Saturday, July 11, 2009

The 'Kusp of a New Era...

Penned June 1st, 2008

I turned on the TV today. This, in and of itself, is novel. I don't have one at home, and though I periodically catch a downloaded episode of South Park or The Boondocks, I definitely don't consider myself part of the 'viewing public'. The last time I can recall actually turning on a television to be mindlessly entertained was last summer in Grande Prairie, and I remember being curiously impressed by George Strombolopolous' "I'm changing the subject without you noticing" interviewing style. I hadn't turned on the power since.

But today, on the fifth of the five days I am slated to be in Nakusp, I caved and pressed the red button. I feel no shame about this. Well, almost none. It was genuinely out of curiosity. What are people watching these days? I hear snippets about idols and choppers, and I'm pretty sure I'm not losing out on anything, but it's sometimes good to take a glance at pop culture, so at least no one can say I don't know what I'm missing.

Pressure applied, there is a softened click, a louder pop, and colour rises to the surface of the screen, feeling its way across the flat glass of the tube. It settles into focus to reveal Charlie Sheen being lambasted by a stereotype of a vegetarian, a girl who tasted meat in his kiss. Well, it's good to know some things never change. I settle on the CBC for the national news to collect a few sound bytes, and maybe draw me from my (most enjoyable) self-imposed isolation.

There is hockey this, murder that… the usual fare. But one image intrigues me. It is of three people, standing near a grass hut. One is in the background, her colour pigmented black by natural dyes. In the foreground stand two men, their skin a vivid orange-red, bows arced in the air, arrows at the ready, a menacing gesture directed at the person on the other side of the aperture. These are a few of the world's remaining wild peoples, members of the up to sixty-eight uncontacted tribes left in the world, hidden only from the world outside by the dense, multi-storey ceilings of the Amazon jungle.

The images were released by Brazil to publicly prove to Peru, and those pursuing mineral and petroleum claims in the area, that these people do, in fact, exist. The rationale is that if international attention is drawn to the issue, then perhaps the government on the other side of the border (a border non-existent to the tribesmen) will disallow mines and well sites that would drive out or extirpate these peoples.

Of course the existence of this tribe in particular is no secret. Local farmers have lived in their vicinity for decades, and FUNAI, the Brazilian government's version of Indian Affairs, has well documented information dating back at least twenty years. The fact of their materiality is not novel, but the pictures of them certainly are. It takes but a moment for the gravity of the images to sink in. These are the only free people left in the world, the few who have no chains. By fortune and goodwill, they have been spared the vortex of complexity of which you and I are part. They are the ones who looked at the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thought the fruit looked sour, and kept playing under the canopy. They never learned of their nakedness, were never ashamed, and never needed toil to squeeze from the soil their daily bread. They are the Adams and the Eves, what we once were, living in the garden to which, to our own detriment, we can never return.

With this thought, I turn off the television and go outside for a walk. To my right, well beyond its apex, the sun descends through its roundabout southern arc. One would not expect sunset so early this time of year, but the austere and lordly mountains project a dominating presence on the horizon, and by eight the sun hovers mere inches above their snow-capped ridges. Atop the peaks across Arrow Lake, hues of pink cum red cum orange are reflected off the clouds, which themselves are reflected of the water. There is dazzling colour in every direction, and I believe with sincerity that this is the most beautiful place I've ever seen.

But it's not the untouched aesthetic alone that seduces me. It's everything about this place. Despite its attractiveness, Nakusp seems free of pretense. Absent are the faux chalets of Jasper, and château of Lake Louise. The town is unique, but I resist the use of the word quaint, because although there is an innocence to this place, it is not to be confused with naïveté- the village subsisted off industry for many years before tourism took flight, and there is still that working class self-respect in the air. There are well-groomed flowerbeds, but they are tended by local citizens, not exorbitant property taxes and union wages. And Nakusp is virtually without chains. Aside from a grocery store and two gas stations, nothing in the town is run outside the town. No London Drugs, no Radio Shack, no 7-11/Mac's/Mike's Mart/Winks/Becker's/Couche-Tard, not even a Tim Horton's (*gasp*). Nakusp is indeed a unique place.

However, things are changing in Naskusp. Last year, the Revelstoke Mountain Resort announced its plans to invest, get ready… One billion dollars (that's a one followed by nine zeroes- more than even your dad makes) into the facility, with the intent of creating the longest skiable slope in North America. This has triggered real estate speculation all though the area, including Nakusp (a mere hour away) driving property prices up as high as the mountains. Now, of course, it's all supply and demand, so if there was more land to go around, then perhaps it might remain affordable for the people who grew up here?

Enter Pope-Talbot. Or, perhaps, exit Pope-Talbot. The lumber mill, and Nakusp's major employer, recently closed its doors due to skyrocketing fuel costs, the weak US housing market, and the strong Canadian dollar. This now creates a dilemma for the town, as its people struggle with the decision to move in search of work, or attempt to make ends meet in tourism.

But the fallout doesn't quite end there. Pope-Talbot's holdings, due to be liquidated under receivership protection, includes 6 400 hectares of property in the Nakusp area, much of it waterfront. With the price of land as it is in the region, the company's creditors, mostly American financial institutions, potentially stand to see a good portion of their money returned.

The mayor of Nakusp, Karen Hamling, has been entreating the provincial government to disallow the sale, a sale which would devastatingly alter the character of her town. And, in this case, Mrs. Hamling has the law on her side. Because the land falls under a provincial tree farm license (TFL 23), it cannot be sold outright. Unfortunately, precedent is against her, since the province allowed Western Forest Products to sell some 28 000 hectares on Vancouver Island under TFL to developers in 2007.

Regardless of whether or not the sale of the Pope-Talbot properties go through, things are bound to change in Nakusp, The development in Revelstoke, coupled by the economic crippling of the timber industry is almost certain to result in a major demographic shift as the middle class migrate outward, and the upper class move in.

It's strange. Before I even knew about the economy and politics of this town, I had this impending feeling that this oasis was to be dashed. Maybe it's just my Marxist leanings, but I knew that this was going to happen. As it almost always does. People who care make something worth caring for. Then they get priced out. Like Kensington. Like Kitsilano.

When I walk down the street now, I want to grab people, grab them and shake them and scream:

"Understand! Understand this thing that you have here! Don't allow money to destroy this beautiful community!"

But of course it's out of their hands now. There are forces larger than them at play. There's a billion dollars sitting on top of a hill a hundred clicks away betting against them. Just like there's a billion dollars in the office of an oil company somewhere, betting against the last remaining tribal peoples on the planet.

Market forces are an undeniable reality of our modern existence. And far from just affecting those of us who are born into this lifestyle, it reaches beyond to those blissfully ignorant of them, pushing them in ways they cannot even comprehend.

I'll refrain from any attributions of right or wrong, my finger is tired of wagging these days. I'll say only that it's sad. Sad because I really like this town, and, like many of the currents residents, I won't be able to afford to live here. Short of striking it rich on some South American oil prospect, of course.

I'm not much of a skier, but I hear the powder at Revelstoke is to die for. Last year my roommate kept saying that I should book off a weekend and hit the slopes with him out here. I was captivated by the pictures he showed me, and I'll admit that it was tempting, but it just never worked out. I said that we'd do it the next season, for sure.

In light of everything, though, I think I might not go skiing in Revelstoke this year. At least I won't have to burn oil getting out here.

No, on second thought, I think I might be better off just staying at home and watching TV.

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