Opinion

BC’s Prophet: The Ghost of Roderick Haig-Brown Speaks

New series revisits the famed writer’s eerily apt warnings on today’s big issues.

By Andrew Nikiforuk 19 Dec 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the energy industry for two decades and is a contributing editor to The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

[Editor's note: This series is drawn from Andrew Nikiforuk’s talk “Why Haig-Brown Matters More than Ever,” given last month in Campbell River at the Seventh Annual Haig Brown Memorial Lecture. A PDF is available here.]

In 1965 the man that Life magazine once lionized “as the most eloquent of modern-day fishing prose writers” gave a barnburner of a speech in Victoria. Roderick Haig-Brown told the Canadian Authors Association at Victoria’s Empress Hotel that he hated the present Socred government. He described British Columbia as a profligate province and listed what he hated most:

“The shoddy, uncaring development of our natural resources, the chamber of commerce mentality which favors short-term material gain over all other consideration, the utter contempt for human values of every kind.”

He went on. He accused the province’s shallow and greedy politicians of possessing a “trivial provincial mentality” that sought “petty advantage at cost to the common weal.” Perhaps the most unnerving thing about his “I hate what B.C. stands for” speech remains its outstanding relevance.

Thanks to the looming threat of oil tankers, bitumen pipelines and LNG terminals, the content of the talk and its emotion remains as timely today as it did more than 50 years ago. For Haig-Brown, as he often did, highlighted an enduring cultural defect that still plagues our political affairs. And that’s just one reason why “Roddy,” as his friends called him, is more important than ever.

By any measure, Haig-Brown was a unique and visionary voice in a nation that has never been terribly impressed with the idea of conservation. As rural dweller and social critic, he listened to what the rivers and forests had to say and was never afraid to write about the wonder of existence. He believed in truth and accuracy and recognized there were limits to the human adventure. His life and words not only made a conservation movement possible, but also proved its necessity.

Ultimately what the salmon and other fish told him was to love and care for this finite planet: “Man must make himself small and humble to live within it rather than a ruthless giant to conquer it.”

Roderick Haig-Brown died at the age of 68 in 1976. Yet his insights prove startlingly relevant today. Booms and busts. Sustainable forestry. Wild salmon. Site C. LNG. Saving species. Each day this week, this Tyee series will summon Haig-Brown’s wisdom and warnings on a different contentious B.C. issue.

The wild colonial boy

So just who the hell was this philosopher of Campbell River, B.C., and why do his words resonate so powerfully today? Born in Sussex, England in 1908, Haig-Brown was the youngest son of a distinguished Victorian educator. When Roddy was but 10 years old, German machine gun bullets killed his father during the Great War. A grandfather and an uncle then taught the boy how to bag a pigeon and snare a pike and focus on the job at hand. He fought his first environmental battle at the age of 16 when he wrote about the impact of pollutants from road tar spilling into fish-bearing waters.

His family thought that Haig-Brown should become another member of England’s managerial class and sent him off to Charterhouse School, an oppressive Victorian institution. There the young man rebelled at the rules and spent a lot of time carousing in London. The school promptly expelled him. His family then sent the 18-year-old off to lumber camps in the New World. They thought the experience might drive the teenager into the security of Colonial Civil Service.

But the New World had other plans. The young immigrant started out as a scaler in the Cascade Mountains in Washington state. He later recalled standing in the mountains on one sunny and bright day where he had to measure a whole side of newly felled trees. “The smell of things was something out of this world. And I almost feel that was the day I was born.”

Faced with an expiring U.S. visa, he then wandered up to Nimpkish River on Vancouver Island where he worked as a surveyor. That job demanded that he walk through dense rainforest and map out unspoiled stands of Douglas fir before the felling crews arrived. The richness of the landscape and the abundance of fish dumbfounded him. On the Nimpkish River the wild frontier became his tutor. The destruction and waste appalled him. Even his fellow loggers muttered, “This can’t last.”

Unlike his fellow loggers, Haig-Brown, a maverick outsider who never finished school, still read the odes of Horace at night. While others drank themselves into oblivion, Haig-Brown pondered the Roman’s lyrical questions, “Why do we struggle so hard in our brief lives for possessions?”

Learning to think like a cougar

The young man probably got his first lesson in ecology from Cecil Smith, a famed cougar hunter. Smith, a small man and another English immigrant, lived as large as Daniel Boone on the Island. In the early 1900s Smith discovered he had a knack for tracking the felines as well as guiding pompous European aristocrats on hunting trips and Tyee fishing expeditions.

At the time the provincial government categorized wildlife into one of two camps: they were either game or vermin. Cougars, well-evolved generalists and masters of the ambush, ate just about anything and got stuck with the vermin label. They weren’t alone. The federal government regarded sea lions and basking sharks as salmon predators that robbed humans of dinner and therefore machine-gunned them. For every “noxious pest” Smith bagged, he earned a government bounty of $40. During his lifetime Smith and his well-trained dogs probably dispatched as many as 1,000 cougars.

On the Island it became increasingly obvious to Haig-Brown that immigrants had created the so-called cougar problem by unsettling the order of things in the forest. Haig-Brown witnessed the transformation first hand. By mowing down ancient forests, loggers created carpets of grassland for deer, and their populations exploded faster than Norwegian rats. At the same time colonial settlers introduced cows and sheep to graze on stump farms. Cougars took advantage of this Pacific European smorgasbord, and their numbers also exploded.

But Haig-Brown wasn’t so much interested in Smith’s killing prowess as he was in the man’s unparalleled tracking skills and knowledge of the country. In 1931 and 1932, the 25-year-old paired up with the 58-year-old hunter to improve his woodcraft and knowledge of the land. As the poet Al Purdy relates, the “the physically exuberant, gung-ho, cockadoodle-do kid” and “the old bounty hunter roamed the woods companionably together, chasing the big cats.” They smoked cigarettes and marched and thought like predators.

The experience helped Haig-Brown collect all the research he needed for his remarkable book Panther. It also convinced him of the absurdity of predator control. He later wrote that “sportsmen who elect to assume responsibility for controlling predators seem to be enormously presumptuous. They are saying in effect that the natural world is theirs and all that is in it.” Still later he asked how is it that seals, salmon, bears, sea lions and whales all managed to live together for millions of years before humans presumed to save them from themselves. By 1935, he had already given up cougar and deer hunting.

A visionary finds fame on Vancouver Island

During a brief return to England in the early 1930s Haig-Brown realized that British Columbia was now really his home. The realization hit him as he picked festering thorns of devil’s club from his arms and shoulders while finishing his first book on salmon. Canada, he thought, just made him feel alive in more ways than one.

When Haig-Brown returned to the coast, he sank his roots in Campbell River. He married Ann Elmore, a Seattle girl with a rich library and Catholic sense of justice and community. Together they built a life and family on a stump farm by the waters that always ran through his life.

Almost everything Haig-Brown has written — and he penned more than 25 books in his lifetime including two novels — dealt with coming to terms with the revelations of place. How do we make an honest living in lands we have abused? How do we find the genius of a place? How do we determine limits? How do we restore what we have destroyed?

Haig-Brown defended the right to live watchfully and carefully the life uniquely granted to him and his family in Campbell River. In the process, the salmon lover became one of Canada’s best-known writers but also one of its sharpest critics of relentless resource extraction. By 1952, he had already sold more than 300,000 books.

Tomorrow: Roderick Haig-Brown on B.C.’s great divide between those who ‘stick’ to the place and those who just smash, grab and go.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics, Environment

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