The forest on Burnaby Mountain is a funny place.
I mean, I think that any forest is a kind of beautiful that we as humans have the genetic heritage to appreciate, but there’s a history here that challenges my enjoyment of this space.
A few years ago, I took a class of mine from SFU out into this forest to replicate an experiment that I had first performed with students in Richmond Park in London, England. In both cases, these were students thinking about philosophy, aesthetics, art and the environment, and I asked them to consider how concepts of beauty worked with their experience of nature.
When I first performed this experiment, as a British Columbian teaching in the UK, I knew that Richmond Park—with its faux-wildness of a hunting park—was not exactly ‘wild’, but it was down the street from Roehampton University where I taught, and the best that the city had to offer in green spaces, so we went.
It was also next to Manresa House, where Gerard Manley Hopkins had done his noviciate as a Jesuit, so, when I walked here, I thought a lot about the central part of his poem ‘That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire’—a piece that had exercised a huge effect on my understanding of the world when I first read it:
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash, wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle in long lashes lace, lance, and pair.
Delightfully the bright wind boisterous ropes, wrestles, beats earth bare
Of yestertempest’s creases; in pool and rut peel parches
Squandering ooze to squeezed dough, crust, dust; stanches, starches
Squadroned masks and manmarks treadmire toil there
Footfretted in it. Million-fuelèd, nature’s bonfire burns on.
That experiment was a profound experience for me as a teacher, and student response to it was remarkable. Discussion afterwards and throughout the rest of the course was deepened by our immersion in our natural environment—even one as managed over the centuries as this royal hunting enclosure in southwest London had been.
A few years later, when running a similar course at Simon Fraser, we traipsed out into the forest on the mountain that surrounds our campus, in this edge-of-the-new-world city, and, well, things went wrong. Standing on a steep path in the forests that I had grown up without questioning as ‘forest’, I saw it suddenly for what it was: a landscape in recovery. Around us were the mouldering remains of giant stumps—the evidence of the first large-scale colonial resource extraction from this mountain. The trees that have grown here in the meantime are simply the after-effects of clear-cutting the mountain’s lumber by some forgotten company, exported to who-knows-where.
The alders and maples that grow here are lovely in the autumn, as we watch the leaves turn and fall, but there’s only an echo now of the ancient forest that grew on these slopes before colonization.
An after-image of giants whose roots still lie beneath the surface of the new forest floor.
An imagination of what another thousand years might bring, in an area set aside by the citizens of this city to conserve.
On the water side of the mountain are the few remains of a sawmill that has left little more than its name for the area—the Barnet Sawmill. Its old locale is now known as Barnet Marine Park.
The foundations of the mill’s scrap burner sit like a ruined sea castle at the end of a short causeway. We have come here as a family many times, pretending to storm the castle, playing tag and hide-and-go-seek, watching the fishers and the birds and the dogs being walked.
When we came here on Wednesday, 29 October, my littlest boy and I discovered that the bricks in that old burner came from at least three locations—from Clayburn out in nearby Abbotsford (bricks one can regularly find in the buildings and streets of Vancouver’s Gastown), a brickyard on Vancouver Island, and, to our amazement, a brickyard in Scotland. Suddenly, like the forest on the mountain above us, this place of enjoyment and play became evidence of international trade, resource extraction and colonization.
On that same Wednesday, the Texan pipeline giant Kinder Morgan—a company started by the former President and COO of Enron—re-appeared on Burnaby Mountain, and in Barnet Marine Park at its foot, intent on carrying on its preparations for geotechnical survey on the Mountain, including boring deep holes into which explosives will be placed and detonated, and clearing substantial amounts of trees in the forest to do so.
If successful, this company—or rather its subsidiary Trans Mountain Pipeline—intends to bore a tunnel for the last stages of a new, triple-sized pipeline that vaguely follows the right-of-way of a pipeline built in 1956. Except, this new pipeline will carry diluted bitumen from the tarsands in northern Alberta to the company’s terminal on the Burrard Inlet, where something in the region of 400 tankers a year will enter the Inlet to be filled with this substance, for export to be refined in Asia.
That Wednesday, a group of residents and concerned citizens gathered in the park—as they had been since early September, and have continued to do so since—at makeshift shelters at the sites both of intended borehole 1 and of 2, and waited for Kinder Morgan’s contractors to arrive, so that we could tell them to leave this public park alone. People brought coffee, doughnuts, goretex, and cheer. I was there before the sun came up, hitching a ride with a friend on the back of his motorcycle, and watched the sun rise on the shelter at borehole 2. We sat in the light of the media trucks and cameras that had gathered for the expected drama when Kinder Morgan arrived, and then I hiked down into the forest to borehole 1 to take two filmmakers to see and film it.
