Thursday, March 8, 2012

Dan's Axe

© Manuel Erickson

    STUART HEADED HIS ULTRA-LIGHT AEROPLANE NORTH, following the logging roads to "his" forest. On this sunny, spring day, he almost felt he could fly without the wings of the fabric-covered bird. More of the terrain came into view as he gained height. When he found smooth air, he leveled off and flew toward the plain between two snow-covered mountains.

    This was his element.

    On his left, the majesty of the familiar mountain towering a thousand feet above filled him with awe. Its slopes were thickly treed; by contrast, Stuart knew the logging roads he followed could only lead to large regions of naked ground.

    Near the summit, he glimpsed a sparkling, living glacier—a remnant of the last ice age. Below, mountain goats scurried to hide from the whine of the approaching machine. "This is what Anna and I came here for," he said aloud, and his heart lifted a notch.

    A scent reached his nostrils. Stuart did not recognize it, except that it was sweet. He knew it would be one of a variety of wild flowers growing in the Clayoquot area. He dipped the nose of the aircraft and saw a green field spotted with white. He thought the flowers might be baby’s breath or snow drops.

    Tomorrow was the first anniversary of their arrival on tranquil Vargas Island. They loved the retirement house they had built on the eastern side. A vision of its stone and log walls momentarily filled his mind. It's paradise here, he thought, smiling to himself. At long last, we've found a good place to make our home.

    He continued to follow a logging road. As he flew around the curve of the mountain, a higher one came into view to the east, its snowy summit reflecting the rays of the afternoon sun.

    Suddenly he saw something on the plain between the two ramparts. "Oh no! My forest's gone!" he shouted into the cockpit. He felt his eyes begin to water, but ignored it and circled, studying the ground below. Logging equipment littered the shaven surface. Stumps and discarded trunks lay everywhere, strewn into grotesque heaps.

    When he had seen enough, he rounded the lower mountain, flew west over the ocean, then headed for his airstrip on Vargas Island.

    He didn't go straight to the house, though he knew Anna would be waiting. Instead, he went to the little dock, pretending the motor needed attention. He stepped into the boat, took off the gas cap, looked inside, put it back on. Absently, he pulled cables and moved switches up and down. His hands dropped to his sides, and he sat a while. Taking a can, he bailed the water that had accumulated since the last rainfall. He stepped onto the dock and care­fully exam­ined the slightly damaged bow. After his last trip a gust of wind had blown the boat into the dock before he was able to finish tying it up.

    All that took only a few minutes. With a sigh, Stuart got to his feet and trudged to the house.

    He was determined not to say anything to Anna. He knew he hadn't much of a chance of getting away with it. After forty years of marriage, Anna had her ways of penetrating any nonchalant behaviour Stuart might care to use.

    "Have a good flight, dear?" she asked.

    "Um-m, okay, I guess." He picked up a magazine and started to open the pages.

    "Where did you fly?"

    "Just a few miles north of here."

    "See anything?"

    "Um?" He pretended to be reading. "Oh, nothing—nothing at all.'

    Anna sat in her chair and looked at him. "Stu, I know something's bothering you. Is there something wrong with the plane?"

    He let the magazine drop to the coffee table and looked at her. He deeply loved his wife, a patient, knowing woman. "No, Anna. Nothing’s wrong with it. I…I saw something…" He sat on the sofa. A dark shadow appeared on his face. He couldn't hide the facts from her. It wouldn't work and he would feel miserable if he tried.

    Anna left her chair and joined him on the sofa. He took her hand. He opened his mouth to say something, but instead burst out crying. Anna was shocked. She took him in her arms. "Oh Stu, what's wrong?"

    "I..I saw fresh…fresh clearcuts…from the plane…just north of Cypre River. I don't…my god, Anna, what are we going to do? Where can we go?" He grew quiet.

    Anna held on to him, but said nothing. On the porch, black and white chickadees and drab brown finches, hopping and chirping, took their fill from the several feeders they had put up. Inside, the silence roared.


