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  • Psychological unease caused by forest destruction

    Lannie Keller

    The impact of destructive clearcut logging on the emotional wellbeing of individuals and communities is real. Why does it have little or no influence in ministry of forests decisions about how forests are used for “social” benefits.



    Read Islanders defending the forest against another clearcut on their small island. (Photo: Ralph Keller)


    THE TERM “ecological grief” was recently described in headline news on CBC radio. Another new word,  “solastalgia,” was coined to describe emotional distress we experience when living with negatively-perceived environmental change. I know these emotions, and I know they are widely shared. On a personal level almost all of us react when our life-support systems seem to be threatened. But, besides grieving, what do we do with our sense of loss when our surroundings, places we love and places we need, are destroyed? What can we do? 

    My own experience began over 40 years ago, when my husband and I began our adult lives as settlers on a remote forested island on the BC Coast. Even though the land we bought had been partially clearcut, we only knew what we saw, and felt sure we had found Nirvana. Everywhere around us there were deep green forests full of biological mystery and majesty. The island’s few homesteads were connected by green mossy trails and one small dirt road. Mostly people walked. 

     One day we trekked to the store and the old storekeeper told us some lands had been purchased by a logging company; he seemed distressed by the news. We didn’t understand. The next summer, a guy walked in on our trail and asked if we wanted some work. We were chronically short of money, so we helped him fill blast holes with dynamite; he was a non-local working for the logging company, making rock for road building. The blaster (who became a friend) said what was happening on the island was immoral, but we were blind to the reality of what we were doing. We also worked at fish farming for one winter, and later—again because we needed money—my husband took a winter job logging. The backwards view is that those experiences helped us understand these industries. They also increased our resolve to find a living that didn’t include destroying what we came here to love and celebrate. 

     So we built a lodge, intended to serve guests who might share our appreciation for Nature’s wonders. As one of BC’s first kayak tour companies in the late 1980s, our lives became the struggle that typifies small business owners: entrepreneurial survival. And it turned out that our biggest challenge has been to protect the landscape that is the basis of our livelihood. Industrial logging produced clearcuts that joined into massive scars we couldn’t hide from our guests who were eager for the beauty and wildness of “Super Natural BC” that we (and the government) had promised. 

     We pleaded with government and industry to at least protect viewsheds. We abandoned and revised our paddling paths. We tried to defend our efforts when our own guests repeatedly asked, “Why do you let them do this?” Our winter “time-off” became a balance between marketing and maintenance, and our ever-increasing and increasingly-futile efforts to stop the slaughter of Natural Beauty. Our lives became a desperate battle to protect the landscape we knew and loved—and needed. We wrote letters, we organized, we became political, and we joined other community efforts. Someone else became so frustrated they put nails in some trees and sabotaged equipment fuel. We knew nothing about this but the loggers made us targets of their anger. It felt unfair and ugly. We thought about leaving, but we decided to stay and defend this island and surrounding area that so obviously needed protectors. 

     We learned about the gifts that forests provide us, about reciprocity and how we humans could balance our needs and wants. We learned about the timber corporations that direct government policies and create single industry forest-dependent communities. We watched those undiversified communities struggle and frequently fail, here and elsewhere across BC We knew things weren’t right: the forest-dependent communities were a corporate sacrifice zone, and government didn’t seem to understand or care.  

     I cried a lot. I cried when our beautiful mossy trails became blast-rock roads travelled by trucks filled with the remains of majesty. I mourned for the animal homes destroyed, and wondered what else lived and died in the clearcuts. I felt sick when tiny fragile streams became mud holes in a scene of devastation. I felt rage when the creeks and ocean were brown with soil from careless logging. I yearned for the deep forest greens that were gone, and I was distressed about the invasive shrub that replaced lichens and wildflowers in dried up clearings. Our frustration was immense, but neither government nor industry would connect logging with deforestation or wildfires or climate chaos—or community security.   

     Sudden loss of a familiar place is discomforting, but “shifting baseline syndrome” is a more insidious dilemma of our quickly-changing 21st century. Shifting baselines describes how each new generation (or group of settlers) perceives their own experience of a place as “normal.”  It’s a slippery slope that explains our limited human ability to recognize change over time, and our willingness to accept the steady degradation of our environment. It underscores the importance of accurate baselines and histories of loss.     

     When we first came here, collecting mushrooms in the forest was a highlight of our autumn. For me it was a time to commune with nature, rejuvenation after the hard-working summer. It was a chance to walk slow and close to the earth, to smell and to listen, watch how water flows over the land, how trees and plants live in communities, and the integral role of fungi. I could observe birds and the diverse array of plants. Being in a real forest is a personally enriching experience that makes me feel extra-alive. Turns out that’s another universal truth. 

     Chanterelles were a local favourite, easy to identify—and for some people a source of income: on the next island there used to be buyers who forwarded the delicacies to city markets. But we learned that chanterelles grow in mature forests with complex mycorrhizal systems, forests with big trees. So I’ve been heart broken multiple times when my special mushroom places got logged. My nirvana is suddenly a biological wasteland when all the forest life I appreciated is gone. This hits hard, because that loss comes with knowledge that the biodiversity won’t recover in my lifetime, or even my grandson’s life. I just hope there’s future wisdom that gives it a chance and time to happen.   

     “Forestry feeds families” is a familiar refrain from the logging industry. But living forests also feed families and I spend more and more time wondering why a shrinking number of logging-dependent families get to access and destroy all the incredible values associated with forests, while the majority of British Columbians plead for remnants. Yes, I am mad. My lifetime of grief for the loss of life and place turns to anger at all the people responsible for logging. Their insensitivity to the natural world—our global life support system—is unfathomable and alarming. I try to put on other shoes, but it’s past time when we can “share the forest.” That notion from the 1980s was a ruse: you can share only so many times before just fragments remain—and that’s what has happened to BC forest. I’m sorry for the forest worker families who need to revise their personal economies. It’s a challenge, but its not a unique situation: industries come and go. And social values change. Loggers can change, too.

    My community has suffered the tragedy of loss and also the loss of potential. Local residents (who mainly don’t participate in logging) could have built a very different economy if the landscape wasn’t a mess of roads and clearcuts, if there was any of the original giant majestic rainforest to appreciate. If if… Ecological grief is real and we have to deal with it. We also have to deal with the floods and landslides that result from logged-off and wildfire-scarred landscapes. On our watch, in just over 150 years, the settler community has killed the carbon-sequestering capacity of BC’s natural forests, ecosystems that evolved and survived (before “us”) for thousands of years. That’s a sad fact that we all have to own.

     Even more sad is that my view of grief is pale in comparison to some First Nations’ experience.  When I try to imagine their loss of place through physical force and disrespect, it’s difficult to fathom the intensity of feelings that had to be part of that dispossession. This is something we have to confront and consider as we move forward.  

     I hope we can do this together. And that Nature prevails.

    Lannie Keller and her family run a kayaking company from their homestead in the outer Discovery Islands.

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