Sunday, January 15, 2012

Fallen Giants: Haig-Brown Legacy

a circle of firs growing on the Haig-Brown property

This morning on Michael Enright's Sunday Morning (which is one of the best things on CBC radio), he hosted a discussion on Leo Tolstoy. His two guests, academics who have studied Tolstoy's life and writing, spoke about his family land, Yasnaya Poliana, where he lived most of his life and wrote his great books. They made the point that Tolstoy's writing and life were greatly enriched by dwelling where his family had lived for generations, and that today we have trouble understanding the influence of such a relationship.

Here, where conservationist and writer Roderick Haig-Brown lived and wrote his 25 books during the mid-twentieth century, the larger community of Vancouver Island people, as well as fly fishermen, and environmentalists from all over the continent, have come to see the property as a spiritual home.

Lesley, a naturalist friend who knew Ann Haig-Brown and lives north of the river, told me today that when she lived in the house for a year she would often run into American fishermen while she was walking along the river trails. "I'd see them casting into the Line Fence Pool. They'd come all this way just to have the experience of fishing in this little pool in the river because it was in all of his [Haig-Brown's] books."

The Line Fence Pool

This town has had a couple generations of passionate defenders of salmon and the Campbell River all following Haig-Brown's example. Every creek has its committee of volunteers and there are brass plaques everywhere along the river in honour of people who gave their time and resources to protect and restore salmon habitat.

Here is one on the bridge at the outlet of Kingfisher Creek, which itself runs through the Haig-Brown property and was restored by volunteers in the decade after Roderick died.

During a walk on the property today, Lesley showed me where the great tree Haig-Brown called "the Big Fir" blew down many years ago. It was a Douglas Fir, which people here tell me is not a true fir, not that I would know a true one from a false one. In the late 1940s. Haig-Brown wrote lovingly of the great tree in the August chapter of Measure of the Year:

The Big Fir is slowly dying. It is dying because it is old, because it has a disease woodsmen call conk, and probably another disease called stump rot.

Then he talks about it being spared by the first generations of woodsmen, about people advising him to cut it down, and why he does not listen to their logic.

My guess is the tree has another fifty years of dying ahead of it, or somewhat more than I have. So long as any part of it is green I want it to stand.

The Big Fir was a good-sized tree before Hamlet was written and has managed to hold not only identity but life far longer than Hamlet's author held either. More human identities have been lost in every year of the tree's life than the tree itself has shed seeds. . . .If it were young and vigorous, I think I should not een resent its permanence. It is only just mortal, it is also only just living. But its enormous substance, lasting so long, yielding so little, seems to emphasize how short a time there is to look at things, to feel and know and think things.

But it did fall before Haig-Brown did. A winter storm took it down years before a heart attack laid Roderick on the earth not far away.

Here are two images showing all of the life growing from the nurse log formed by the Big Fir. In its death it is nourishing dozens of trees and shrubs all along its 130 plus feet. Large maples now reach for the sun, their roots feeding on the nutrients being released from the old fir.

How many writers and defenders of this good earth have been and will continue to be nourished by Haig-Brown's life on this land, his own time of standing tall here with "enormous substance. . .yielding so little," feeling, knowing, and thinking things?


  1. Thank you for this Trevor. I've been enjoying your Haig-Brown experiences and revelations.

    (An aside: thought you might enjoy this article from yesterday's Edmonton Journal. )

  2. Beautiful post. I love it. Sentimentally meets good land stewardship. Amen x2.


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