Prologue: A Natural Selection

To mark its third year as a publishing co-op, Walhachin Press shares the following prologue from its best-selling book, A Natural Selection, by Peter Pearse.

One crisp winter day in late 1972, a light southeasterly rippled the Strait of Juan de Fuca as we made our run from Victoria in Puffin, a sturdy cabin cruiser. We were comfortable if a bit crowded. Several shotguns, waders, food and other supplies were stacked about the deck and piled high in the wheelhouse. Two dogs milled about the deck as the vessel rolled in a light chop. These were happy days indeed. Penny sat beside me and, together with her family, we were on our way. Our destination, somewhere in the fetch of that silver sea, was Sidney Island, one of the southernmost of Canada’s Gulf Island chain.

About mid-morning we nosed into the tiny wharf at the head of the lagoon and were met by Jack Todd in a Volkswagen bus with two more dogs. Chaos. People shouted introductions over the gunwale as we offloaded the baggage; too many hands at the mooring lines and too many dogs tumbling in circles over one another. But things were soon sorted out and our safari was bumping down the overgrown ruts of the island’s only road.

I was the outsider. Jack was the major owner of the island, having bought out nine of the original 10 members of a group of Victoria businessmen and members of their families who, attracted by the island’s prolific flocks of brant, ducks and other waterfowl, had bought it whole in 1915 as a hunting retreat.

Penny’s father, Richard Wilson, Victoria mayor at the time, now held the tenth interest originally held by her grandfather. Being a minority owner, Wilson was not much involved in the running of the island, but he usually took his family for a visit in December to find a Christmas tree. This year, my relationship with Penny having grown closer, I was invited to join the group: Mr. and Mrs. Wilson, Penny and her brother David (“Wick”), a Victoria lawyer.

Jack, an avid hunter, had proposed we augment our quest for a Christmas tree with duck hunting and we had come prepared. But we were to gather first at the farm- house halfway down the island to have coffee, warm up and get organized. The road took us through the forest and, being a forester, I was immediately struck by the vigorous canopy of Douglas fir second growth, with a remarkable variety of other conifers and hardwoods.

There were rare Garry oaks and our only native broadleaf evergreen, and my favourite, the stunning arbutus, with its rich orange bark and shiny green leaves even in the middle of winter.

The day passed quickly. We idled at coffee, lunch and ducks and as the sun dipped to the northwest horizon, we realized we’d made no progress on the Christmas tree. A good Christmas tree is hard to find in a wild forest; most trees are too big or too small, too scrawny or lopsided. Besides we were pressed for time.

Nevertheless, there was one last pond at the south end of the island that Jack insisted we hunt. Then it was time to pack up. But as Penny and I walked back towards the van, sharing our frustration about the lack of a Christmas tree, we came upon a perfect specimen. We had no axe or saw, having left them in the van. After a brief consultation, we decided on a new course of action. Penny stood back. I raised my shotgun, fired and the tree fell cleanly from its stump. A successful day of hunting indeed: four mallards and a Christmas tree.


Emphysema City — Darkness at Noon

The summer of 2017 was the worst for British Columbia forest fires in 59 years. As a direct result, by August smoke-filled skies cast a dirty smudge over Greater Vancouver and, for 10 days in September, the sun was completely obscured by layers of particulate. During this time, Edward Schuldt, a former Vancouver resident now living in England, arrived for a visit. He files this report.

I first suspected something was amiss about 10 minutes into our descent on Air Transat TS777 from London to Vancouver. Less than a mile above ground, we were descending through thick dark cloud, seemingly at the centre of a thunder-less storm.

The aircraft monitor in front of me read one minute to landing—and still no sight of Vancouver’s ubiquitous mountains, forests and inlets. Only a grey landscape, punctuated by the faded yellow of parched fields and lawns. Just 11:20 a.m., and it looked like the last stages of twilight. What on earth was going on?

