Taking to the Big Trees

I had been very loosely following the development of frontline resistance happening at Fairy Creek over the past year. I knew a few people who had been up, I had heard frustrations, about societal dynamics replicating in ways we’d be better off without and also just struggles to maintain numbers. But as we have to all unlearn as we go, our movements can be plagued with interpersonal conflicts, misogyny, settler entitlement, burnout and so on. I also knew from almost 20 years ago, fueling these things with the use of agent provocateurs, media bias, police tactics, plea bargains, non-disclosure agreements and other things that fracture support was not beyond those who have interests in making the forests into “products”. The green scare, the G Summits, and more recently in Wet’su’weten all have shown one thing clearly, especially to folks who have been involved in activism. We know that the state, and it’s agents the RCMP, and resource extraction companies do not play clean. We have no reason to think they would. If you look at land defense around the world, you would see that Indigenous people and their allies are fighting corporations that want to extract resources and pollute the land, and that they are silenced, discredited and killed.

The narrative as told by the media wherein the band council has approved the logging (despite band council jurisdiction being only the reserve), conflict between councils and hereditary governance, good settlers are to listen to the “good” native- the one presented as valid by the state. I was familiar with this, and had learned a lot about how this dynamic plays out in resource extraction deals last winter as the RCMP attacked Wet’Su’Weten and also from Sinixt matriarch Marilyn James. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go up and see for myself. I thought, as a parent, and a trans person, and a person with pain and sometimes unpredictable mobility, who doesn’t have a car, in a pandemic, it wasn’t in the cards. I didn’t feel arrestable, and therefore told myself I wasn’t of use. There were lots of reasons to keep the whole thing just in the corner of my eye. Sure, I was opposed to the logging of old growth, but I have been opposed to logging old growth forever. 

 Forever since my grandpa used to tell me stories from being a logger in the woods not too far from there, in a time when they would cut with 2 man hand saws, a crew might work all day or for a few days to cut down one of those trees. And then, he would say, “then… it’s gone, gone to make toothpicks, the work gone with it.” The speed of modern automated resource extraction would make those crews roll in their graves. 

Forever since my high school environmental club teamed up with another school and sneakily arranged a morning tour with a Weyerhouser cutblock for our “science class” before spending the afternoon with Merv Wilkinson in his Wildwood sustainably managed forest. He toured us around, cane in hand, and explained his multiyear harvest management strategies. He explained how he had a mill on site and that his foresters and millwright had much more secure employment than those working for the big clearcut companies. He showed a clear and possible ‘better way’.

Forever since I worked as a door to door campaigner for the WCWC and volunteered with a big action that brought busses of people out to a cutblock where we positioned them for an aerial photo (this was long before non-military drone photography, but the photographer was in a low flying helicopter). 

I knew I stood against Old Growth Logging. I think I didn’t realize how last stand we were. I attended my first demonstration, somewhat by accident I think, during the height of the war of the woods in the early 90s. I was 7. I literally feel like I have been visiting the lawn of the legislature to protest environmental destruction for my whole life. And yet. It has continued. Worsened even.The number I read most recently was that we have 2.7% of old growth forests left. Which is devastating. Pair that with the grim reminder that many Canadians are wrestling with this week. This land, and the people of this land, were here all along. The people and the land, together. And the project of the colony took the kids off the land, they tried to kill the land in the kids, and in the process killed the kids spirits, their bodies, their languages, their medicines. The definition of genocide is illustrated easily with truths from the history of Residential Schools. Here we are, at an undeniable point of reckoning, and yet, the colonial government is digging their heels in and speaking double “laterlater”, knowing full well that the damage will be irreparable before their new plan even kicks in. 

So last week, I saw a picture you surely saw too, it made its way around. On the back of a large industrial logging truck we see one log. It fills the truck. Looking at the tree you can see that it was here before colonial rule of law. It was here before small pox. It was here before residential schools, before the Indian act. That old giant was probably here before the process of enclosure across Europe, before the burning of the witches, before the all the annexations and colonial conferences, before trans-Atlantic slave ships and long before the mechanization required to extract such a giant from its grove was ever imagined. I saw it riding through Snuneymuxw (Colonial Nanaimo), right onto my Facebook feed. It hit my gut with a hollow sadness. The nihilism can be strong after so long, and when it can feel like even the “preferred leftist option” is selling (sold?) out. When they state that this tree is within “acceptable limits” how can any statements about “protecting forests” not be grossly two-faced.

