How can so many people all be looking at the same thing and see it so differently? The man moseying around in front of me looks at a 300-year old tree and sees a nursing home, while an activist twenty minutes down the road sees a block of flats for furry and feathered creatures.
Vive la différence? Or not! Anna Krien’s Into the woods is an exposé of the decades long battle in Tasmania for its forests, particularly its old-growth native forests. For those who don’t know, Tasmania is Australia’s southern island state. It is famous for its beauty and its wilderness but also, it seems, for its Vs, that is, vitriol, violence and vigilantism. You see, being a small island state, with only 500,000 people, it’s a challenge to keep its economy in the black. Sawmilling and, more recently and more controversially, woodchipping have played an important role in maintaining its economy. It is this controversy – particularly surrounding woodchips – that Krien explores in her book.
On the cover is a “blurb” by Chloe Hooper who wrote The tall man about the death in custody of an indigenous man on Palm Island. This provides a clue to the book’s style, and that is that the author, like Hooper, engages personally in the situation, meeting with parties on all sides of the conflict. In Krien’s case this meant meeting ferals, environmentalists, politicians, loggers, whistleblowers, craftsmen and businessmen.
Krien has organised the book into five thematic sections:
- Ratbags: the new generation protesters, or ferals, who live pretty primitively on/near the site they are protecting and who are often in conflict with older activists
- Loggers: the logging industry workers who range across a wide range of jobs in the industry and are also often conflict with each other
- The company: Gunns Ltd, the main player in the Tasmanian logging industry, meddler (if so benign a term can be used) in politics, and initiator of the Gunns 20 lawsuit
- Groundswell: change agents such as whistle blowers, proponents of the “rights” of nature, and shareholders wanting ethical investments
- The mill: Gunns pulp mill saga, the beginning of the an end?
The story is a complex one, delving into competing interests within the logging industry itself – sawlogs versus woodchips, old-growth versus regrowth native forests versus plantations, public versus private forests – not to mention dissension amongst environmentalists and some very dirty politics. It is a story about jobs versus the environment and the “rights” of nature, of different value systems that set “unmanned” pristine forests against “manned” ones. It is a story of blaming and buck passing. And it is a story of half-truths and distorted truths, all in the name of defending one’s own patch. “I am on a journey through selective truths”, she writes at one point in the book.
This issue of “truths” is beautifully conveyed in her discussion of the timber industry’s language:
I find myself constantly having to decipher new words. Nature needs “disturbance”, logging is “harvesting”, deforestation is “afforestation”, burning woodchips for electricity is a form of “bio-fuel” or “renewable energy”. Woodchips are “feedstock”, while the non-commercial attributes of a forest are “non-wood values”.
The word-games though work on both sides. As she says, “evoking napalm, Hiroshima and the holocaust to describe logging is manipulative”.
A major argument presented by the logging workers is the economic one – jobs – but Krien estimates from the information given her that forestry “accounts for no more than 3% of the workforce”. In fact, she suggests that machines may be a bigger threat to timber jobs than “any greenie”. The more cynical amongst us might think that it is not so much about “jobs” but about “big business”. Sometimes, of course, big business means jobs, but that’s not always necessarily so, not if much of the work can be automated (or, sometimes, though not necessarily here, moved off-shore).
I can’t begin to convey all the information she presents in this book – the history, the statistics, the science, the criss-crossing relationships, not to mention the people, the overt and covert deals, and the truly horrifying violence (both actual and threatened). There are times when I started to feel bogged down in the complexity of it all, but I was reassured when I realised she was feeling it too. She is, in fact, like Hooper, taking us on a journey – but it is a journey that, despite her very real efforts to explore the whole story, does lean to one side, that of those who wish to protect not destroy. As she says in the last chapter:
I’ve tried to balance my seesaw heart, carefully weighing up each argument. But there is something about this island that wants you to choose sides.
I can understand that – it is, in many ways, a magical place. However, I do have one complaint about the book – my ongoing one for books of this ilk – and that is its lack of an index. It is jam-packed with people, events, places, philosophies and theories but how can the casual reader or researcher find them?
And so, is there a resolution to it all? Well no, but there is, she says, a universal story:
… in the greater scheme of things, the island is nothing but a drop in the ocean. But the story is universal – and what goes on in Tasmania goes on in the Pacific islands, in other continents, until it all comes back over the ice to Tasmania again. … Deep down in our bones we must know – we must know that nothing we do is done in isolation. Cause and effect: how did it get so noisy in between?
How indeed? Read this thoughtful, throughly researched book, and you will, unfortunately, find out.
Into the woods: The battle for Tasmania’s forests
Melbourne: Black Inc, 2010
(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)