Ross Desprez

Ross Desprez

Timber!

Old-time logging brought to life through poetry and song

Old-time logging, which put food on the table and kept businesses running on the Island, is retold through poems and songs.

Good Timber: Songs and Stories of the Western Logger, a multi-media theatre production, opens July 12 in the Shaw Auditorium for a two-week run.

Director Ross Desprez unearthed the dog-eared copies of his wife’s poetry books by Robert Swanson, the logger’s equivalent to gold-rush poet Robert Service.

“He was an old-time logger from the Island,” Desprez said. “They’re pretty workman-like poems.”

Rhymes of the Western Logger contained poems like The Cat Skinner’s Prayer, The Death of Rough House Pete and B.C. Highball that lament the hazards of life in the bush. And life was hazardous – no safety regulations made loggers wear helmets or proper footwear and accidents caused death regularly.

“Men were kind of expendable,” Desprez said. “Hand-logging was incredibly dangerous.”

After Swanson ended his career as a logger, he worked as a railroad safety inspector for the B.C. government. He invented air horns for diesel trains, which were adapted for use all over the world. He also pioneered the development of air brakes and runaway lanes for logging trucks.

Good Timber celebrates the golden age of logging, when the men climbed trees and words like hookers, hi-riggers, whistle punks and locie engineers were part of common lingo.

Swanson’s poems were turned into songs by Desprez and his cast – Tobin Stokes, John Gogo, Mark Hellman, Kelt and Colleen Eccleston and Sarah Donald – and laid out in chronological order. Others are spoken as they were written.

“There’s no real story to it as such,” said Desprez, who is an instructor in Vancouver Island University’s theatre department.

The cast tried to pull music they thought would be listened to in the logging camps and recreated some of the working sounds of the forest.

“We tried to figure out what the sounds of the camp would be,” Desprez said.

Stokes brought in choker bells, files, axes and other hand-held logging tools for the actors to use as percussion instruments, adding to the authenticity of the sound.

Among the many messages the show carries, one of them is the concern showed to the environment by the old-time loggers.

“They did have a real sense of the environment,” Desprez said. “By hand logging, they couldn’t see themselves ever making a dent in the forest.”

Good Timber runs July 12-24 for matinee and evening performances in the auditorium in the Port of Nanaimo Centre. Tickets $25; $22/members; $15/students through the Port Theatre ticket centre.

Please call 250-754-8550 or visit www.porttheatre.com.

arts@nanaimobulletin.com