A Visual History
Once upon an Island:
Images of Vancouver Island
by Michael Orton,
Coming Home to Powell Street
by Tamio Wakayama,
The Fraser Valley:
by John Cherrington,
Working in the Woods:
A History of Logging on the West Coast
by Ken Drushka,
Where the People Gather
by Vickie Jensen,
Cork Lines & Canning Lines
by Geoff Meggs, Duncan Stacey,
Behind the Chutes:
The Mystique of the Rodeo Cowboy
by Rosamond Norbury,
Post Your Opinion
|At the Cutting Edge
by Pat Barclay
WHEN YOU COME right down to it, there are really only two kinds of people in the world: those who succumb to the age-old vice of greed and those who resist it. When the planet was big enough for everyone, greed could still be categorized as one of the seven deadly sins, on a low but recognizably human par with such other unpleasantnesses as sloth and envy. In the environmental pressurecooker of today, however, familiar human greed - because of what we now know about its devastating consequences - has become what I once heard a nutrition expert call cigarette smoking: "psychotic behaviour,"
Unfortunately, with few exceptions, our tolerance of greed seems to increase in direct proportion to the role it plays in our societies. One of those exceptions is evident in the polarized political climate of British Columbia, where conflict between the let-me-at-its and the let-it-be-ers has a long history and is very much alive and flourishing to this day. Most of the eight books reviewed here reveal their authors' sensitivity to this reality of life in beautiful B.C., for British Columbia is at the cutting edge of more than a continent. The struggles among its people over the vast resources in their keeping are a proving ground for the kind of creative tensions that could still save the Earth.
Totem poles are so familiar a sight in modern, tourist-conscious B.C. that, at first glance, a book on how one of them came into being seems about as necessary as wasps at a picnic. But Where the People Gather: Carving a Totem Pole (Douglas & McIntyre, 175 pages, $29.95 cloth), by Vickie Jensen, is worthwhile on two levels: it explains why, despite several recent attempts, this particular art form can never be appropriated convincingly by non-Natives, and it tells the heartening story of how five individuals developed into a creative team in pursuit of something larger than themselves. Jensen now lives in Vancouver, but for 10 years she and her husband lived and worked on Native reserves along the northern B. C. coast, producing over 30 schoolbooks in various Native languages in connection with programs to preserve indigenous culture. Jensen has approached Where the People Gather as if it were a documentary film. In his introduction to the book, the Nisga'a carver Norman Tait tells why he agreed to Jensen's suggestion that she record the project, and what happened as a result:
I ... agreed ... because ... no one knows the sweat, the problems, the camaraderie and sacrifices that go on behind the scenes. So I said yes and hoped for the best....Being interviewed helped ... [the team] put words to the experience of carving and helped them to understand who they were. They didn't realize they had it in them. But when the carvers heard themselves talking, they heard their own power.
For the reader, following the progress of the pole and of the carvers, three of whom were raw apprentices - is a moving and educational experience. If every cross-cultural project worked out this well, maybe we could all quit worrying about what the world will be like by the year 2000.
Tamio Wakayama, the author of Kikyo: Coming Home to Powell Street (Harbour, 168 pages, $29.95 cloth), was born in Vancouver in 1941 and grew up in the interior of B.C. and in Ontario after the "removal" of his family and the seizure of their hard-won property ("our land, our house, the tofu business, the prized Ford - the accumulated wealth of a lifetime's labour"). His "long journey from exile and alienation" took him first to the American South, where he joined the civil rights movement in 1963 and learned the art of spontaneous photography, then on to Japan and the "startling realization" that he was "no longer a visible minority." After a year in Japan, however, Wakayama began to long - in typically Canadian fashion - for "the great and cleansing scale of the Canadian landscape and the rich diversity of its social mosaic." So at last he returned to Vancouver, where the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant in Canada (in 1877) has been celebrated in the Powell Street Festival annually since its I00th anniversary in 1977. Kikyo is a photographic record of that festival, culled from 100,000 photos taken over 15 years. The effect of these candid shots of a neighbourhood phenomenon is enhanced by excerpts from interviews with some of the participants. Of these, a comment by Roy Kiyooka best expresses the festival's importance:
One of the touching things about the Festival is how it's so deeply involved in perpetuating the mythology of the Japan most of us have lost .... A lot of these things never even happen any more in Japan. That's what makes it poignant, that we hold onto these things out of that sense that without them who would we be?
