My father left on the west wind, the wind that brings good weather. The wind that blows steady and smooth across the channel, that leaves the open Pacific and moves inland, drops its rain on the other side of Vancouver Island and tumbles down upon the Inside Passage cool and dry, with sunshine and calm seas. Winds matter when you live your life, like he did, on a sea which is alive with rocks and tide rips, where behind every island, under every calm plane of blue-green sea, lies the possibility of tragedy for you and your flimsy craft. The winds and tides are your constant companion, they are the topography of your possibilities for survival, and they are never far from the center of your attention. My father was a cautious skipper and he always liked to wait for the westerly before setting out, if he could.
My father was born in 1927, the grandson of dirt-poor Scottish immigrants who always held the memory of their home in their minds. I know this because his father, my grandfather, named his first boat the Inverness, for the place of his father’s birth that was only real for him in song and story. The places we love plant their power in our bones and when we mourn those beloved places, their names become prayers and incantations. So although I never knew my great-grandparents, I know that they must have loved their home place because they kept its name alive in the hearts of their children.
Did they know what they were doing, my great-grandparents, when they left their beloved place and came here? Was the sting of smoke still in their eyes and noses from the burning of our ancestral homes, when we were removed from the Highlands because sheep were more valuable than Scots? Did the English say to them: Go from this place. Leave your homes that no longer belong to you and travel across the sea. Go to a place you have never heard of, where there are other people who are worth even less to us than you. Push those people out of their homes, take their land, as we have done to you. Cover the pain of mourning your lost home by making someone else mourn for theirs.
Did my great-grandparents think to themselves that the people of this place were savages, animals, less deserving of homes and lands and dignity than their own selves? Did they even know that people were here, that this place is someone’s beloved home, a part of a peoples’ hearts and bodies and spirits just as the highlands were part of theirs? At times I want to reach back through history, back through the memory of my cells and grab them by their collars and say: Do you see? Do you see what you are doing? Can you not see that these people are your allies, that your story is their story? Or, at the very least, that their struggle is your struggle and that the enemy of your enemy is your friend? Perhaps they did know all these things, and came anyway. I do not know.
But I do know that they named their son, my grandfather, after the first governor of the British Columbia colony, the accomplished purveyor of smallpox blankets and other colonial violence, James Douglas. So am I descended from real Indian-haters, or just naive fools who believed what they read in the newspapers about their own great colonial destiny? Did the original James Douglas represent to them the founding of a new country on land they didn’t know didn’t belong to them, and they saw only some kind of freedom, an end of rule from distant London? Did they know he was the son of a black woman? Did they see, or imagine they saw, the mythology of equality and possibility and self-determination in this “new” land embodied in him? Or was it simply that they fell into the trap of confusing privilege with freedom, approving of the gulf between the haves and have-nots because they thought that one day they might be among the haves? Perhaps one day, when I leave on my own friendly wind, I will be able to ask them.
The Inverness was my family’s lifeline, their only link to the world outside the one-room floathouse that was their home. It must have had a centrality to their lives that I can hardly even begin to understand. The floathouse was a clapboard-sided box on cedar log floats that sat on the rocky beach when the tide was low and floated, rocking gently, when it was high. It had been the cookhouse at the logging camp my grandfather had worked at, and when the season was over and they were dismantling the camp he bought the cookhouse for twenty dollars. He had it towed down to Bute Inlet and anchored it behind one of the rocky islets there, the ones that reach up out of the sea like teeth to swallow the skipper who doesn’t pay attention. Years later, those rocks swallowed my father’s two brothers, but that’s another story. When my grandfather bought the boat that became the Inverness, she was a stripped-out hull with no motor, no rudder, and no deck. He built her up into a serviceable boat from scrounged parts and hand-sawn lumber and I can imagine him, proud and smiling at the wheelhouse window, the day he first chugged her up to the dock at Stuart Island to pick up the mail.
Before the Inverness, my family’s only means of transportation had been an eighteen-foot rowboat. When my father and his three older siblings arrived in Bute Inlet, it was by steamship to Rock Bay. My grandfather rowed that eighteen-foot boat the three miles across the channel to pick up his wife and four children including my infant father. He loaded his family and all their supplies for the winter into the rowboat, and rowed them back, three more miles, to the floathouse. They spent their first winter there, until they moved the floathouse to the Big Bay on Stuart Island the next summer, where it remained until they left in the mid 1940s. My father told me once that when the sea froze, my grandfather walked out on the ice pulling that rowboat behind him, prodding the ice ahead with a stick to make sure it was safe, until he could put the boat in and row. I imagine that he would have chosen a day with a clear, cold westerly for this trek, the good weather wind that never lets you down.