Several days later and it still looks like twilight. I realize that the ever-present cloud blanketing everything isn’t cloud at all, but stagnant smoke from the forest fires burning throughout BC. No wind, no rain. Occasionally, a faint orange ball materializes in the haze, masquerading as the sun. I have to remind myself this is Vancouver. It could easily be one of those bleak landscape sets in a Star Wars movie.

Online reports suggest that the air-pollution risk is either very low or non-existent. I don’t believe them. The air does not feel fresh. Reports also suggest the air will clear by such and such a day. But it doesn’t. The smog/fog/blanket of cloud sits low and heavy. Claustrophobic, I’m desperate to see blue sky and mountains.

This is pristine, clean, beautiful Vancouver? I’ve known the city for 70 years and I’ve never experienced anything like it.

I can believe what some reports say, that this is the worst smog in the entire history of the province.

Uncharacteristically, the concrete skyscrapers of Yaletown and the West End provide no contrast to the natural beauty of this forest-cushioned metropolis. And with no towering mountains as a backdrop, the city becomes another cheerless Alphaville.

Surprisingly, Vancouverites seem to take this all in stride. Young and old alike still jog along the miles of seawalls. And the limitless restaurants and sidewalk cafes are brimming with happy chatter, as though all is as it should be.

I’m overjoyed to see that the sky is completely clear this morning. Finally, the Vancouver I know and love. Bright, beautiful, breezy.

But I can’t help feeling unsettled by what I experienced here this summer. Is Vancouver’s response to the wildfires a version of the British stiff upper lip? Or a form of blindness? After all, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask if the smoke, while gone now, and the fires that produced it, are another unforeseen result of global warming. And they will likely happen again.

Shouldn’t BC be more prepared the next time?


Bob Laughlin, Luthier — All About the Sound

Luthier (noun): The word "luthier" comes from the French word luth, which means lute. A luthier was originally a maker of lutes, but the term now includes makers of stringed instruments such as the violin, guitar or mandolin.

When luthier Bob Laughlin heard a giant maple tree on Anvil Island had come down in a Pacific storm, he went to see for himself.

Anvil Island resident and amateur musician Peter Hill met Laughlin at Porteau Cove in his 18-foot runabout and spun him across Howe Sound to the island.

Twenty minutes later, the two made their way to the blasted tree: a century-old Big Leaf maple that, once sawed and milled, would be transformed into a thing of beauty. A guitar with singular acoustic properties.

But first, the four-foot slab had to be lugged through the woods and back to the boat. Eventually the maple slab could be seen drying in Laughlin’s workshop off Commercial Drive in Vancouver.

Over the next two years, Laughlin would treat, prepare and shape the wood for use as a back for a stunningly carved small-bodied guitar. The instrument took pride of place at Laughlin’s exhibit at the recent Vancouver International Guitar Festival.

Laughlin’s exhibit at the festival drew attention from customers, gawkers and musicians. It also gave him the opportunity to talk shop with other luthiers he admires.

His instruments are strikingly beautiful. And they resonate with a clear, rich timbre.

Peter Hill, who used the guitar in a later recording session, describes the sound this way: “The tone is clear and warm at the same time. You can feel it warm up the more you play it. This guitar actually gives me musical ideas. It somehow allows me to remember long forgotten songs or create new ones. And how can something that plays so well look so good?”

The instrument has a carved Sitka spruce top, with a side port so the musician can better monitor her or his playing. Top-of-the-line tuners, selectively chosen and carefully tuned woods fit out an acoustic machine with the best of 21st century technology.

How to explain Laughlin’s 40-year career trajectory? A modest man who evinces the wisdom and patience that comes from working alone, Laughlin once studied mathematics and psychology, winning a major scholarship to a prestigious U.S. university. But he turned that down and turned instead to computing science, winning an NSERC scholarship to Simon Fraser University. After graduation he taught computer science at a local college.

But Laughlin had another life, one all about music. He had grown up in the Ottawa Valley and, as a teenager, had listened to Bruce Cockburn, David Wiffen and Willie P. Bennett.

