay, and, what with the statutory coffee and lunch breaks, the forestry fellows couldn't figure out how to get to our camp and back in less than seven and a half hours. So they didn't try. The bureaucracy within the company wasn't much better. The mills down south kept complaining that our camp was sending them inferior grades of Douglas fir, which was surprising since the species doesn't grow on the Charlottes.
There were, of course, vague murmurs of ecological concern that filtered through to our camp. One morning in the cookhouse I ran into a friend of mine, a rock blaster named Archie whose voice had been dusted by ten thousand cigarettes and the dirt from a dozen mine failures. Archie was in a particularly cantankerous mood. Clutching a donut he'd been marinating in caffeine, he flung a three day old newspaper onto the table. The headline said something about Greenpeace. 'Fucking assholes,' he critiqued. 'What's wrong, Arch?' I asked. 'Sons of bitches don't know a damn thing about pollution,' he said. Archie then proceeded to tell me about working conditions in the hard rock uranium mines of the Northwest Territories shortly after the Second World War. The companies, concerned about the impact of radioactivity, used to put the workers, including Archie, into large sealed chambers and release a gas with suspended particles of aluminum in it. The idea being that the aluminum would coat the lungs and, at the end of the shift, the men would gag it up, together with any radioactive dust. 'Now that,' growled Archie, 'was environmental pollution.'
In truth, it is difficult to know how much the forest destruction actually affected the men. Some clearly believed blindly in the process and were hardened by that faith. Others were so transient, moving from camp to camp, sometimes on a monthly basis, that they never registered the full measure of the impact of any one logging show. Some just didn't care. The entire industry was so itinerant that no one ever developed a sense of belonging to a place. There was no attachment to the land, nor could there be given what we were doing. In the slash of the clearcuts, there was little room for sentiment.
I knew of a veteran faller who, having cut down thousands of trees, finally came upon one giant cedar that was simply too magnificent to be felled. When he refused to bring it down, the bullbucker threatened to fire him. The faller felt he had no choice. He brought it down and then, realizing what he had done, he sat on the stump and began to weep. He quit that afternoon and never cut another tree.
Like everyone else in our camp, I was there to make money. On weekends, when our survey crew was down, I picked up overtime pay by working in the slash as a chokerman, wrapping the cables around the fallen logs so the yarders could drag them to the landings where they were loaded onto the trucks. Setting beads is the most miserable job in a logging show, the bottom rung of the camp hierarchy.
One Saturday I was working in a setting high up on the mountain that rose above the camp. It had been raining all day and the winds were blowing from the southeast, dragging clouds across the bay and up the slope, where they hung up in the tops of the giant hemlocks and cedars that rose above the clearcut. We were working the edge of the opening, but the landing was unusually close by. It took no time at all for the mainline to drag the logs in, and for the haulback to fling the chokers back to us. We'd been highballing all day and both my partner and I were a mess of mud, grease and tree sap. He was a native boy, a Nisga'a from New Aiyansh on the Nass River, but that's all I knew about him.
Late in the afternoon, something got fouled up on the landing, and the yarder shut down. Suddenly it was quiet and you could hear the wind that had been driving the sleet into our faces all day. My partner and I abandoned the slash for the shelter of the forest. We found a dry spot out of the wind in a hollow at the base of an enormous cedar and waited for the yarder to start up. We didn't speak. He kept staring off into the forest. All hunched up with the cold, we looked the same -- orange hardhats, green-black rain gear, rubber corkboots. We shared a cigarette. I was watching his face as he smoked. It struck me as strange that here we were, huddled in the forest in silence, two young men from totally different worlds. I tried to imagine what it might have been like had we met but a century before, I perhaps a trader, he a shadow in the wet woods. His people had made a home in the forest for thousands of years. I thought of what this country must have been like when my own grandfather arrived. I saw in the forest around us a world that my own children might never know, that Nisga'a children would never know. I turned to my partner. The whistle blew on the landing. 'What the hell are we doing?' I asked. 'Working,' he said. I watched him as he stepped back into the clearcut, and then I followed. We finished the shift and, in the falling darkness, rode back to camp together in the back of the company crummy. That was the last I saw of him.
Fifteen years have passed since I left that camp and I've often wondered what became of the Nisga'a boy. It's a good bet he's no longer working as a logger. Natives rarely get promoted beyond the landing and, what's more, over the last decade a third of all logging jobs have been lost. The industry keeps saying that environmentalists are to blame, but in reality all the conservation initiatives of the last ten years in B.C. have not cost the union more than a few hundred jobs, if that. Automation and dwindling timber supplies have put almost 20,000 people out of work in this province alone. And still we keep cutting.
In Oregon, Washington and California only 10% of the original coastal rainforest remains. In British Columbia roughly 60% has been logged, largely since 1950. In the mere 15 years since I stood in the forest with that Nisga'a boy, over half of all timber ever extracted from the public forests of British Columbia has been taken. At current rates of harvest, the next 20 years will see the destruction of every valley of ancient rainforest in the province. We are living in the midst of an ecological catastrophe every bit as tragic as that of the slaughter of the buffalo and the passenger pigeon. Our government policies are equally blind, our economic rationales equally compelling. Until just recently, forestry policy in British Columbia explicitly called for the complete eradication of the old growth forests. The rotation cycle, the rate at which the forests were to be cut across the province, and thus the foundation of sustained yield forestry, was based on the assumption that all of these forests would be eliminated and replaced with tree farms. In other words, consideration of the intrinsic value of these ancient rainforests had no place in the calculus of forestry planning. Like the buffalo and the passenger pigeon, these magnificent forests were considered expendable. But while the passenger pigeons are extinct, and the buffalo reduced to a curiosity, these forests still stand. They are as rare and spectacular as any natural feature on the face of the earth, as biologically significant as any terrestrial ecosystem that has ever existed. If, knowing this, we still allow them to fall, what will it say about us as a people? What will be the legacy of our times?
The truth is, in an increasingly complex and fragmented world we need these ancient forests, alive and intact. For the children of the Nisga'a they are an image of the dawn of time, a memory of an era when raven emerged from the shadow of the cedar and young boys went in search of spirits at the north end of the world. For my own two young girls these forests echo with a shallow history, but one that is nevertheless rich in the struggles of their great grandparents, men and women who travelled halfway around the world to live in this place.
Today all peoples in this land are drawn together by a single thread of destiny. We live at the edge of the clearcut, our hands will determine the fate of these forests. If we do nothing, they will be lost within our lifetimes and we will be left to explain our inaction. If we preserve these ancient forests they will stand apart for all generations and for all time as symbols of the geography of hope.
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