Salvage and sorrow:

🕔Mar 27, 2008

Last year, Vanderhoof visual artist Annerose Georgeson curated a show featuring art made in response to the ways in which pine beetles have altered the Central Interior landscape. Smithers writer Sheila Peters contributed three poems, Beetle Probes #1, 2, and 3, to the exhibit, which is now touring the region. Since she wrote those poems, the Bulkley Timber Supply Area (TSA) forest health strategy has generated its own response to the beetles—the logging of infested trees in the bush behind her home.
February 2008
It’s usually pretty quiet in Driftwood Canyon, especially when winter has shushed the creek. Visitors have sometimes complained that the silence makes sleep difficult. But this morning, a low rumble tumbles down from the bush up across the road. It’s the drone of heavy equipment.
For the past five years we’ve been watching the trees reddening westward—Vanderhoof, Fraser Lake, Burns Lake, Houston, Hungry Hill. We’ve noticed the occasional tangle of pines, cut down and burned. We’ve come across lines of flagging tape flapping off into the bush. Beetle probe, they say. Then last week, snowshoeing around a route through swamps and old sawmill openings, we found big blazes sprayed orange onto several large pines, pretty insistent stories inscribed on the paint and ribbons: CUT. Skid Road. We looked at each other, sorrow falling like a shroud. The pleasure gone from the day.
A dozen illness analogies come to mind as we walk into the board-room at West Fraser to question them about their beetle salvage program. We feel like we’re being ushered into the doctor’s office to hear the bad news about a very sick friend. The conversation is polite, restrained. The aerial photographs are rolled out, the red outbreaks pinpointed and the cuts circled like the dark smears on an X-ray. The treatment is described: we’ll go in here, and here, and take out this and this and this. We’ll leave the road there in case we have to go back in.
Does the road have to go so far? we ask, trying to ignore that last comment, all of us clinging to some faint hope that this year’s efforts might be enough to stop the beetles where they are. There are wetlands, moose, deer, rabbits and the owls that hunt them. What about quads and dirt bikes going in there?
The roads will be deactivated, we’re told—but it’s pretty much impossible to keep the quads out. The men are sorrowful. You probably don’t have to worry, they tell us. There’s going to be lots of these roads in the valley; there’s nothing special to make this place stand out.
And they’re right. There isn’t, really. Nothing any more special than all the buffers of bush and wetlands and unassuming places that are turning from red to grey and dead across the province. The fact that we’re still calling this a beetle salvage operation is a sign of optimism, even if it’s a remote one. We haven’t quite given up. It’s not so much that anything we do in the bush will stop the spread, but if conditions are right—the wind blowing east instead of west when this summer’s beetles hatch, a few really cold days at the right time—these cuts might diminish their movement.
A forester gave a talk in the Bulkley Valley a few years back. It’s a joke, he said, to think we can manage the forests. We can only manage ourselves in the forest.
No kidding. Back then many of us were insisting that we plan for the whole landscape, over the long term; that we plan for biodiversity and wildlife habitat and recreation, and all those other values. These days it sometimes feels like all the energy our community put into salvaging non-timber values was wasted. When we look further inland, it’s easy to feel despair. But we’d be wrong. There are spruce and fir and aspen and cottonwood and dozens of shrubs still thriving, and some pines will survive to seed new stands—if they’re left alone, that is.
Within the next year, forest scientists will decide if there’s any point in fighting the beetle’s spread in the Bulkley Valley anymore. If not, then cutting down all the infested pines in mixed stands is no longer a strategic move. District research is showing there’s more economic as well as ecological sense to be made in leaving the dead pines standing and letting the rest of the bush go about its business. We need to be vigilant that logging—as a forest health strategy to try to prevent further spread of the beetles—doesn’t morph into wholesale removal of any stand that contains pine trees. Because when cutting happens under blanket salvage permits, it all happens pretty fast.
One week we see the flagging tape running back off our narrow path into dense bush. Quite literally the next week our path has become a logging road. Skid trails run in like a pinwheel to the big landing where hundreds of trees, dusted with snow, are laid out for loading. In the distance, even on a Sunday, we hear the skidder hauling more trees to other landings. The speed and volume of this operation is overwhelming—and this is only one part of the approximately 150,000 cubic metres of beetle-wood being cut in this TSA this season.
On our way back home, we stop among the trees: snow-hushed, blue sky, sun filtering through the green. I like to think that we are aligned with the trees, that we occupy the land companionably. While some part of that is true, we are really more closely linked to the beetles. We too size up those tall trunks for our homes, our firewood, the paper we write on. We too rush forward, inhaling our days as if they stretched forever. And now, like the pine beetles piling up against the spruce and fir and cedar and hemlock of the coastal ecosystems, we turn, look back, and wonder how things got this bad. As if, somehow, this isn’t linked to all the other ways we live upon this planet.


The Red and Blue Beetle Art Exhibit is Vanderhoof painter and College of New Caledonia’s artist-in-residence Annerose Georgeson’s attempt to bring artists together in response to the spread of the mountain pine beetle.

“Passions run high on the subject,” she writes in—the record she is keeping of the show and its travels. “But whether you view the effect of the beetle as a transitory natural cycle of life that will recover if left to its own devices—and are enjoying the colors it is producing in our forests—or whether you have been overwhelmed by it, emotionally or financially, the [show’s aim is] to capture these diverse responses in this unique exhibition of themed artwork.”

The eclectic result has been touring the region since its opening at the Sai’Kuz First Nation south of Vanderhoof last June. It will be at Smithers Art Gallery March 31-April 6 (yet to be confirmed), Mackenzie in April, Quesnel in May and then back in Prince George, Valemount and McBride over the summer. To see the show and read comments online, visit

Beetle Probe #3Coordinates: N54 49.471 W 127 00.889March 11, 2007

There’s a map with a red stain
curving along the arteries of pine
draining the blue-stained veins.
A lighter shade—salmon pink—
slides north and west from the inner blotch
snuffling out the smaller stands—
the sudden openings
where cranberry grows
red food for winter birds.

Just here—
across the creek back through the swamp—
five pine on an esker
two red lines ribboned around each trunk
rhyming the map’s deep red.
Lime-green tape flaps back through the bush
drawing a line as straight as the crow flies
fat larvae in her beak.

We stand at the edge and wait together
the spruce the fir the old grey cottonwood and I
not sure how to tell our unsuspecting friends
about all the ways death comes:
logging trucks pregnant with bark
pass each other on the highway in the night
outrunning breakup.