by Susan McCaslin
The arts have always been avenues for both contemplation and action. Poetry may be seen as one of the softer art forms, but it can be one of the most powerful.
Like the earth itself, poetry arises from the dark ground of being, from unknowing, from mystery. Poets give voice to the unspeakable though their speech and storytelling. Yet all things speak, and language includes other-than-human forms.
Trees, which I believe are sentient beings, can call artists to participate in their life-giving powers.
Last October, an old, ecologically rich, endangered rainforest in Glen Valley, Langley, British Columbia, called McLellan Forest East, called me to become an activist.
I could have reminded myself that the word poetry, poesis, means “a making” – at once a form of being and doing. Art as praxis. Everywhere poets are jumping in, whether on issues of peace and social justice or against the Enbridge pipeline.
What tipped the scales for me last October was the act of falling in love with a particular forest. Once I’d committed myself, something compelled me to go flat out to save it. So I leapt into the fray in my local neighbourhood. After organizing several art-in-the-park afternoons involving local artists and students, I remembered an ancient Chinese hermit poet who hung poems from trees.
Under Han Shan’s inspiration, I spearheaded the Han Shan Poetry Project. Soon over two hundred poets from British Columbia, across Canada, and around the world had submitted tree poems. We suspended them in plastic page protectors in the forest for two months over Christmas. People came from far and wide to stroll through the forest and read poetry. The story garnered coverage from the Globe and Mail and Global TV News.
After hearing from other artists elsewhere working on similar issues, I came to see our local issue as a microcosm of what was happening globally. We felt empowered but with some trepidation, since developers were poised at the rim of the woods.
These increasingly rare old forests are global treasures of great intrinsic value. Once they are destroyed they will be gone forever. We and the planet need them for survival. They make us who we are and without them we are infinitely diminished.
Provincial environment representatives studied the forest and discovered it was habitat for at-risk and possibly endangered species. This information was delivered at a Town Council meeting in late December.
Now I know firsthand why activists are called “activists.” When on a rescue mission, one has to respond, troubleshoot, and strategize in the moment. It requires a kind of “restless unrest” that can be heady, stimulating, and exhausting.
I also understand in my bones why it takes a village to save a forest.
Without the earlier and ongoing work of a local group called WOLF (Watchers of Langley Forests) and the help of multiple volunteers, we never could have garnered enough national attention to turn the situation around. And after gaining local, provincial, and national media coverage, the Mayor and Township finally retracted their decision to sell the land to developers and took 60% of the land off the market in January 2013. Now there’s a good chance the entire 25-acre parcel will become a park or ecological reserve, but we need to press the politicians to carry out their implied intent.
When we added our voices to the voices of the forest, something shifted. An opportunity opened. When we paused, listened, were curious and respectful, the forest rose up through the soles of our feet and we became for a time something larger than our fragile egos. We become fractals of the dark ground reaching skyward.
Now I can say with surety that community matters, art matters, forest habitat matters. Something is in the air.
For details about our efforts and how to help, check out the following:
Susan McCaslin is a Canadian poet and Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College in Westminster, BC where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years. She is the author of ten volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011). The latter was a finalist in 2012 for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award) and the first-place winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award (Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award). Susan has recently published a volume of essays, Arousing the Spirit: Provocative Writings (Wood Lake Books, 2011). She has edited two anthologies and is on the editorial board of Event: the Douglas College Review. She lives in Fort Langley, BC with her husband and an active Australian shepherd. www.susanmccaslin.ca