    Next morning Stuart shopped in town. Landing back at his home dock in the afternoon, he lifted the motor out of the water and locked it in place. Every time he did this generated good feelings because clean drops fell into the water. By contrast, on Lake Ontario oily slime would drip from the motor. Stuart stepped onto the dock, tied up his craft and looked around. As he had often done, he gazed again on the snow-capped moun­tains ringing the beautiful Sound, and smiled. A whale broke the surface a short distance from shore, its geyser caught by the wind, making a full-coloured, if brief, rainbow. Crying gulls swooped close to the water, doing their jobs as cleaners of the sea. There can't be a place as wondrous as Clayoquot, he thought, but how long can it last?

    He scooped up the groceries and started up the narrow, slightly inclined path to the house. This first anniversary of their new on Vargas would be celebrated in style, no matter what.

    "Hello, Anna," he called as he opened the unlocked door. "I’m home."

    Anna laid down a book and greeted her husband with a smile and a kiss. "I've missed you," she said. "Here, put those on the counter."

    "And I missed you. Did you finish the book?"

    “Almost,” said Anna. “I can write more of my review now.” She led him into the living room. “Sit down. I’ll make coffee. That trip to Tofino is really tiring.”

    He sat, removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Nothing needed to be said about yesterday. Today was different, a special day.

    As Anna prepared the coffee, Stuart looked at the room. Each time, he saw something new. There was a knot in a log he hadn't seen before; it looked like a bird. Below the logs, there was a space in the fieldstone that looked as if it disappeared into a dark hole, but he knew it was just the way the light from the mid-afternoon sun entered the windows and played merry tricks on his eyes.

    Anna brought his coffee, then sat in her chair, sipping her own mug of tea. "You know," he mused, "I believe we've been happier here than anywhere else, up to now." As he said it, the clearcuts he had seen filled his inner vision. He rose and went to the win­dow. Through the light green leaves of new spring growth, the sea sparkled in the sun. Below and above the surface, life abounded, wheeling, dancing, eating, being eaten. Just below the verandah, a deer nibbled at the newly-planted tomatoes in the vegetable garden. Black bear and wolves roamed the Island; they were raising their litters and care was needed when walking in the forest.

    "It's taken us a long, long time. This little bit of paradise.." he trailed off. Anna joined him at the window.

    "Yes," she agreed, and she slipped her hand into his. "I love this place, too. It's my home."

    That meant a lot to Stuart, as Anna had always said about each place they lived that it was not home to her, only a place to stay a while. He smiled at her, finished his coffee and went to the kitchen to start their anniversary supper.


    Early next morning, Stuart walked to his short grass airstrip. At sixty-five, he had thousands of hours' experience and even taught the occasional student. Dan was waiting for him.

    "How's my aeroplane, Dan?"

    "Just fine,” he answered with a grin that revealed a missing front tooth. Stuart recalled the logging accident that almost broke Dan's neck. Instead, it took his tooth and left him with a severe limp and a somewhat stiffened hand. "I checked everything and made sure the tanks are full. All ready for my lesson!"

    "Okay." Stuart felt a little shiver as he anticipated the flight. He didn't want to see that clearcut again; it frightened him—especially with Dan beside him. He entered the little trailer that served as an office, put his flight itinerary on the desk and scanned the booking sheet; then he approached the plane. "I guess you’re my only student this morning.' They got in, adjusted their helmets and safety belts and Stuart turned on the intercom.

    "Stu," Dan said suddenly, "I'm very glad you and Anna settled here. I…I wanted to fly all my life and thought I'd never do it 'til you came along. Thanks.'

    "I know, Dan. I know," Stuart said. He remembered how grateful he had felt toward his instructor twenty years ago, and Dan was roughly the age he was then. Five minutes later they winged into the air, over the trees, and across the narrow strait to the practice area.


    "Why did you come to Vargas, Stu?" asked Dan after they landed.

