Friday, February 4, 2011

In the Jaws of a Grapple Skidder

You may have noticed I don't talk about my husband very often. It's just that he's not around much. He's an Italian-jazz- musician-Buddhist. He visits between gigs on cruise ships and retreats at monasteries. Also, I've promised to stop writing about him. He doesn't understand how tempting all three of his titles (especially when combined) are for any writer to exploit. Thousands have read about him in The Globe and Mail and other national publications (beware of marrying a writer). In general, Giuseppe has been a good sport. Until now. But now I'm going to have to break my promise.

"I love Canada," Giuseppe said as we rounded the bend on Grants Lake Rd. At that same moment, I was thinking how it was time to move to Italy. "Look at this place," he said. And I did. I looked at the old barn and the horses out to pasture. I looked at the houses with their aluminum siding painted in unobtrusive colours. There were the tall cedars, pine, spruce. There was the glimmer of the lake. Mists rose from the surrounding hills. I could see why he was so enchanted. I could see why someone who'd spent the majority of their life in a cobble-stoned town an hour from Milan might love this place.

But then the mists rose high enough to reveal the clearcuts. "They're beautiful," said Giuseppe as I pointed out the bald patches of deforestation. He thought he was seeing a natural land formation. A large meadow, perhaps. Until I told him otherwise. "Clearcut?" he asked. My explanation was muffled by a half-ton truck roaring past. "They're just evil," I blurted. Suddenly I knew I was failing in my role as Giuseppe's (a recent landed immigrant or "permanent resident") knowledge portal to all things Canadian. I endeavoured to provide unbiased explanations of this new culture we found ourselves in. I'd already explained the terms redneck, logger, and dirt-biker today. Giuseppe had listened patiently. "Those aren't very nice things to call people," he'd concluded.

When I first arrived in our new home, alone, the hills had been snow covered. The air had smelled fresh. The forest had been quiet. It would take a week or so for the snow to melt, for the smell of the pulp mill to waft through the valley, for me to walk downtown and see the logging trucks drive by, piled high with freshly felled trees. The trucks looked as surreal as parade floats and I stopped to watch them pass, a little surprised no one else was doing the same.

I know a little bit about logging and clearcuts from my six seasons as a tree planter. I've stood in clearcuts you can see from outer space. I know that most of British Columbia has been logged at some point. The evidence is never far away. Even pristine Haida Gwaii bears scars. But it's been awhile since I've been on the front lines.

Now I'm on the front lines. Once the snow had fully melted, I realized that the centre of the roundabout leading to Grants Lake Rd. wasn't decorated with the fountain I'd envisioned. It was the jaws of a grapple skidder. Throughout the town, the trend to decorate with logging machinery continued. Logging was indeed alive and well in this town. Even celebrated as an art form. Was this simply the way of The West? How could I explain this to a newcomer to our land?

When I drove Giuseppe to Departure Bay ferry terminal the other morning at 5 am, the empty logging trucks were already heading towards town. Truck after truck. Their headlights blinded us on the dark, twisty road. I didn't have to explain where they were going. "They start early," Giuseppe said, his voice a little flatter than usual. Or maybe it was just the early hour.

It's difficult, though, to get angry about such things when everyone in this town is just so nice. I've mentioned my standing invitation for pie at the Seniors Centre. But there's also the librarian who gave me a tour of the facilities, who wanted to know everything about Haida Gwaii. There's the clerk at Island Savings Credit Union who said without a trace of falseness: "Welcome to the area. We're so happy to have you here." There's the counsellor at the Employment Centre who looked at my resume and told me I must be one of the smartest people in town. There's the people that say hello on the street and the cars that always stop to let you cross the road. Which one of these nice people is destroying the forest? Which redneck, logger, dirt-biker?

We all are, I've concluded.

An Italian immigrant looks up at the mist-covered hills: "I love Canada," he says. On days like these, I wish I could say the same.

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