Wednesday, September 8, 2010

"The Green Chain" and a Whale's Tale

In October 2004 I was flying back from my final Board meeting with FSC Canada. By chance I happened to sit beside a film maker by the name of Mark Leiren-Young, and for most of the flight we ended up discussing a new film he was working on.

Mark's film was called "The Green Chain" and over the next 2 years I played a minor role as Technical Advisor on the project. For the most part I was Mark's source for information on forest sustainability and contacts at organizations such as FSC and World Wildlife Fund. Possibly my biggest contribution was suggesting that the story of K'iid K'iyaas (a.k.a. the sacred Golden Spruce of Haida Gwaii) be incorporated into the film.

Haida Gwaii (also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands) lies about 100 miles off the Northwest coast of British Columbia, Canada. Covered in lush temperate rainforest, these islands are sometimes referred to as the Galapagos of Canada because they provide habitat for a broad range of unique plant, animal, fish and bird species. For at least 10,000 years, Haida Gwaii has also been home to the Haida First Nation, a powerful and enduring tribe famous for their warrior culture, their myths, and their totemic art forms.

One enduring mystical story derived from Haida folklore is that of K'iid K'iyaas, which loosely translates as "Old Tree". Haida legend tells of a young man who was disrespectful of nature's ways. When his village was destroyed by a snowstorm, only a boy and his grandfather were able to flee. Despite warnings not to look back, the boy disobeyed and instantly his arms were turned into branches and his legs became roots, and he was transformed into the magnificent golden spruce that became sacred to the Haida people.

Although genetically a Sitka Spruce, this tree's survival for over 300 years defied all conventional scientific explanation. Lacking cartenoid, a sort of arboreal sunscreen that protects leaves from excessive sunlight, the Golden Spruce should have withered and died. Instead, it flourished on the bank of the Yakoun River, and its inability to photosynthesize sunlight gave its needles a magnificent golden hue. When asked why this tree behaved in this manner, many Haida would simply smile and say: "Magic".

All this came to an end in January 1997 when an unemployed forester named Thomas Grant Hadwin cut the tree down and sent a Unabomber-type manifesto to the Haida First Nation, environmentalists, and several newspapers. Hadwin was a vocal critic of logging industry practices in British Columbia. He was particularly angered by what he perceived to be MacMillan Bloedel's hypocrisy of clear-cutting hundreds of thousands of trees, while professing to be good corporate citizens by cordoning off a small segment of rainforest around the Golden Spruce.

His letter proclaimed that "I didn't enjoy butchering this magnificent old plant, but you apparently needed a wake-up call that even a university-trained professional should be able to understand." Hadwin was arrested and charged, but he mysteriously disappeared before ever coming to trial.

The Haida were understandably devastated because they considered themselves responsible for the tree's stewardship and protection.

In "The Green Chain" Mark did a brilliant job of integrating the story of K'iid K'iyaas into the monologue of John Clements, who was portrayed by actor August Schellenberg in the film.

If nothing else the telling of the story of the Golden Spruce in the film helps keep the memory of K'iid K'iyaas alive.

"The Green Chain" made its world premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival in August 2007. Unbeknownst to most people, at the very same moment the festival was preparing to open something unusual and magical was happening simultaneously on Haida Gwaii.

On the north shore there's a tiny village called Masset which sits near the mouth of the Yakoun River. The Haida know the Yakoun as the "River of Life", and it was along this river that the Golden Spruce was felled about 10 years earlier.

Just as the festival was getting under way a Humpback Whale calf become stranded on a beach near the village of Masset. Rescuers made all kinds of efforts to get this whale out into the open water - all to no avail.

Finally two Haida men named Donnie Edenshaw and Ernie Swanson decided to sing a song of change to the whale, to encourage him back out to sea to rejoin his waiting mother. This moment was caught on video, and ended up making national news.

Although the incident captured in this video is clearly inspirational as a message of Hope, I like to believe that it was also a way for K'iid K'iyaas to say thanks to Mark Leiren-Young and the late John Juliani for making the film.

1 comment:

  1. John, or should I say, Well Fed Bear, :-) I remember hearing you tell this story, "way" back then and still
    Today I am in awe that this "coincidence"
    Occurred. Thx for ur work on this wonderful