The Worry Ladders: an exhibition on the political and economic forces affecting NB’s forest
If the yellow Irving pickup truck parked conspicuously outside the UNB Forestry Building hadn’t been there as foreshadowing, I still would have had an inkling of the theme of artist Ann Manuel’s latest multi-media show at UNB’s Memorial Hall from its name, “The Worry Ladders.”
The exhibition on New Brunswick forestry, inspired when Manuel was in France, and named from a quotation in a book called The Known World by Edward P. Jones, depicts the artist’s perspective on political and economic forces affecting our publicly-owned forests.
“You start out on the bottom rung (of the worry ladder) and as you go up you approach full-blown anxiety,” says Manuel in a recent exhibition walk-through for the public. “As everyone knows, worry stalls action.”
The exhibit cries out for action, in pieces with names like “Loss,” “Waste” and “Sustainability.” In an art-mirrors-real life kind of way, Manuel’s show embodies public anger following government announcements it had struck deals with forestry companies to hike harvest rates on Crown lands by twenty percent. Reaching a fever pitch in 2014, the criticism has been growing for years and continues today.
Public forests (on unceded Wolastoq, Mi’kmaq and Passamaquoddy territory) comprise half of this Maritime province, but few actually know what goes on there. Industrial cutting licences issued by the Department of Natural Resources give virtually all the privileges of ownership to a handful of industrial companies, who do their best to keep the heavy-machine operations out of the public eye.
Manuel’s show has five meticulously crafted ladders: composites of the trunks of native species (birch, poplar, spruce and alder), interwoven with aluminum ladder sections and ingeniously-placed cast-offs from old woods working equipment. A ceiling-mounted canopy of red osiers enshrouds the installation, their bright red bark, Manuel says, “an alarm system” of sorts.
The ladder is a metaphor for the ladder of success, and its triumph over all that is less-than, looked down-upon, denigrated, dominated—in other words, nature, and non-human living things. In this language of exploitation, nature falls into two categories: merchantable and everything else. Alders, white birch and willows for example, are “weed” or “junk” species. Manuel says that how we refer to objects is a reflection of a culture; words shape opinions and strongly influence our perceptions of the world.
Even the word ‘harvest,’ normally associated with the idea of goodness or bounty, takes on a more sinister connotation when used to describe tree cutting. Picture a less-than-cornucopia-like maw of a chipping truck, always working but never satisfied. That pretty much sums up the state of industrial forestry in this province.
The loss of deer herds is the theme of another ladder (“Loss”). In 2014 the NB Government, with the stroke of a pen, turned over control of the public’s land to industrial forest interests, halving the number of deer yards and imperiling (knowingly—their biologists told them, but no one cared) many bird and mammal species. Even white-tail deer, plentiful and numbering close to a quarter million when the Crown Lands and Forests Act came into effect in 1982, have dwindled and now number less than one-quarter of this. Biodiversity, misunderstood and having no perceptible market value, is a casualty of government indifference and industry greed. We are passing what Manuel calls a “tolerable equilibrium” as a result of our mistreatment of public forests.
But what about jobs and prosperity? Aren’t these what the Crown forests are all about? Well, sort of.
A ladder called “Sustainability” speaks to this. It features rungs made out of pieces of axes, handsaw and chainsaw blades, culminating with a part from a mechanical harvester. At the “low” end, the axe represents hundreds of men working in the woods. As we go up a few rungs, an embedded chainsaw blade signals declining forest employment while at the top of the ladder, a greasy universal joint stands in for current day woods work: one person sitting in the cab of a giant harvester. Manuel doesn’t advocate moving back in time or technology, but there’s a simple reality check owed to us by politicians who use specious claims of job creation to justify ever more extraction from our forests.
NB’s forest strategy creates very few jobs, in fact, 1.3 jobs for every thousand cubic metres of wood cut. In places like Vermont, New York State and even Ontario, governments manage to get between three and five times the direct jobs that NB gets out of this same quantity of wood. How could this be?
Modernization and technology have meant that fewer people can do an ever increasing amount of damage in the woods in a shorter amount of time. With little value added manufacturing in NB (most of the wood is exported as logs) and the government demonstrating no support for community-run forests and private woodlot owners, it is no wonder the jobs numbers just aren’t there.
As the Auditor General for New Brunswick has pointed out, the province has lost hundreds of millions of dollars in management fees and concessions to the forest industry in the past few years. Contrast this to the news that NB lumber exports have increased 40 per cent over the past four years, to $397 million. Someone is getting rich from our Crown wood. Three guesses who it is (hint: not the NB Treasury).
Ann Manuel is philosophical about it all. “You can’t dive into this topic [forestry] and not get worried about things, the animals, the water, what we are losing or have lost already.” She has stopped representing large landscapes in her work, noting that her range of movement in the province includes many clear-cut areas where even the beauty strip along the road has disappeared. Instead she focuses on vignettes like the Worry Ladders in hopes of reaching people, raising awareness and perhaps stirring an emotional response that might move citizens to action.
The NB Liberals promise to deliver a new spin on the forestry plan this December. To think it might address major flaws and concerns like climate change and critical habitat loss seems reasonable, but don’t get your hopes up. Last time I looked, the responsibility of the government was to represent the interests of the entire population and the public trust in a democratic manner. The NB people have spoken; now it’s up to government to listen to them. Restoring balance cannot involve bowing to a single industry’s pressure tactics and threats.
Still, I’m up there on the worry ladder.
For her part, Ann Manuel thinks artists have a responsibility to reflect what’s happening in society back to itself, both the good and bad. “I kind of think of the artist as a bit of a canary in a coalmine,” she says.
“The Worry Ladders” was at UNB’s Memorial Hall from September to October and will travel to other exhibition venues in Atlantic Canada in the months to come. The artist gratefully acknowledges receipt of an artsnb Creation Grant to complete the work.