Alexis Creek Blues (996 words)
My history’s a long one. My family grew up around Alexis Creek by the Chilcotin River in southern British Columbia, two hundred miles north of Vancouver. It flows southeast from its source in the Itchas range of the Coast Mountains to the Fraser River and drains the Chilcotin plateau.
Our neighbours have always been lodgepole pine, trembling aspen and white birch; they like the cold, dry climate. You don’t see a lot of maple; but the coarse gravel soil and good moisture of our homeland have suited us well. And long before the Europeans came, we thrived there, living peacefully with Canada’s First Nations’ Tsilhgot’in people, which means ‘people of the red ochre river’.
We’re known as ‘Big Leaf’, because our leaves are larger than our cousins’, almost 60 centimetres wide, and we grow faster than them, standing tall at 30 meters or so. I was young when I was cut down; but my oldest relatives were there in Alexis Creek before the first British and American traders came, almost 250 years ago.
When the winds blew hard and I and my friends were anxious saplings, the timeless ones would whisper to us of their early days, when the only people they saw were the Tsilhgot’in trading salmon from the coast to Cree people territories in the East. They would calm us with tales of those days of crystal air and pure rainwater, disturbed only by the honking of trumpeter swans and the shaking thunder from the hooves of wild mustang. And I would forget my fears of being torn out by my roots, dreaming instead of the wilderness then, free of loggers and cattle ranchers with their poison machines, making it difficult for us to breathe.
My parents used to talk of the richness of their multitudinous woodland wilderness when they were young: not just the squirrels, woodpeckers and chickadees that they were home to, or the mosses, ferns and liverwort that clung to their bark; but also the mule deer and caribou down from the mountains in the winter, bald eagles and osprey, even black bears and cougars at times. And, in the evenings, the maniacal cry of the loons from the lake made them sway with laughter, as it did me when I first heard it.
But with the coming of the traders two hundred years ago, things started to change. What my grandparents witnessed, and later my parents, was the decimation of the Tsilhgot’in people, as they were struck down by whooping cough, measles and, finally, smallpox. Within fifty years, only a third of the population was left. And then came the Chilcotin War, as the incomers tried to build a road through to the Cariboo gold fields further east and the starving Tsilhgot’in attacked them for food and to retain control of their land.
We trees were not affected directly – not until the loggers came – but it disturbed my parents’ sense of the natural order of things. After hundreds of years, in which they and their ancestors had prospered in the unaltered rhythms of the year, change, and undesirable change, shook up their world; and, suddenly, it was no longer the rare drought or forest fire that they feared, but the damage to their habitat, the dwindling of the animals they shaded and, worst of all, the whine of the chain saw and the crash of the fallen.
I cannot imagine how my parents felt as I smashed through their arms to the ground and watched me being dragged away. The pain of those metal teeth slicing through me, flaying me apart ring by ring, was so intense and savage that I was severed from my roots and the earth that nourished me in a state of numbed horror. Nor was I able to recover, before the whining started again, as I was stripped of my limbs, trimmed top and bottom, then loaded and chained with others of my kind on a lorry and transported hundreds of miles away to a saw mill, where my skin was stripped off and I was sundered into separate lengths, edged, trimmed and imprisoned in heated kilns that sucked all the moisture out of me.
Displaced, dismembered and traumatised, I was dispatched in different parts to different places. Most of me went to an up-market furniture factory in Vancouver; but the heart of me was packaged and sent to the Gibson guitar factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And there, I am happy to say, the next and most unexpected stage in my life began.
I think it was when I was first introduced to my singing companion, Sitka Spruce, that I felt the sap rising in me again, as I became the sides and back to her top. I say ‘singing’, because with our dear Rosewood fretboard and bridge, once the fittings and strings were added, we became famous for the clarity and projection of our sonorous acoustics.
And very happy we were when we were chosen by Emmylou Harris to go on tour with her and Randy Newman in 1985. Indeed, that was probably one of our best experiences. She treated us well, played us skilfully and under her fingers we sang our hearts out in intimate venues to wildly appreciative audiences. And I can say that, in those days, my chest reverberated with a warmth and pleasure I had not known since the coming of spring after winter, as I stood with my family, feeling those tender shoots of green unfurling along the waving tips of my woody arms.
We stayed in her house for years, until one day a fan from England came on a pilgrimage and she presented us to him as a gift. In our comfortable, plushly lined case, we travelled to a wooded creek in Cornwall, where he cherishes us, taking us to local gigs, playing blues and telling our story. His name’s Alex and I feel I’m home from home.
(Copyright: Charles Becker 2017)