My grandfather came to Bute Inlet to cut down trees. They cut by hand at first, hauling them out with horses. Later, they acquired a steam-driven cable winch they called a steam donkey. My father began towing the booms of logs down to Vancouver with the Inverness, an eighteen-hour run through fog and rocks and bad weather, alone, when he was fifteen years old. The remnants of those trees can still be seen all over the backcountry, their vast stumps rearing out of the tree plantations that have replaced them. I don’t use the word “forest” because, make no mistake, a tree plantation is not a forest. I mourn for those trees, for the world they represent, for the people and the place that once was, and for the hubris, or the ignorance, of those who destroyed it. I wonder, did my grandfather ever mourn for the trees as he cut them down? Did my father? Doubtful.
I remember arguing with my father all through the 1990s as protests and blockades blossomed like fall mushrooms and the “War in the Woods” ripped apart small communities like ours. Multinational logging corporations muscled in and pushed out the smaller operators, replacing whole crews of skilled, careful fallers with the devastation that only a feller-buncher can wreak. Industrial logging destroyed the landbase and the economy while all the time convincing loggers that it was the environmentalists and the backwards Indians on the blockades that were their enemy. They divided us, and they conquered.
All through this time, my father and men like him, men who both loved the woods and loved to cut them down, maintained that we could never run out of trees. You have no idea how much wilderness is out there, he said. It goes on forever. He lived long enough to find out that he was wrong, to sit in the coffee shops with the other aging loggers and talk about how there’s no timber left, about what a mess it is out there now, about how they had the best of it. He lived long enough, then, to mourn the loss of the world he knew and loved as his grandfather had mourned the loss of his home in the far-off Highlands.
My father began to live in the memory of what had been, the past slowly becoming more real for him than the present. The places he had known grew larger with the power of his mourning to take on a life of their own, becoming magical just like the name of the Inverness. Which is worse, I wondered, to lose your home but keep the memory of it or to stay in the place you love and watch it destroyed around you? I watched a sadness come over him that I had never seen before, as if in realizing what he and men like him had done, he was slowly drowning in a sea of his mourning.
It’s awful to listen to a person dying, to hear their breath rattle in their throat for hours or days as they struggle, with what strength they have left, to break free of their body and blow away. It’s not easy to die. My father’s breaths became shallower, fewer and farther between, and I don’t know how long my mother and I sat with him in silence through timeless days and nights. I do know that the day he died was a calm June morning, that the birds sang and the new leaves of the swamp maple outside the window were shimmering with that special golden-green light that only early summer can bring. I do know that I looked out the window just as a puff of wind blew up and rustled the maple leaves. The wind is shifting, I thought, it’s starting to blow from the west. Dad will like that. I said to him in my mind, It’s starting to blow a little westerly, just in the matter-of-fact way he always mentioned everything he noticed about the wind, the clouds, the tide. He always paid attention, and he taught me to do the same without me even knowing it. The wind swung around to the west and tugged at the maple leaves, ruffled the rose bush that climbs the fence outside my parents’ bedroom window, and scampered away down the hill towards the sea. The long pause that always came between each rattling breath drew out longer, and longer, and after some time—two minutes? maybe more?—we knew that he would not draw another one. His face was turned to the window, looking after the westerly as it blew itself out to sea, and his eyes were wide open. They stayed that way, after we said goodbye, and even when they came a few hours later to collect the body his eyes refused to close and sprang open again when we tried to shut them. Still watching, still paying attention.
Because he paid attention, my father knew this place in a way that many people quite possibly can’t even imagine. He spent his whole life in the woods and on the water. He worked miles back in the dark green light of cedar, hemlock, and douglas-fir with only one or two other men, falling trees one by one. They yarded the logs out with cables attached to a spar tree that he would climb and rig the old way. Spike boots and a rope around the trunk and up he’d go, a hundred feet or more, limbing and topping the tree by hand with a double-headed axe that he hauled up the tree dangling from his belt. Then he hauled the block and tackle up by hand, pound the spikes and set the rigging, all while clinging to the trunk of the tree with only the rope and his boot spikes to hold him. No helicopters, no feller-bunchers. No room for error or distraction. They’d yard the logs down to the beach, chain them up into great rafts, and wait for high tide. Then Dad would run out on the boom in his spike boots and use the ten-foot pike pole to wake up the grizzly bears that had climbed onto the boom to nap in the sun, and run away across the spinning, floating logs and let the bears fall in the water and swim off so he could chain up and get the boom under way before the tide changed again.
