The words are strangely, and disturbingly, familiar. “Logging in B.C. today is an orgy of waste,” says the patriarch of the Norquay family, in conversation with his youngest son. “They’re skimming the cream of the forest, spilling half of it. Kicking the milk pail over now and then, refusing to feed the cow they milk.”
Apart from that oddly rustic milk-pail metaphor, the sentiments will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the fight to preserve Haida Gwaii, the Stein River Valley, or Clayoquot Sound.
Clear-cutting is a short-term strategy. Reforestation is a must. We’re killing the goose that laid the golden egg, or at the very least starving the sacred cow.
But these words weren’t written during the epic conservation battles of the late 20th century or even last week, however relevant they might seem. No, they were published in 1924, in Bertrand W. Sinclair’s novel The Inverted Pyramid.
Anyone who still thinks environmentalism is a recent phenomenon—some kind of hippie nonsense cooked up by tofu-coddling tree-huggers—might want to recalibrate their timeline, and their characterization. Sinclair, who died in 1972 at the age of 91, somehow managed to pen 14 books while juggling successive careers as a Montana cowboy, freelance writer, and Sunshine Coast fisherman.
The Inverted Pyramid is reputedly the best of Sinclair’s books, although only a true B.C. bibliophile would know: his last volume was published in 1954, and to assemble the lot would require either years of haunting used-book stores or spending a small fortune online. This one, though, has just been revived as part of the City of Vancouver’s 125 Legacy Books Project, which is also bringing three other novels, four works of nonfiction, and two volumes of poetry back into circulation, in most cases after a prolonged absence from the marketplace.
It’s the oldest of the 10 volumes—but not, says project instigator Brad Cran, the work that sparked this collaborative undertaking with the Association of Book Publishers of B.C.
“For me, the project really came out of my long desire to reprint Opening Doors,” says Vancouver’s municipal poet laureate, citing visual artist Carole Itter and poet Daphne Marlatt’s endlessly fascinating and long-unavailable oral history of the Strathcona neighbourhood, initially published in 1979 and reissued as part of the Legacy Books collection in March of this year. “I’ve been talking, on and off, with various publishers about that for probably five years. And the main reason Opening Doors is an important book for me is that it gave me the idea to do the Hope in Shadows: Stories and Photographs of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside book that we did. In fact, when I was first thinking about doing an oral history of the Downtown Eastside, the first person I contacted was Daphne Marlatt. We went out and had coffee and she gave me a rundown of how they’d done it and that sort of thing.
“So, for me, Opening Doors has been a directly inspirational book—and it’s a book that the people who own it know really well, and revere.”
The 125 Legacy Books project is a relatively small part of Vancouver’s 125th-anniversary celebrations; most of its $30,000 budget has gone directly to the six participating publishers—Harbour, New Star, Anvil, Arsenal Pulp, Ronsdale, and Oolichan—to offset the cost of printing books that, most likely, will not make any best-seller lists. And on first glance, the 10 volumes chosen seem almost capricious: where are the books of Chinese history, the First Nations stories, the entertainingly deranged beatnik novels of Al Neil, and the neighbourhood poems of George Bowering, to name just a few obvious contenders?
Cran has good answers for all these questions. One of the books he felt strongly about including was former Vancouver city archivist J.S. Matthews and Squamish chief August Jack Khahtsahlano’s Conversations With Khatsalano 1932-1954, which contains a wealth of information about Vancouver’s original Coast Salish inhabitants. On taking a close look at that 1969 title, however, the 125 Legacy Books panel decided it was too full of redundancies to be reprinted without laborious editing and commentary from First Nations sources—tasks that were beyond the project’s resources. The strongest books from Vancouver’s Chinese Canadian authors, such as Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony and Paul Yee’s Saltwater City, are still in print, and thus outside the project’s scope. Neil’s Changes was on the shortlist—until Nightwood Editions publisher Silas White found a few hundred unsold copies in his warehouse, effectively bringing it back onto the market. And Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies was reissued last year, making it ineligible.
