The Tooth of the Human Race - The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant

The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed - John Vaillant (2006)

Chapter 6. The Tooth of the Human Race

I am the tooth of the human race,

Biting its way through the forest vast,

Chip by chip, and tree by tree,

’Til the fields gleam forth at last,

Eating its heart with keen delight,

Into the groaning tree I bite.

Every stroke the land doth bless,

And joy o’er flows the wilderness.

—Donald A. Fraser, “The Song of the Axe,” adapted by Margaret Horsfield

JOHN MEARES MAY HAVE had a vision, but he wasn’t the first European to look at the New World and see a navy in the trees. Everyone who set eyes on the North American coast, from Columbus and Cabot forward, noted the vast quantities of timber, but the English were the first to systematically exploit it. Like the Romans, Greeks, and Sumerians before them, the English had an insatiable appetite for wood; as a result, the thickly forested British Isles had been reduced, largely, to pastureland before Meares was born. By the time he made captain, the British Empire was the closest thing to a superpower the world had ever known, an achievement due, in large part, to her formidable and far-ranging navy. Wooden ships pioneered global trade and transoceanic empire building, but they did so in part to perpetuate themselves (a rough rule of thumb for gauging the timber needed to build a late eighteenth-century warship was an acre of oak forest per cannon). Tall, knot-free pine for masts and spars had become hard to find in western Europe, and it was for these that royal shipwrights turned to North America. Up until 150 years ago, a forest of straight, sturdy pine was as valuable as an oil field or a uranium mine today: it was a critical source of energy (i.e., sail power) without which a nation could not fully realize its commercial or military ambitions.

By the time Captains Cook and Meares arrived in the North Pacific, agents of the British Crown had already been logging the “pineries” of eastern North America for more than a century. Ships’ masts were one of the New World’s first significant exports, along with cod, potash (derived from charcoal), and beaver pelts. As early as 1605, samples of white pine from Maine were being sent back to England for testing by the Royal Navy, and by 1691 England’s “Broad Arrow Policy” was in effect. Reflecting the wholesale audacity of the times, this highly unpopular decree stated that any trees twenty-four inches or more in diameter located within three miles of water were automatically the property of the king. Lest there be any confusion about whose woods these were, the royal mark of the broad arrow was blazed into their bark. The marked trees were considered so valuable that mast ships—custom built to accommodate long timbers—travelled in convoy with armed escorts.

Three hundred years on, such zealous precautions seem almost quaint, and yet they offer a graphic measure of the true value of wood, a substance whose importance in our history and evolution is almost impossible to overestimate. Throughout most of the world, and for most of human history, wood has been the principal source of fuel and building material, providing heat, light, and shelter as well as food, clothing, and weapons. Nowhere is this dependence more vividly evident than in North America. Trees, it could be said, represent the bones of our collective body. So central have they been to our existence that an archaeologist examining the iconography of New England settlers in the seventeenth century might reasonably suppose that these devout Christians were really druids or had simply “gone native.” In 1652, after decades of using a motley assortment of currencies, ranging from Native wampum to tobacco and Spanish silver, the Massachusetts Bay Colony began minting its own money. These crude coins were not decorated with crosses, kings, or familiar symbols of liberty, they were embossed with trees, specifically, pine, oak, and willow. “What better way to portray the wealth of our country?” wrote the coins’ die maker, Joseph Jenks. Likewise, early “American” flags were not the star-spangled banners we are used to seeing, but rather banners honouring the tree. New England’s first flag looked much like Vermont’s does today. In some cases, the flags themselves were made of wood. From upstate New York to Florida and Texas, the United States is still dotted with “treaty oaks” where historic agreements were signed between early settlers and local tribes. Trees were the continent’s first churches, government buildings, and fortresses, and their iconic importance—like that of the golden spruce for the Haida—has persisted into the space age: the Canadian maple leaf flag dates only to 1965.