Later, moving to the West Coast, he rented a home on Trafalgar Street in Kitsilano, holding musical open houses several nights a week. People of all talents were made welcome—folkies, three-chord rockers, aspiring opera singers, flutists — and would show up with guitars, dulcimers, mandolins and boxes of beer. There were occasional attempts at taping such sessions—a Revox A77 with two AKG mics was sometimes in evidence—though only a few aural scraps remain today.

Friendships were forged during 12-bar blues and D-minor Celtic dirges, lasting, in some cases, a lifetime. The music was often heartfelt, and every once in a while, profound.

Songwriters would drop in, with scraps and “mumbles such as promises” because Laughlin’s was the place to try out a new idea. Even as musicians warily eyed each other’s chops, an inclusive sense of belonging allowed people to relax, to stretch out, try new ideas.

Things could get loopy. Mimicking the Rolling Stones during their “country period” one songwriter chipped in: “I’m just from Kitsilano/But what the fug do I know,” fueling a roots-based jam that lasted days.

All the while Laughlin kept learning, absorbing information from books and attending conventions put on by the Guild of American Luthiers, taking in the hard stuff: the physics, the quality of the woods, the bracings, the gluing, the myriad and time-consuming steps that go into each instrument.

Was it worth it? Laughlin answers with a resounding yes: “The reason I do it is simple. There is nothing that compares to stringing up an instrument for the first time.”

Q & A With Bob Laughlin, Luthier

Q: How long does it take make a guitar?

A: For something I’ve made before about six weeks—I only work two to three hours a day now; this makes the process much more enjoyable—or about 60 to 100 hours per instrument on average. I only make one instrument at a time so there is lots of rejigging time involved, glue/finish drying time. I spent a year making my first violin.

Q: How many guitars have you made now? Other instruments?

A: Sixty-eight guitars. More than 100 instruments in all. For much of my luthier career, I had a good day job that allowed me to avoid financial struggle while doing something I loved.

Q:When did you start?

A: In 1977—a Bill Lewis night course at a Vancouver high school. Lewis is a legendary figure in the luthier world. He started the first luthier supply company, Luthiers Mercantile now based in California. His electrics are renowned, worth $100,000, owned by the likes of Jimmy Page and David Gilmour.

Q: Yours seems such a solitary craft. How do you handle that? A: I’m a loner to begin with; I play music for a social life. The upside is total control. This appeals to me greatly.

Q: Do you prefer to work with B.C. woods?

A: Yes, I prefer local woods: Yellow cedar, Sitka spruce, Big Leaf maple. Some of the best tonewoods in the world grow here in B.C., including Red cedar which I don’t use. I prefer softer hardwoods for back and sides. This makes for a lighter guitar with a smoother, more balanced sound.

Q: How is the luthier business changing?

A: I only make what I want now. Recently I’ve made some very small-bodied guitars simply because that’s what interests me. I play mandolin and appreciate a smaller instrument. Then, of course, I have to sell them.

Q: How do you make a living as a luthier?

A: Many are attracted to this exciting field and soldier on with little remuneration, myself included. Yes, a few stars emerge to make a decent living. But no one gets rich in such a solitary enterprise. Some go on to start factories—Larrivee, Taylor, for example—that's where the money is. But that's not for me.

Q: You emphasize it's all about the sound. Please explain.

A: It is all about the sound! Any luthier will say this, even visual artists and experimenters like Grit Laskin, Linda Manzer and Michael Dunn. The end product of luthiery goes to waste unless interacting with a player. The sound can inspire a player to new heights. Of course, you also need longevity and playability. And appearance can go a long way to selling instruments. But it’s all about the sound.


Teardowns in Upper Professorland — Larry Wolfson’s Leica M

Documentary photography refers to a popular form of photography used to chronicle significant historical events.

Larry Wolfson's striking images do just that: provide evidence of the teardowns in Vancouver's upmarket Point Grey neighbourhood.

Armed with his Leica M, the photographer patrolled the leafy streets and quiet lanes to research and shoot his subjects — homes set for demolition.

