From the Vault

Historical Reporter (image)

Mother Knows Best (image)

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Surfing is Surfing:
an essay on Grant Shilling

by Clayton Webb

We Don't Care What You Say

Growth Rings

Babes in the Woods

Exile off Main Street

Kids & Play & Adults

Squeegee People, Vulture Culture & Cars

Survival of the Fittest

True Crimes

Copper Ann

Bodysurfing, Travel & the Dead

Haunted Houses

Rock & Roll Road Kill, Kill, Kill!

Storage Locker


Growth Rings: The Elders of the Islands

by Grant Shilling

"They are called old growth not because they are frail but because they shelter all our history and embrace all our dreams."
-- Wade Davis, "Rainforest: Ancient Realm of the Pacific Northwest"

88 year old Merve Wilkinson stands underneath a 1,500 year old Douglas Fir and answers my question about the relation between elders and old growth trees. "The old growth fosters the development of the young," he casually pronounces. Wilkinson goes on to explain that by selectively logging trees, leaving light and space for moisture, you foster root development and the growth of a young tree. This is a metaphor he believes also extends to humans.

Since 1940 Merve Wilkinson has logged his 136-acre forest in Yellow Point near Nanaimo on Vancouver Island nine times. Yet if you were to walk through it today, you’d be hard pressed to find evidence of his activity. ‘Mervana’, as his land has been dubbed by his growing following of admirers, is a strong argument against industrial logging practices.

Merve Wilkinson was born in Nanaimo in 1913. His father was a steam engineer. His mother was a registered nurse. His parents lived in a coal miners camp until he was almost four years old, then they moved to a large acreage on Quesnell Lake, dubbed ‘Wildwood’, in Yellow Point. It was at Yellow Point that Merve developed a strong sense of community and responsibility.

After attending a forestry course at UBC, Wilkinson went to Switzerland and Germany and began to develop a vision of sustainable logging. As Wilkinson points out, in Switzerland today 600 years after logging was undertaken there, the annual harvest of timber is the same as when it began.

On a recent visit to Wildwood, a group of German foresters asked Merve if they could ‘clean’ a stump of a tree that Merv had cut down. What the Germans wanted to examine was the growth rings of the trees. One growth ring mirrors the annual biological status of the tree and, in this case, is a template to Merve’s relationship to it. The Germans noted that there was a 10% increase in the percentage of timber on the property since Merve began living there. "So, you see," says Merve, tipping back his silver logging helmet, "the old growth really does foster development of the young trees – of course with a little bit of help from an old-timer like me," he adds laughing.

With ‘a little bit of help from an old-timer’ like Merve, Wildwood has served as base camp for the development of an ecological conscience and an increased awareness of the cycle of life. Sunday tours are offered and for the past 15 years or so University students from Oregon are sent to Wildwood as part of their curriculum to learn how to fall trees under the guidance of Wilkinson. In 1996, vox populi scientist David Suzuki founded the Council of Elders. Having looked at Aboriginal cultures and cultures of people all over the world, Suzuki had come to the conclusion that the western culture was the only one that did not revere and respect its elders. Wilkinson and his wife Anne were included as founding members. Merve enjoys his role as an elder. Young people on tours often come up to him for advice. The questions vary but the answer is often the same:

" No matter what your parents want for you or what other people want for you, if you don't do what makes you happy, you will lead a very unhappy life."


Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands are as far west as you can go in Canada and historically has brought individuals seeking a new vision, an Eden in the rugged beauty of a land physically separated from the rest of Canada by the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean. From Northern British Columbia, to California, a rugged spine of mountains stretches for almost 1,500 miles parallel to the Pacific coast of North America. Along the slopes and in the valleys of these mountains, the humus-rich soil nourishes mixed softwood forests in vast abundance. A geography that quite literally casts BC on the ‘margins’. Until very recently in BC, one could easily squat or eke out an existence that favoured cultivation of the self, rugged individualism and a spiritual emphasis where the rat race was left far behind.