He loved this work, loved the art and skill of it. Loved to be in the woods and on the water, loved the places he worked and the animals he shared them with. Wolf and bear and orca, mink and bobcat and cougar. His knowledge of the land and the sea and the winds was personal, intimate, born of unmediated experience and the fundamental knowledge that the wilderness is vast and indifferent and we are very, very small. Anyone who goes out into the wild forgets that fact at their peril.
Peril is a good teacher, and my father was a good student. Dad could be asleep in his bunk while I steered the boat and, without even looking out the window, could waken at the slightest shift in the rocking of the tide and know where we were. He’d call up to me to shift my course a few degrees to port, aim for that big mountain there with the notch in the side and watch out to starboard, there’s a dirty rock out there. He taught me to see the subtle shifts of the currents that tell the tale of rocks just below the surface, to watch the color of the water and read its depth and know better than any depth-sounder where the salmon could be found. He taught me to know the mystery and power and magic of this place and, by knowing it, to love it. And, through loving it, to mourn its destruction at the hands of men like him. And so I learned also to mourn the distance that grew between us as it became clear that we were destined to be enemies.
Within the span of my father’s lifetime, Vancouver Island lost 90 percent of its forests. The salmon runs have nearly all collapsed, and the herring too. Industrial culture has spread like an oil slick across this coast, across every coast, across all of this precious world, and used it up. The forests that my father knew, the rank upon rank of ridges and valleys with so much timber it seemed to him and to men like him that it could never run out, those forests are like graveyards now. The haunted stumps of fallen giants stand like tombstones among the sickly monocultures of nursery grown, chemically fertilized spruce and fir on forty-year rotation. Forty years! Trees whose lives could span centuries. To strip a forest to the bare dirt every forty years is not logging, it’s ecocide. Not just the trees, but everything the forest needs to survive and thrive is destroyed. Each time, the ecosystem loses a little bit more of the richness and diversity and resilience it needs to be able to regenerate itself. The soil dies, the insects die, the birds die, and eventually nothing is left.
This is what is happening to the place that I love. Not only the place, but even our memory of what it once was, is fading into the smoke of burning slash piles. We fight now to save the crumbs, the scraps. A few trees here, one side of a valley there. To keep them from mowing down the second (or third) growth forests so that maybe these, at least, might have a chance to become giants one day when all of us who are doing the fighting are nothing more than a puff of wind in the branches. There are days when I feel sure it is a losing battle. I fight anyway, through long meetings I know are probably pointless, through the lies of company men and the politicians who come to protect them. And through the clarity and beauty of those moments on the blockades when a few small people stand in front of a huge machine and force it to grind to a halt. In those moments we know that, at least for now, this ancient cedar will stay standing, these few western flickers and rufous hummingbirds will nest in peace. In those moments, I know that our love for the places we live with is a stronger force than what seeks to destroy them.
And yet I also know that I love this place because of my father, a man who knew this landscape with an intimacy and a relationship to place that few people now can imagine. A man who also had a hand in the destruction of the living world he knew so closely. To read the winds and the tides—to know which wind to travel on, and on which to stay at home—is knowledge that is disappearing just as surely as ancient moss-draped hemlocks and orcas and grizzly bears are disappearing. This place is losing its memory, and if we do not keep alive the memory of what was, and mourn for it, its magic will be lost forever and we will have nothing to help us understand why we must protect what is left.
I said before that it is not easy for a person to die, that dying is hard work. Ways of living also take a long time to die, ways of seeing and being in the world do not die easily or quickly. Our past, our story, our ancestry stay alive in us, but they do not remain unchanged. The story we come from may decide where we begin, but it does not dictate where we may go. For many years I could only see my father as someone with blood on his hands, responsible for the destruction of lands and of the cultures and lifeways that depend upon them. Responsible for the loss of forests that will never recover in my lifetime their richness, their diversity, their life-giving powers that men like him so happily destroyed for the sake of a few years’ profit. And yet, I also know that it is because of my father and the life that he lived that I know this place intimately enough to love it the way that I do. He taught me how to feel the landscape and move through it with awareness and humility and wonder. And, so, like the name of Inverness that, even though he had never seen the place, was a charm to my grandfather to keep his family safe, the memory of that capacity for connection to this place stays alive in me along with the memory of my father and the life he knew. That memory becomes an incantation for what is possible from here.
