An Introduction by Jaime Yard
I first met David Day in the central branch of the Toronto Reference Library on Yonge Street in the spring of 2009. A year earlier I had read his 1975 collection The Cowichan in a flurry of research on logger poets and oral traditions in logging camps. My daughter, then seven-months-old, accompanied me to the interview. She babbled, crawled and breastfed through my floundering attempt to combine finishing my dissertation and parenting. David alternately smiled and laughed at her antics and provided thoughtful reflections upon the questions I asked about logging and the choice that he made to break from early literary representations of the hard living, hard working, man’s man world of logging life in favour of presenting scenes of masculine crisis and carnage in the woods. His devastating vignettes open up a space for dialogue between the big story of the rise of the clear-cut in British Columbia and the many small stories of the melancholic, broken and resilient logger that came when the work stopped for a moment for a meal or a rest.
We need the big story to understand the history of logging in Canada. The big story is one of corporate consolidation after World War II. It is a story of the mechanizing and de-skilling of labour from the chainsaw to the grapple-yarder. It is written in capitalist time which is very much in the moment-to-moment. The forest of this big story is something viewed from an aerial photograph in order to be managed: a technology of war surveillance pulled into the service of modern hubris. The big story is risky unless called to answer to the smaller stories of labour and dwelling that poets like David Day, Peter Trower, George McInnis, and Robert Swanson provide. The smaller stories of logging in British Columbia are of work, risk, and existential crisis provoked by day-after-day of loving nature even as you rip it apart. While it became the business of big-logging to create macro-models of forests-as-tree-farms through increased mechanization and decreased biodiversity, there is no one more suited than a logger to explain the many ways in which a tree defies this reduction of its being. Loggers understand that the time-scale of our economies matter little to trees. They placed their bodies between logs and machines and knew many who were permanently disabled or killed from doing so to make a living. To read logger poetry seriously is to be connected to a profound understanding of the interconnections of crises of human and non-human life under capitalist production for global markets.
For some of us –raised in cities far away from the centres of extraction and production that provide for our livelihoods—it can be hard to connect logging and environmentalism. There is no pure critique in the logger’s woods – understanding is co-extensive with complicity. As it is for all of us, but the laboring body that connects the chainsaw with the tree knows this in a visceral and intimate manner.
Stories require listeners who are open to receiving what they hear even if it challenges long held stereotypes of good guys and bad guys in saving the rainforest. Day models for us being angry and compassionate at the same time. He unflinchingly depicts the trauma, moral witness, and love of nature that was always a part of his work in the woods, leaving us to tease out what we may have automatically conflated in failing to consider the affective engagement of the logger with all that is connected to their labour. The first edition of The Cowichan was not an instant literary classic. More often than not it sold out of community General Stores on Vancouver Island and the trunk of David’s car. That it has been so broadly read and has made a lasting contribution to Canadian, and especially British Columbian literature and finds its way to this edition of HAL is simultaneously warranted and miraculous preservation and attention that underscores that such local histories matter.
Jaime Yard is a faculty member in the Department of Anthropology at Douglas College in New Westminster British Columbia. Her doctoral research brought about her friendship with David Day and ongoing fascination with logger poetry.