The image that changed it for me was the elders. I saw the pack of elders and read the interview where Alison Acker, now 92, a veteran of the war of the woods, said that while she may not be able to do all she used to, she can walk up a hill and sit on her bottom. I sat in the bath and sobbed hysterically. Gratitude for these elders who have been at this for decades longer than I have. They knew it was their turn, they went up, and in response, it lightened the police pressure for the day and catalyzed many to come up the next weekend. I decided I would be among them and booked a co-op car and texted a friend about coming along before bed, I felt compelled. I am trying to raise my kid in my values, and I wanted to bring her to a family friendly forest defense action so as to help share these parts of my values. 

I got all our camping gear and made the necessary food plans, got the neighbour to water the garden and I read. I read as much as I could about the camp. I wanted to get the picture of what we were heading into. I felt confident that it would be a safe and accessible opportunity for our family. 

We stayed in a friends backyard Friday night, to get the camping part worked out. I didn’t want to get way into the woods and find that we forgot the plug for the air mattress, or that the tent had somehow come alive with mold since its last pack up. All was fine, and waking up with the owls last hoot over the Chemainus kin beach, gave us time to make these signs while we had breakfast and awaited our travel companion waking up.

By the time we made it to the convoy location we had missed the first pack. We were gonna go with the second pack, but then the kid had to pee, not when that was suggested, just as we were gonna drive- cause that’s activism with kids. A lot of it seems to be in bathrooms, bathroom line-ups, helping them squat on the outside of the crowd, changing diapers, wiping butts. And as much as the patriarchal colonial business attitude of activism is one that really glorifies the front lines, and dismisses domestic labour and parenting, we also know that this attitude cannot be one of the things that makes it through this shift. We know that “essential services”, like care labour, should not be dismissed or degraded. But anyway, we got out late. 

When we pulled the car in along the long line of cars on the logging road there was a fairly steady stream of people walking from their cars towards the program site, we were told was about 20 min walk ahead. We walked up, even though along the way we saw lots of people leaving to head to another site. My reading the night before led me to believe that the waterfall camp was more remote, more of an active arrest zone, and not really the spot I expected to be bringing a 4 year old. But we were reassured, the big crowds had headed up, it would be safe and that was where the numbers were needed. So we walked back along the road. My friend picked up timmies cups and beer cans from the ditch as we walked. We drove up to the other site after what I have since seen was a dramatic act by Elder Bill Jones, hereditary chief Victor Peter and their ~1500 “friends”. We got there a while later, we saw the elder leaving the area, and saw a couple teams of RCMP and liaison officers as well as a private security crew standing aside as packs of people gathered for songs, speeches, and to hike through with supplies and new tree sitters. 

We didn’t hike all the way up to the camp. Just up to the first cut block past the exclusion line. There we saw stumps that looked like they were nearly the size of a king size bed.

The cut blocks have a hot death about them, when you are walking up through the forest, its dark and cool and moist. But in the block, along the road, its dusty and dry. Only one spring’s bravest ferns and some trampled salal, the rest of the block littered with death. Not just cut branches and upturned and charred stumps, but also the litter of the industrial crews. I have noticed this since that Weyerhouser tour in 1999, they don’t just take, they also operate in the woods in a way that lacks complete responsibility. Maybe thinking about picking up after yourself requires a level of cognitive dissonance when you are there to cut, but I have never been on a cut block without finding a deserted bottle of chain oil. I sweated up the side of the hill with Sea and we looked out onto a valley dotted with blocks like this, dead patches, and from the other side of the valley you could see a wall of trees, where there used to be forest, and all of a sudden there isn’t anymore. The winds rip through and the edge trees are lost. Occasionally a designated tree will be left, because it is a significant wildlife habitat (not the whole forest somehow). But those trees can’t thrive without their wind breaks, without their understory, without their mycelial root connections they have been inseparable from for some hundred or more years- in many cases even survival is too much. These survivors left to stand “resilient” in death fields, without all that they lived with and for and through, they often can’t stand up to the wind or erosion that inevitably comes from this sort of harvest approach. 

