by David Suzuki
After an especially cold winter in Edmonton, I accepted a position at the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, in 1963, returning at last to the city of my birth. With a young family, I repeated the example of my parents, planning camping and fishing trips for my children so that they could experience nature. Every weekend, we would try to get out into a new area, following leads provided by others, driving along country and logging roads around Vancouver to reach isolated rivers and lakes.
I had been at UBC for about a year when I heard about a logging road near Squamish that would take us to a river that was supposed to contain good-sized rainbow. So one Sunday, I loaded my children, Tamiko and Troy, into the car and took off for a day trip. Passing Squamish, we left the pavement for a dirt road and soon encountered a sign announcing that we were entering forest company land, where logging trucks had the right of way. The road was in excellent condition and wound through the hills for kilometers. In the area being actively logged, the forest had been cleared and the debris that was left gathered up into great piles to be burned. Having spent most of my life in the east, I wasn’t especially disturbed by the logging; after all, I loved working with wood in carpentry and used a lot of paper at work, and I knew that forestry was the engine of the B.C. economy. Besides, the logging roads enabled me to get into remote parts of the province.
When the road finally neared the river, I drove up a hill and found a level spot on the shoulder. We put on our day packs, picked up our fishing gear, and set off. All around us was a combat zone where the soil had been churned up by the tracks of heavy machines, and all that remained of the immense trees were huge stumps and roots that projected at garish angles among the slash. From the top of the hill, the logged-out clearing had looked deceptively smooth and easy to traverse, but once we had left the roadside and started to descend the hill, it became tough slogging to get by the debris. Time after time, I was forced to hoist the children up over obstructions. What I had thought would be an easy ten-minute hike turned into an hour, but once committed, I wasn’t about to give up. I kept bantering with the children and playing games with them as we worked out way across the clearing. I was far too focused on the challenge of traversing the clearing to reflect on the fact that this was a war zone where human economic demands were conflicting with the continuation of the community of life making up the ecosystem.
It was a sunny day and I soon found myself sweating profusely, kicking myself for not bringing any water and worrying about the children. After much puffing and unjamming of the rods I was carrying from branches and debris, we finally reached the trees at the edge of the logged area. Stepping out of the glare and heat of the clearing and into the dark, cool cathedral of trees was an absolute shock, like stepping from a hot city street into an air-conditioned building. Embraced by the cool shade of the trees, we inhaled the damp, musky odour of vegetation and decaying tree carcasses. We were enfolded in silence. The children immediately stopped bickering and complaining and began to whisper just as if they were in a church. As our eyes adjusted to the shade, we saw that the forest floor was cloaked with moss that smoothed everything into an undulating carpet. The bodies of great leviathans of fallen trees could be seen in outline under the moss, in death nurturing a community of huckleberry, sword ferns, and small trees. As we searched for a trickle of water to drink, the cracking of branches under our feet was muffled by the vegetation. High above us, the canopy stretched to the sky with green branches and needles jockeying for a place in the sun and allowing an ever-shifting filigree of speckled light onto the forest floor. As terrestrial creatures, we could only wonder at the drama of life cycles and predation taking place in the nooks and crannies of the branch tips, needles, and leaves of the canopy and in the soil community hidden beneath our feet. Tamiko, Troy, and I joined hands and reached around the circumference of one of the trees, not even reaching halfway around. Those giants must have been hundreds of years old.
I was dumbstruck. Nature had always been my touchstone, but I had spent much of my life in Ontario, where forests had been heavily impacted and altered by people. There trees had been extracted, creeks rerouted, and the soil cultivated or developed. This was a forest shaped by the forces of nature for ten thousand years, a community of life where death gave birth to new life in an endless recycling of nutrients through the countless species that make up a forest. We had stepped into it from the edge of industrial logging, which would soon transform it into something infinitely simplified and unrecognizable. In those few minutes that my children and I had entered into the forest temple, I had recognized the terrible hubris of the human economy. To transform this matrix of life forms, soil, water and air into a war zone were soil, air, water and life were so degraded was a travesty of stewardship and responsibility to future generations. I didn’t articulate it in that way at the time. I only knew in a profoundly visceral way that industrial logging was not right, that the magnificent forest we had entered was an entity far beyond our comprehension and was worthy of respect and veneration.
I had been set up to have that inspiration encounter with an old-growth forest after reading Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring, in 1962. Years later, I would encounter First Nations people who would educate me about our kinship with other species and the way in which we were all interconnected and interdependent. But that encounter with an ancient forest on the edge of a clear-cut was my moment of enlightenment.
Today, when my grandchildren beg me to go fishing with them, I can’t take them to Spanish Banks or the mouths of the Fraser or the Vedder River or other places where my father took me. I can’t go back to fish in the Thames River, which is so polluted that people recoil at the thought of eating anything caught there. I can’t return to the swamp that soothed me during my adolescence, for it is now covered with an immense shopping mall and parking lot. And the forest that was my epiphany was felled within weeks of my visit there. What remains is my conviction that we must discover our biological place and learn to live in balance with the natural world that sustains us.