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  • Writers for Clayoquot
  • Charles Lillard (bio)

The following talk was given by Charles Lillard to support the mass protests against corporate, large-scale logging around Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Victoria Island, British Columbia. Protests had been mounting since the 1980s. In 1993, over ten thousand people—members of the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation, environmentalists, and others—converged to resist the clear-cut logging of lush, old-growth forests, which they regarded as “multinational corporate vandalism.” More than five thousand loggers and their supporters mounted a counter protest. Over nine hundred activists were arrested, and the majority were found guilty of criminal intent.

Some years ago a friend and I were up behind Bamfield. Prospecting. One moment we were in thick timber, moving up a ridge, the next we were nose-to-nose with a clear-cut. My partner let out a long whistle, then said, “From here it looks we’re winning the war.” I didn’t need to ask what war.

Once—once upon a time so recent some of us can remember its shape— an ancient forest of terrible beauty ran for 2,000 miles along the coast from Afognak Island, Alaska, to Big Sur, California. This forest did not welcome intruders. Peoples out of Asia moved through it, leery of its darknesses and clinging heat, attuned as they were to open skies and tundra. After them came a riverine people, downriver from the interior, to be welcomed by salmon and eulachon. The land did not welcome them. No matter, these river people were used to living along the shoreline—in fact, preferred it— so the land lay quiet.

It was different when the first Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century. For the next two hundred years this wilderness fought Europeans, step by step, every inch of the way. Fog and wind led ships off course; rain and tides protected the snug harbours and safe passages; mountains and forests stood, solid as a wall; and forest fires half the length of the wilderness beat the people back. Until 1778, no one broke through to lay a finger on the coast.

That was the year Captain James Cook cut timber for masts and spars at Nootka Sound. Keep the date in mind: 1778.

By 1500 b.c. the lowlands of China had been deforested; 2,300 years [End Page 141] later, the ancient forests of Japan were gone. It took a thousand years for the deforestation of Mediterranean shores. At the time of the conquest of Gaul—call it present-day France—the country was 80 percent forest. The last ancient forests of Britain were cut for military purposes at the time of the Spanish Armada—400 years ago.

Our war—and what else are we to call it—has been more successful. Stateside it was all over by 1945. Today 90 percent of the ancient forest in the U.S. is gone; 60 percent here in Canada. But even these dates and facts are misleading. Cook landed here two centuries ago, but the war didn’t start then. It didn’t start until the 1830s and 1840s, when pioneers broke through into the forest. It started when the first steam equipment came into use, about 1890, but did not really get underway until the teens and twenties of the twentieth century.

War. There is no other way to describe it. In one century we leveled our portion of the ancient forest. If this sounds like a long time, think again. You and I are only some 40 human lifespans away from Christ, 66 away from Moses, 400 away from the arrival of man in the New World. Put differently: there are Douglas-fir in the Clayoquot that are only two lifespans away from Christ, three from Moses. These trees are 1,500 lifespans away from the Pleistocene—1.5 million years ago.

Here’s another perspective. Ed Bearder was a beachcomber in Alaska. One unhappy camper. He’d started logging in Northern California about the time of World War I. Through the Depression and the war years, he’d worked his way up the coast and had ended up logging in the Charlottes. After...