Rosamond Norbury is another Vancouver photographer with an interest in mythology. Behind the Chutes: The Mystique of the Rodeo Cowboy (Whitecap, 128 pages, $19.95 paper) is her record of the rodeo cowboy's legendary lifestyle, filmed in close-up and behind the scenes. The commentary accompanying her splendid pictures has a laconic air about it that suits Norbury's subject perfectly; if you were to ask her whether she enjoys her work, the answer would probably be a simple "Yep." Behind the Chutes reveals the large cast of characters at a rodeo, from the daring clowns who distract the bull long enough for a downed cowboy to run to safety to the "buckle bunnies," or rodeo groupies, who congregate in "the real social centre ... behind the arena where the horse trailers and campers are parked." A chapter titled "Chomping at the Bit" depicts the tension that grips the players before the drama begins: alone against a fence, as his fellow competitors mill around him, a cowboy says a last-minute prayer; a toper practises lassoing a plastic cow's head stuck on a bale of hay; a small boy under a large hat rocks in his dad's saddle, copying his moves. By the time the real action starts, Norbury's pictures have grown so evocative that you can smell the leather and the sweat. There's a terrific shot of a cowboy cartwheeling through the air after being thrown off by a huge bull - a shot that expresses the compelling mystique of the rodeo all by itself. Rodeo is, as Norbury reminds us, the only professional sport where the athletes pay to compete. It "gets in your blood, almost like an addiction, a craving that can only be satisfied by going on to the next rodeo."
The logging industry has its addicts, too, as Ken Drushka demonstrates in his monumental Working in the Woods; A History of Logging on the West Coast (Harbour, 300 pages, $39.95 cloth). Drushka not only combed through libraries, museums, and archives for his material, he also tracked down a good many of the old-timers who worked in the woods, taping their stories and borrowing their photos. Drushka's focus is ... the evolution of logging methods used in the coastal forests of British Columbia." The book's attractive design combines traditional narration with oral histories set off from the main text in blackbordered boxes, accompanied on most pages by extraordinary photographs: pygmy men beside giant trees; a 1917 bunkhouse where 40 men slept with one wood-burning heater, no windows, and no ventilation, under wet clothes dangling from the rafters. Drushka is a former Globe and Mail reporter, and his newspaper training shows in the way he approaches a good story. "Meanwhile, at a cluttered little garage in Abbotsford, one of the most famous trucking contractors of all time was about to enter the business," he writes, introducing us to Bill Schnare, whose passion for trucks began with "fixing them and modifying them to do jobs they were not designed to do" and ended with "great fleets of S & S Macks" from the Fraser River Valley to Vancouver Island. Though Drushka makes a conscious effort to remain objective, his own experiences as a logger, silviculture contractor, and operator of a custom sawmill do affect his view of the thorny issues surrounding timber licences and the question of who should administer the forests:
The situation facing loggers today is largely a consequence of decades of monopolistic corporate greed, bureaucratic ineptitude and political opportunism. The people who actually go to work in the woods every day are not the people who created this situation. They, as much or more than anyone, would be happy to see it change. But they also know ... that the way to make the change is not to chase loggers out of the forest....In the end, when it comes to making decisions about real trees in specific forests, the only people who can make realistic, environmentally sound decisions are those who know a particular forest and how to work in it without destroying it.
Perhaps, in the current struggle between those who want to save what is left of B C.'s old-growth forests now and those who want to cut to the last tree and then save the forests Drushka's voice from the middle ground is the one the province should be heeding. But in time of war, is the middle ground really an option? Figuratively speaking, the struggle over B.C.'s forests is a war. To the conservationists, the logging technologies now available to the other side are every bit as unthinkable as nuclear weapons, because to use them is destroy the battleground.
A different battleground emerges in Cork Lines and Canning Lines: The Glory Years of Fishing on the West Coast (Douglas & McIntyre, 208 pages, $35 cloth), by Geoff Meggs and Duncan Stacey. A remark made in 1935 by the 11 unknown skipper of the gillnetter Israel" sets the book's tone:
Why, they can trace old John Salmon's life from beginning to end. They know where and when he is hatching upon the spawning beds, they follow him down to the stream as a fingerling, they watch him grow to maturity in the sea, they know when and where he is caught and how many there are of him. They even know the exact number of the tin can into which he goes and can trace that can through the markets, right to your dinner table. But of course, they don't know anything about the workers, how many there are, what nations they come from, where they go, what becomes of them in the off season. Nobody knows these things and nobody cares. You see, son, salmon mean dollars and dollars are always more important than men.
