When you grow up in the far north in Canada, if you’re at all curious about the world and the people in it, you can’t wait to get out. As soon as you’re able, you head out to the big city, for work or school or whatever you can get. It isn’t such a different story from kids growing up in the boonies anywhere, where it’s Montana or Gangwon-do in Korea, western New South Wales or the Cyclades.
I grew up, for the years that counted at least, in Fort Saint James, British Columbia. During those years — the early 70’s to the early 80’s — it was the End of The Road. Vanderhoof was the asshole of the world and we were forty miles up it, we said, recycling that old standby. The paved highway ended in the Fort, and to go further north meant logging roads and endless washboard and pothole gravel, dusty in summer, solid ice in winter, and slicker than snot the rest of the time. There were a couple of reservations further up there, and a few scattered fishing lodges and mines and logging camps. Wilderness, though, for the most part. Endless dense forest carpetting mountains, nap worn smooth in spots by crystal-clear cold lakes and rivers. Germanson Landing. Takla Landing. Leo Creek. Deese Lake. I’d like to say I hunted bear in these places wearing nothing but a breechclout and bowie knife, but with parents who were grappling with living on the frontier after moving from southern Ontario and a little shellshocked by family tragedy, the names of these tiny, isolated places were almost as exotic to me as Tokyo or Timbuktu. We didn’t stray too far.
But our own tiny town of 2500 or so was frontier enough for anyone, and, in what feels all these decades later like a deliberate, considered balance to the more bookish side of my nature, but was probably just imposed on me by the environment, I spent a lot of my time outdoors. In the summer especially, I’d spend 5 or 6 hours a day just behind our house swimming in the cold runoff-fed waters of Stuart Lake, or buckling on my first-gen Sony Walkman and riding my bicycle further and further out along the limited network of paved roads that snaked out along it, or to the south towards Vanderhoof, or the 10 or 15 kilometers north to the saw mills, after which the asphalt just stopped. Looking for something.
The trees never ended. The trees were everywhere. There were some things, growing up, that seemed limitless in their supply, overabundant, somehow both comforting and a little obnoxious in their insistence on being a part of every experience you could have: the trees, the water, and the snow. Nobody, or at least no young people that I knew, ever entertained for a moment the possibility that these things weren’t eternal, perpetual, guaranteed. We were ants on a golf course, surrounded by plenty, living the good life, and occasionally cursing the sprinklers.
For my part, I was one of those young people — and by no means was I in the majority — who couldn’t wait to get out, and once out, stayed. But I was also in a minority of the escapees, I think, in that I loved the place, even before I left. I’d read enough science fiction as a preteen to know that the dystopian extrapolations of scorched and dusty futures were based on the lives that people in more populous and less resource-blessed places were living already. I wasn’t all that keen to hunker down or bunker up.
I was afraid in a weirdly longing way of the nukes we assumed would soon be sailing along gravity’s rainbow, even if I was confident that up there in the North we’d be relatively unscathed by the coming armageddon. But I loved the sulphurous mineral rich town water that stained porcelain orange. I loved the thunderstorms that rolled in from the west over the 60 kilometre expanse of the lake, the bloodsplash summer forest fire sunsets, the northern lights you could almost hear, the way the hip-deep powdery snow creaked and puffed when the temperature got down to 40 below zero and your eyelashes began to freeze together. I loved the dusty evergreen smell of the trees and the rocks when we climbed up Mount Pope under flawless blue skies, I loved skindiving out to the drop-off in the lake, where the water, clear as air, grew dark and frightening, and my lungs felt ready to burst as I tried again and again to see what was down there, every minute irrationally terrified remembering the stories of giant sturgeon that had been pulled from those depths in decades past. I loved riding out on the lake in boats, and even riding on the river, even though that’s where my younger brother had died, in that fast dark water, when I was 6 years old. I loved blizzards and whiteouts, and waking up in the morning to see drifts of fresh snow that reached the roof of our house in beautiful mathematical arcs. I loved standing in our cold kitchen in my robe in the winter mornings before school while my mom made me breakfast, over the floor grate as the furnace blew hot air up my legs. I loved when the spring came and the roads and streets shed their dirty ice shells, and I could once again hop on my bicycle and prowl the streets, nose in the air smelling that good spring smell, hoping that maybe I’d see the girl I was in love with, but almost never seeing her. I loved the brief melancholy autumn smell of wet leaves in the freezing rain.