Add to this the insularity and remoteness of an island existence and unique features begin to emerge: The interconnectivity of individuals with the land is more apparent. Most Gulf Islanders don’t live on a street with a number, they live in an estuary, or near a farm, or by an old growth forest. If you are connected to the land and its creatures, then you notice changes, and you care more about what happens around you.


For both Gilean Douglas (who lived to be 93) and Cortes Island a tiny Island in the Georgia Strait between the Mainland and Vancouver Island, 1970 marked a change. The arrival of a ferry service to her island brought the increased pressure of more people and more desire for the subdivision of land. These changes led Douglas to focus her community service local politics, where she could help guide the future development of the island. Douglas found allies for her position in a group of newcomers, the "back to land" arrivals who also eschewed the reliance on technology and sought an alternative to the urban world. As Douglas wrote in a collection of her work Writing Nature/Finding Home (Sono Nis Press 1999). "New neighbours are all around me: young couples – ‘long hairs and granny gowns’ – as some describe them. I like these young people very much and many of the things they believe, I believe also. As I tell them, I am so glad that at last the world is catching up with me! What they are practicing of simple, green-earth living, organic eating and peaceful, friendly ways, I have believed in all my life."

The spirit of co-operation has formed the basis for Hilary Brown’s life. The 93-year-old Hornby Island resident (an island between Vancouver Island and the mainland near Courtenay, BC), came to the Island in 1937. At the time there was only 125 people on the Island (today the number is about 1,000 fulltime residents). Jobs weren’t plentiful but the absence of an income wasn’t too difficult to negotiate. "We got back to an island economy with nobody having any money and everything being on an exchange basis. There were always fisherman leaving a bag of fish on our table and we’d give them vegetables in exchange," says Brown.

"I was always interested in co-operation. I felt, particularly in a small place like this, that most people were here because of what the island meant to them," says Brown who remains in good health and is quite active in her community to this day.

"Therefore the way to get some activity was by supporting things that gave people a chance to work together on them." The first item being the formation of a Credit Union on Hornby in 1942.

"The Credit Union started because someone on the island had a pick-up truck and it was the only one that would navigate the very rotten roads we had back then. This chap was always able to get around. So we said to him, ‘We’d like to sign the articles for the incorporation of a Credit Union and we need to have ten people. Could you drive us around?’ So we all piled into the pickup and when we had the necessary ten, we all stopped and signed the things and that was it – we had a Credit Union."

The Credit Union was all volunteer. "I think every single loan on the Island was given by the Credit Union because the banks wouldn’t look at us. Nobody here had any equity and the banks thought, ‘Oh, these people are hopeless.’" Like Cortes, what really put Hornby on the map was the introduction of a ferry. Brown went to the BC Central Credit Union and said: "Look, what Hornby simply has to have is transportation. We have nothing now, the fish boats will occasionally take us out to Courtenay. There is no way to get goods on or off the island, except once a week, twice in summer. So we got the money for the ferry which started running in 1945. The Ferry took two cars per trip. Drivers had to either back on or back off at the bow as the superstructure went across the stern."

In 1959 Brown started the Hornby Food Co-op which to this day is the heart and soul of Hornby. "We did it against all the good advice we had from everybody. And it was good advice. They said you have a minimum of capital and you have to know that you meet your bills and so on. Well, we went ahead and did it. For years and years and years we never, ever broke even all winter long. We only broke even in June, July and August. But somehow or other we managed to pull through."

In 1974 Brown says she was quite surprised when she was asked to be the first Islands Trust chair (a regional form of government for the Gulf Islands). The central concern of the Islands Trust is to provide ecological protection for the Gulf Islands.

Brown stands in a garden she dug on a ‘midden’. Middens are mounds of discarded clam and mussel shells eaten by Natives and accumulated over centuries. Middens were widely used as cemeteries by First Nations for burying the dead and it was commonly believed that the remains deposited in the middens would be reincarnated in the land of the dead for the benefits of the humans buried there. On this rich humus and history rich soil BC’s first homesteaders set up shop. Some islanders, like Brown, have not forgotten the depth of that relationship.

Brown shows me a newspaper clipping on Mike Jencks, a logger who has managed to clear-cut on several of the Gulf Islands, including neighbouring Denman Island. I ask Brown if the Trust has been created to prevent exactly what is happening on Denman, what has gone wrong? I suggest that perhaps the Island Trust is like the UN, a good idea in principle but difficult to enforce.
" Yes that’s true. It is not until you get inside the system that you realize that it’s rigged against getting things done."


In a thin sliver of morning light, Joe Martin carves a dugout cedar canoe. At the young age of 48, Martin is a grandfather and an elder. Martin’s father Robert was the hereditary Wolf Chief of the Clayoquot and recently passed on. Martin feels that being an elder makes the passing of knowledge to younger generations a way of life. "As people age in their culture, their value increases," says Martin who feels less of the Clayoquot youth are willing to listen to their ancestral stories. Martin carves his canoe on his ancestors’ hereditary land. Martin’s people have lived here for over 5,000 years. On either side of Martin are two symbols of an ever-changing Tofino (located in Clayoquot Sound on the mid-western edge of Vancouver Island). On one side of Martin is Henry Nolla who remains in a shack he squatted over thirty year ago, paying no rent, working most days as he has for years, naked, carving wood sculptures. On the other side of Martin is a five-star $300 a night luxury ‘wilderness resort’ – or ‘weirderness resort’ as the locals call it.

Nolla and Martin are friends. In fact Nolla, of Spanish and Swedish descent, has been invited by the Martin family to help carve a totem pole for Opihtsat, home of Martin’s people. Nolla was part of the ‘counter-culture’ back-to-the-land migration to wild places at the end of the road (or was it rainbow?) like Clayoquot Sound. But by the late ‘70s it was clear that even the end of the rainbow wouldn’t escape the industrial machine. Logging scars and devastating clear-cut landslides were by then visible along the road to Tofino.

The First Nations were the quickest to react and Joe Martin was one of their leaders. Martin, in his dugout cedar canoe, led a blockade of Meares Island off Tofino in 1984. It was one of the first attempts to use Native land claims as an argument against logging.

The cedar dugout that Martin carves today is to be shipped to a museum in Germany. He tells me the stories contained within the carvings of the canoe and expresses his frustration that the children of his band are not there to listen.

"They are too interested in television and other nonsense," says Martin. "If they will not learn their cultural heritage what will become of us?"


Bus Griffiths, 89, remembers a time in the woods when it took a day’s work between two men with one saw and an entire crew of work mates to cut one tree down and remove it from the forest. A time when the scale of economy between the work, time and effort required to cut down the tree and the age of the tree were in a more respectful balance. Griffith has represented this era in his book length comic strip style masterwork Now You’re Logging (Harbour Publishing, 1990).

Griffiths worked on the graphic novel over a period of five years. "I started in 1972," says Griffiths dressed in spats and a grey Stanfields fisherman’s sweater. "I was trolling for salmon and when the fish season was closed, I’d fall for a local outfit. The last falling I did was in ’72 when I was 64-years-old. I still do a bit of falling now though." Or, as Bus points out, he still occasionally gives in to pressure and goes into the bush to show the young loggers how it should be done.

" I think the reason I did the book was that there were lots of books about logging done with lots of people that never spent a day in the woods. Someone would look at a picture of a bunch of fellas sitting at the side of a machine and people would wonder what does that machine do? So I thought we’d make a book showing what we used to do in the woods in those days only I’d make it comic book style," says Griffiths who was a big fan of pulp westerns that would circulate in the logging camps.

Combining factual history and a good yarn, the extraordinarily detailed and realistic panels produced with grease pencils tells the story of Al Richards and Red Harris, who go to work in a small west coast truck-logging show during the thirties. The style is robust and inadvertently reminiscent of the homoerotic technique of Tom of Finland. Included in the book is a lexicon of terms the loggers used to employ, giving the readers the opportunity to savour phrases like steam pot, salt chuck and hay burner.

It was while he was working on his fishing boat that Margaret, his wife of over fifty years, encouraged him to draw. "I missed the woods so much that I picked up a pencil while I was on the boat and brought it all back."

Griffiths’ comic reminds the reader of the historical culture of loggers.

"It used to be fun in the woods," says Griffiths. "The fellows who were working with you took a lot of pride in what they did. It didn’t matter what job a fellow had in the woods. Even if he was a whistlepunk (signal man on a yarding crew) he wanted to be the best whistlepunk. You were proud of what you were doing because you believed you were doing a job that the average person couldn’t do. Now it’s mostly machine work. Before we’d use our hands a lot. It surprises me now when you see fallers with stomachs hanging over their belts." Griffiths believes loggers are given a bad rap by the environmentalists. "First of all, most loggers I know are environmentalists. I mean what do they do all day? They spend time in the environment."


Just down the road from Bus off the old Vancouver Island highway in Fanny Bay is George Sawchuk and Pat Help’s place. The functional unassuming home that Sawchuk built over 20 years ago has a large vegetable garden which provides the couple with most of their food. The house is surrounded by a strip of bush that borders on wetlands leading to Baynes Sound. Today in the bush a couple of young neighbourhood kids are playing in the trees and amongst the art pieces that Sawchuk has been slowly incorporating into the woods that border his property. Later they will drop by to see if Sawchuk has baked any of the old-fashioned sugar cookies that they love.

Sawchuk, 75, has taken a break from rototilling to give me a personal tour of his woods. As he turns the rototiller off he comments, "A lot of headshrinkers and psychologists would be put out of work if everyone just gardened one or two hours a day." The forest gallery that borders on Sawchuk’s garden seamlessly blends with its surroundings heightening the sense of mystery that trees and wilderness provide. Using pieces of brass, copper, porcelain, mirrors and found objects--often discarded tools of various trades which Sawchuk has plundered in building what he refers to as totems--he creates with a sense of harmony between the man made and nature.

The sense of harmony that Sawchuk has added to the forest hasn’t always been appreciated. In 1997 he received an order to remove his art from where it extended about 100 yards from his property to adjacent crown land--as it had been declared a wildlife management area. After George’s neighbours and friends kicked up a fuss and signed petitions demanding that George’s work remain in the wildlife area, the long arm of the law decided to drop the whole matter. George talks about the number of people who now come to visit his forest gallery or "weird woods" as some of the neighbourhood kids call it. "I guess I’ve created some sort of park," he muses.

We stop to look at a giant chainsaw poking out and through both sides of a tree. "A friend asked me if I hurt the tree by doing that. Well I told him, maybe if he did it the tree would hurt but the way I cut it is an old technique we call rat-tailing or beaver-tailing."

Born in Kenora, the son a Ukrainian immigrant pulp mill worker, George was the eldest of three boys and three girls. Although he left school in Grade Six, Sawchuk’s early education did leave its mark. Throughout his training at a traditional Roman Catholic school, he also attended lessons in the Russian language and "World Politics" sponsored by the local Bolshevik (or Labour Hall) for two hours daily and on Saturday mornings.

At the age of fifteen Sawchuk winter-camped with a work crew near Kenora timber cruising, that is, scouting out timber for falling crews. It was the first of many labour adventures where George just barely escaped with his skin and a terrific story to tell. "All of our food was mushed in by a Native fella with a sled dog team," says Sawchuk. "The cook tent was so small that only three of us could fit into the tent. The others had to stand outside eating food with our mitts on. We had to eat the food real quick before it froze," he says chuckling. "Well, the musher didn’t show for a few days and we had no food. I remembered that he kept corn meal and beef tallow for his dogs at the camp. We ate that for three days," says Sawchuk making a face of disgust. He then concludes the story as he does many of his adventures, "But you know, it wasn’t too bad and they were all good fellows."

Faced with the choice of a life working for the pulp mill or the railroad, George grabbed a freight out of Kenora, "…as soon as I could reach the second rung of a freight car," he says. "They said I’d be back after a day or two. But I didn’t come back for 38 years and that was only for one night." Sawchuk headed out west for a life in logging camps, fishing boats and other manual labour jobs. He loved "buggering off" to the woods, working in gypo logging camps and escaping the constraints of people and the city.

"I’ve dragged enough bloody trees out of the bush in BC to build two to three million homes. But here comes the problem: Why is it I have to work all of my life just to own one of them? The balance isn’t there somehow. I guess you could say that growing up I was angry in a way. Angry in the way that things are set up: rich /poor, the haves and the have-nots. Some people are born with a silver spoon and some people are born with a shovel. It’s great to be an artist, they can’t control you. You can say whatever you want." Now that George has entered the art world he is often asked to give talks at art schools and universities. "I’ll talk about anything but art for the first thirty minutes or so," says Sawchuk. "I always leave them with this: Now that I’ve filled you up with my b.s., put aside your brush and your chisel. Put all that aside and go into the real world for the next 10, 15, 20 years. However long it takes. Now that you’ve crawled out of one womb, don’t make the same mistake as a lot of people and go crawling into another."


Framed by two enormous Douglas Firs in a clearing is a hotel. In 1887, the CPR began construction on a one hundred–room hotel "away out on the hill" on the corner of Georgia and Granville Streets in Vancouver. The Hotel Vancouver today now stands in the hustle and bustle of a city still on the edge of the wilderness. Walk down Georgia Street to Stanley Park and you are powerfully reminded and humbled by that history. Some still derisively refer to Vancouver as "Stumpville." A city just barely breaking free from the clutches of the forest.

Whether you are a tree hugger or you hug a logger, here in BC we define ourselves in relation to the forest and the ancient giants it protects. A 1,500 year old tree dates back before Columbus, Cartier, or Canada. This province has developed such a powerful relation -- economically culturally and socially with trees it has had an enormous effect on the people who live here.

A typical turn of the century photograph of life in BC will show a logger laying in the yawning maw of a partially logged tree, proudly demonstrating his prowess over the long standing beauty . To create cities in BC we had to conquer the forest – but if by some magic we were to vacate these cities for even a very short time, only decades perhaps, the forest – the jungle, would take over and swallow us whole.

The elders represented here have not forgotten that power.

A whole new environmental culture has now sprung up in response to the preservation of trees. In June of 1992 in Clayoquot Sound protesters started their blockade of the logging road. It remains the largest environmental blockade of its kind, resulting in mass arrests. Merve Wilkinson, an elder and a logger, was there to support the environmentalists but offered a much more balanced perspective. He knew that "no logging" was a pipe dream, so he spearheaded a different movement. Instead of "no logging," he stressed " no clearcutting" as an attainable goal. He got his point across, and the rallying cry of Clayoquot Sound became "No Clear Cutting!" instead of " No Logging!"

But still today, despite the knowledgeable work of elders including Wilkinson, Sawchuk and Brown, young ardent environmentalists cannot separate the forest for the trees. The Eik Street tree in Tofino which received national attention after the town battled over whether to ‘save’ the 800 year old tree or cut it down before it fell over and injured someone is a prime example. Today the tree stands with a giant steel ‘girdle’ around it. A monument to a denial of mortality. If an 800 year old tree falls by the side of the road in Tofino, it is probably tired.
On March 27,1999 a tree fell in Merve’s forest. Almost 300 people heard the sound and the words of blessing that accompanied it:

I have listened to the voice of time and have heard the elements sing- and now I know that my spirit will pass on. It will glide though the waters and fly with the wind – and follow the path of the stars. The end of my life will lead to the beginning of others. My spirit will travel on: the cycle complete and within the future, we all will meet.

The falling marked the beginning of the construction of Lifeship 2000, an ecologically built tall ship that will serve as the expedition for LIFE (Leadership Initiative For Earth). The ship will travel the world, spreading its message of peace and sustainable living on the planet. Long after he is gone, Wilkinson, like the forest that surround him, will continue to foster the growth of the young.
Merve Wilkinson stands in his cabin in the woods, his back stoops a little, and his hands are gnarled from gripping a chainsaw. But his smile is radiant and his enthusiasm infectious.

Grant Shilling is a regular contributor to BP. He edits and publishes The GIG – Gulf Islands Gazette – a rural alternative.
from broken pencil 20