Logging Comic Timber In The Woods

Fanny Bay resident Bus Griffiths, 91, remembers a time in the woods when it took a day's work between two men with one saw and an entire crew of work mates to cut one tree down and remove it from the forest. A time when the scale of economy between the work, time, and effort required to fall a tree and the age of the tree were in a more respectful balance. Griffiths, a surprisingly small man with a big chest, a lovely lilt in his drawly voice, and a twinkle in his eye, has represented this era in a remarkably innovative comic-book novel called Now You're Logging.

The book's origin was as an eight-page comic pamphlet for kids during the Second World War, then an editor at the industry magazine BC Lumberman encouraged Bus to do more logging strips. These strips eventually became the 120-page Now You're Logging, first published in 1978 by Harbour Publishing.

As author and Vancouver Island native Jack Hodgins notes in his introduction to the paperback edition of Now You're Logging, the plot is like that of a classic western. Griffiths's narrative is an adventure story, where two friends deal with the trials of a frontier world and lives are risked over and over in a long and exciting process of initiation.

Now You're Logging is the story of Al Richards and Red Harris, who go to work in a small West Coast truck-logging show during the Dirty Thirties. As they learn their trades under the unforgiving eye of the camp's tough push, Art Donnegan, the reader is treated to an explicit and detailed view of the camp's varied operations: falling and bucking timber by hand, topping and rigging spar trees, making up log booms, and other aspects of a logging operation of that time. Although the details of the logging operation are important, getting the feel of the characters is an equally essential part of the storytelling process.

Griffiths worked on the expanded version of Now You're Logging over a period of five years. "I started in 1972," says Griffiths, dressed in spats and a grey Stanfield's fisherman sweater. "I was trolling for salmon, and when the fish season was closed, I'd fall for a local outfit. The last falling I did was in '72, when I was 64 years old."

It was while he was working on his fishing boat that Margaret, now his wife of more than 60 years, encouraged him to draw. "I missed the woods so much that I picked up a pencil while I was on the boat and brought it all back." Funnily enough, Margaret has served as a model for many of the drawings Griffiths does of his burly loggers. "You know that drawing of the guy packing the deer in Now You're Logging? That's Margaret!"

Griffiths works in pencil initially, then in pen and India ink to outline the figures and the backgrounds in the drawings. He uses paper with a rough texture and shaded with a Blaisdell marking pen to give it a special, pebbled, ragged effect. He has also done some painting, and a suite of eight logging scenes is in the permanent collection of the Courtenay Museum; two more hang in the Fanny Bay Community Hall just down the road.

Griffiths, who was a big fan of pulp westerns that would circulate in the logging camps, is a real stickler for details. "Everything in every picture must be right. If you don't get it right, there is going to be some old logger saying, 'That fella doesn't know what he's doing.'

"I think the reason I did the book was that there were lots of books about logging done with lots of people that never spent a day in the woods," says Griffiths, whose big forearms and easygoing manner remind one of another comic-book character: Popeye. "Someone would look at a picture of a bunch of fellas sitting at the side of a machine, and people would wonder, 'What does that machine do?' So I thought we'd make a book showing what we used to do in the woods in those days, only I'd make it comic-book style."

What Griffiths's work does remind the reader of is the historical culture of loggers.

"Loggers used to be considered folk heroes; now they are considered rapists and murderers," says poet Peter Trower, 71, who as a youngster first bought Griffiths's comics in a drugstore. Some of Griffiths's black-and-white drawings have been published with Trower's Bush Poems, and a Griffiths painting adorns the cover of Trower's poetry collection Chainsaws in the Cathedral.

"He is the only person I know," says Trower, an old logger himself, "who can tell you how everything works in a logging camp, how this hooks up to that, do a drawing of it, and wrap the whole shebang into a great story."

GRIFFITHS WAS A FALLER. Every tree that toppled fell with a lot of sweat and elbow grease. The job builds a lot of muscle and attracts a certain type of character.