The afternoon had stretched on, and the long walk to a car meant we had to head back and get to somewhere we could set up for the night. We were directed into a gravel pit where a bunch of the activists that had come up for this weekend would be camped. I threw together a tailgate dinner and got our tent set up. Sea was excited about throwing big rocks into a massive puddle. We usually do a pretty early bedtime, and as we tried to do that, the evening meeting rallied just between us and the puddle. The hoots of support were great in the meeting I’m sure, but were fomo-fuel enough it kept her up a bit longer than she had the wakeness for. Once again, I’d love to be at the meeting learning what’s up, but there is domestic labour needed on this front too. Finally she was out. I stood up out of the tent and I saw that a friend had completely coincidentally set up right behind us. She asked where the kid was, and that was all it took. Parents of small kids may know the degree to which they can rock the rockstar nap. That kid must have slept less than 5 minutes, but then got up and stayed up for another 4 or so hours, running with the kids and sliding down a big sand mountain and burying a barbie leg one of them found and having light saber battles and all the pure joy of childhood. I was happy the kids were getting along and playing so well. They hadn’t seen each other for years, so long that neither of them remembered, but were each reasonably suspicious how these other adults knew their names. The mutual friend that had brought us together died earlier this year. As we sat around the fire in this gravel pit, at this family forest defense action, we talked about how we had all seen our lost friends fractals over the last couple of months. The haunting of familiar sounds of love and service and chaos, the look alikes we had all seen in our home communities and the handfuls we had seen that day.  We talked about the ways that their knowledge was special, like an aggregated, pre-google, public library encyclopedia but with more passion, sort of knowledge. Like if you really wanted to know about something, the whole story, you could call them and they would tell you more about it than you ever knew could be known. That sort of knowledge, combined with the sort of deep care that they were driven by, and that they had shared with each of us over the years- it was a heavy weight. Other things weighed heavy on them, legacies for the future was always a common theme. So we sat there in the gravel pit, grieving. Which sometimes was sad, and sometimes boisterous, celebratory, and confusing, but all love. 

The next morning we had our breakfast and the rain started. I wanted to get packed up before our gear got wetter and I knew I needed time to clean the car before returning it. We brought tools and food donations over the camp stores and started making our way out of the forest. Sea was learning to read a compass and kept us updated with each turn of the winding road. 

It didn’t hit me until after we were gone. We had driven all the way up there, and we had not even gotten to see the big giant trees that are so desperately in need of protection. Because there are only 2.7 % of them left. You can drive and drive, but you still need to walk to places too remote for trucks and feller bunchers to reach to really see the giants. And we didn’t make it that far. We saw the stumps. We saw the roads. We saw the gravel pit. We saw a lot of people working really hard to protect not only these stands of trees, but everything that relies on them- like the wildlife that lives in the trees, but also us. Old growth trees are a vital piece in preserving a survivable biome on this planet. Ancient forests at the headwaters of watersheds are vital now, but will be even more vital as more and more watersheds are lost to climate changes, pollution and erosion and clean drinking water becomes more rare the world over. 

I burned my lip on some tea I made over the propane tank stove in the gravel pit. I put it in a vacuum thermos and forgot how effective it was at keeping near boiling water at temperature. I got big blisters across my lips, bleeding gums and a sandpaper tongue tip. I know that under the scabbing layers and discomfort my body is healing. If I had 2nd degree burns on all but 2.7% of my body, I don’t think I would be grinning to bear it quite so easily. My requisite mask wouldn’t hide the damage as easily. We could say my mouth, where burned, might be about 2.7% of my whole body. So if I was the Old Growth forest, my burn ratio would be reversed, my entire self blistered and coated in dead save for my mouth. I believe that Fairy Creek and it’s defenders are that mouth, crying out, as the cops and logging contracts try to push the branding irons right towards it. 

Don’t let your confusion about what “real solidarity” is be confused by John Horgan’s false parallel, that ending the old growth logging would be akin to murdered children in Residential school mass graves. Indigenous children were taken to residential schools and murdered on purpose to remove the stewards of these lands and plant dark trauma where there was once a relationship with a place older and more complex than the colonial order could understand or respect. The ancient laws, the ones that place people, Indigenous and in relation to places, as responsible for the tending of the land and water, have stood longer and will stand longer than any injunction or colonial contract. Be in touch with your MLA, Premier Horgan’s Office,  if you are within Island Health travel restriction boundaries go and see for yourself (check about what the camp needs, bring donations, pack to be self sufficient), large solidarity actions are planned on the regular and rotating shifts of arrestable bodies continue to be necessary as well as many support roles on and off site. Educate yourself and talk about ancient forests with your friends and families. Get a hold of your pension plans and investment brokers, ensure that you aren’t unknowingly investing in this or other environmental horrors. 

You have skills, and that is what is needed in the movement. Whether it is the butt-wiping and illustrative bedtime stories labour or the chaining yourself to a tree sort of labour or the making posters or coordinating parking areas or silk screening tshirts or making medicines. Whatever your things are that you do,is there a way that it can be done in service? LandBack, land defense, cultural and language revitalization movements are happening across all the parts of the world that have suffered European colonization- get involved where you are as well as supporting this active front. Some places are feeling like the last stands have already been lost- here on Vancouver Island this does appear to be a last stand for ancient forests. Even more than it has seemed that way for nearly 30 years. 

When your grandkids ask what you did to make sure that the big trees could still be real, living in the forest, and not a tree museum, what will you say you did?

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