The year was 1974. I was 17, and lucky enough to be a Junior Ranger in the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resource’s inspired summer program that ran for 68 years and has over 70,000 alumni. The place: McConnell Lake, northeast of North Bay, Ontario.
I couldn’t have been happier. First off, I was away from home. I loved the trappings of the Junior Ranger program – the yellow construction hat, the steel toed boots, the myth that after 6 nicks from an axe in the steel toe of your boot and you would be sent home. The plaid lumberjack shirts. Young women, all 17, from all parts of Ontario. I felt tough and strong and invincible! I loved the wilderness, a northern lake with 24 resident loons, more blueberries than we knew what to do with. The beautiful forests.
For the most part, our work was outdoor physical labour. We used our handy sandvicks (pictured right) to chop down brush, small trees and to widen roads and trails. We had a particularly beautiful canoe trip where we worked on portage trails along the fast flowing Mattawa River.
Towards the end of our summer, we made a baseball field. I remember wondering about that. It felt like a “make work” project to me – there didn’t seem to be anybody close enough to play baseball. It kept us busy. We learned about hard physical work, we sweated, we learned about repetitive tasks. I have happy memories of each of us taking turns hiding in the huge piles of brush for a break, with our work buddies keeping their eyes open for supervisors. To break up the monotony as we tossed logs down the line, we would identify each log as a type of food. “Ice cream sundae”, “Mars Bar” , “Buttered Popcorn” rang out over the drone of chain saws as we tossed logs down the line to the ever growing wood pile.
During this project, I noticed a frantic mother robin who had a nest in a tree. I remember asking one of the foremen if we could just leave that tree and come back for it later. A hard-bitten, retired lumberjack, he dismissed my suggestion with a terse no. I felt so foolish. Yet, that robin plagued me. I remember losing sleep and trying to decide if I should take a stand. I believed that if I did I would be sent home. How could I leave what was the best summer of my life? Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the old lumberjacks knew best. Weren’t old people wise? Maybe I was being romantic. Maybe I needed to be tougher. After all, I looked tough. I didn’t speak up. The tree went down. The mother robin mourned the loss of her children. It was probably too late in the season for her to begin a new family.
I didn’t speak up but I have never forgotten. Each time an opportunity to speak up against an injustice has arisen , I remember this story.
Now I know better. While the bigger justice story might have been the wastefulness of creating a baseball field where none was needed, it is my inability to have taken a stand for the robins that I remember. I knew I wouldn’t stand a chance with a whole baseball field. The lumberjacks may have been wise in some areas of life but they were not the sage old characters I liked to imagine back then. I invested them with a wisdom and an authority that they did not deserve.
It would have been so easy to leave one tree up and come back for it later. Imagine the message that leaving one tree up would have sent? We can leave this tree standing, so we will. In a few days, the robin family will have left its nest.
But instead, it was knocked down, and another message, the prevalent message of a culture that often “takes” without thought was reinforced. Chop chop.
I am grateful for that summer. I am grateful for that story. I feel compassion for the young woman who noticed a frantic mother robin. I am grateful especially for the trees and the robin family and what they taught me then and what they teach me now. I feel a lingering fondness for our supervisors but I would no longer give them that much authority or assume they had wisdom. I am less obedient. I am learning to speak up. I am proud to call myself a tree hugger now.
This is a companion post to Letter to the Editor: Elegy for the Trees and Tree Hugger (2)
While writing this post, my daughter shared this book with me. From Kalevala: Heroic Tales from Finland by Ursula Synge, Bodley Head, 1977
Paraphrased from pages 11, 12 . Vainamoinen the Wise Singer found seven precious seeds by the ocean but knew that they would germinate best in the forest. So he took his axe and he toiled, felling trees. At every stroke of the axe, the birds flew up and away. “If I clear all the forest, these birds will have no resting place. ” So he left a beech tree standing. An eagle flew down to ask him why he had spared the beech tree.”So that the birds may perch upon it. One must have a care for every need.” replied Vainamoinen.. The eagle said that because he had cared for the relatives, he would help him. The eagle produced flames and the cleared land (except the beech) was burned. Vainemionen took the seven precious seeds and planted them in seven furrows, calling on the Earth Mother to bless the sowing and to support and cherish each blade as it grew. He then asked Ukka to assemble the rainclouds and drive them above the field.