How an ancient poet inspired a local initiative
to preserve McLellan Forest
by Susan McCaslin / photos by Erin Perry
• Last Thanksgiving, I discovered that Glen Valley in Langley still had some mature rainforest. This discovery was bittersweet, however, as I also learned the Township of Langley was planning to sell it off to raise funds to build a recreation centre.
As my husband and I walked through the forest, we paused at the base of a giant black cottonwood, estimated to be at least 240 years old by local dendrologist David Jordan. I fell in love with the forest and for the first time since the Vietnam War decided I had to become a full-on activist.
Fortunately, this forest was publically owned. Another parcel had been taken off the market earlier because of the public outcry led by a local group of residents called WOLF (Watchers of Langley Forests). In October, WOLF was given 60 days to raise $3 million to purchase this second parcel known as McLellan Forest East.
Many felt it was unfair to force residents to buy back land that already belonged to them. Shouldn’t there be other ways to raise funds for capital projects other than selling off a rare, wild ecosystem? If sold, the land would no longer be accessible to the public. It would cease to be a vital ecosystem.
Reports from biologists documented the ecological values of the forest in glowing but ominous terms such as “rare,” “high value” and “extirpation.” As a poet, I couldn’t help but notice the contrast to the local government’s language with words like “inventory,” “surplus” and “idle land.” A realtor’s listing said it was a “heavily treed…blank canvas.”
But what can an artist do? It occurred to me that poets understand the intrinsic value of nature and our need for it so I decided to organize “An Afternoon of Art and Activism” just to see what might happen. This event drew together local visual artists, poets, musicians, ecologists, photographers, a dancer and students.
A week later, 160 students from the Langley Fine Arts School poured out of two big, yellow buses to sketch and sing and photograph the forest. After sharing their art in the woods, they organized a poetry reading and filled a local café with their stunning photos.
Then my husband noticed an ad announcing that renowned wildlife artist Robert Bateman would be signing books in a nearby mall. He quickly emailed Bateman’s website and within a few hours Bateman himself responded, saying, “This is important. I’ll be there in the morning.”
Bateman commented on the irony of selling a vital ecosystem in order to build a recreation centre elsewhere. “This is the recreation centre, right here!” he said, gesturing to the earth. The attention he generated was a pivotal point, but once it was over we asked “What now?”
I remembered studying the zesty poems of an old hermit monk from ancient China named Han Shan from Cold Mountain. There, he scribbled poems on rocks and suspended them from trees. Just as he inspired the beatnik poets of the sixties, Han Shan resurrected once again to become my mentor and muse. The Han Shan Poetry Project was born.
I put out a call for tree poems. My calls soon appeared on people’s blogs and websites all over the world. Over 150 poems poured in within a week and a half and within two weeks the number had gone up to well over 200.
We placed the poems in sheet protectors, threaded them with colourful ribbon and festooned them from the trees. Poems poured in from all over the Lower Mainland, Vancouver Island and other provinces, as well as from New Mexico, California, Florida, the UK, Australia and Turkey. The exhibit included poems by celebrated Canadian poets like Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, Fred Wah (the Poet Laureate of Canada) and children as young as six years of age.
Poems pirouetted like white angels. Heavy drops of rain, frost, sprigs of moss and bark covered them, appearing to be the forest’s way of claiming them. Poets had set their small gestures of creative expression beside the vaster creativity of nature. People were attracted from all over the Lower Mainland, strolling through the woods and pausing to read the poems. Local visual artist Susan Falk donated a painting to the ongoing work of WOLF. The Opus Women’s Choir came out to sing carols in the forest.
Despite all this attention, the December fundraising deadline loomed and WOLF had to inform town Council they weren’t able to raise the three million. We learned that other offers to purchase were in-hand and it could be sold quickly. A letter from the BC Ministry of Environment arrived that afternoon saying that, based on its ecological evaluation, the forest should be protected as an ecological reserve, but they too didn’t have the money.
Decision-making was deferred and on January 29 the Langley Township announced it was taking three of the five parcels off the market. The community was relieved that 60% of the forest would be saved, but the compromise generated both elation and disappointment since the portion of land to be sold contains some of the most sensitive habitat for species at risk.
Clearly, it took many people to help persuade the politicians to reconsider a ‘done deal’ that could provide cash-in-hand. But what this experience prompts us to consider is the untapped potential of the arts to transform society. The success of this project shows how art and activism can dovetail in remarkable ways. Art pauses before beauty, raising the conflict between conservationists and developers beyond their various ends. It appeals to a common recognition of beauty in biodiversity.
An activist must live in the paradox of unknowing – perhaps without attachment to outcomes (though I find this difficult). Nature holds us within a larger story, a more expansive narrative; somehow, our words and actions matter. Yes, poetry matters, as old Han Shan himself told us some 1,200 years ago.
This story is not over, as taking the properties off the market is not the same as legal protection. There are some who recall fighting for the same patch of forest over a decade ago. You may wish to thank Langley township council and ask them to protect the species at risk habitat on the parcels to be sold and to follow through with formal dedication of the forests under section 30 of the Community Charter.
The McLellan Forest issue also raises a bigger question for the coming provincial election: given that all local government powers come from the Province, what is the duty of local governments to conserve biological diversity and habitat for species at risk?
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Susan McCaslin is a poet and Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College. Her most recent volume, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press) was a finalist for the BC Poetry Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award, 2011) and the 2012 winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award (Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award). www.susanmccaslin.ca