Haunting the land of the affluent, Wolfson, a retired English teacher, played trespasser to shoot the exteriors and interiors of abandoned homes. A visual sneak thief the past five years, he set out to make visual sense of homes waiting for the wrecking ball — torn curtains, sagging walls and smashed porcelain where broken windows afford a splintered view of detritus strewn across a lawn.

Using a variety of wide-angle lenses, Wolfson masterfully captures the ghost-like melancholy that emanates from buildings about to be demolished.

Many of these Wolfson images were seen in a show held this past winter at the Firehall Gallery in Vancouver.

Through his images, Wolfson allows us to sidestep the tedious and oh-so predictable blather of Vancouver real estate, a subject that has led the news these past several years.

Today, across the city, we witness so many tear-downs we take them for granted, incorporating the images into our everydayness. But Wolfson's images compel us to slow down, to take a second look, to consider the images for their aesthetic appeal — to see them as something else entirely.

Wolfson provides an objective, unfiltered view of the sweeping, dramatic change — almost certainly to increase over time — now creating a new cityscape that some of us will hardly recognize.

"For me, these spaces conjure up thoughts of beginnings and endings, and the related melancholy often associated with ghost towns," Wolfson explains.

"Each photograph captures a moment when change is still its early stages, when we might contemplate a nostalgic past, consider a rapidly changing present, and be forced to contemplate an unknown future," Wolfson says.

More of Wolfson's teardown images can be seen here:


Mel Bevan’s Treaty Making Blues

Making a treaty is hard, Sisyphean. Playing guitar brings sweet solace.

Mel Bevan is a man at the very heart of the transformation taking place in Northwestern British Columbia. From an office tucked away in the corner of a building in Terrace overlooking the Skeena River, the 76-year-old member of the Kitselas Nation works his way through the emails on his computer screen.

After 50 years in the “Indian business,” Bevan is a true believer in treaties, yes, but he also recognizes — and constantly reminds his colleagues — that aboriginals are going to have to embrace a cataclysmic shift if they are to join the economic mainstream in the 21st Century.

They can no longer afford to wait for the white man, to go on bended knee to Indian Affairs bureaucrats. A new generation of aboriginals needs jobs and skills beyond bookkeeping and band administration. They need to work in the resource industries right on their doorstep. And Bevan has spent his working life trying to make that happen.

He goes to a map on the wall, a colour-coded depiction of Kitselas lands under the agreement in principle (pre-cursor to a final treaty). Fee simple. Private lands. No longer owned nor managed by officials in Ottawa or Vancouver.

Bevan grew up staring at maps and spent his adult life trying to protect and be tested by the dramatic rivers and valleys of his beloved country. Under the treaty — the culmination of his life’s work — he is no longer in exile. But, curiously a melancholy note persists as he explains the terms of the deal to a visitor. He won’t say it, of course, but his body language betrays him: 20 years of treaty-making was inhuman, far too long. He has seen his children grow up and move away as he has seen scores of aboriginal leaders come and go.

For Bevan and many aboriginal leaders of his generation, treaty making became a holy grail and they were willing to sacrifice themselves — and their families — to bring home a deal. The negotiating sessions themselves were often complex, tedious and exhausting. Day after day, year after year, they pored over documents written by, and for, lawyers who had little interest in translating them into plain language. It’s the law, has to be this way, the lawyers said.

For Bevan, negotiations have become a way of life, a quest, one he simply has to endure. And despite endless pleadings and sharply written rebukes to governments in Ottawa and Victoria, there seems no way to speed up a process few politicians seem eager to embrace.

The glacial pace of the talks is the direct result of policies dictated by Victoria and Ottawa where politicians have become ambivalent, frightened or hostile when treaty-briefing papers cross their desks. Powerful teams of federal and provincial negotiators are assembled, and because of an enormous talent base, more resources and unlimited funding, Ottawa and Victoria can rotate key players and bring new talent, just like professional sports teams.

As the years drag on — work is now underway for a final treaty — Bevan and the mostly male team of negotiators (there is but one woman on the team, the “documents manager”) live in a kind of a bubble. The very process itself is extraordinarily controlled, unnatural and somehow devoid of human feeling.

