August Schellenberg and the vision of John Wiggers

There’s one person who was more excited about my debut movie, The Green Chain, than me – John Wiggers. An artist whose medium is wood, John made a pilgrimage to visit the “Golden Spruce” in Haida Gwaii about a decade ago. By then the golden spruce had become a not-so golden stump. The magical tree was killed by a bitter logger as a misguided environmental statement (this story is brilliantly documented in John Vaillant’s amazing book).

So John Wiggers didn’t see the tree — but it inspired him just as he’d hoped. John had a dream, a vision. He described the images he saw to a painter back home in Ontario. She painted the picture he’d described but John knew the image didn’t belong to him,

He presented the painting to an elder from Haida Gwaii. The elder translated the vision. Then the elder told John that it was his duty to share the story of the spruce with the world.

When I met John on an airplane heading from Vancouver to Toronto I’d just finished the script for The Green Chain. It told six stories. By the time the plane landed I knew the movie would include a seventh.

So many aspects of the story in the movie – including how trees saved his life from drowning and lightning – were drawn from stories John told me about his life. I tried to inject his passion, his spirit, into the character played by the amazing August Schellenberg. As Augie delivers his final lines he’s standing beside a print of the portrait of John’s vision.

I met John again at the world premiere of The Green Chain in Montreal and before the screening he presented me with a piece of his own art — a carved box with a secret inside from one of his other pilgrimages. It’s one of my most prized possessions.

I’ve been thinking about John a lot since receiving the news that The Green Chain is heading to Ontario this fall for a special screening at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema just after TIFF. Since the event is part of “Culture Day” tickets are free. The screening is being sponsored by Planet In Focus — a festival I always hoped would show the movie one day.

I interviewed John about his love affair with trees for the book that accompanied the movie – The Green Chain – Nothing is Ever Clear Cut (Heritage). I’ve included the chapter below.

I’ve also included a few images of John’s astonishing woodwork.

John Wiggers in his natural habitat

John Wiggers:

Before filming The Green Chain I decided the movie should be connected with a group that was building bridges between loggers, environmentalists and First Nations. I knew the group existed, but I didn’t know what it was called. I sent a dozen emails to friends and strangers describing this organization and no one knew what I was talking about. Then I got on a plane from Vancouver to Toronto and sat next to a burly guy who started pulling pictures of trees out of his briefcase.

I asked my seatmate why he was in Vancouver. He told me he was there for a meeting with the Forest Stewardship Council of Canada.

I flipped open my laptop to show him one of the emails I’d been sending out and asked him to read it. “I think I’ve been looking for you.”

We spent the entire flight talking about the movie – which John seemed even more excited about than I was – the FSC, turning green and his pilgrimage to Haida Gwaii to see the remains of the Golden Spruce. Sort of.

John was a woodworker – a craftsman who creates beautiful pieces from his base in Port Perry, Ontario – and he’d devoted his life to working with ethically sources exotic wood. He felt seeing the spruce was…important.

Sharing the story was more important.

He’d promised a Haida Elder to spread the story of the spruce.

When I interviewed John for the book he informed me that the flight he was on was the flight back from his very last board meeting with the FSC and he was looking for something else to do, some new way to help raise awareness of the issues facing our forests.

For our movie credits we declared John ”tree guru.”

Here’s John’s story about his journey to see the Spruce, the early days of the Forest Stewardship Council and how his four-year-old son turned him green

MLY: Can you talk about what you do and the kind of wood you use?

John Wiggers: What I do, essentially, is design and build custom furniture, a lot of specialty one off pieces that are for designers and architects, often executive desks, boardroom tables, residential furniture, bedroom, dining tables, buffets, more catering, obviously, to a luxury market. Woods we use tend to be more unusual species. In some cases exotics. People want to have something special made, they’re often looking for something out of the ordinary. So for the most part we’re not using commonly known woods like oak or pine.

MLY: You kind of had a huge turning point in your life when your son asked you about the type of wood that you use. Can you talk about that?

JW: My son was four and he was watching one particular episode on TV and it’s about all these environmental superheroes who were going around the world saving the planet from various disasters. This one particular episode, this guy who was a furniture maker had a machine that was eating up the rain forests and on a conveyer belt off the back end of it was all kinds of furniture. So, to save the day, all these superheroes came in and then they beat up the bad guy and blew up the machine and saved the rain forest.

My son saw the show and he figured since I make furniture for a living, he assumed I might be one of the bad guys. So he started asking me questions like, “Are you one of the bad guys, are you destroying the forest?” To try to answer honestly to him, I began to realize I didn’t know with 100 per cent certainty where all my wood was coming from.

Of course that was late ‘80s, early ‘90s, around the time when the Brazilian rain forest was in the news a lot. That’s probably what prompted the cartoon in the first place. There was a flood of these initiatives out there to try to come up with answers and find solutions. In those early stages, this ultimately is what prompted me to get more involved and take a closer look at what I was doing and what kinds of wood I was using.

MLY: Is that how you got involved with Forest Stewardship Council?