I had to leave before Kinder Morgan’s contractors arrived that day, and my boy and I only came back to Barnet Marine Park just as a confrontation between my friends and acquaintances and Kinder Morgan’s contractors had finished there.
When my friends, colleagues and comrades Steve Collis, Lynne Quarmby, Alan Dutton, Mia Nissen and Adam Gold were served with legal papers the next day in excess of 1000 pages each, naming them and ‘Jane and John Doe’ as defendants, I felt an enormous amount of fear.
I felt fear because I knew that any and all of us who were on that mountain and down at the park that day were Jane and John Doe. I knew that the enormous financial power of this powerful corporation—and all of the forms into which that power can be translated—was now being brought to bear against us, because we are in its way.
In the nineteenth century, the forces of colonialism ran roughshod over the people of this region, in naked lust for the land and its resources. We cut down the trees, planted houses and crops and laid roads and concrete. We covered the land and its people with our laws and colonial culture, and then, as generations of colonial occupation carried on, we distanced ourselves from how we got here.
‘Not us’, we say. And, to an extent, we’re right—the colonial process was and is a part of the world-wide spread of capitalism, which is a system that turns groups against each other for the benefits of those who own the capital. It depends on a kind of identification with the oppressor that allows the oppression to carry on, and to be passed on by those who can to those who can’t do anything about it. It is a cycle of abuse.
What so many communities are learning, and so many around the world are coming to realize, is that this temporary balance of oppression has been in a process of shifting, and now the colonizing generations are coming under the same oppression that we have passed on to those weaker than us (though even now we are insulated from its worst effects).
Sam Ginden’s recent suggestion that the neoliberalism of the past several decades is just ‘capitalism getting its groove back‘ after the events of the early-to-mid twentieth century, is a point that keeps haunting me. The nostalgia that many of us feel for the ‘kinder, gentler’ capitalism of yesteryear—a capitalism that returned part of its profits in public services, whose governments regulated industry and protected the environment (at least in theory, though we now recognize that even those protections were nowhere near enough)—is indicative of the slow reaction that those of us not in control of capital are having to the realities of an inherently unequal global socio-economic system.
Pipelines come in many forms. Railways, roads, shipping lanes, pipelines—all of these have developed in a web of the extraction and flow of resources in an increasingly globalized system that has assembled at an ever-increasing pace over the past two or three centuries.
For most of this time, those of us Stockholm Syndrome sufferers who have been able to avoid identification with those we oppress because we deeply want to be like those who oppress us have been blissfuly unaware of the cost of this process. It is true that some of us have paid a lot of attention to the human cost of inequality—and much local, regional and global struggle has revolved around this series of recognitions. For the last half-century or so, there have indeed been many who also recognize the impending disaster inherent in our rampant use of the environment with no regard for the effects of doing so, but, as the world slowly wakes up to the realities that ‘environmentalists’ have talked about for years, the effects are too enormous quickly to undo.
What’s happening now in our communities, our cities, our wildernesses and our waters is just the creeping reality of a system off of whose surplus ‘we’ have lived for generations.
Standing here in the forest of Burnaby Mountain, my feet sinking into the deep red of old, rotting wood felled in the first wave of resource extraction, the stark reality of our situation both locally and globally is difficult to ignore. This is a forest in a process of recovery that will take a thousand years even to approach the rainforest that once grew here. And, in all reality, there is no way that we can even imagine such a recovery, because we paved most of it over. These tiny pockets that we keep are museum-pieces to the ecosystems that our cities have replaced.
And now that we have reached the point where it seems like it is too late to halt and undo the damage that we have done to our environment, it is perhaps unsurprising that the concentration of power against those of us willing to face up to our colonial heritage is unrelenting, vicious and devious in its attempts to silence us. We were on their side! We helped keep the others in line! We were trusties in this prison system, and now we are the worst enemies both of powers-that-be, and of those who desperately seek to hold on to their trusty status.
As I sat in court this week with my friends—to show support, to listen carefully, to try to understand and see behind the lines of what was happening in this legal process—I understood quite clearly that there is no way for us to ‘win’ at a game that is controlled by the other side. There is no fairness in our system—there can’t be. This legal process—in adjournment until the 17th of November, or until the Justice reaches his decision—may go this way or that, but the bitumen will most likely continue to be extracted and it will reach our ports somehow (because pipelines take many shapes). The carbon in it is being released into an atmosphere that can’t take it (at least if we want to sustain life as we know it), and we will feel the effects of this across our planet. Maybe we will survive.
If we do survive, and if we can raise ourselves from the ruins of this system built to fail, then the work we do now in re-orienting ourselves from oppressor to defender—of both people and of the land—will pay dividends when our descendants work out how to live in their new reality.
I am a John Doe. I will get in your way, and I will talk to anyone who will listen about how we can change our way of being, our way of thinking, our way of treating each other and the land that gives us life.
Million-fuelèd, nature’s bonfire burns on.