I didn’t fit in very well in many ways, though I tried, and once I began to drink — the official sport of Northern BC — it became much easier, and much as there were many people I loved and still love in that place, in some ways it was the place itself that made the greatest mark on me. I am and always will be someone who loves things green and blue and clean, and a smalltown boy who hauls out his big-city credentials and plays the global nomad urban expat sophisticate with a little reluctance.
I’ve been an expatriate most of the last 20 years and I’ll probably never live there again, but it will always be a huge part of who I am.
The reason our little town has existed and more or less thrived in the last century or so, though it was the first capital of British Columbia back in the fur trading goldrush days of the 19th century, has been the forestry industry. It’s a beautiful place, and tourists do come, but the lumber mills have always, at least in the last few lifetimes, provided something like 80% of the jobs, and powered an even larger component of the overall economy. It has been the same story for most of the small towns in the region. I worked in the mills too, bitching and moaning and drinking away the bruises, during my summer vacations from UBC, back in the 80’s. Taught me the value of hard work, and how much I don’t really care for it.
All that’s coming to an end. The trees are dying, and with them, the towns. It’s the pine beetle, you see. Just tiny little bugs. Nothing so dramatic as bombs or storms or ice caps melting away.
People like to debate the phenomenon of global climate change as if it were an academic issue. People who don’t live in the path of the huang-sa dust storms that sweep in out of China to blanket Korea every spring, and get worse with each passing year, people who aren’t in Central British Columbia watching 85% of the pine trees die off, and with the trees, the futures of their children. People whose health or livelihood isn’t directly affected.
But then again, those British Columbians aren’t entirely blameless, unlike the poor Koreans (and me) who are sucking down heavy metal-laden dust that we had no part in creating. While noting that the pine beetles are a natural part of the ecosystem, Canadian ecosuperhero (at least for my generation) David Suzuki blames forest fire suppression, clearcutting (and subsequent replanting), global warming. The first two can be laid directly at the feet of the folks who live there, whether they like to admit it or not.
The global warming part is textbook: to put it simply, as I understand it, warmer winters means reduced insect die off in the coldest part of the year, which means more of the little buggers the following season, and warmer temperatures the rest of the year means they spread further.
Forest fire suppression breaks the necessary cycle of old growth die off and renewal.
Clearcutting means huge areas are effectively denuded, and replanting with a single species of tree means a lack of biodiversity in the new forest, green as it may appear.
The bugs have rushed in as a result, and whole region is in very big trouble.
In the 6 years leading up to 2007 130,000 square kilometres of pine forest have been destroyed by the beetles. To put that number in perspective, that’s the area of the country of England, or about one and a half times the area of South Korea. It’s an armageddon all right, but not the kind that gave me nightmares when I was a teenager.
The irony to all this is that the massive die off of pines (and the infestation is moving to spruce, apparently) means, according to some researchers, that the forests of BC will no longer act as a carbon sink for the earth’s atmosphere, but by 2020 will become a carbon source, making the problems even worse. It wouldn’t be excesssive to describe this as a calamity. An area the size of a small country will be filled with standing kindling, which means forest fires will rage on a scale never before seen — imagine, again, the entire country of England aflame for a sense of the scale involved.
And companies that practiced unsustainable clearcutting, and the successive governments that allowed it? A special circle of hell will hopefully be reserved for those bastards. You know, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Have a look at this, to get an idea what those greedy f–kers have done to my home, and to our collective heritage over the past few decades. First, what the forests around my hometown (it’s at the tip of Stuart Lake, there, center left) looked like in 1973, not long after my family moved there. Unbroken green, punctuated only by the blue of the northern lakes, and some farmland around Vanderhoof, down there at the lower left.
Now have a look at the same area in 1999. See the clearcuts? See what ‘stewardship of the resource’ has meant? See the spots, like some kind of mange, some horrific skin disease? Good job, you scum. You’ve burned your own house down around your ears. Thanks, American owners of Canadian forestry companies! You’ve screwed us again.
I have nothing against forestry. I have nothing against logging. It has been the lifeblood of the community that made me who I am, and supported people I know and love (and some I don’t care for so much, I admit.)
What I can’t and couldn’t ever ignore, yeah, even while I was sweeping up the damp rich sawdust for fifteen bucks an hour, is the ways in which it has been pursued. And now, finally, the bats are coming home to roost, and it will be decades before the province and the industry recovers. Next time, maybe, they’ll do it right. If there is enough fossil fuel left to do it, and any communities left to work there.
So what’s happening on the ground? Two years ago, when I last visited Canada, I drove a rented car from Vancouver the 1100km north to Fort Saint James. There were stretches of a hundred kilometres and more where every tree that lined the highway on either side, once stately and evergreen and immutable, was the dull reddish brown of standing deadwood. It was a terrible thing to see. My mother, who was mayor of Fort Saint James for 14 years and still lives there, painted a pretty gloomy picture when we last talked. Of the 4 lumber mills that have provided most of the economic steam to run the community for decades, two are out of business, and one, run by the native community, is limping along with about 50 employees. Young families are leaving in droves. Real estate prices are plummeting, and houses are standing empty. Last year was one of the best ever for tourism, and that will hopefully never change, but other towns in less beautiful areas are in the process of drying up and blowing away.
Trees take decades to grow in Northern British Columbia. The good times are not going to come back any time soon.
I don’t pay much attention to goings-on in Canada. I don’t know how much attention is being paid to this. I suppose people are too worried about the coming real estate bust in the cities. I suppose the economic boom and environmental nightmare of the oil sands in Alberta offers some distraction. I don’t know. But what I am sure about is that my hometown is dying.
I have mixed feelings.
The forests will come back. The forestry industry and government will, we can only hope, learn some lessons. People will relocate — Canada is a nation of migrants — and towns will shrink and maybe disappear. It’s probably just wishful thinking, but it would be nice to think that things will shift toward a real attitude of sustainability and stewardship.
No matter how it all plays out, a lot of people will be hurt in the process. It takes a lot of good to outweigh the pain that the end of a way of life brings.
It’s happening all over the world. They say change is good. They say a lot of stuff.
Update: The news is that a local (-ish) company has taken over the largest mill in Fort Saint James, the one that closed a year ago. They are aware and resigned to the fact that they will lose money for a good while, but they are focused on the long-term. This is fantastic news for the town — it means hundreds of jobs, and means the town will not dry up and blow away. Other towns may not be so lucky, but I am gratified that my hometown at least seems to be looking at a stay of execution.
Update 2, Fall 2010: My mother’s been mayor again after more than a decade out of the job — Mayor Sandy to the rescue! — and things, in part through good timing and in part through her political skills, have turned around to an almost astonishing degree. The downtown core has been revitalized and renovated, a new gold mine is going in north of town adding hundreds of new jobs and millions in new tax revenue and businesses, there’s not a single rental space available in town, and everything is humming the way it hasn’t since…. well, since the last time my mother was mayor, to be honest. While the rest of the region is undergoing severe economic difficulties stemming from the problems I talked about here, at least FSJ is weathering the storm. Even if I never end up back there — a vanishingly unlikely possibility — that’s still very comforting to know.
Here’s a pretty word cloud, in celebration: