When Fact and Fiction Blur
Myth-making in the Canadian Forests
In the forests, among woodsmen, there certainly arise numerous occasions for the creation of such myths. Gould tells us that “As time goes by, anecdotes about logging ‘characters’ will continue to extend beyond the truth.” Poets are, according to Northrop Frye, kind of “licensed liars”, and loggers, I think, are just that: poets and liars, as all myth-makers must be.
I don’t know whether the forest makes poets out of woodsmen or whether woodsmen are just frustrated story-tellers, but when doing my research on logging I found that fact and fiction tended to melt into one. It seems that the potential for imagery and drama in the Canadian woods is so great that the edges between reality and romance quickly blur and it is difficult to separate the real from the mythical. Canada is a country, says Frye, “in which nature makes a direct impression on the artist’s mind” and thus myth and poetry are born as spontaneously as mushrooms on the forest floor. We find historical and documentary books on logging competing favourably in imagery with romantic poems. For example, Ed Gould, the author of a reference book on logging history, often lapses into poetry. He begins Chapter four in a purely documentary style:
“It is a crisp and clear day on this morning in 1980, a rare, rainless day
in the forest of British Columbia. Or what is to be British Columbia.”
But the drama that follows affects him so deeply that he cannot continue in such a cold, detached manner. He becomes a poet.
“Two men suddenly leap back from the huge fir tree they have been hacking at with their single-bitted axes with strange curved heads. The tree gives a strangled cry like a human in agony, wavers on its bleeding stump for a moment, then begins to fall, complaining loudly, through the outstretched, breaking limbs of its forest mates. It shudders for a moment on the forest floor before settling into its bruised bark and broken branches.”
This is poetry, complete with simile, personification and alliteration. True, it is not quite as rich in imagery as the following version of a similar event by Crawford:
The mighty Morn strode laughing up the land,
And Max, the labourer and the lover, stood
within the forest’s edge beside a tree,
The mossy king of all the woody tribes
whose clatt’ring branches rattl’d, shuddering,
As the bright axe cleav’d moon-like thro’ the air,
Waking strange thunders, rousing echoes link’d
from the full lion throated roar to sighs.
stealing on dove-wings thro’ the distant aisles.
Swift fell the axe, swift follow’d the roar on roar,
Till the bare woodland bellow’d in its rage,
As the first-slain slow toppl’d to his fall.
I think however, that Gould’s paragraph is more poetic than McLachlan’s version of his poem, “The Emigrant”:
He had just repeated never,
When the limbs began to quiver,
And a rent which made us start
Seemed to split the giant’s heart;
And the branches, one and all,
Seemed preparing for the fall—
Swayed a moment to and fro,
As in doubt which way to go,
Then his head he gently bent,
All at once away he went—
Down he came as loud as thunder,
Crushing limbs and brushwood under.