Under the story of men like my father and my grandfather whose stories are written across this place, there lies buried another, older story. Salish and Kwak’Waka’Wakw peoples have lived in this place much longer than us. In Bute Inlet and Desolation Sound, in Knights Inlet, in Rivers Inlet and the Broughtons and all of these places, people have lived forever and still do. Despite everything that has been done to them by people like my father and grandfather, done to them for the benefit of sons and daughters like me, the land and the people of this place are resilient, and they survive. Despite clearcuts and whaling ships, despite smallpox blankets and residential schools, despite salmon farms and coal mines and armies of Scottish settlers with chainsaws and all the other atrocities that industrial culture has brought to this place, the place and its people are still here. It is not so easy, then, to separate a people from a home that they love and a history that they remember. Sometimes, people carry their home with them, and its names become their magic. Other times, people stand and fight to remain in the home that they love. For these people, mourning is not enough.
At the head of Bute Inlet lies the Homathko Icefield and the headwaters of the Homathko and Southgate rivers, where Kwak’Waka’Wakw and Tsilcotin territories meet. Beginning in the summer of 1864, the government of the Colony of British Columbia, under the leadership of the same James Douglas that my grandfather was named for, sought to build first a road and then a railway through Tsilcotin territory and down to the Salish Sea at Bute Inlet. The Tsilcotin people did not consent to this incursion into their territory, and when their instructions that the road would not be allowed were ignored, they killed the survey party that came to begin building it. What followed is now called the Chilcotin War, and it ended in the colonial government hanging the Tsilcotin leaders who came in good faith to negotiate a truce. But the memory of those warriors lived on. Neither road nor railway was ever built, and Tsilcotin lands today remain unceded—some of the last roadless wilderness left in what’s now the province of British Columbia. The Tsilcotin turned and fought for their home place, and they are still fighting for it. In the last five years, they have stopped two attempts to build a gold mine that would have turned a sacred lake into a tailings pond, and won legal recognition from the colonial government of Canada that the Tsilcotin Nation are the legal authority over their lands. The Tsilcotin are still fighting, and they are still winning.
And what of my people? We whose every bit of wealth is built on and comes at the expense of the pillage of this land and its people? It may be that we are living now in an age that is defined by grief for what this culture has done and is still doing, grief for all that we have allowed to be lost. The grief is so heavy that we hide from it, from our complicity in the destruction. We cannot face it, and so it haunts us. We will never escape it that way. But what if it’s only through facing the horror of what this culture has done and mourning for its victims that we can really hope to change it? What if grief is not a bottomless pit from which we will never emerge, but instead a source of beauty and power and strength? What if grief is not a wall, but a door?
This spring, the second spring since my father’s passing, the herring came back to this part of the Salish Sea. In the sharp, crisp coolness of a March westerly I stood on the beach in the cold spring sun and watched the blue-gray water turn turquoise with white herring spawn. It was the first herring run that had been seen here in over 30 years. I watched the sea lions and orcas gather together to feed and play, slapping the water with fins and tails to celebrate the return of a vital species that was nearly lost from this place. Clouds of gulls filled the sky with their white bodies and their raucous cries as they feasted. Great blue herons and black cormorants dove and surfaced, dove and surfaced, each time emerging with a flash of silver fish in their long beaks. I watched them gather and recited their names to myself the way my father would always name them for me, like a prayer, on the deck of the boat when I was little. Kittiwake and bald eagle. Pacific white-sided dolphin. Harbour seal. I thought to myself, Dad would have liked to have seen this. He would have liked to have known that it’s not all gone.
A gust of that old west wind rattled across the rocky shore and knifed through my coat, cold and clear like a hard, bright memory. See, I said to the west wind, See? It’s not too late.
ERIN INNES is a writer, activist, full-time organic farmer, and part-time curmudgeon. She lives and farms in a tiny village you’ve never heard of on the shores of the Salish Sea, a few ferry rides from Vancouver, BC. Her work has appeared in Briarpatch, Canadian Dimension, and The Dominion, among others.