But the reverence that trees engendered was not always extended to the forests they came from; most New World settlers arrived from pastoral places long since cleared for agriculture and grazing land, and a boundless treescape thriving with unfamiliar people and animals was a shock. It wasn’t just the continent’s scale they found so overwhelming, but its dense and endless secrecy: the forest is an introverted wilderness; it offers risk and refuge in equal measure. Robin Hood found sanctuary there, but so did Little Red Riding Hood’s wolf (who, in the end, was killed by a woodcutter). While the armies of empires dominate the open plain, rebels and patriots gain advantage in the shelter of the trees—right beside outcasts, outlaws, and mystics. The woods provide food and building materials, and yet they also disorient and impede progress. Until relatively recently, such North American staple-food species as deer, elk, bison, and caribou inhabited the forest from coast to coast, but so did wolves, bears, and mountain lions, creatures that continue to fascinate, terrify—and kill us—to this day.

Before the arrival of Europeans, the Native peoples used fire as an effective, if haphazard, method of driving game and opening up these great forests for cropland and “pasturage” for game animals, but those sun-dappled parklands extended only so far. Although most North American tribes made their homes in or near the forest, virtually all of them told stories of a foul-smelling, flesh-eating monster that lurked in the woods beyond the village. Stories such as “Hansel and Gretel” are the Old World equivalent; the 1998 film The Blair Witch Project succeeded in part because it tapped into these same deeply rooted fears. In his book Of Plimoth Plantation, published in 1651, the Pilgrim William Bradford described the low forests of Cape Cod as a “hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” He was not alone; for many of the early settlers, clearing the land was not just a necessity, it was a sacrament—an act of holy alchemy in which the dark, evil, and worthless was transformed into something light, virtuous, and fruitful. Profitable, too. Once those settlers who hadn’t fled back to England moved out of their (literal) holes in the ground, learned to use the canoe and grow local crops (usually in Native fields), the entrepreneurial spirit wasted no time in elbowing the Holy Spirit aside. Fortunes were made on wood exports to denuded England and Spain as well as the West Indies. By 1675 hundreds of sawmills were operating throughout New England and Atlantic Canada.

LOGGING IS AN INDUSTRY THAT, while unseen by most of us, has altered this continent—indeed, all inhabited continents—even more completely than agriculture. This has been the case, not since 1867, or 1620, or 1066, but for millennia. Logging is the prerequisite to life as we know it: first and foremost, the trees must go. In this sense, the woodcutter has been the pointman for Western civilization (indeed, all civilizations). Not only has he imposed a tidy, “rational” order on nature’s apparent chaos, but he has provided the space and materials that have allowed us to feed and build our society, and to spread its message to the farthest corners of the globe. In fact, it has often been the quest for still more wood that has led us there.

If one were to encapsulate the entire history of Western logging into a thirty-second film, its effect on the Northern Hemisphere would be comparable to the effect of the eruption of Mount St. Helens on the surrounding forest: both represent irresistible waves of energy that originated in a relatively small, specific area and expanded rapidly, levelling everything in their path. The earliest known reference to western logging dates from around 3000 B.C.; it comes from the Mesopotamian city kingdom of Uruk in what is now Iraq. There, in the so-called cradle of civilization, logging of a kind that we would recognize today (i.e., the cutting and trading of wood for commercial and nation-building purposes) built cities and navies before spreading steadily westward, ever faster, across Asia Minor and Europe until it reached the Americas, where the pace would quicken to a sweeping blur. Left behind are landscapes we take for granted, though they bear scant resemblance to their preagricultural states. The Lebanese flag has a cedar tree on it because much of what is now desert was thickly forested before the harbingers of civilization—i.e., woodcutters, farmers, and goats—saw to it that large stands of cedar will never grace the Holy Land again. The stark and sere limestone hills that we think of as typical Greek and Italian landscape were once all but invisible beneath a layer of long-gone topsoil held in place by forests of cedar and oak. The pastoral idyll that is rural Europe was once a pillared and leaf-domed shadowland inhabited by bears, wolves, and tribespeople who held the forest to be sacred. Those witch-and fairy-infested treescapes evoked so vividly by Shakespeare and the brothers Grimm actually existed, but with the exception of a few forgotten pockets and a handful of parks, they have not been seen “in person” for hundreds of years.