"It used to be fun in the woods," Griffiths says. "The fellows who were working with you took a lot of pride in what they did. It didn't matter what job a fellow had in the woods; even if he was a whistle punk [signal man on a yarding crew], he wanted to be the best whistle punk. You were proud of what you were doing because you believed you were doing a job that the average person couldn't do. Now it's mostly machine work. Before, we'd use our hands a lot. It surprises me now when you see fallers with stomachs hanging over their belts."

Logging was more a way of life than a job. "I enjoyed it in the woods. There was nothing I'd rather have done," Griffiths says.

When the other loggers started using chainsaws, Griffiths refused. "If I can't cut them down with the old hand fiddle they can put me in my grave," he'd say.

It took a long time, but eventually he switched. Very quickly he caught on and became a real artist with the chainsaw. When you watch and listen to Griffiths describe how to fall timber so it doesn't get hung up, you can see that the eye he took to the trees is the same one he brings to the canvas.

Implicit in the work is the tragic contradiction of rugged men destroying the woods that they love and with it a life they wouldn't trade for any other. In one panel Griffiths draws a stark, stump-filled landscape and writes: "The sun sinks behind the darkly timbered mountains casting long shadows over the open slash, highlighting the stark rape of the land."

It is obvious that he is sometimes conflicted about logging's legacy. Griffiths, who has a fondness for stalking deer, tells of going hunting at some spot where he once worked "and I'd find the stream's banks three times deeper than before, the water red with mud, everything eroded. I never felt very proud of that."

IT WAS GRIFFITHS'S FATHER who first encouraged him to draw. "I was a hard kid to get to bed, and my father used to tell me if I got to bed and went to sleep that the little elves would come and draw a picture in my scribbler. I'd wake up in the morning and find the scribbler tucked under my pillow and there'd always be a drawing in there somewhere. I think that's what got me drawing."

Griffiths was "horse crazy" as a youngster and drew cowboy comics. One series was entitled Son of the Range. During the Second World War there was an embargo on the importing of American comics. The call went out for Canadian illustrators, and he shopped his comics around. Griffiths, who was self-taught, got rejected by a fair number of editors, including those at the Vancouver Sun and the Province. But he kept at it, and won some work with Vancouver's Maple Leaf Publishing in the mid-'40s, during the so-called golden age of Canadian comics.

As a young man, Griffiths began work for farm-implement manufacturer Massey Harris in an office. He was responsible for cataloguing the hundreds of machine parts there and would draw a diagram to go with each numbered piece. He wasn't crazy about working in an office, though. "I noticed the fellas working on the loading dock were having a lot more fun than I was."

When a boss told him not to hang out with the warehousemen, Griffiths made an easy decision: he quit his job and headed out for the woods. Soon he was working in logging camps for three to six months at a spell all over B.C.

The Griffiths moved to Fanny Bay (20 kilometres south of Courtenay on Vancouver Island) from Port Coquitlam, where Bus had a steady gig logging Burke Mountain. "I was getting quite a reputation as a faller who didn't waste much," Griffiths says. "Anyway, it looked like we were going to shut down for the season, which was fine by me. Then one day my boss showed up asking me if I'd like to drive a gravel truck up island to Port Hardy. He'd taken the bunk off his logging truck and put a box on it." It was during these travels that Griffiths discovered Fanny Bay. On the Griffiths property is a babbling creek, a huge Douglas fir snapped off at the top, chicks and hens, and the small, comfortable home the Griffiths moved into more than 50 years ago, where they raised two sons.

At the back of the Griffiths home is the studio where Bus paints. He hasn't been able to work much lately, due to a struggle with prostate cancer. However, when visited recently he read a 28-page handwritten story that he is working on for a new collection entitled Shinglebolting in the Dirty 30s.

Griffiths believes that his life has been blessed in that he has been able to work at a job he loves. "I've had fallers tell me how much they hate their job. So I ask, 'What do you do it for?' 'The money,' they say. And I say, 'You better find a better reason than that.'"