    Stuart stroked his chin as he studied Dan carefully. "We wanted a peaceful, beautiful place to live for the rest of our lives," he said. "We chose to build our house on Vargas because we believe the government will keep the area free of logging, because.." His head dropped as he remembered the clearcuts he had seen and that Dan paid for his lessons with money earned from logging.

    "Stu?" said Dan. "You okay?"

    "Uh, yeah, I'm fine." He took a deep breath. "The government's environmental principles are laid down in black and white, Dan, but I don’t know how honest those people are." His face turned stern.

    As they tied down the plane, Dan searched Stuart's face. "You annoyed with me, Stu?"

    "Of course not!" he snapped. "Well.." He told Dan about the clearcuts. "I guess I think it's your fault, somehow, because you used to be a logger, but I know it isn’t."

    "That life was good to me 'til I got hurt. I'm pensioned off now, but if I could still work, I'd snap up the chance to log again. Wonderful life. Guess I just feel different about it than you."

    "Sure, I understand." He didn't want to argue with Dan.

    Dan took something from his shirt pocket and held it out for Stuart to see. "When I got pensioned off, the company gave me this golden axe for my years of work and because I once saved somebody's life. It means a lot to me, Stu, maybe as much as your plane means to you."

    Stuart looked at the axe lying in the palm of Dan's hand. "May I?" he asked.

    Dan nodded.

    Stuart took the memento between his thumb and forefinger, studied it, turned it over. "Oh! It's fourteen carat gold. Wonderful. Thanks for showing it to me, Dan." He gave it back; and Dan put it away.

    They said good-bye, and Stuart started home. He thought about his talk with Dan and became aware of a new appreciation of him. Dan had saved someone’s life. Stuart had never done that.

    As he walked, the discussion with Dan faded to gossamer. He loved to touch the leaves of trees and other plants—to give himself, some­how, a sense of oneness with them, just like flying made him feel closer to the creatures of the air. Your life is my life, he whispered as he stroked the bark of a Western Red Cedar. Birds large and small flew overhead, searching for food for themselves and their brood. "Just like humans," he mut­tered, smiling.

    His talk with Dan returned to him. "Maybe Dan is as responsible for that mess as other loggers," he thought. "In his mind, he's still a logger."


    Later that afternoon, Stuart looked out the kitchen window and sighed. The setting sun painted the clouds in hues of red, orange and purple. He smiled, feeling good; by contrast, across the water a neighbour was burning trash, the dark grey smoke rising high in the still air. The fire had burned day and night for four full days., and Stuart shook his head.

    Supper was almost ready, and he turned on the radio. The news was just starting.

    "The premier of British Columbia," the announcer intoned, "has disclosed the govern­ment's decision. Clayoquot will be logged up to fifty percent; one-third will be preserved; and seventeen percent will be a mix of logging and preservation." There followed a brief interview with the premier, and Stuart caught the odd phrase."…won’t please everyone…the best solu­tion.." The announcer ended the story: " is generally believed the logging companies got more than they expected."

    Stuart padded down the hall to his wife’s study. "I suppose you heard about Clayoquot," he said.

    "No, what?" asked Anna. She did not look up from the book review she was finishing for the Tofino Weekly.

    He told her. "How is it possible to have both preservation and logging at the same time?" he asked, mainly to himself.

    "Greed," said Anna, and rose from her desk. They entered the living room.

    "And they've given the companies more than they asked for!"


    It seemed to add to his general feeling of alarm, discontinuity and concern. After a minute, he said, "Look, Anna. We came here because we love nature—the tall trees, the clean air." A dark shadow crossed his face. "Look what they’re doing to it!" He slumped into a chair. "Did you know the government bought shares in the company that's going to log Clayoquot?" he murmured.

    "No. How did you know?"

    "Heard it on the news." He put his chin in his hand. "But there are ministries that tell the companies where, when, and how they’re to log." He paused. Anna looked at him, and she frowned, giving her face a troubled look.

    "It's like the pot calling the kettle black,” he added. "Why do I feel sick?"

    "Because, my love, you care."

    "And the government and logging companies don't?"


    They talked through supper. "Our values are different," Anna said softly. "We believe in living within the means nature has provided. The logging companies only want to harvest the trees, and soon there won't be any left. That's what scares me. Then what will happen?" She frowned more deeply, lending shadows to her face; her breathing seemed to become shallow, as if she were anxious. "Why not join a political party and fight it out there?" she asked.

    "I'm too old. And I hate parties." He took a breath. "For years we worked for parties." His hands waved in the air. "We were scrutineers, we walked the streets with candidates, put up signs, phoned voters. What good did it do? We educated ourselves, I suppose. Parties have their own agendas, their own petty power bases to protect, but you and I have no power." He paused. "I feel awful." He rose and stomped around the room. "You said 'harvest' a minute ago. They don't harvest. They trash!" He sat down again, very agitated, then said, his voice barely audible, "Those clearcuts to the north are immense. The animals and birds are killed, too… You know, the government are rapists."

    "I feel as though I've been violated." Large bags seemed to grow under Anna's eyes, and new lines carved themselves into her skin. She covered her face, stifled a sob, then said with uncommon huskiness, "We just built this house. I don't want to have to find yet another 'ideal' place. I—forgive me, Stu—I don't want to live another ten or twenty years, just to see what my world will be like then."

    He rose and put an arm around her. "Anna,” he said softly, "if everyone who feels like us decided not to live, there would be no one to fight for the forest and the air."

    She turned to face him, and whispered, "Didn’t the government promise to safeguard the forests?"

    "Yes. That’s how I would fight them, if I had the strength, but I'm wrung out."

    "I'm tired, too. Tired of everything."


    Next day they rose at six-thirty, as usual. Each was quiet as they began their morning rituals. Anna, her haggard look betraying an uneasy sleep, reached over and turned on the radio. Stuart trudged back from the bathroom and slowly pulled on his clothes.

    "I feel I didn't sleep," he breathed, and went to the kitchen. He had put instant coffee into mugs, filled the kettle and was plugging it in when Anna called him. He started back to the bed­room and met Anna in the hall.

    "Stu," she said breathlessly. "There’s going to be a mass protest!" Her eyes were wide and her face had taken on an almost wild look.

    "Let's sit down, Anna," he said quietly, and led her to the living room. "Now, dear, tell me what you heard."

    "It was on the radio just now. The Mountain Club, The Wild Society and even Benjamin Kernaghan, the environmental lawyer, are coming here! To Clayoquot!"


    "In a few days. They're going to block the logging roads. They'll force the government to change its mind. Isn't it wonderful, Stu?"

    The kettle boiled. Stuart went to the kitchen, looking thoughtful, poured hot water into the mugs, added milk and returned to the living room, giving one to Anna.

    "Um-m. Just the way I like it." A smile coursed across her face, and Stuart was pleased.

    They sat together quietly on the sofa, watching the sun’s first rays illuminate the garden, sipping the hot liquid, holding their steaming mugs in opposite hands, their other hands clasped together.

    "Let’s do it," Stuart said softly, and looked at her.

    "You mean, join them on the blockade?"


    "We've got to stand up for what we believe, don't we?" She looked at him. "Yes. Yes, we can't let them ruin our lives without even a whimper."

    "Whimper. That reminds me of the book you’re reviewing; what’s its name? About the Holocaust."

    "The Holocaust Revisited. How the Nazis threw gypsies and Jews into cattle cars, shipped them across Europe and dumped them into extermination camps, with hardly a whimper from the persecuted."

    "Exactly, Anna. Well, this planned slaughter of Clayoquot's trees will be more than whimpered about. With the help of the others that are coming, I think not only will the government hear us—the world will hear us. Where are you going?"

    "To call the Nelbergs on the other side of the island. They’ll be interested in this." She paused. "Do they know you're teaching Dan to fly?"


