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And the sign said...
thoughts on nature and writing

by Astrid Greene

Living on Haida Gwaii has heightened my sense of irony. Whenever my friends from other parts of the world come for a visit, I often find myself using logging roads for outdoor recreational pursuits. These very roads have been put in to allow logging companies easy access to areas for cutting -and that still means -
clearcutting timber.

About five years ago, I took my best friend for a drive to Rennell Sound, and along the way we saw a bear, two deer, many clearcut areas and a sign that struck us as rather curious. The sign was put up by the Ministry of Forests and had the following text:

"Forces of Nature
In November 1990, violent storm winds blew down several patches of forest, including the 15 hectares you see across this valley. As a result of the same storm, heavy rain also caused large debris to slide into Shelley Creek. These types of natural occurrences are not uncommon in the Queen Charlotte Islands because of frequent strong winds and high rainfall, steep slopes and soft volcanic rock."

Province of British Columbia
Queen Charlotte Islands Forest District
Ministry of Forests
Phone: 559-8447

We took a picture of the area and discussed the forces of nature. Do the forces of nature exist outside and apart from human agency? Around the area of this particular slide, logging may have allowed the forces of nature to get better access to the hill.
Since my friend and I took that drive, the sign has been updated to keep up with developments, and the following text was added:

"Since this event, helicopter salvage operations have recovered as much of the storm damaged timber as could be safely managed. The prime growing conditions on the Charlottes will soon result in a regrowth of alder, hemlock and spruce on the site."

I must confess that I was always intrigued by this sign and with me the sign may have had the unintended consequence to question forest practices in the area even more. I finally took the opportunity to talk to the author of the sign, Rick Johnson at the Ministry of Forests. Mr. Johnson said that the sign had been erected at the direction of Terry Dyer, then District Manager. Mr. Dyer felt that an explanation was needed to help the public interpret the event. I said to Mr. Johnson that I had passed the area on several occasions and each time I saw that there had been clear-cut logging around the area and this practice might have increased the impact of the strong winds. Mr. Johnson conceded that this point may be debatable, but he stressed that this was a naturally occurring landslide.

A not so natural occurrence was the slide event at Chinukundl Creek on January 8th which was publicized recently in SpruceRoots and the May 16, 1996 QCI Observer and has been investigated by the Ministry of Forests. The slide travelled about 175 metres down the hillside, entered Chinukundl Creek and travelled another 70 metres downstream before stopping. The stream, valued for salmon and trout has eroded a channel abut three to five metres wide along the north side.

Louis Bourcet, field operations supervisor in compliance and enforcement at the Ministry of Forests, was involved with the investigation. Mr Bourcet said that TimberWest has been asked to do some immediate remedial work on the slide area treating the landslide track with a grass-legume mixture to control surface erosion. In their report the Ministry of Forests recommends that when the slope has stabilized, the landslide will be reforested with Sitka spruce or other appropriate conifers and interplanted with Red alder. Because the Forest Practices Code had not been in effect at the time when logging on the block began, the Ministry of Forest won't lay any charges. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans and the BC Conservation Officer Service are still investigating the slide.

I asked Mr. Bourcet about what happened in other cases where slides were clearly the result of logging activity. Mr.Bourcet said that the Forest Practices Code definitely systematizes logging practices and that companies are now required to operate in line with the code before a cutting permit is approved. For other slides that had occurred as a result of logging prior to the code having been in effect, Mr. Bourcet gave the example of persons driving at 50 km per hour in a school zone. Are they going to stop at the RCMP station and file a report on themselves?
When talking about logging related slides that have occurred prior to the Forest Practices Code having been in effect and the company's responsibility in those, you are asking companies to self-indict. Slides have been reported by the companies even prior to the code. Mr. Bourcet mentioned that there is the reforestation program, but often there is more than just one slide event until the area has reached an equilibrium. Reforestation may not be advisable prior to a state of equilibrium.

Robert DuDoward, Vice-President of the Council of the Haida Nation, does not share the MoF interpretation of events. He said that logging at Chinukundl should have not been allowed, "a reasonable person could have looked at the area and seen that there shouldn't have been any logging. You don't need to be a geomorphologist to determine that. When you are talking of Fish/Forestry Guidelines or the Forest Practices Code the important thing to remember is that there needs to be a political will to enforce guidelines as well as legislation."
Well, there won't be any signs to explain logging related slides, few people may need help with an interpretation of those events and few may think only of the forces of nature. (1)

For me the discussion of slides and the forces of nature raises the larger question of how we think about nature. In Reconstructing Nature: A Brief History of Environmental Anxiety, Michael Ross talks about at least four senses of nature:(2)
· nature defined as the entire physical universe (which implies that humanity is part of nature);
· nature defined as everything that remains untouched by human agency (which yields a distinction between the 'natural' and the anthropogenic) (anthropogeny - study of the origin of human beings);
· nature as the essential or innate qualities of a subject (which distinguishes 'natural' from learned or contrived behaviour) ;
· and nature as a superhuman force, either 'natural' (such as the process of natural selection or the laws of physics) or 'supernatural' (implying a deity or metaphysical force).

These four meanings are often treated as though they were fungible; clearly they are not, though they are linked in complex ways.(2)

These distinctions can useful for a discussion of nature in writing.

Daniel Defoe's novel Robinson Crusoe contains passages where the hero faced with survival, starts cultivating the land and develops a utilitarian way of looking at nature to the extent that he becomes preoccupied with cultivation and lives in alienation from the land. This thought has been advanced by critical theorists. Farming and cultivation of land can definitely include a utilitarian way of looking at soil, conditions, values. Yet, ask any farmer and she or he will speak of their strong connection to the soil and an appreciation of nature..

A reader responding to a review of Sharon Butala's work of nonfiction, The Perfection of the Morning : An Apprenticeship in Nature, recently suggested that Butala's use of the term nature was misleading. Since Butala is living on a farm in Saskatchewan, the nature that she refers to is cultivated land, farmland, otherwise this land would still be inhabited by the first nations of the area. Nature, in this readers mind conjures up notions of -if not untouched then at least- uncultivated wilderness.
The connection of humans and nature and how differently we might 'construct' the forces of nature became apparent to me with the Shelley Creek sign. This sign was also noticed by Cherokee writer Thomas King, who gave a workshop on writing fiction in May at the Haida Gwaii Museum at Qay'llnagaay. King, who has written scripts for the television series North of Sixty, and whose published works include the novels Green Grass, Running Water and Medicine River, spoke about how a writer might view reality. The fact that the sign was put up in the first place says something about Haida Gwaii. When writing fiction, the sign may become a symbol, something that stands for or suggests something else. A fiction writer may use the sign as a starting point and then juxtapose it with the way we treat each other as human beings and she or he might allude to human nature. King said that he might write a short story about the Islands upon his return. I hope he does. In the meantime I will try to deepen my understanding of the 'forces of nature' and the context in which the forces of nature operate here on Haida Gwaii.
(1) Praxis 4 (1993):16
(2) Books in Canada, May 1995, Letters)

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