In 150 photographs gleaned from archives, libraries, and museums around the province and a brief but hard-hitting text, Meggs and Stacey set out to tell the story of the fish workers nobody knows. Before 1900, the majority of fishermen were Native peoples and "immigrants from every continent and race." Workers in the salmon canneries, on the other hand, tended to be Chinese men and Native women. Many of the canners who employed them were "men whose gold rush fortunes needed a new resource to exploit." As Meggs and Stacey make devastatingly clear, it was not only the fish that were exploited: "Absolutely none of the canners' huge profits were shared with the shoreworkers, who saw their season's pay so reduced by deductions for housing, food and other items that they often ended the summer deeper in debt than when they had begun ... [and] ... who differed from slaves only in the fact that they were laid off at the end of the season." Labour strife was inevitable, but more damaging to the fishing industry as a whole was the massive avalanche of rock at Hell's Gate in the Fraser Canyon in 1913, which was probably the result of blasting by the CNR and which ended the Fraser's sockeye salmon runs for two generations. Meggs and Stacey trace the labour history of the province's commercial fishery unti11956, by which time "the interests of the corporate sector were balanced against a highly organized and united community of fishers and shoreworkers, a sharp contrast to the divisions and battles to come." The Fraser Valley: A History (Harbour, 392 pages, $44.95 cloth), by John A. Cherrington, is a thoroughly readable social history of the region where the author's grandparents had a small farm and where his lifelong fascination with the Fraser Valley began. Packed with anecdotes, quaint facts, and solid information, this is the sort of book that compels you to read bits from it aloud to anyone within earshot. Here's a sample of Cherrington in full flight that conveys the general idea:
The growing population made the tradition of hunting in the valley more and more hazardous. On the opening day of the 1922 duck hunting season, a Chilliwack man was shot in the leg, a Ladner youth lost an arm, two Chinese were wounded with pellets in their feet, and numerous farm animals were hit. (A quantity of ducks and pheasants were also shot.)
Cherrington wrote his history with more in mind than mutual enjoyment, however; he is a lawyer and a firm conservationist who knows which side he's on in any issue that pits industrial fallout and over-population against an increasingly fragile environment.
Describing the problem is one approach to what's happening in what is arguably Canada's most beautiful province; rising above it is another. Michael Orton is a freelance photographer in Nanaimo with a dedicated eye for beauty. His book, Once Upon an Island: Images of Vancouver Island (Orca, 96 pages, $29.95 cloth), is a collection of landscape photographs in glowing colour. Not for Orton the gritty realism of nature in peril; he even sidesteps mentioning a plant by its name of "skunk cabbage." Some of his "images" are quite wonderful and must have taken hours of waiting for the perfect light. Orton also favours a "soft focus" technique that sandwiches together two transparencies, one "in sharp focus and overexposed two stops," the other "a controlled amount out of focus and overexposed one stop." This, he asserts, "gives a mystical, romantic feel to the resulting photograph." To unromantic me, this group of photos is reminiscent of those hapless snaps that come back from the developer with a polite note explaining what went wrong. Maybe, though, when you've driven past too many clearcuts in search of a beautiful subject, the out-of-focus approach makes sense.
I was doubtful about Vancouver: A Visual History (Talonbooks, 96 pages, $45 cloth) until I read Bruce Macdonald's cheerfully eccentric "background" remarks about his baby, whereupon I became a convert to visual history on the spot. Years ago at UBC I knew a girl named Sylvia Shorthouse, who claimed she visualized history as a timeline dotted with dates, which meant that she could relate an event that happened in England in, say, 1683, to whatever was happening in the rest of the world at the same time. I don't know what happened to Sylvia, or indeed, if anything did, but if she's still in Vancouver she should love this book. In fact, it's hard to imagine anyone living in Vancouver who wouldn't benefit from this visual history. As Macdonald points out, the 14 historical maps (one for each decade, from the 1850s to the 1980s) and the various reference and social maps ("Physical Geography," "Neighbourhoods," "Politics," "Religion," etc.) can be related to each other by photocopying any map onto a clear acetate sheet that can then be placed over any other map for comparison. This means, for example, that you can easily visualize your own neighbourhood in the 1850s, the 1900s, or the 1940s. Notes and a historical summary accompany each map, followed by a double page of highlights from each decade, including capsule biographies of remarkable people - some of them famous, others relatively unknown.
The story of how Macdonald finally succeeded in completing Vancouver: A Visual History is too long to relate here. In brief, however, this complex project was made possible by new developments in computer technology. As an example of a technological advance that actually creates jobs instead of eliminating them, it's welcome news from high command to the rest of us down here in the trenches.