    "Good. Don't worry, Stu," she said, "They’re up early and they’re conservationists, like us."

    It rained over the next few days. Heavy mist shrouded Vargas and Clayoquot Sound. No wind stirred. They walked outside and saw the new, light-green leaves of spring laden with the water that nourishes plants and animals alike. An occasional bird chirped; deer stood and watched them, then trotted off among the trees. They were careful to watch for bear and wolves.

    Anna whispered, "It's like a cathedral in here."

    "To me," said Stuart, "the trees are weeping."


    The clouds had cleared, revealing a sparkling blue sky. The protest took place on the main logging road leading into the Sound. Stuart, Anna and the Nelbergs had driven there in the Nelbergs’ four-by-four van. The last few kilometers to the main parking area were slow and difficult because of the hundreds of vehicles on the narrow gravel road. They parked and managed to work their way to a temporary stage, carrying folding chairs and food.

    People milled about in organized confusion. Someone stuck a piece of paper into their hands. "Oh, there’s going to be a rock concert in a few minutes," said Sheila Nelberg, studying the hastily printed document.

    "And Benjamin Kernaghan will speak right after," observed Anna, looking over Sheila's shoulder.

    "Good," said Allan Nelberg, his eyes lighting up. "Just the kind of music I like."

    "Let's not set our chairs too close to the speakers," said Stuart, looking at Allan. "We won't be able to hear ourselves think."

    They went to the rear of the crowd, but more hundreds more crowded in behind them. They looked around. "It's amazing!" said Anna. "No one’s smoking here."

    "Maybe they want to show the trees respect by not smoking," suggested Stuart.

    "Or maybe they simply don't want to risk a fire," said Allan.

    "Oh, Al," said Sheila, a little scornfully, "you're too practical."

    "Look! They’re going to start the concert," said Anna.

    "And I didn’t bring my ear plugs," said Stuart.

    As the players mounted the stage, a faint chant started from inside the audience, then grew louder as more and more took it up. "Save—our—trees! Save—our—trees!" The band was ready to start, but the din had grown too thunderous for them to play. Instead, they joined in the chant, waving, dancing and jumping. One of them thrust his fist into the air. Some members of the audience were standing; others began to jump and shout, waving their fists as well.

    Anna became frightened. "Stu," she shouted over the clamour, "I think we should move to another spot."

    "So do I," said Sheila. Stuart and Allan exchanged glances.

    "But they're just exuberant.." said Allan, unconvinced.

    "All right," said Stuart, and they started to collect their things.

    They walked back down the road a short distance. "I wonder why the police aren't here," observed Stuart as they walked.

    "Actually, they are," answered Allan. "I saw a few on the periphery of the crowd."

    "This crowd isn't what we bargained for," said Anna. "It’s a lot bigger and rowdier than I thought."

    "Would you like to go home?" asked Stuart.

    "No, I still want to show my support. What about you?" she asked Sheila and Allan.

    "I want to stay," said Allan.

    "So do I," said Sheila.

    They started to unfold their chairs where they stood, under the boughs of a large red cedar. They heard the sound of a heavy motor, and a logging truck appeared a few hundred metres behind them, the driver revving its engine. Its long flatbed was empty of logs, but several dozen loggers rode on it instead. The standards that hold the logs in place pierced the sky, like spears. Together with the bright headlights, it appeared as a behemoth, bearing down upon the four of them. A second truck was behind it, and a third behind that. On each rode dozens of loggers.

    The four left their chairs and hurried back to the crowd. To the first few protesters he saw, Stuart said breathlessly, "Logging trucks are coming!" Each of them spread the word, and it caught like wildfire.

    Strangely quiet, the huge crowd began to move as one, like ants, along the road. Only a few murmurs could be heard. The crowd had taken on an ominous character. Stuart and Anna held hands tightly, separated by only a few rows from Allan and Sheila, who also held hands. The few police could do nothing to control events.

    The four had spread their message too well. They wanted to get away, but were driven relentlessly forward by the momentum of the human current that surrounded them.

    "Allan! Sheila!" Stuart called. "Try to move over to the trees on the right."

    "Can't!" Allan called back. "It's all we can do to stay on our feet."

    Suddenly the trucks were in front of them. They braked to a dusty halt, and the loggers began jumping off, some coughing up dust. The ant-like column split into halves. It surrounded and outnumbered the loggers. The crowd stopped moving, and Stuart and Anna found them­selves at the front quarter of the lead truck. They tried to escape, but were hemmed in.

    "Some of those men have rocks," Stuart said quietly to Anna, but not quietly enough. Those beside him heard the remark, and picked up their own stones.

    "I'm frightened," said Anna. "What's going to happen here?"

    "Let us through!" said a logger from the lead truck. "We have our work to do and our fami­lies to feed."

    "Soon there won't be any trees left for you to cut!" a nearby male voice answered.

    "What will you do then?" shouted another.

    "There's millions of acres of trees!" answered another logger.

    From somewhere, a rock dropped from the blue, sparkling sky, hitting a child on the head. The child fell. A woman screamed. "Damn you!" shouted a male voice. The crowd surged. The driver of the lead truck revved his engine. A whistle sounded, and the loggers jumped back onto the flatbeds. A rock crazed the windshield of the first truck, which drove forward straight into the crowd, splitting it into two parts and forcing the protesters to the sides of the road as the trucks roared by in clouds of choking dust. The band started to play as loudly as possible, hoping the music would help reestablish control.

    The crowd, choking from the dust, re-filled the road. A large circle was gathered at one spot. The Nelbergs edged their way over.

    "What happened?" Sheila asked.

    "Someone's hurt," a voice answered.

    "Can you see Anna and Stuart?" She asked Allan.

    "Not yet."

    The circle parted, and a paramedic entered. A few moments later, the medic slowly walked down the road to the park­ing area. The circle opened. Two men each carried an adult, a woman and a man, their arms hanging limply at their sides, their heads lolling back. Sheila uttered a gasp. Her hand covered her mouth. Allan stared at the sight. The two men put their burdens down under the spring-green boughs of a mature maple.

    Slowly, unbelieving, Sheila and Allan approached the couple lying on the ground. They stood over them for a few seconds, and Sheila started to cry. She knelt. Allan knelt too, trying to wipe away the tears rolling down his cheeks.

    "Oh Anna!" whispered Sheila through her tears. Gently, she touched Anna's lifeless face, then Stuart’s. She turned and threw herself into Allan’s arms, sobbing.

    "Why did this have to happen?" said Allan, half choking. "It isn’t fair."

    A man knelt beside Stuart and Anna. He looked vaguely familiar. Allan watched him put a golden axe inside Stuart’s shirt pocket. The man left.

    Allan removed the axe. He felt angry; then his eyes fell upon an inscription containing one word, Dan.


    That fall, a committee composed of the executives of the Mountain Club and the Wild Society called a joint press conference. "Ladies and gentlemen," began Timothy Broderick, president of the Mountain Club. "Last spring, two beloved members of the Vargas Island community were tragically killed when a logging truck ran them down during a protest in Clayoquot Sound. They were not members of any environmental group—simply a retired couple who had searched long and hard for a spot to build their last home. They loved the woods and all of nature. Their legacy is their love for the forest. It is very sad that their lives were sacrificed, and we feel their loss deeply."

    Timothy stepped aside, and June Ziegler, president of the Wild Society, continued. "Clayoquot iwas still a very emotional issue," she said, "and today we hope we have worked out saner procedures with the provincial government. At the time of the accident, environmental groups across Canada expressed their sympathies to the families of this couple. Today we jointly announce an annual award that will be given to a person or organization who has contributed most to the preserva­tion of Canada's wilderness: The Stuart and Anna Memorial Award."

    She held up a plaque. In the centre at the top, Dan's golden axe reflected the sun.

~ story by Manuel Erickson

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