Had they been available even two hundred years ago, aerial photographs of North America would have revealed a strangely familiar landscape. Instead of the contemporary tic-tac-toe board of browns and grays and greens whose uniformity is interrupted only by the occasional wrinkle of foothills and mountain ranges, North America would have reminded us of Dark Age Europe—or perhaps the Amazon. With the exception of the Prairies and the desert southwest, the continent would have presented a virtually unbroken carpet of forest that stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Gulf of Alaska. The total represents a nearly incalculable amount of wood—in the trillions of board feet—and yet the speed with which it has been cut, burned, and, in many cases, simply squandered—is unparalleled.

IT WAS ONLY A FEW GENERATIONS after Europeans began altering this landscape in earnest that an alternative view of the forest and its inhabitants began to emerge: salvation, claimed the Romantic philosophers and writers, lay not in a tame and planted landscape, but in the raw wilderness. But the proponents of these views tended to come from settled areas and knew little of the deep forest, or of the labour required to clear it. In 1864, when much of the New England wilderness had been brought to heel, one of nature’s most fervent eulogists, Henry David Thoreau, would still find the great Maine woods to be a little more “natural” than he had bargained for. Far from the comforts of suburban Concord, he came away shaken; this great, unkempt northern forest was “savage and dreary,” he wrote, “more lone than you can imagine” and “even more grim and wild than you had anticipated.”

Thoreau made these observations as North America’s wood consumption was exploding. Between land clearing, fuel burning, and construction, spectacular quantities were being devoured by a continent in the throes of full-blown expansion. The industrial revolution, combined with rapidly expanding settlement and a deluge of immigrants, accelerated the process of digesting forests exponentially. The circular saw—the whirling heart of every North American sawmill—had been introduced from England in 1814. 1828 saw the arrival of the planing machine, which allowed for the rapid manufacture of floorboards. Five years later, balloon construction (the fast, cheap, and simple technique of building with two-by-fours covered with sheathing) was introduced in Chicago; it remains the most popular method for constructing houses today. Prefabricated housing followed shortly after, being used to shelter California gold rushers in the 1850s; by this time there were factories capable of producing an unheard-of one hundred panel doors in a single day, and multi-bladed “muley” saws that could reduce a whole log to a stack of boards in one pass. By 1840 there were more than thirty thousand sawmills, shingle factories, and related wood-processing establishments operating east of the Mississippi River (more than six thousand in New York State alone). Between 1850 and 1860, more than 150,000 square kilometres of North American forest was liquidated. In 1867, one of the first inventions specifically designed for mass disposability arrived in the form of the paper bag. By 1900 North Americans were felling and clearing in excess of fifty billion board feet of timber per year. By 1930, Canada was the world’s leading producer of wood pulp for newsprint (an industry that employed more than one hundred thousand men).

The European settlers of North America mastered their environment as no one had before; not only were they logging the continent faster than anyone else in history, they were putting its wood to a more magnificent array of uses. So sophisticated were craftsmen in its many applications that by 1825 even something as simple as a chair might contain fifteen species of New World wood. Each kind served a specific structural or aesthetic purpose, and together they created a nearly seamless and synergistic whole with a versatility, durability, and strength-to-weight-to-cost ratio unequalled by any other building material. To this day, there is none to match it. Standing on the shoulders of imported technology, which was arriving almost daily in the minds and luggage of immigrants, New World inventors and craftsmen were transforming trees into everything from shoes, clocks, and sewer pipes to canyon-spanning trestle bridges and—eventually—airplanes and celluloid film.

While timber shortages had forced the British to rely increasingly heavily on coal throughout the seventeenth century, wood remained the dominant fuel in North America for another two hundred years. By 1870 eight million cords of wood were disappearing into the fire-boxes of North American locomotives annually—enough to build nearly seven hundred thousand homes. Meanwhile, the iron furnaces of western Massachusetts were consuming forty square kilometres of forest per year. In the same period, the sawmills of central Maine would generate a quarter of a million cubic metres of waste wood. It is estimated that a quarter of all the timber that passed through mid-nineteenth-century mills came out as sawdust, and all of it had to be burned for reasons of safety. Mills were usually located along waterways, and not only did the great quantities of sawdust and wood scrap create hazards to navigation, but these, along with logjams, would sometimes catch fire, causing rivers to burn for weeks, just as they would from oil and chemical pollution a century later.

Seasonal burning of cropland and forest scrub has been standard procedure since prehistoric times, and the incineration of sawmill scrap and forest slash only added to the acrid cloud hanging over much of the New World. So thick and persistent was this pall of smoke that it often paralyzed shipping traffic on major rivers. In 1868 lighthouses were recommended as a navigational aid on Oregon’s Willamette River—not for the winter fogs, but for the autumn fires. Throughout the United States and Canada, logging practices transformed the forest itself into a major fire hazard. Where the buffalo skinners left small mountains of skulls and bones in their wake, the loggers left slash piles—jagged heaps of highly flammable forest trash that could be hectares across and four metres deep. Far more concentrated than naturally occurring forest fuel, slash piles were conflagrations waiting to happen, and when, inevitably, they did, the results were apocalyptic. Survivors frequently recalled their conviction that Judgment Day was at hand, and it was in reference to the most lethal of these holocausts that the term “firestorm” was coined. On the same day as the Great Chicago Fire, in 1871, the Peshtigo, Wisconsin, fire burned 1,200,000 acres (about 5,000 square kilometres) in twenty-four hours and killed an estimated 1,500 people—so many that hundreds of the dead were buried in mass graves because there was no one left to identify them. In 1886 the young city of Vancouver, then consisting of about a thousand wooden buildings, was burned to the ground by a runaway slash fire in what was conservatively estimated to be about forty-five minutes. In 1894 twelve towns were destroyed and 418 people immolated or asphyxiated in the Hinckley, Minnesota, fire. Survivors described exploding “fire balloons” and corkscrewing flames spinning with such force in their self-generated winds that they tore trees from the ground and sent them whirling through the blackened sky like blazing pinwheels. Another slash fire in Seney, Michigan, burned with such ferocity that it cauterized the ground. The Midwest is pocked with such “stump prairies,” many of which remain virtual wastelands to this day.

Even at this late date, with much of the East and Midwest “slicked off,” the forest was still perceived as “an enemy to be overcome by any means, fair or foul.” The push to open the West, coupled with the sweeping cultural changes effected by the industrial revolution and urbanization led to the woods being viewed—and treated—with a kind of aggressive contempt. The noun “lumber” was itself derogatory, meaning anything useless or cumbersome. North American immigrants were a restive people who tended to view land less as a “place” than as a cheap commodity. They cut the forest the way they breathed the air—as if it were free and infinite.

This is easy enough to say from the vantage point of twenty-first-century North America, where the experience of clearing wild land by hand is virtually unknown, but the act of removing branches, trunks, and roots from even half a hectare of thick forest was back-breaking—sometimes heartbreaking—work. Estimates vary as widely as the terrain, but, roughly speaking, it would take two men a year to make barely five hectares of eastern forest “fit for the plough.” Most of those trees were felled with an axe. This crude but effective tool originated in the Stone Age and yet it has remained in wide usage throughout the world ever since. In 1850 it would have been as ubiquitous as the telephone is today; just about everyone would have known how to handle one. Axes—along with chainsaws—are still standard equipment for professional woodsmen, and they were used actively for tree falling—even on the West Coast—into the 1950s. But the “axe age,” as one historian calls it, reached its zenith in the late nineteenth century, and the North American version represented its highest state of evolution. During one demonstration, a man named Peter McLaren hacked his way through a thirty-three-centimetre gum tree log in forty-seven seconds. Dozens of manufacturers, competing with hundreds of styles, had elevated this humble implement from a mere tool to a potent—even sexualized—facilitator of manifest destiny. Model names were often an axe’s only distinguishing characteristic, and many sound as if they were dreamed up by the same ad agencies that promote motorcycles and firearms today. Climax, Demon, Endurance, Cock of the Woods, Red Warrior, Hiawatha, Hottentot, Black Prince, Black Chief, Battle Axe, Invincible, XXX Chopper, Woodslasher, Razor Blade, Stiletto, Forest King, and Young American were just a few of the choices. One model, for sale in Vancouver, was called the Gorilla.

