Pacific Rim Review of Books

[ Back to Issue Features ]

Deep, Broad and Rich: Working Voices from the Pacific Northwest

Review by Martin Van Woudenberg

Working the Woods, Working the Sea: An Anthology of Northwest Writings.
Finn Wilcox & Jerry Gorsline, Eds., Empty Bowl, 2008.

Had the historical timing worked, and she been a writer, the Austrian-born queen of France, Marie Antoinette, could not have been featured in Working the Woods, Working the Sea. Her Petit Hameau was a mock farm created in an idyllic setting, complete with farmhouse, dairy, and poultry yard. Here the pampered queen and her attendants dressed themselves in gauze dresses, tied themselves with satin ribbons, and played at milking the cows and tending docile animals. It was her attempt to get in touch with the natural world, but the peasants who begged and sweated a living out of the soil were not fooled; their life was far from idyllic. The editors of this collection could, no doubt, have found similarly-themed writings on the abstract spirituality of nature, man’s long connection with it, and deep-rooted desire to rediscover it in a post-modern world. Instead, and thankfully, this collection is filled with the reality of life on the West Coast, from a wide variety of perspectives – all of whom are intimately familiar with sweat.

The anthology is broken down into two main sections, Treeplanting, and Working the Sea. It contains a broad range of poetry, prose, essays, musings and ramblings by well-knowns like Gary Snyder and Mike O’Connor, as well as many other West Coast writers. It deals with important environmental issues facing this part of the world, including reforestation, salmon restoration, the defence of old-growth forests, and watershed protection. However, the perspectives are so immediate, honest, and raw that to read through this remarkable collection is to feel the grit of the coast between your toes, or the biting cold of the Pacific on your face. It is a reality not many continue to experience, or one that we quickly forget.

Idealizing something is easy, even within our own memories. As one who has sweated to chop down a tree in the cold of fall, or travelled such iconic West Coast destinations as the Bowron Lakes and the West Coast Trail, it’s easy to sit by the fire and reminisce about being at peace with nature – the aches and sweat forgotten. It is harder to live it and work it. Working the Woods, Working the Sea is perhaps best encapsulated by Richard White’s provoking essay that makes up the third short section of the book, “Are You an Environmentalist, or Do You Work for a Living?”

Here people do, and are, both. Whether it is working the lines while treeplanting, with a loaded bag that cuts into the shoulder and an uneven surface that threatens to send the labourer down the mountain, or cutting down the great fragrant western red cedar with saw and wedge and hair-trigger nerves ready to run, it is authentic. Nature gives, Nature takes, and woe to those who fail to respect her latent power. The collection contains as many failures as it does triumphs, though the persistence through the grind fills it most of all.

Here the timber examiner loses his partner in the snow, forced to leave him for fear of freezing to death himself. Here a Native family heads with drunken father and pregnant mother to the salmon streams, and returns home hungry. Here also the fishing boats share the water with the ammo ship that does not carry fish within its belly, but bombs for killing other working men and women. Hippies, labourers, and woodsmen rattle in the backs of pickup trucks, hunkering down inside their coats in the early dawn hours and drowsily downing coffee to ward off the cold and the late-night drinking.

Other events are more frantic, such as the re-imagined last thoughts of a logging trucker who loses his brakes on a mountain hill, or the wiper “riding the rope-slung scaffold, dangling in fuel-oil fumes...while he ignored ‘Abandon Ship!’ and stayed behind and scrubbed.” Here too the bridge cutter’s saw is ripped from his hands as he is tossed and “swallowed in a twisting chaos that strikes and batters him, breaking bones on the way down.” It’s an uneasy and precarious existence for the working men and women who both dismantle and rebuild the forest, and those who fight the seas while simultaneously blessing it for the bounty it gives.

In and among this action, noise, and sweat, are the still and quiet voices as well. But these are not detached and distant, but born from the same labour and energy as the rest. In the quiet, after the engines stop and the saws are silenced we find the reflections on a perfect day on the ocean, when “the decks were awash in silver and the scuppers gurgling red, when leaping dolphins led us to silky smooth seas.” We find peace and meaning through an Estonian folksong and the serenity communicated by a Buddhist monk after a lifetime on the mountain.

And there are many more in this rewarding collection, mixing into a myriad of voices that seems at first discordant for all their variety, until you settle into their rhythm and hear the harmony that is quintessential West Coast. Not artificial or idyllic, but deep, broad and rich, like the earth and sea that inspired it.

Martin Van Woudenberg is a regular contributor to PRRB. He writes from aldergrove, B.C.