The books that are being re-released include Howard White’s labour history A Hard Man to Beat; Rolf Knight’s similarly themed Along the No. 20 Line: Reminiscences of the Vancouver Waterfront; Edward Starkins’s real-life murder mystery Who Killed Janet Smith?; D.M. Fraser’s novel Class Warfare; Truman Green’s intercultural fiction A Credit to Your Race; Betty Lambert’s adventurous novel Crossings; and two books of poetry, Dorothy Livesay’s Day and Night and Jon Furberg’s Anhaga, in addition to Opening Doors and The Inverted Pyramid. Collectively, they offer considerable inducement to look back on Vancouver’s history—and forward to its future.
“We all agreed on the need to focus on books which said something about Vancouver,” says author, historian, and UBC prof Jean Barman, one of the 125 Legacy Books panellists. “And there are three books that I think are really great. One’s The Inverted Pyramid, particularly because nobody knows about it. And then Along the No. 20 Line, Rolf Knight’s memoir, which is very much the story of working-class, east side Vancouver. And then of course Opening Doors, which I use a lot for teaching. It’s a slightly romanticized version—I’ve listened to a lot of the original tapes and they’ve picked out sort of the nice bits from the tapes. It does give a really comfy, comfortable evocation of people living together in the Downtown Eastside—but I’m really glad that that book has been redone.”
Cran points out the way in which Opening Doors, Along the No. 20 Line, and A Hard Man to Beat combine to explain how the Downtown Eastside came to be what it is today. Thanks to Vancouver’s once-thriving shipbuilding and shipping industries, he explains, “it was one of the largest railway and industrial areas in North America. They built all these single-room-occupancy dwellings to house the workers—and when industry left, the perfect people to move into these places were poor people. It’s not something you consider when you think of [Vancouver as] a Douglas Coupland City of Glass–type thing, but we are still very much defined by industry, and by its absence.”
So we have Vancouver as it was, and as it is today. But what makes the 125 Legacy Books particularly fascinating is that they also offer a Vancouver that might have been, along with suggestions for what our city might eventually become.
That The Inverted Pyramid’s warnings weren’t heeded is especially unfortunate. Not only was Sinclair almost clairvoyant in his understanding of what unchecked logging would lead to, he was also an astute analyst of human greed. In his novel—based on the real-life collapse, in 1914, of the Dominion Trust Company—it’s hard not to see premonitions of the more recent, ideologically based bankrupting of B.C. “One pair of weak hands could destroy so much,” he wrote. “Power in weak hands had torn down the work of four generations.”
Sinclair is writing about the fall of the pioneering, and fictional, Norquays, ruined in less than a single generation by the allure of speculative finance. But almost a century later, these words seem just as apropos when applied to the British Columbia of today.
Fortunately, other books use the past to offer a more compelling view of the future. And, again, we return to Strathcona as seen in Opening Doors: a model of the kind of cooperative, neighbourly multiculturalism that might ensure Vancouver’s survival as a livable metropolis.
“It is a template for community,” says Daphne Marlatt. “And that was very much in our minds, because when Carole and I each separately moved into this neighbourhood in the early 1970s, we had such a strong sense of neighbourhood around us. And neighbours were so kind across barriers. I remember the older Chinese woman across the alley: when she saw me digging up some of the grass and making a vegetable garden, she came over with a handful of garlic bulbs and showed me how to take the cloves apart and plant them. We didn’t have much language in common, but there was that good will.”
Sharing, then, might be one aspect of Vancouver’s past that could be revived along with these books. “Especially,” Marlatt notes pointedly, “as the world situation and the environmental situation combine to put a lot of pressure on us all.”
There are questions these books ask of us, too: some of them obvious ones, like what it means to be a city, and others less obvious, like what it means to be.
Poetry, of course, is the medium of choice for such existential conceits, and Jon Furberg’s widow, Coralie Triance, flags one of the late poet’s works as especially apposite.
“The poem that touches me the most is ‘Riddle’,” she tells the Straight. “And everybody has a different answer to the question it asks, which is ‘Who am I?’ Mine was ‘Mother Earth’. That really surprised Jon, but he accepted my rather unknowledgeable opinion.”
Of course, the beauty of poetry is the way that it can contain multiple meanings, just as the question “Who am I?” can be answered in a thousand different ways. And, poetic or not, it seems a good question for our city to be asking itself on its 125th birthday.
“That’s right,” says Triance, laughing. “Who am I? What are we doing? And where are we going?”
The Vancouver International Writers and Readers Festival will celebrate the 125 Legacy Books Collection with an official launch and panel discussion at the Waterfront Theatre on October 23.