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The Last of It

the last of it

(image by Lorna Beecroft of Nanaimo, BC)

The above image of an ancient spruce being hauled up the Vancouver Island Highway has gone viral and I can say in my years of driving up and down that same highway, I have seen many such obscene sights.  These last old-growth conifers, the remnants of a unique temperate rainforest ecosystem, are being logged into oblivion despite a massive outcry led by environmentalists and First Nations communities. Sadly, the battle has been mostly lost outside a scant few officially protected zones so that British Columbia can continue using its ‘supernatural’ brand. As I write this, a huge and expensive police operation is underway at Fairy Creek , with helicopters and special SWAT teams being deployed to dislodge the hundreds of protesters putting their bodies on the line defending the last unprotected old-growth watershed on southern Vancouver Island. There have been dozens of arrests, suppression of media and acts of police violence.

So far, so typical. This spectacle has happened many times before, most notably during the massive Clayoquot protests in the 1990’s. Yet the zeal with which this supposedly left-of-center provincial government has propped up a clearly unsustainable industry, hell-bent on liquidating the remainder of what everyone agrees is a disappearing resource* isn’t just about the commercial value of old-growth trees’ market value, though this is an undeniable factor, as their price, like that of other endangered commodities like rhinoceros horn or elephant ivory goes up in proportion to their scarcity. There is something else happening here though – a less obvious and more sinister program by government and industry to change the very way we think of what a forest actually is.

*According to a recent study:

productive old forests are naturally rare in BC. Sites with the potential to grow very large trees cover less than 3% of the province. Old forests on these sites have dwindled considerably due to intense harvest so that only 2.7% of this 3% is currently old. These ecosystems are effectively the white rhino of old growth forests. They are almost extinguished and will not recover from logging. 

 

Way back in in 1992 I wrote an article for FUSE MAGAZINE entitled ‘The State of the Forest: The Canadian Landscape as Propaganda’ where I made case that the ferocious push to eliminate old growth forests, particularly those accessible, lowland forests containing charismatic, cathedral-like groves, was a deliberate strategy to reverse the figure/ground relationship between what is a ‘space of enclosure’ and the a priori ecological commons, i.e what is capitalism and what is not capitalism. I detailed how the language describing forests was being carefully altered by corporations and their client governments in order to strip away any pre-capitalist connotations. In this new corporate forest-speak, primary forests were coined ‘tree farm licenses’ or ‘fiber farms’.   The word ‘farming’ serves as stand-in to legitimize the transformation of forests  from unenclosed commons, stewarded but not owned in the settler-colonist sense of the word by original inhabitants (either as traditional territory or under some kind of usufruct), to fully enclosed property under what Marx termed ‘primitive accumulation’.  There is nothing remotely resembling ‘farming’ about felling primary, old-growth forests, an extractive process more akin to mining or the industrial slaughter the great whales, but the metaphor persists and is actively promoted. Just a few days ago, a logger, Ron Tucker, interviewed during a counter-protest denouncing the Fairy Creek blockade said it yet again:

“We live in the best area in the world for timber and trees and this is what we do. We’re farmers and we farm trees.”

Ron Tucker, logger

Perhaps he even believes this but it is hard to square that notion with the BC government’s own assertion that logging the province’s old growth, forests which no farmer ever planted, remains key to the future of the industry and that 27% of the annual harvest is still dependent on old growth forest.

In my article, I detailed other forest industry neologisms such as clear-cutting with camping allowed afterwards defined as  ‘mixed use’, ‘shared use’ or ‘the working forest’, the latter being a particularly galling, faux proletarian obfuscation of corporate extractivism. The forest isn’t exactly working and the jobs created in British Columbia’s industry turn out to be one of the lowest  jobsper volume of wood harvested with much of what is felled shipped overseas as raw logs, eliminating opportunities for stable employment in secondary manufacturing and milling. Government subsidies  to the industry remain massive even without factoring in the substantial policing costs incurred when an outraged population pushes back and starts putting bodies on the line to defend the last shreds ancient forest as has been happening at Fairy Creek.  Police helicopters with specially trained commando units deployed to arrest tree sitters and blockaders along with the round-the-clock heavy presence of ground forces doesn’t come cheap and the costs could in  fact far exceed the commercial value of any timber extracted. But this is about more than simple economics.

Charismatic, ancient trees pervade our collective unconscious. Their archetypical images crop up in many religions as ‘world-trees’ or trees of life, connecting heaven and earth.  The Norse had their Yggdrasil, the local Kwakwaka’wakw people and other First Nations of the Pacific Northwest coast, worshipped red cedar (Thuja plicata) since time immemorial, carefully prying individual planks from old-growth trees without killing them, leaving them standing to heal. Images of old-growth even pervade such popular genres as video gaming and streaming television. Think of the Weirwood tree in the godswood of Winterfell or pretty much all of James Cameron’s Avatar.  Ancient groves symbolize something very deep and meaningful, connecting us to a time before property.

Which is why there is such a push to have ancient trees eliminated except in a few sanctioned parks where they can be commodified as tourist attractions. Instead of being allowed to perform their function as the ecological scaffolding that holds together an interdependent, living landscape, maintaining the stability of the regional hydrology, fish habitat and climate, any old-growth trees allowed to survive get reduced to props in a wilderness theme park. The not-so-subtle message is that all forests are transactional spaces valued only for the readily extractable commodities contained within. Even parks exist primarily to provide marketable experiences to extract dollars from tourists. The battle for Fairy Creek is as much ontological as it is ecological. We are living in a world run by people who hate the symbolism of ancient trees existing just for their own sake. Soon we will even lose the language as to why they should have been left standing in the first place.

 

‘It exists!’ he cried.

‘No,’ said O’Brien.

He stepped across the room. There was a memory hole in the opposite wall. O’Brien lifted the grating. Unseen, the frail slip of paper was whirling away on the current of warm air; it was vanishing in a flash of flame. O’Brien turned away from the wall.

‘Ashes,’ he said. ‘Not even identifiable ashes. Dust. It does not exist. It never existed.’

‘But it did exist! It does exist! It exists in memory. I remember it. You remember it.’

‘I do not remember it,’ said O’Brien.

 

George Orwell – 1984.

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