In 2006 while flying over the interior of British Columbia, Andrew Nikiforuk witnessed a startling sight.
“For hundreds of miles I saw nothing but an amazing red sea of trees. I was simply astounded,” he said.
What Nikiforuk saw that day was part of a pine beetle outbreak that, beginning in the late 1980s, had swept across forests and communities in western North America, killing an estimated 30 billion pine and spruce trees.
Although Nikiforuk was not then aware of the scope of the pine beetle outbreak, he knew he was looking at something momentous.
“I felt I was watching a really significant history-making event unfolding in the rural west,” he said.
Photo Coutesy of Doreen Docherty
Curiosity about what he saw that day eventually led Nikiforuk to write a book exploring the destruction caused by the pine beetle — and to detail the environmental and social fallout from government responses to the outbreak.
Empire of the Beetle: How Human Folly and a Tiny Bug Are Killing North America’s Great Forests was published in July. On Oct. 11, the book was nominated for a Governor General’s Literary Award.
It is the second time the Calgary author has been nominated for the prestigious award.
In 2002, Nikiforuk’s book Saboteurs: Wiebo Ludwig’s War Against Oil was nominated and won in the non-fiction category. He has written five other books dealing with issues as diverse as the history of human disease and the Alberta oil industry.
Robert Boschman, an associate professor of English at Mount Royal University, regularly incorporates Nikiforuk’s work into the courses he teaches.
He says Nikiforuk’s nomination for Empire of the Beetle is well deserved.
“Nikiforuk is one of those prominent authors who comes along once in a generation. I think in the next 20 years he is going to carve out a legacy that will follow him for a long time,” Boschman said.
“He’s very interested in how humans interact with their environment and how they create their own problems. Whether he is writing about the long history we have with diseases or the pine beetle issue or big oil, he is very much aware of the fact that we have created our own dilemmas.”
In the fall of 2010, Boschman invited Nikiforuk to be one of the keynote speakers at an international environmental conference held at MRU. He says Nikiforuk was at the top of the list when the conference’s organizing committee was considering keynote speakers.
“Nikiforuk is really good at drawing out a narrative, of finding the storyline and making it into a story that you want to read,” Boschman explained. “He has a way of talking about things that lots of other people are probably talking or writing about, but he does it in a way that has an audience.”
In Empire of the Beetle, his sixth book to date, Nikiforuk concludes that government attempts to stop the pine beetle — which included clear cutting and removing infected trees along routes lined with healthy ones — has been far more destructive than the beetle itself.
Photo by: Karry Taylor
He notes that the pine beetle was simply “trying to renew an aging or drought stressed forest.”
The “human folly” referenced in the book’s title refers to Nikiforuk’s belief that by attempting to deal with the pine beetle this way, governments actually exacerbated the problem.
“Massive clear cuts destroyed watersheds and biological diversity. So-called salvage logging left enormous piles of waste. Increased logging traffic to remove beetle kill destroyed a billion dollar’s worth of public roads,” he said.
“The great beetle epidemics that have changed landscapes from Alaska to New Mexico all happened in rural areas outside of cities. Most Canadians and journalists now live in cities,” he said in identifying why the pine beetle issue wasn’t well covered by media.
“In fact, the media rarely ventures beyond its urban borders anymore and doesn’t have much respect for the natural world or rural people.
“I still think it is important to tell stories that shed some clear light on things. People are still moved by great stories — even to political action. Without an informed citizenry, we are just another consuming mob of shoppers.”
In addition to detailing the environmental destruction, Nikiforuk strove to tell the human side of the story, interviewing those whose economic livelihoods and sense of place was connected to the dying and vanishing forests.
“Watching your trees die is a very emotional experience and it was another story the media avoided. But a group of artists led by Annerose Georgeson in Vanderhoof, BC, created a very beautiful and moving exhibit about living in the wake of the beetle,” he said.
“I just thought it was important to tell that full human story.”
Georgeson, an artist who has lived in Vanderhoof for 48 years, says that in the past, “all of my direct family has at some time been employed by the forest industry.”
“Currently my husband works at a sawmill; my daughter is studying natural resources management and in the summer works as a forest technician; my brother is a logging contractor; my cousin works at a sawmill and my nephew works in a logging truck mechanics shop.”
She explains the drive behind the art project: “‘Red and Blue Beetle Art’ was an exhibit of art inspired by people’s reaction and response to the mountain pine beetle infestation in central BC.”
“In 2007 and 2008 we toured the exhibit to 10 communities in 13 different venues, ranging from libraries to recreation centres. There was an immense amount of discussion and several people were moved to tears. Art is powerful,” she said.
Photo Courtesy of Annerose George
While Georgeson says that there has been discussion of doing another similar project, she personally feels that “the beetles are over in central BC.”
“This epidemic hit my place in 2004 and forestry was really involved from before 2000. The trees are all dead, the beetles are mostly gone and millions of new trees are growing.
“I’m doing artwork about those new landscapes with the new trees.”
There is also a personal element in the pine beetle story for Nikiforuk.
“I, too, own land and I have lost 20 to 30 per cent of my Douglas firs in the Porcupine Hills in southern Alberta and know what that loss feels like,” he said.
The Governor General’s Literary Award grand prize is $25,000. Winners will be announced on Nov. 15.
More information about the Red and Blue Beetle Art exhibit, as well as a gallery of each artist’s work can be found at beetleart.blogspot.com.