Poets rally their verse to keep Langley forest from development

Published in The Tyee | December 8, 2012 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly readers

Hundreds of poets are putting their verse together to keep a 10-hectare forest slated for development by Langley council intact, and they’re hanging their work from trees with ribbons.

The initiative — inspired by an ancient Chinese hermit-poet’s eccentric scribbling of lyrics on rocks and trees — is part of an effort to stop the McLellan Forest from being sold. It goes before Langley decision-makers on Monday, and activists have been given a Dec. 17 deadline to raise $3 million they need to purchase the land under a protective covenant.

Activists say there are more than 100 species living in its habitat, as well as trees up to 240 years old, they estimate.

“McLellan Forest is a community forest,” poet Fiona Lam (and sometimes Tyee contributor) told The Tyee. “It is public land, and the community and public of Langley and many others in the Lower Mainland are against it being developed.

“The council is supposed to represent the community, the public and the public interest. In facilitating and approving the sale of McLellan Forests, whose interests is the council truly representing? The council represents its constituents, and the constituents have spoken. The answer should be clear.”

Those supporting efforts to keep the McLellan Forest from development include poets Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Don Domanski, Stephanie Bolster, and David Zieroth, and at least 140 others. Last week, painter Robert Bateman toured the tract and lent his support.

Langley poet Susan McCaslin told The Tyee she has grown personally attached to the tract of woods, and felt that poetry and the arts were a powerful way of sending a message.

“It is stunning,” she said of discovering the property with her husband. “It’s not technically old-growth, but there are big, mature trees, some of which could be as much as 240 years old […]; there’s a big cottonwood tree that’s enormous, and three species of owls.

“It is an integral ecosystem. We fell in love with it. I’m a local poet, and it just occurred to me that having arts and activism would be a good way to raise attention to the issue.”

The town of Langley declined an interview request with The Tyee. Mayor Jack Froese has stated publicly that selling the municipal property would free up funds to be used in other local investments, such as a recreation centre.

When a group of locals banded together in the group Watchers of Langley Forest (WOLF) to protect the small tract, Langley council offered them two months to raise $3 million to buy the property and turn it into a park; that deadline was extended by a month, but ends this week. So far, WOLF has raised $50,000.

“Frankly, it’s unrealistic,” McCaslin said. “As WOLF themselves have said, they don’t have fundraising experience, they’re a small group, and the time frame is just too short […]. It’s always possible some multimillionaire will donate the money, but right now they only have $50,000 and the deadline is impending. This land belongs to the public; it’s one of two rare jewels that should be saved. They have other less valuable lands they could sell, but everything’s behind closed doors so we don’t know what their options are.”

Victoria poet Lorna Crozier said that making local residents fundraise to protect a publicly owned wilderness is unfair.

“How ridiculous, to think they can so quickly raise that amount of money!” Crozier told The Tyee. “It’s an absolute obfuscation of what the real intent is.

“Langley is such an urban nightmare — it needs every little bit of nature it can hang onto with desperate fingers!”

Crozier, a Governor General’s Award-winning poet, told The Tyee she hopes her contribution of an original poem to the WOLF efforts will help council see the wisdom of turning the forest into a public park.

“Does poetry change anything?” she asked. “I think poets are wonderfully optimistic that the words they write might have power and change people’s minds and hearts.

Fellow Victoria poet Patrick Lane explained the significance of hanging the poetry from trees. The poem he wrote for Langley’s environmental campaign is dedicated to the project’s inspiration: Han-Shan. Believed by Zen Buddhists to be the re-incarnation of the Bodhisattva Manjusri, who represents transcendent wisdom, Han-Shan’s eccentric but reverent dispersal of lyrics into the forest inspire activists today to speak out for wilderness preservation.

“Han-Shan was a Buddhist monk-poet,” Lane explained. “In a time of hermits all over the world, he lived up in the mountains, and he was kind of a mad monk.

“He would leave poems on rocks and trees. Gary Snyder years ago wrote a long series of poems dedicated to Han-Shan — a laughing, wild, crazy old hermit poet.”

Soon after putting a call out for poets to support her forest-saving efforts, McCaslin said she started getting contributions from further afield — Australia, Turkey, the UK, the United States, and Mexico.

“It’s interesting to me the way that this little microcosm — our local forest — parallels issues people were feeling in their own communities,” she said. “People wrote and said, ‘We lost our little green space, but we wish you luck and want to support you.’ Others said, ‘We did a campaign, and we won and now it’s a park.’ It’s moving to me, the quality of the poems, and the sense that we’re losing our green space for our children and future generations. There aren’t that many of them left.”

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