By: Harley Rustad
In the fall of 2016 I published a feature article in The Walrus magazine about one of the largest trees in Canada that had been saved by a logger, and how this single action created an icon for the protection of old-growth forests in British Columbia.
On the surface this was a simple story: one person and one tree that sparked a shift in thinking. But as my editor at the magazine and I began working on shaping my first draft, it became clear that one of the biggest challenges was not lack of material but keeping the story focused and lean for the pages of a magazine. Thousands of words could have been written about the ecology of Pacific temperate rainforests, the same amount about the history of logging on Vancouver Island. It was clear that in many cases each paragraph could have been pages, or each section of the article could have been turned into a chapter.
But the process was not without hurdles. Early on one of my literary heroes told me, “Some books should never have been books. They should have stayed great magazine articles.” This unleashed a wave of panic that this simple story might not have the legs to be expanded into a book. What buoyed me was remembering the reaction to the magazine article when it ran in the October 2016 issue of The Walrus and after it appeared online. To many people’s surprise, including my own, it became one of the top ten most read stories at the magazine that year. To me that signalled interest not only in the subject matter but also in the emotional nature of this particular story. In many ways the article was a market test, to gauge the appetite of readers — perhaps the most important factor in this particular trajectory of writing a book.
As I began mapping out the book with my editor at House of Anansi, Janie Yoon, it became clear that there were not only many more subjects to delve into but also many more stories to tell. There were colourful secondary characters, past conflicts between the timber industry and environmentalists, and other rich legends of some of Canada’s largest trees. There were surprising alliances that had formed, shifting and complicated politics, and jarring statistics. In the end the simple story of one logger and one tree became a story of an ecosystem in peril, of changing economics and shifting values, and of complicated motivations for exploiting as well as fighting to protect our beloved natural resources.
All this meant speaking to scientists and historians, timber workers and activists, as well as digging through archives and libraries to begin painting a fuller picture of the issue and the narrative. But it also meant showing restraint in including information that didn’t stray too far from that central, simple story. I realized that one tree could stand for many, one logger could represent an industry, one activist could be emblematic of a cause, and one valley and town illustrate the forces at play in an entire region.
One aspect of the original magazine article that I tried to mirror in the book was the pace. Magazine writing — especially when articles appear online — competes with a horde of forces hell-bent on distracting readers or pulling their focus away from the story. So, as a writer and as an editor at The Walrus, keeping the reader engaged in this hurricane becomes the most important task.
Even though someone sitting down with a book, rather than turning on their phone to read the news, is often committing to a more engaged and focused experience, I still wanted to emulate the clip of the original article. That meant sifting through history, interviews, science, stories, and research for not only the most interesting points but the most relevant points as well. My hope is that each tributary off the main narrative doesn’t distract (or isn’t included simply because it is interesting) but helps build the case for why these threatened ecosystems and trees should be better protected and why a logger, of all people, decided to save this one great tree.