1239 Tackling industrial reforestation
David Brownstein reviews two books:
Slashburner: Hot Times in the British Columbia Woods
by Nick Raeside
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2020
$24.95 / 9781550178982
Highballer: True Tales from a Treeplanting Life
by Greg Nolan
Madeira Park: Harbour Publishing, 2019
$26.95 / 9781550178685
Reviewed by David Brownstein
After a brief eclipse by pipelines, British Columbia’s forests are again prominent in the public conversation. As they ought to be. Climate change, reconciliation, wildfires and old-growth logging policy are weighty, complicated topics. Breadth of experience must inform our decisions, but unlike yesteryear, few of us today work in the bush. The two adventure-memoirs under review remind us of forest life before the 1990s “War in the Woods.” As such, they can be read as stories geared to amaze with details of hardship, physical feats, and immediate danger. They are also light, quick-reading, and entertaining testimonies that underscore just how much our values have shifted since the 1980s with respect to environmental regulation and worker safety. They remind us where we have been, and they open windows into hidden forest professions with which few may be familiar.
Calling all pyromaniacs! Slashburner is Nick Raeside’s working-class memoir of burning logged-lands in preparation for reforestation, in the vicinity of Golden, BC, between 1979 and 1989. Traditional industrial logging produces great quantities of waste woody debris. Today, much of this material is increasingly collected, turned into pellets, and sold as biofuel. However, before this contemporary market emerged, slash covered the ground hindering natural seedling germination and became a fire hazard as it dried. By burning cutblocks, the fire risk was mitigated and the land prepared for manual replanting.
Raeside recounts his adventures in slashburning with wit and enthusiasm. A tightly edited, relaxed barstool gabfest, the book is bursting with mishaps and practical jokes. The eleven chapters begin with the barefoot, seven-year-old author at a holiday cabin in his native New Zealand fighting a fire with a wet burlap sack. Within ten years he was a volunteer Bush firefighter in plastic sandals. And then, soon enough, in British Columbia he was engaged in contract forest fire control-services for the now defunct International Forest Fire Systems, who were themselves contracted to Evans Forest Products. Raeside relates a professional origin story with vignettes of physical deprivation in the employment of a poorly-run business operating on a wide range of credit, dangerous run-down equipment, and his own poorly developed sense of self-preservation. At the conclusion of the 1979 fire season, Raeside made his move from extinguishing fires to setting them. Evans Forest Products kept him on with their Woodlands Division logging operations to perform slashburning.
Chapters 3 through 11 detail related themes of the author’s professional life at Evans Forest Products as he mastered the art of manipulating fire as a tool to engineer the landscape. Logged cutblocks are invariably adjacent to stands of trees that await future logging. So, to burn the slash without having fire escape up the mountain is, Raeside informs us, a tricky business. Euphemistically termed “overachievement,” escaped fire is managed via thoughtful planning and ad hoc improvisation. Attempts at control can be frustrated by unpredictable and uncooperative weather, human error, and bad luck.
Raeside is curious and creative, both in designing and building things of use (e.g., flamethrowers) and in contriving situations within which a practical joke might unfold. Just underneath the surface of frequent on-the-job alcohol-fuelled hijinks a lot of intelligent physics and chemistry is at play, though the stories are never presented as such. Our gripping chemistry lessons include passages on the virtues of fire propellants such as gasoline, diesel, and napalm, while others detail chemical delay igniters and explosives. Requisite applied physics includes felling trees, truck mechanics, manoeuvring vehicles on slopes or at speed, aircraft operations, pumping water uphill, and radios/electronics. There can be no doubt of Raeside’s passion for these scenarios. At the same time, many of the actions described could be construed as ill-considered, if not downright dangerous. For example, Raeside used the remains of a crushed culvert to construct a napalm-propelled mortar, which landed on a moving logging truck quite some distance away (p. 203). For this stunt, he was nearly fired.
On the last page we encounter the cheeky observation that “This is his first book.” But who is this book for? The obvious appeal is to those interested in big machines and explosions. Raeside’s potential audience also includes armchair adventurers and other overwhelmingly industry outsiders looking to live vicariously through the outrageous exploits of others — he provides a helpful, unobtrusive glossary at the end, and arresting colour photos — but many forest industry insiders, both supporters and critics, will appreciate the eye-opening gossip that confirms things previously suspected. This would have to include the cumulative environmental damage Raeside describes, which is simply astounding, including driving skidders and cats (bulldozers) through streams, damaging fish habitat and inadvertently cleaning the machines of spilled hydraulic fluid and fuel. As Raeside confides in the epilogue, “I was fortunate to have done all my burning back in the days before the outdoors was crawling with ecotourists and mountain bikers….” (p. 213). Which is to say, he describes a time in which viewscapes and environmental considerations were not front of mind.