Bevan has endured one interminable set of deliberations after another. Teams break into smaller groups — lands, finance, fisheries, forest resources, economic development, self-government to name just a few — and these groups then subdivide into five or six subgroups and the process commences again. The logistics of this means adherence, at all costs, to a kind of quasi-military discipline, meted out by the negotiators themselves. *** Life, of course, has intervened. Bevan’s children grew up. Son Stan became one of the most important aboriginal carvers in the province. After enrolling in the Gitanmaax School of Northwest Coast Indian Art in 1979, he underwent an extensive apprenticeship with his uncle Dempsey Bob who was also an early influence in his decision to become an artist.

Besides his family, one thing brings Bevan a kind of solace: music. He is a skilled guitarist and serious collector of guitars. Over the years he researched, tracked and eventually purchased Gibsons, Martins and Rickenbackers. In his youth, Bevan teamed up with other Terrace musicians to play concerts and pick-up gigs at parties, weddings and other events. Even today, he can turn up his amp and tear the roof off his home near Copper River canyon. Infrequent guests — he prefers those who play music — can be heard running through basic chord changes while Bevan takes an extended solo or two.

Early one evening Bevan invites me to his suburban home with its backyard a stone’s throw from the Copper River. He wants to show off his guitars.

A bachelor — he proudly mentions grandchildren but not a wife — whose five electric guitars are set strategically about a large living room that looked out towards the river; each instrument plugged into its own amp, each set to a particular sound. A shrine.

There are two Gibsons (a black Roy Orbison 335 and a gleaming older 345); two Gretschs (including a cherry Chet Atkins Tennessee Rose with twang bar) and a sunburst Les Paul. (He recently sold a 1964 Gibson J-45 acoustic for $3,000.) He offers a Bavarian lager while he sips a non-alcoholic. I can tell he wants to play and I ask for a tune.

And play he does, strapping on the 345 for a marvelous set of Hank Snow, Roy Orbison, Scotty Moore, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. Ballads with love-crazed cowboys, long-haul truckers and big hurting love. Bevan would have been good in his day: the melodies ring out clear and strong and out into the night. He isn’t faking it, his guitar pick a laser-guided missile.

“Did you sing too?” I ask.

“Never did,” Bevan replies. “But I had them up and dancing for hours.”

I try to strum along as he calls out the keys, but it isn’t helping much. Many of the songs are in basic keys, but they have interesting and unexpected chord changes. I try to add inversions and a few lead lines but the result is a messy mélange, mere tinkering. What Bevan really needs is a strong rhythm player with all the changes down. Maybe that’s why he stops playing and puts down his instrument.

He looks tired; time for me to go.

“Just one more tune,” he says, handing me the Tennessee Rose. “Play some blues — or whatever it is you do.”

And so it is. And as I play he keeps cranking the volume, loud, louder, deafening. Tweaking the amp, he gleefully adds more distortion, then even more. One is a setting for Hey Joe attempting Hendrix. Followed by a ragged blues in A, a string of D minor arpeggios, and fumbled, fake Bach.

Driving back to the motel, I try to make sense of such a complicated man. Are Bevan’s guitars a bulwark against the Sisyphean travails of treaty making? Or simple six-string solace for a solitary man who lives beside a northern river?

Alex Rose visited and interviewed Mel Bevan for the book, First Dollars: Pipelines, Ports, Prisons and Private Property


Mona Woodward’s Downtown Eastside Revolution

Mona Woodward is the former CEO of the Aboriginal Front Door Society and this was written during her tenure. Today, she has a new job: co-chair of the Sisterwatch committee and a support worker for RainCity Housing.

11.15.10 news.aboriginal Mona Woodward, Exec Dir at the Aboriginal Front Door Society. Photo: Dan Toulgoet

A revving engine of a woman, Mona Woodward comes wheeling out of the modest store front known as the Aboriginal Front Door Society, just steps from Main and Hastings, Ground Zero for Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside, the poorest postal code in the country.

High summer. Woodward wears a smart business dress, sandals and chic sunglasses and striking pink, beaded earrings.

She marches north past the courthouse, past the social services office — it’s Welfare Wednesday and people are lined up all the way to the Sunrise Market — to the foot of Main Street and a pedestrian overpass that loops over to Crab Park.

The park is an oasis overlooking Vancouver Harbour. And a world away from the Downtown Eastside. But there can no forgetting: in the middle of the park there is a shrine to the estimated 1,000 missing and murdered aboriginal women in this country. Woodward bows her head. Someone has placed fresh flowers on the shrine.

She takes a seat on a nearby park bench. Sitting quietly, exhaling, composing herself.

“Let me introduce myself,” she says with an engaging smile. “Share my street cred."

“I am Cree,” she explains, “originally from the prairies. My Cree name can be translated as Sparkling Fast Rising River Woman.

"Some say I’ve had a hard life, and I won't disagree. But I’m a survivor, too, and have a deep insight into the many challenges facing aboriginal women today. And that is my mission: to help them, protect them, encourage them, empower them. Every way I can.

“I’m calling for a revolution to help aboriginal woman. In fact, we’re already started. Just watch us.”

What guts. What commitment. But how did she get here from there?

Sixteen years ago, the former heroin addict and sex-trade worker woke up in a dumpster off Gore Street, after a “violent trick with a john.” Left for dead, groggy, she was able to climb out of the dumpster and out in the alley where a young woman held her hand as she called for an ambulance. There followed a stint in the hospital and, over the weeks and months to follow, a slow recovery, physical, mental, spiritual.

The incident changed her life. She made a promise to herself. She would get clean. She would respect herself. She would get a job. She would help others. She still has her struggles, yes, but takes each day as it comes.

She went to university to study social work. And today, she manages a society that reaches out to the poor, the lost, the lonely and confused.

“Look, we’re a community,” she says. “Despite all the bad PR, despite all the human tragedy. Many people live and work here. The Downtown Eastside is far, far more than the four-block stretch of crack, homelessness and human despair that too often leads the evening news.”

“We are a community,” she repeats with emphasis. And many make it their home: workers, pensioners and businesses.”

“We’re here to help aboriginal people — and non-aboriginal people too — who need help. Anyone. Period. We consider ourselves a “low-barrier” social service agency. That means we are many things: a drop-in with coffee and sandwiches, a referral centre, a listening post and much more. We have some of the best counselors going.”

Yesterday, more than 200 people came in the front door. Mid-afternoon, staff rushed out into the street to help an aboriginal man, bleeding head-to-toe, from an attack by someone wielding a sword on Hastings Street. One staffer called the ambulance; another attended to the victim.


Some stories are beyond fiction. Last month, an aboriginal youth from Vancouver Island came through the front door. It was her first time in the Downtown Eastside and she was nervous and afraid. Over a cup of tea, she explained her boyfriend had been arrested for carrying a handgun. Together, she and the councilor telephoned her family. They were aghast and said they would pay for the bus to Horseshoe Bay and the ferry back to Nanaimo, where they would meet her and take her back home. And so they did.

“Such a day,” Woodward recalls. “They can take a toll on staff, all of whom are volunteers.

“But we’re making news,” she says. “And moving up to a bigger league.”

She’s referring to the recent launch of the society’s Red Jacket Campaign to reduce the damaging effects of high-risk behavior.

“We wear our Red Jackets when we are out in the community, raising awareness of our work, boosting our presence in the Downtown Eastside, and promoting AFDS as a safe, non-judgmental place for every member of our community. “

“And there is more good news coming,” she explains. “We’ve had non-profit status since 2013 and people and businesses who donate money receive tax deductible receipts.”

Back in the park, Woodward stares out across the harbour. Then, waving good-bye, she picks up the pace, and marches double time, back to work — back to the random chaos of aboriginal life at the corner of Hastings and Main.

  Photo credits: Dan Toulgoet and Lee Bacchus