JW: That didn’t get created until ’93. Early on it was the Woodworkers Alliance for Rainforest Protection, which goes by the acronym of WARP. So they had some early efforts. There were guys like Andrew Pointer who would take trips into Brazil to look out for certified operations that were doing a good job and arrange to purchase these materials. But it was very hand-to-mouth, like a drop in the bucket. Then these guys tried to figure out how to manage the logistics, one of the things that came up fairly early was that there was no set of standards in place to really determine what was good forestry in Brazil compared to British Columbia. Obviously there are two very different forest types. What constitutes good forest management is very different in various forests around the world. Very soon it led to the recognition of the need for standards development, which in turn led to the creation of FSC in ’93.

MLY: Can you talk about what you did with the FSC over the years?

JW: In ’99 I was asked if I was interested in running for the board there…I thought they were just trying to fill out a slate of candidates, and I really wasn’t too familiar with how the organizational process ran, so I agreed to it. I thought they were just trying to round out a slate. I didn’t really figure I had a snowball’s change in H-E-double-hockey-stick to get elected, so I didn’t pay too much attention to it. Then lo and behold I got elected, so suddenly I was on the board.

I guess at the first meeting in 2000 it was, I guess, collectively we were pretty much a ragtag lot for the most part. One thing I learned pretty quickly was I was the only one in the room able to read a financial statement, and so by default when the position of treasurer was announced to be available everybody ended up looking at me and lo and behold I ended up becoming treasurer.

MLY: When you left the FSC, you were looking for more things to do. I’d like to know what those were and where you started.

JW: I think largely it got to a point for me that going for another term I just didn’t really see what I could accomplish from the standpoint of standards development. There were many people far more qualified than myself to have great input on how standards were going to be developed and written. Certainly the movie The Green Chain captured how polarized the debate is. It certainly captures the microcosm of the world within FSC. You’ve got economic interests, of which my being a woodworker would be classified as an industry representative. Of course, you’ve got the environmental representatives there, everybody from social interests, First Nations Peoples. In a large sense you were type-cast into a certain sinister role like me being an industry guy, my secret hobby was apparently running through the forest in the middle of the night with a chainsaw trying to clear cut everything. It was like no matter what you did, you were viewed from many eyes with a great deal of suspicion that because you’re an industry guy, you’re not entirely to be trusted. It made it very difficult, for me anyways, to accomplish much. I probably accomplished as much as I could, so it was time to move on.

MLY: I’d love to talk about your visit to Haida Gwaii to see the golden spruce stump. Can you tell me about how that came about?

JW: In early ‘97 the tree was cut, as you know. It ended up being a story that made headlines around the world. I happened to catch it in the paper and there was just something about reading that story that absolutely rocked me. It was just like a kick in the stomach for whatever reason. I just made a promise to myself that if I ever get out to the west coast of Canada I would make a visit to go see the tree, I guess you could say to pay my respects. Never really gave much thought to getting out there, when I would, how this whole things would come together. You know, one day it will happen, one day I’ll go. That’s how I left it.

It just seemed on some level that that set off a whole chain of events because it was shortly after that that I read about Smart Wood and the FSC program they had going. I got involved with that, which put me in touch with the FSC people in Toronto, which in turn led to my being elected onto the board. As it turned out, the first board meeting we had was in Vancouver. So, all of a sudden, I had the opportunity to go, and I just remembered what I promised myself three years before. I said, “If I ever get out there, I’ll make the trip.” So I started putting together a side trip to go there after the board meeting.

A lot of roadblocks came up. There were two First Nations people on the board who gave me a few phone numbers to call. They knew some people on Haida Gwaii who could help me, apparently. But their e-mails were not working and phone calls were not being returned. It just looked like the whole trip wasn’t coming together. But then, about a month before I was planning to go, a buddy of mine came by and asked me, “How’s it going? How’s the trip coming together?”

And I said, “I’ll be going to Vancouver for the board meeting, but I won’t be going to Haida Gwaii because I just can’t seem to pull anything together.” But he said, “Well, you’re not going to believe this, but I was at a restaurant last night with friends talking about your trip, and somebody over at the next table overheard the conversation and handed me a business card and said, ‘if your friend’s having trouble getting out there, give me a call'” It turned out the person hearing the conversation was the marine stewardship coordinator for Haida Gwaii and was living in Massett, not far from where the golden spruce was felled — so all of the sudden I had a contact person setting me up with a place to stay and transportation. Of course, my problem then was getting a plane. So I called a travel agent — and I couldn’t find a flight there. Apparently there’s one little plane flying in and out of Haida Gwaii everyday and everything was booked solid. Once again it looked like a wrench in the works, then half an hour later my phone rings and it’s the travel agent who said, “there’s a sudden cancellation on the flight you were looking for, so if you want it, it’s yours.” So I said, “book it.”

Like I said earlier, it’s just like an unseen hand at work sometimes. Things just suddenly pulled together, and I was able to make that trip.

MLY: Can you describe the experience of seeing the stump?