The forest historian might find Slashburner lacking. With such a wealth of experience and a practised eye for on the ground implementation, Raeside’s book still cries out for commentary on how his work fits into a wider context of fire on the landscape. To his credit, Raeside does explore his mixed relationship with the provincial Forest Service, but given the focus on land management, the invisibility of the Ktunaxa – in whose traditional territory he worked — is most unfortunate. Even for a book meant to entertain, fact-checking the brief introduction could have been more rigorous. On the second page, we read that obligatory slash burning was implemented in BC as a result of the 1938 Bloedel Fire. However, John Parminter reminds us that Section 113A of the B.C. Forest Act was passed the previous year, on December 10 1937, coming into effect only on January 1 1938. “The new legislation preceded the Bloedel Fire, it was not passed because of it.” Readers seeking broader fire history are best directed to Keith Keller’s 2002 Wildfire Wars, or Stephen Pyne’s 2007 Awful Splendour.
The trickster with a lighter, however, ought to make a beeline for Raeside’s Slashburner.
Woody debris having been reduced on the cutblock by Raeside and his confreres, Greg Nolan and his caravan of colleagues drive up in their trucks and campers, eager for a silvicultural intervention. Highballer, the title of Nolan’s memoir, is the prestigious rank given to the highest-producing treeplanters on a crew, those generally held in the highest regard. From 1983 through 2010, Nolan earned this distinction as an elite, high-achieving professional treeplanter as he traversed British Columbia, coast and interior, and undertook harrowing stints in Alberta. His favoured context was the remote, technically challenging contract. Of the two books under review, this one is longer and the more literary. Whereas Raeside shared a sequence of episodes, organized by theme, Nolan leads us through a unified narrative arc, most of the 13 chapters propelled either by a mystery (will he survive?) or a quest (will he plant his self-imposed quota?). Rather than a glossary, this book uses footnotes to coach the novice through jargon.
Highballer begins with the 19-year-old protagonist rejecting his elder siblings’ aspirations for higher education, as his mom drives him the 750 km to the designated meeting at a café at Purden Lake, east of Prince George. Once at camp, the reader learns how, in theory, to maximize the number of trees one might plant in the shortest time. Those who can’t fulfill the mandatory quota of 1,000 trees per day, by the 15th day, must leave. The more experienced planters share advice: never stop moving, eliminate unnecessary motions, plan ahead.
Nolan also guides us through the camp and its culture. BC treeplanter camp life centred around a six metre-high dining-tent, a semi-circular, metal-framed Quonset hut with kitchen trailer attached surrounded by a mixed geography of individual tents. Some preferred “downtown,” next to the Quonset (for those concerned about bears), or further away, out in the suburbs (for those eager to escape the kitchen generator’s roar, fired up before dawn). Nolan describes the hastily-dug shitters, the improvised heated showers, the propane-heated hot-tub trailer. Food is a dominant theme, and why not? A treeplanter, expending more than a marathon’s worth of energy day after day, demands significant fuel.
Nolan also lavishes much detail on the excitement of a nearly equal gender ratio, and he muses that possibly women were hired as much for their beauty as other traits. Camp romances figure prominently throughout, with the author admitting that there probably wasn’t a woman with whom he didn’t fall in love. Yet, somehow, this romantic was simultaneously ruthlessly competitive, mostly with himself, in his pursuit of piecework highballer status.
Nolan affirms Raeside’s appraisal of the 1970s and 1980s BC forest as a “wild west,” adding that it was an era in which sustainable logging practices weren’t always followed and often took a back seat to economics. He saw small lakes and streams logged to the edge (p. 114). He describes the controversial spruce-bark-beetle-epidemic Bowron Cut on the Fraser Plateau as “a prime example of humans reaching deeper and deeper into the wilderness in order to satiate our appetite for virgin stands of timber” (p. 103). Similarly, Williston Lake — a BC Hydro reservoir created in 1968 — stood out for him as “an environmental disaster” (p. 39). While on the coast, in a continuous series of clearcuts separated only by thin swaths of mature forest, “it didn’t take long for erosion to render roads dangerous and impassable” (p. 81). And yet the treeplanters commuted on those same dissolving roads twice a day. In a final note on the topic of environmental damage, Nolan confides that on one northern Alberta contract, the planters used an enormous All Terrain Vehicle (ATV) to traverse thickly-treed muskeg to and from the cutblock, with soil conditions so bad that the wide-tired machine couldn’t retrace any route already travelled, so that they mowed down yet more trees with every transit. “I hate to reflect on the number of mature conifers we killed on this one contract alone” (p. 247).
This was also a context in which workers’ health was rarely bolstered by government oversight. It was often argued that if creek water was running cold and fast, it was safe to drink directly from the source, but parasite and protozoa exposure was typical. Subsequent chapters relate a variety of dangerous situations, any one of which might have ended quite badly. Some were imposed, others self-inflicted. The most riveting bear-encounter of the book appears in Chapter 4, comprising a set of Bute Inlet experiences of the “imposed” variety. Vivid, scary, and extremely interesting, Nolan’s negotiating control of space in a coastal wildlife corridor with a “special effects big” silvertip grizzly is worth the book’s purchase price by itself.
Notwithstanding the remote setting and many passages devoted to the sublime, Nolan’s world is one populated by people. He is attentive to his relationships with them, and to theirs with each other. On the surface, the planters come from diverse backgrounds, a difference that obscures a strong class uniformity. It isn’t clear whether his friends’ many names have been changed, but he has shortened company names to initials, which won’t hide their corporate identities from the familiar — or from the curious with an internet connection. In later chapters, the author omits place names and proprietors, due to the hostility he encountered with certain locals. Nolan suggests that treeplanters always occupied a spot at the bottom of the resource-industry foodchain, a designation that he insists persists today. “You’re not allowed to park there, asshole” (p. 147). “You’re not a fucking treeplanter, are ya?” (p. 160). Unfortunately, we never learn definitively why this might be the case, so the reader is left to assume that the planters’ own anti-social behaviour while in town might have been the cause.
The last third of the book describes Nolan’s ascent to management, a structural shift in response to the 1987 requirement that licensees become responsible for replanting the areas that they cut (shouldering a duty once undertaken by government). For all of the heroic feats of planting more trees per day than any others, management proved challenging for Nolan. It was easier to get trees into the ground than planters and gear to the right remote cutblock when out-of-date maps were involved. Eventually bouncing back from considerable adversity, Nolan rejoined a crew of highballers in the spring of 1991, undertaking remote and technically demanding coastal projects. Then, in subsequent seasons, he worked as a foreman before becoming a contractor himself, specializing in technical helicopter projects along the west coast of Vancouver Island and on precipitous mainland inlets.
Nolan does occasionally connect his personal observations to wider themes and trends. However, much like Raeside’s memoir, his focus is on immediate experience. I would very much have liked more connections made between his role as a treeplanter and the industrial forestry practices he decries. In this way Highballer is quite different when compared to Charlotte Gill’s award-winning Eating Dirt (2011). Indigenous people do appear here and there across Nolan’s pages, always favourably but otherwise without comment.
Nolan observes that many come away from their first full season of planting trees “feeling as if they’d cultivated something pivotal in their lives, something that sparked and inspired inner growth….” (p. 288). And yet, simultaneously, he “can’t imagine anyone strapping on a set of treeplanting bags for the very first time … and then trumpeting at the end of the day, ‘Where has this gig been all my life?’” (p. 287). Thus Nolan’s Highballer joins the growing output on the tree planters’ experience. This library includes Michael Kohn’s 2006 Greener than Eden and Gill’s Eating Dirt. The coffee-table books include Hélène Cyr’s 1998 Handmade Forests and Rita Leistner’s recent Forest For The Trees: The Treeplanters (2021). To these, we can add Loraine Gilbert’s gallery showings (Shaping the New Forest) and Nicholas Kendall’s film Do it with Joy (1977), Adam Humphrey’s Franz Otto Ultimate Highballer (2010), and the more recently launched Treeplanting Film Festival.
With BC forests back on the front pages in another summer of fires, both Slashburner and Highballer can help frame contemporary debates. Proponents who advocate for the reintroduction of Indigenous cultural burning to mitigate fire risks, or for treeplanting as an antidote to climate change, view these solutions as self-evident. Raeside’s experience with “overachievement” hints that the challenges of reviving traditional practices on the modern landscape might be significant. Nolan’s account of treeplanting’s physical costs might make us sceptical that we will ever muster the army of super-heroes necessary to plant our way back to carbon neutrality. These will be difficult feats, but they are the tests of our times. The past has much to say to the future. Harbour Publishing deserves our thanks for creating the space for such a conversation.
David Brownstein, historical geographer, is the principal of Klahanie Research Ltd., which undertakes archival research and writing projects on behalf of First Nations, governments, museums, artists, and the private sector. Recent commissions include a 75th anniversary volume in celebration of the Truck Loggers Association, and archival/ GIS support for the Museum of Vancouver exhibition, “That Which Sustains Us.” David is active with the Forest History Association of B.C. and he has taught at UBC since 2005. He is currently writing a forest history of British Columbia. Editor’s note: David Brownstein has also reviewed a book by William L. Lang and James V. Walker for The Ormsby Review.
The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster
 Keith Keller. 2002. Wildfire Wars: Frontline Stories from BC’s Worst Forest Fires, Harbour Publishing, Madeira Park; Stephen J. Pyne. 2007. Awful Splendour: A Fire History of Canada, UBC Press, Vancouver.
 Charlotte Gill. 2011. Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe, Greystone Books, Vancouver.
 Michael Kohn. 2006. Greener than Eden: a novel. Cormorant Books, Toronto; Hélène Cyr. 1998. Handmade Forests: The Tree planter’s Experience. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island; Rita Leistner. 2021. Forest For the Trees: The Treeplanters, Dewi Lewis Publishing, Stockport; Do It With Joy. Dir. Nicholas Kendall. The National Film Board of Canada, 1977; Franz Otto Ultimate Highballer. Dir Adam Humphrey. 2010; Lorraine Gilbert. Shaping the New Forest. 1988; The Treeplanting Film Festival.