back to table of contents
by Astrid Greene
And the sign said...
thoughts on nature and writing
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 -
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
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)
back to table of contents