BY THE MIDDLE OF THE nineteenth century, the boundaries between British and American territories (and forests) were painfully clear on the Northeast Coast, but they remained far more tenuous in the Pacific Northwest. After the Spanish had been factored out of the northwestern equation in 1795, Britain and the United States were left to divvy up this huge, unwieldy slice of the continental pie. Unable to agree on a boundary dividing the western portion of British Canada from the rapidly expanding United States, the two rivals settled on a kind of territorial joint custody. From 1818 to 1845, Oregon Territory, a vast area extending from present-day Oregon’s southern border all the way to southeast Alaska, was declared an “area of joint occupancy.” Thus, for almost thirty years the Queen Charlotte Islands were considered part of Oregon, despite the fact that they were 1,500 kilometres from the Columbia River and a day’s sail from the nearest land. Meanwhile, the British-owned Hudson’s Bay Company was operating one of the West Coast’s first lumber mills on the Columbia, five hundred kilometres south of the current U.S.-Canadian border. The situation became intolerable and, in 1846, under pressure from President James Polk and his saber-rattling campaign slogan, “Fifty-four forty or fight!”*6 the current boundary was determined by the Treaty of Oregon. Eight years later the colony of British Columbia was created, but in 1858 the province was invaded by tens of thousands of American gold miners, who posed yet another threat to British sovereignty.

By this time, the West Coast otter trade was finished. The Nor’westmen didn’t linger in those barren waters but quickly redirected their efforts toward seals and inland fur species. At the same time, masts and spars, harvested from the mainland coast during layovers, became an increasingly important part of the West Coast traders’ cargo; much of it was sold at Hawai’i, which had by then become a major crossroads for Pacific whalers and traders. Meanwhile, after their heady, destabilizing ride on the fur-driven economic bubble, the Haida came down with a crash. The otter, it turned out, was more than a spirit relation and a source of clothing, it was a bellwether for the tribe. Once it was gone, the Haida were reduced to selling carvings to passing sailors and trading potatoes with former enemies. While their steel weapons rusted and their European clothes turned to rags, a biological holocaust of smallpox, influenza, tuberculosis, and venereal disease swept up the coast and over the islands. The Haida and their mainland neighbours died by the tens of thousands; villages turned to ghost towns; the culture was changed forever. In less than three generations, a legendary nation of untold age had traded its first otter skins to Europeans, glowed with a feverish intensity it had never known before, and flamed out. Miners, missionaries, Indian agents, and settlers followed, but the archipelago wouldn’t attract the world’s attention again for nearly a century. Next time, they would come for the trees.

For now, there was more than enough wood down south to keep the newcomers busy. In fact, it was almost too much of a good thing. Both the coastal forests and the country in which they grew were so grossly out of scale in comparison to anything the pioneers had seen previously that many were at a loss as to how to proceed. “The great size of the Timber and the thick growth of the underwood have been sadly against us in clearing the ground,” wrote James McMillan, founder of Fort Langley, which was built in 1827, fifty kilometres upriver from present-day Vancouver. “[T]he jungle on the banks of the [Fraser] River is almost impenetrable and the trees within are many of them three fathoms [five-and-a-half metres] in circumference, and upward of two hundred feet [sixty metres] high.”

“When I stood among those big trees,” wrote a pioneer woman shortly after her arrival on the coast, “I felt so afraid, of what I do not know. Just afraid.”

“I raised my eyes to the sky and could see nothing but the worthless timber that covered everything,” wrote another. Even if you succeeded in knocking one of these monsters over, how would you dispose of it, much less remove the sprawling stump so you could do something useful with the land such as plant crops or feed your animals? Some advocated abandoning the region altogether; as late as 1881, when settlers had already established a solid foothold on the Northwest Coast, a London magazine editor wrote, “British Columbia is a barren, cold mountain country that is not worth keeping. Fifty railroads would not galvanize it into prosperity.” Prosperity, of course, was the name of the game; the Bible decreed it, and the government encouraged it. If not for profit, advancement, or adventure, why else would one leave all that was safe and familiar to do battle with giants? The notion of forest conservation, a practice that had only recently caught on in Europe, was anathema in a land of such awesome bounty. The problem of the day was not how to preserve or manage the forest, but how to master it, fulfill the mandate of manifest destiny, and turn this infinity of trees, and the land on which they stood, into something productive.

IN 1852, FAR TO THE SOUTH, the first giant sequoia was felled—not for the fantastic amount of wood it contained—but simply to prove that it could be done. However, with the California gold rush in full swing and San Francisco booming, it didn’t take the Americans long to figure out what to do with all that wood. Within a decade, they had secured a virtual monopoly on the West Coast timber market. Companies with such names as the Douglas Fir Exploitation and Export Company were doing a brisk business out of San Francisco, handling the wide and flawless timber coming south from the coastal sawmills of Oregon and Washington. Meanwhile, north of the border, in British Columbia, a wood supply that dwarfed even the vast U.S. reserves was languishing. As early as 1864, the British Columbian lamented that

the numerous and extensive milling establishments on Puget Sound [Washington] have enabled our enterprising neighbours…to enjoy much of a monopoly of the great lumber trade of this Coast. Although we have harbours and pineries not one whit inferior to theirs…they, having so much the start of us, have thoroughly established trade, whereas we have to a great extent yet to make ourselves known abroad.

Canada was not yet confederated when this was written, but it articulated a disadvantage that, to this day, continues to plague the country, which has a population and a GDP one tenth the size of its southern neighbour’s. In an effort to rectify the situation, resource maps and promotional pamphlets with titles such as British Columbia’s Supreme Advantage in Climate, Resources, Beauty and Life were liberally distributed in the east. “It makes little difference to the people of western Canada where the money comes from,” observed a turn-of-the-century writer in a trade magazine called Western Canada Lumberman, “as long as the country is developed.” In keeping with the spirit of the times, Vancouver’s official motto paid no Latin lip service to Truth, Duty, Faith, or Light; instead, it sounds more like a corporate slogan: “By Sea and Land We Prosper.” Not surprisingly, a lot of development capital came from American investors. John D. Rockefeller optioned thousands of acres of prime forest on Vancouver Island, while Michigan timber magnate Frederick Weyerhaeuser—along with the famous California railroad owner and university founder, Leland Stanford, and others—invested in railroads whose primary purpose was to access lucrative B.C. timberland.

Technical expertise was imported as well; it was Matt Hemmingsen, a logger out of Wisconsin, who was brought out to Vancouver Island to break up one of the biggest logjams in West Coast history. Most of the early loggers on the coast were easterners coming out of Nova Scotia, Maine, and the Midwest, where floating logs downriver to market was standard practice, but the huge timber of the Northwest was ill-suited to this method as it tended to run aground. A particularly bad logjam could pile up as much as twenty-five metres high, and when Hemmingsen arrived on the scene, he was confronted with a tangled snake of giant timber eight kilometres long. In the end, he broke it up by blasting all the river bends.

British Columbia’s timber industry didn’t really come into its own until after World War I, and it was due in large part to Harvey Reginald MacMillan. “H.R.” Macmillan was a penniless, fatherless boy from a small Quaker community outside of Toronto who entered Yale’s school of forestry in 1906; he went on to become British Columbia’s first chief forester and, later, a bona fide timber tycoon who, it was said, “would be selling to the moon if he could get delivery.” He very nearly did; in 1915, in an effort to challenge the U.S. timber industry’s stranglehold on West Coast exports, MacMillan literally circumnavigated the globe, drumming up business for B.C. wood products. His efforts paid off handsomely, and for much of the twentieth century his name was synonymous with Canada’s largest wood products corporation. In time, MacMillan Bloedel’s holdings would extend from southeast Asia all the way to the Yakoun River and the golden spruce.