JW: First you’re driving down this pretty long road. The forests on either side are actually just little strips of forest, you can get glimpses through little openings that a tremendous amount of trees were being felled from behind that little vanity strip down the side. Finally you got to a spot in the middle of nowhere with a trail leading in. There was a sign that said “golden spruce” and somebody had painted out spruce and put in “stump.” So you went down the trail, and I thought I was actually going to end up walking right up to where the tree was. But it wasn’t until I got to the edge of the Yakoun river that I realized the spruce was on the other side. So that was a pretty disappointing revelation to get there and I actually just stood for a second by the river and started laughing. I said, you know, “This is so ridiculous.” I went through all this effort to make a trip to go out to see this tree, and I find I’m separated by about 100 yards of water, and I’m not even close to coming to see the tree. It was kind of surreal.

But just standing there, just laughing about the whole absurdity of the situation, it just kind of brought the question to mind of why did I come here? What was the whole point? I mean, I could see the tree on the other side. It was more than three years dead at this point. It was just brown and dead, hanging over the edge of the river. There was certainly no opportunity for me to go there. So I just stood there in a silence and really thought, “What was the point of coming here? What drove me here? Why did I do this?”

And it was in that moment that I looked back up the trail that had brought me in. And to get to that spot I actually had to climb over a tree that had only fallen in the last day or two. It had actually fallen right across the trail, so I had to climb up over the trunk to get to the other side. Looking at the tree, it looked about the same age as the golden spruce would have been on the other side. It’s like the two of them had grown up together on opposite sides of the river. So I made my way back to that tree, and I just stood there and took in the silence for a while. I got a little lost in the whole nothingness of the space. Then I figured that was as good a place as any to pay my respects, so I did. At one point I was just looking down and there was a pool of water where the tree had been standing, and looking down into the water I saw these images reflected onto the surface. It may sound like a pretty oddball thing to say, but there were four very distinct images reflected on the surface of the water. I even ended up taking a photograph, or trying to, it was pretty distorted with a flash that I had. They were quite apparent and beautiful in some way. But what was the point? What did it mean?

So I just kinda kept it to myself for about a year. I just went back to work and kept that whole experience to myself. It wasn’t until later that following year, it was after 9/11, the first anniversary of my trip was coming up. It was always gnawing on me the whole year. It was getting to a point where I felt like I had to capture the memory, let’s say. I intended to have in painted on canvas, that’s ultimately what I intend to do. Have a painting made to hang in my office and it was just going to be a reminder to me of the experience I had of going there. It just had that kind of a powerful effect on me. I ended up commissioning an artist who I’d met at a craft show the previous summer. She insisted on not only doing the painting, but insisted on not being paid for it, which really caught me off guard. She said, “It’s a very personal piece, and it’s important that it get painted.” At that point I felt selfish of the idea of keeping it for myself. So since she was willing to make the suggestion I not pay her, I suggested that instead of just painting it for me that we donate the painting to the Haida as a gesture of hope to them over the loss of this tree, and she agreed.

The following spring at the Forest Leadership Forum in Atlanta — this is now April 2002 –the FSC brought out an elder from Haida Gwaii, that was Leo Gagnon, brought him out to see the painting on behalf of the Haida. It was at this point that I really spoke publicly for the first time about my experience there. Obviously something about that story really moved Leo very deeply. By the time I was done, he was in tears.

MLY: Wow. Are you comfortable telling about the response when you handed over the painting?

JW: Like I said, he was deeply moved. He was in tears. He talked about what was happening on Haida Gwaii, the kind of devastation that was taking place in the forests. He didn’t say it in his speech, but afterwards him and others had come up to me saying that the falling of the golden spruce was to many Indigenous Peoples akin to 9/11. The falling of the golden spruce, one person described to me, was their 9/11. This was the falling of their tower, when that tree came down.

For Leo, he described it as a connection to a prophecy or proverb that if the tree is allowed to fall, then the world as we know it will soon fall.

MLY: You said also that the images you saw were significant to him as a painting. They had a real significance.

JW: I don’t know if they were to him directly. I can only relay what I saw.

MLY: Wasn’t it something like the fish weren’t coming back?

JW: After the presentation, the painting was packed up and sent to Haida Gwaii, and once it arrived in his village, there were other elders that came out to take a look at it, and apparently one of them commented that it looked like a spirit was being pulled from the fish. In my mind I was seeing separate images. There was a separate head connected to the salmon. By the one interpretation, or the way one elder was viewing it, he said it looked at if the spirit was being pulled from the fish. Then apparently within a few weeks the salmon failed to return to the coon for the spawn, which really was a shocking revelation from what I understand. Salmon are integral to Haida culture and the Haida lifestyle, so salmon not returning to the Yakoun was a very shocking event. Apparently a lot of it had to do with logging and trees falling into the river. Apparently that was a factor effecting the return of the salmon.

MLY: If somebody put you in charge of our forests tomorrow, what would you want to do?

JW: Hire someone better qualified.

Like I said before, I learned a lot of things while on the board. One of them was there are a lot more experts who know a lot more about the forest and how it’s properly managed than I do.

MLY: How do you feel about trees?

JW: I love trees, to steal a catch phrase from your movie.

My affinity with trees on a personal level is very deep. On three occasions, my life has been saved by a tree. There’s obviously a connection there that has a very personal meaning for me.

Facebook comments: