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Host Kate Carpenter interviews author Lyndsie Bourgon. Lyndsie is a journalist and oral historian, and her first book, Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods, was published by Little, Brown Spark in 2022 and examines the past and present of tree poaching. More broadly, Lyndsie writes about the environment and its entanglement with history, culture, and identity. I was delighted to have the chance to ask Lyndsie about her approach to oral histories in this book, bringing empathy to a complex topic, and how she her background as a journalist and training as an oral historian come together.
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Welcome back to Drafting the Past, a podcast all about the art and craft of writing history. My name is Kate Carpenter and this week I’m joined by author Lyndsie Bourgon.
Thank you so much for having me. I am such a fan. I listen to it all the time when I am doing my cooking.
Lyndsie is a journalist and an oral historian. And her first book, Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods was published by Little, Brown Spark in 2022. It examines the past and present of tree poaching. I was delighted to have the chance to ask Lyndsie about her approach to oral histories in this book, bringing empathy to what is a pretty complex topic, and how her background as a journalist, training as an oral historian, come together. I hope you enjoy our conversation.
So I went to journalism school for my undergrad. I went to a school in Canada called the University of Kings College, which is in Halifax on the East Coast. I’m actually from a very small town in the prairies in a province called Alberta. So I moved from ranching/farming area to a maritime environment. I got my journalism degree there. I did a program that the university has called the Foundation Year, which is a one year sort of great books, history, philosophy, social science kind of program I guess where anywhere you’re just kind of thrown in and doing tons of reading. And after I graduated from that, I graduated in 2008, I think everyone thinks that their year is a hard year to graduate and it was a rough one for sure. And so I freelanced, that was the job I could get in the journalism industry and I did that for about nine years. During that time I kind of started getting into writing about the environment.
And then I got a residency, I went to the Banff Center, which is a Canadian sort of arts incubator retreat type place where you might go, sort of a MacDowell colony or something. When I was there, and I was writing about tree poaching there actually, and I was talking about what I was interested in, somebody said to me, “Sounds like you really like environmental history.” And no one had ever put it to me that way before and I was like, “Oh yeah, no, that’s exactly what I like.” I liked writing stories about why things were the way they were in the environment and in our land management in particular and why people felt the way they felt around environmental decisions and conservation decisions.
And so once I had that in my mind, I was like, boom, off to the races. I always thought that I would might go back to get a masters. And then when somebody suggested that to me, I was like, “Okay, I’m going to look up all the programs. I’m going to look up kind of the advisors and the people in the field.” Do that whole thing. Some people do it right when they’re done their undergrad, but I waited a lot of years.
When I graduated from my undergrad, I actually did a working holiday in Scotland. I knew that I loved it there and I also knew that they had really interesting environmental history actually, and that their history of land ownership and land use was totally at my alley. And so I applied to the University of St. Andrews because they have a degree in environmental history and that’s what took me there. When I was there, I had this amazing mentor/advisor there named Dr. John Clark. He got to know me really well and he said, “I think you should look into oral history. I think this is the thing for you.” And again, I started reading kind of, I don’t know, what he recommended in the syllabus and then going from there. My mind just exploded feeling really excited about being able to still interview people, but working with historical resources and writing perhaps not new stories with those interviews, but applying them, I guess, to kind of the past.
So yeah, that’s my trajectory. I came back to Canada. I started working as an oral historian on a land use study. I had been working on my book proposal that whole time. In 2019, my agent and I sent it out and it kind of went to auction and turned into a book deal. And so, off I went running and writing about tree poaching and the history of tree poaching and why people might do it now and how they see their region’s past is sort of justifying it, I suppose, or not justifying it.
Well, I want to get into a lot more of that, but first I want to ask you all of my nosy questions about how you work as a writer. First, I’ll just start by asking when and where you do your writing.
I do it in this office that I’m sitting in right now. It’s interesting in a way, I guess. The best work I think I’ve ever done was… I mean, I wrote this book which is wonderful and it was challenging. But when I was working on my dissertation, I was fully in and I felt at that time, “Oh, I’m doing the best work.” I had access to a university library and I had access to that system and I just want to say I miss it every day.
So anyway, I really miss that. I wrote the book and all my writing now in my home office. I live in a town called Clearwater in British Columbia. It’s a small rural town about four hours east of Vancouver, so really in the middle of the province. I have less of a sort of distance between my work and my home because I work from home now. In many ways, that is amazing. And in other ways, every day I think I just wish I could go to the library. So I rely a lot on inter-library loans and stuff now, and so it’s a different way of working.
Do you have a specific time of day that you write? Do you write all day?
No, I wish I could. I’ve noticed that recently my desire to write my sort of muscle memory in a way to write comes in the later afternoon. I don’t know if that’s something I’ve kind of trained myself to do. Getting up, having my coffee, doing my emails. I will be very upfront and say I’m a writer with a day job. So I work from home and I work… My team, my coworkers are located in the east, so I actually work 7:00 till 2:33, and that gives me three hours at the end of the day normally that I can sit down and do the writing that I do at the end of the day. So that’s when I do that.
Is your day job related to writing or is it something totally different?
It’s totally different. It’s policy work in the government. I do a lot of writing, but it’s papers, memorandum, that kind of thing. So it’s not narrative. I really like it for that reason. I do a lot of reading in my day job, which is great. I love doing that. But I don’t interview people for it, I just am working within my team.
When you’re working on a piece, what’s your research process look like?
Depends on if I had the idea or if it was assigned to me. I use Scrivener, which I presume you might know what that is, but I find that very useful to put all my PDFs essentially in so that I can compare side to side. My work these days tends to be a bit more focused on things that I know about, which is a bit different actually than when I was freelancing and I’d get assignments from all over and I’d have to suddenly learn about personal finance or something that I didn’t know about. And so these days, I am generally following topics that I know about. So I will often go into my kind of personal archive on my computer and take out.
Something I do is I use this app on Chrome, or like an extension I think on Chrome called Print Friendly. I’m obsessed with it. You can turn any page into a PDF. You can remove ads and pictures and just get the text. So often what I do is I’ll just have a ton of PDFs that I’ve made of newspaper articles and other PDFs that I may have downloaded from JSTOR or whatever, whichever way I can access things and I’ll upload it all into my Scrivener and kind of organize it in that way thematically. And then I’ll just make sure I have that open and open it up and start going from there. Often, I usually start with any quotes I have and then I’ll work around that. And then at the same time, I try not to do too much every day. I’ll usually allocate 20 minutes a day to reaching out to people I might want to interview for clarity or for an oral history interview, or I don’t know, if I need a specific facts. For instance, if I need data on a crime stat or something like that.
But normally, that’s how I do it, is I’ve got these big chunks of PDFs. I try not to work from my browser ever because once I have it open, I can’t control myself. That feels kind of embarrassing to say, but that’s why that PDF app, PDF Friendly or Print Friendly is amazing because I can export stories and whatever sources I’m using and put them right into the processor essentially. And then I’ll just start writing from there. I overwrite intensely and then edit down. That’s my process I think of. I always have told people that writing is more sculpture than painting, so I just make a big document that’s repetitive and not good and take away, take away, take away over and over and then try to remember to footnote, because I’m not as good as this as I should be. Every article I’m like, “This time I’m going to be perfect. I’m going to footnote everything.” And then I’m not, and I’m googling around trying to find where I got some stat from or like anecdote or historical thing that I’m adding. It just take hours out of your life.
What does revision look like on the scale of a book project for you?
So I was learning as I went. I mean this was my first book and I think I didn’t realize actually how much control an author has in a book, which is kind of amazing in a lot of ways. But I went into it I think thinking that I would be receiving more intense edits than I did. I’ve definitely been edited more intensely for a magazine article, but I don’t always think they end up any better, if that makes sense. So I submitted a draft of 1/3 of the book. It came back with lots of structural notes. So I restructured, submitted again, restructure over and over and over again basically., And then relying on my agent to provide feedback in a way that the editors who are working on other books. It’s not that they couldn’t, but they’ve got huge kind of calendars going on with releasing and editing and assigning and all of this at the same time.
So it was very up in the air. Not up in the air. It was very kind of self-driven. I used Post-it notes on my wall, color coded Post-it notes to kind of say, “Okay, this is present day.” I thought of them in terms of sources, so like, “This is history. This is present. This is a legal document” because I was dealing with a lot of legal stuff and I almost had to switch my brain into a new mode when I was working with those sources because it’s different. You’ve been granted them under different circumstances. You’re looking at them in a different way than you might look at a newspaper article from 1945 for instance or what have you, right? Or even a legal report from that time.
So that’s how that happened. And then I just moved those Post-it notes around over and over and over again and tried to remind myself what I was writing because it’s very easy to get bogged down and write many, many pages about the history of logging, for instance, that eventually got removed because I had to remember that this wasn’t a book about the history of old-growth logging actually. It was a book about poaching.
So I think I learned a lot. If I ever get to write another book, I think I would approach some things in other ways, I think. But yeah, drafting. And relistening to interviews over and over again when you work with oral history, I think that can help. I don’t use any transcription service. A lot of people do, but I think it’s really important for me to hear back the interview and transcribe it myself so that I can… When I’m doing the transcription, I’m often highlighting things, color coding them, setting things apart that I know I’m going to come back to and link through.
So your original training is as a journalist and then as a historian, a trajectory I can totally relate to. But I’m curious, so as both a journalist and a historian, a lot of your work, in this book especially, used both, history and journalism, very much sort of entangled I guess I would say. How do you think about historical subjects in that context?
I wrote a fair bit about this guy named Enoch Powell French, who has long passed away, but had had a series of oral history interviews done with him about being the first redwood state park ranger way back in the 1930s or whatever. A lot of his experiences looked in my mind similar to what perhaps a ranger today may have experienced. A lot of them were completely out to lunch, very different because it was literally the wild west or whatever. But I knew that I wanted to bring him into… I mean, I hate using this word because I think it’s a little bit too journalistic, but I knew that he was a sort of character in a sense that I was going to be introducing in the earlier chapters to the readers before they met Brandon Piro and Stephen Troy, who are rangers today. I knew that some of the things that Enoch French had said in these interviews were direct echoes of what poachers were telling me about today and literally laid the foundation of the forest floor that they would then be walking on.
And so I do think that there’s a bit of danger in the sense of that is someone that I, as an author, made a decision to take out of history in a sense. Not really, because he wasn’t brought into the contemporary chapters. But when you’re doing these things, you’re constantly making decisions and you’re like, “I’m going to bring Enoch into here” and that elevates his importance. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t always important, but you’re making the act of choice. And so, you could second guess yourself until the cows come home, basically, which I’ve done.
There’s a character from the ’80s that I mentioned in the book. Character again. Anyway, there’s a fella in the ’80s who I think I could have placed way more emphasis on him, the owner of the hedge fund that ended up completely honestly decimating the remaining old-growth in the redwoods. That was also a choice to not focus so much on that kind of immediate pre-timber wars history. I was focusing more on the earlier days.
So you were asking me how I bring the subjects together. I mean, that’s a tool. That’s a way that I do it. I think my desire to do it comes from just kind of a deep human wish to understand why things are the way they are and sort of maybe my own personal experiences, hearing people talk, even growing up or spending time with people in different circumstances and knowing that a lot of times people’s opinions are coming from what their grandparents told them about something that happened in the ’40s and that’s why they are thinking one thing or another. I wanted to make that more clear in the writing that I did. That policy and political sort of leaning and actions are often really, really rooted in parental and grandparent, I guess, experiences.
So I don’t know if that answers your question, but I mean that’s what gets me up and going, I guess, because I think when I was in journalism school and I was meeting people that would go on to become really great journalists, I’d never had that sort of breaking news desire. I had a lot of curiosity around why things were the way they were and if they should be the way they are. But it was more of a slower understanding that I wanted. I just didn’t really realize that I… At the time, I wasn’t really able to identify that. But over time I really realized like “Okay, I don’t feel that kind of rush of on the ground reporting, but I do feel a rush when I’m interviewing someone and they tell me about their dad working somewhere and how they learned how to use a chain saw.” So yeah.
I want to ask a little bit about the approach to history on a more practical level too. Especially in part one of this book, you summarize a lot of really complicated history in a wonderful way, but it was to the point that every once in a while when I’m reading it, I’m like, “Oh, that single sentence is this whole other book.” And you referenced many of those historians. How do you do that? I mean, how do you communicate it so smoothly when you must have done a ton of research?
Yeah, thanks. No, I wish I didn’t in a sense. When you’re saying this could be another book, I’m like, “Yeah, it totally could be. I hope I get to write it.” I think if I can be very blunt, I know that I write for a general audience. I know that that’s where the industry is at the moment. And so if I thought I could sell 80,000 words on one forest court in the UK, yeah, I would do it. But I also knew that, “Okay, I’m going to have to ingest a lot.” If I want to set this as important, which I believed that it was, if I want to say that really this all starts with enclosure and these big huge topics, I’m just going to have to eat it, eat all of that and adjust it and try and make it clear.
So I thank you. Thank you for thinking that that was successful because sometimes I don’t know. But that’s what journalism training will do. I felt that I wanted to cite as heavily… It’s not academic citations, but I wanted to include in the notes and in the bibliography as much as I could that other people had done extensive work that I was relying on. But yeah, I mean on a practical level, it’s reading a ton, taking as many clear notes as you can, putting it all into one Word document and trying to link it, stitch it all together and then footnote like crazy so that you know where you got it from when it comes time to fact check and try to think of it in a sort of from the reader’s perspective and thinking in terms of “How is this going to be clear and interesting to them as well as to me?”
Aside from your agent, do you have early readers that you look to get that kind of feedback?
Yep, I do. I have friends. Actually, when we were talking before about the drafting and everything, definitely next time I would do that more. I don’t know if I was feeling shy or nervous or whatever, but I did not rely enough I think on an external network. And next time I’d be sharing it all over for sure, just because I mean, I have obviously trusted friends that gave me great feedback and they also had different sort of inroads to the book, which was helpful. Some people that are nature writers and some people that write about science and a good friend of mine who’s brilliant into history and also is a historian. So I had that, but I think next time I would rely on it more for sure, just because it’s great to hear everyone’s feedback.
To take a closer look at how she researches and assembles such a complicated narrative, I asked Lyndsie to talk me through an excerpt of her first book. Here’s Lyndsie Borgan reading from Tree Thieves.
“During the boom, the tiny town of Orick, California welcomed loggers and their families to the surrounding hills, watching its population eventually swell to 2000 and its number of sawmills to four. School classes expanded commensurately and more teachers were hired. Some of the logging firms paid so much tax that the community could operate solely off their success. It was a community in flux. The highway was lined by neat row of motels, which some remember being frequented by a continuous stream of logging rigs. ‘All Orick needs is time.’ One resident told a reporter at the time. The riverbed was home to a makeshift encampment where entire families lived in tents. Some of our people are living in hollow trees and under old boards now, but every town goes through that in its boom days come back in a couple of years.”
“The influx brought a man named John Guffie to town. When Guffie started logging, taught alongside his brothers by his father, he was told that if he learned how to be a good logger, he’d never be out of a job. He had grown up in western North Carolina with nine siblings and logging was so much a part of his life that he figures he learned it by osmosis. ‘That’s where you get your ideals from,’ he explains. It’s a life experience.”
This excerpt has sort of a range of information and types of research. You have everything from historical sources to looks like maybe legal and property sources to descriptions to interviews. What kind of research goes on to just the small section?
I think that the crux of those paragraph or a couple of sentences first would’ve come from me doing an interview with a fellow named Jim Hagood in his old hardware store in Orick. We talked for many hours, but he would’ve said to me at some point, because I remember it, “There used to be sawmills everywhere and there were 2,000 people here.” And so then when I take notes, I’m kind of writing down those types of civil statistics that I know I’m going to want to go look up. So I know that that’s something I need to confirm. The way that I got to John Guffie was backwards through his son. So again, by chatting with Jim Hagood, I had been introduced in theory to a man named Chris Guffie. Chris would become part of this kind of core group of poachers that were the central element of the book.
I had done a lot of historical reading that had really suggested to me that poaching was often a kind of folk crime, that it was done often by men within families. And so I asked Chris when I finally got ahold of him, “What did your dad do?”
“Oh, well, he was a logger.” Well, I wasn’t very surprised by that at all. And I asked, “Do you think he would talk to me?”
“Yeah, of course. Here’s his phone number.” And so that’s reporting really. The types of interviews I was doing were oral history, life interviews. So even though my motivation was to talk to you, the outlaws about poaching, that was often much later in the interview that we got to that point. We were often talking about life history, family genealogical stuff. And so that’s where the quotes from John came from. I’m just going to look here.
Well, the quote, “All Orick needs is time and the people living in hollow trees and encampments,” that’s from a newspaper story. I accessed that through the Humboldt Historical Society, which is a community archive that I just loved and they were just so welcoming to me. And also, I mean, it was and is a community archive. So you go into the archive room and there are filing cabinets and it was organized alphabetically and they would say, “We have files for Orick,” so you’re going to go to O and file through and take out. They keep every newspaper article that had Orick in it from whatever year. So that’s where that came from. I was taking notes just in the archive there. I wasn’t able to digitize anything. So I would show up for three days in a row and open up my Word processor. I presume you and your audience will know what that’s like, where you’re just like, okay, every citation data you need, you’re taking down and making sure where it came from.
So I knew that I wanted to paint a picture of this town at the time of boom, and so those were the sources that I was using. But when it came to collecting, I was just taking everything I could, partly because I don’t live in Humboldt and I knew that I’m going to want to go home and write like crazy and I can’t come back to the historical society very easily. This was before COVID. So even then I knew I wouldn’t be there all the time, right? So then I’d put it into my Scrivener as I do and just start pumping all that data essentially out, all those sources into the body of the book and try to mold them into a feeling and a kind of narrative around this place that I knew was important.
It all often comes from interviews. I don’t want to say I’m trying to prove it, but then I’m essentially trying to work in the sources that can back up that person’s experience because I always want to work from… I mean, that’s what motivates me is the sort of different perspective, the voices that I’m hearing, and the people I’m talking to, and the beauty that they’re telling me about. I want to write about that and make it good and make it compelling and not just transcribing what they are telling me, which is also fine to do actually. So I’m starting with them and not with the vital statistics or the sort of municipal data itself.
You touched on this briefly. It occurs to me that some of the people listening to this probably have some experience or knowledge of oral histories and some may have some experience of interviewing for reporting. How do you see the difference between those?
It’s a good question. There are a few differences to how I approach it. So before I really started to learn about oral history and I was doing just journalistic interviews all the time, I’d call someone up and I’d say, “I’m calling from this publication and I’m writing about this. Do you want to talk to me?” And now I tend to go in with the wording worked out quite a bit more, and I’ll say, “Do you have time to talk to me? This is what I’m going to want to ask you about,” make sure that they’re kind of fully briefed in a way that in journalism, you maybe wouldn’t go through every… I don’t through every question because that’s kind of impossible, but you really want to give an umbrella under which you’re working to them. So you can say, “Listen…”
In this instance when I was going to interview John Guffie, for instance, I introduce myself to him. I said, “Your son Chris gave me your name and your phone number. I’ve been doing interviews in Orick. I’m writing a book that’s about the history and sort of contemporary cases of timber poaching, but I actually have been doing a lot of interviews around what it was like to live and work and grow up in. Chris thought that you’d be interested in talking.” So you’re giving a lot of background before you ever press record. I mean, pressing record is often further down the line. So sharing ideas of questions, saying, “I’d like to hear about your life. Are you comfortable with sharing that?” It’s a lot of reciprocal discussion in that way. So you’re crafting the conversation together in a sense before you sit down and do it.
I was not recording for archival purposes, so I did not use specific legal release forms. So the permission was kind of verbally provided, which is a little bit different. I mean, if I was going to session those interviews, I’d have to go back and say, “Okay, here’s where they’re going to go, who will have access. Do you want to remove specific names in it?” All of that. And then once we finally got to the point of sitting down and getting ready to do this, I had my recorder in the middle of the table. We would just talk as where the information kind of led us, I suppose. It is extractive. Every interview is extractive, but I didn’t have set goals, if that makes sense, to come out of the interview. Often the outlaws, as they were known, the poachers, they knew that eventually… I mean, it was kind of hard there, but I was never approaching them saying, “Tell me about the night that you committed this crime.” We only got there if they got there themselves, which often happened.
And then when you’re in the interview itself, you’re letting the subject guide it. Often taking breaks. If someone indicates that they feel uncomfortable, stopping the recorder and saying, “Is this actually something you want to talk about?”
“Okay, do you want a glass of water?” It’s very human in that way. And then, yeah. So to me, the interview process is different. I mean, I think to some folk in journalism in particular, they might disagree with that characteristic, but it feels different. It doesn’t feel like gathering quotes that you know where you’re going to slot them in. It feels a little bit more fluid and less sort of puzzle fitting. The main difference for me is the amount of time it takes, the fact that you’re focusing often on life histories in a sense where often if you’re writing for a magazine, you just don’t have time to talk to someone about their great-grandparents migrating to a region from somewhere else.
But in my opinion, these interviews, obviously I love doing them. One of the benefits is that when you find yourself inching toward the kind of contemporary and the current day because you understand a fair bit more of how somebody got to where they got, it’s a more honest conversation. Everyone is presenting in the way that they want to present, but at the same time, you have a bit more context into why that might be. And it’s less combative. I would say that there are a few instances in the book where I make this clear that somebody told me something that I knew was not the case and I wouldn’t be holding them to account on the spot. I used the writing to do that rather than the interview itself.
So I’m curious, I love doing oral histories as well. I sometimes struggle with having the, I guess, vibrancy of the person that I am talking to face-to-face and getting to ask questions that can have the possibility of taking over from archival materials, which are inherently a little more inert. Did you struggle with that at all as you were weaving all these things together?
I think an important bit of context to add is that I was often interviewing people that felt angry not through the whole interview, but often in interviews we would get to a point where people were angry. They were worked up, they either needed a break or they were not holding back. And so that was very jarring to go from, particularly when you’re reading about timber war’s history, which can be very… I mean, it wasn’t angry time, but there are a lot of sources that are just very stark, like numeric outlays of how many hectares were here or there and when they were taken and how much board feed at a time and what they were worth. I knew that I had to put those two together.
At some point, I think I had to decide if it was a human story or sort of… Not a human story. Every story’s human. But if it was kind of a story crafted by a human emotion or if that was supplementing the recorded historical data. I am an oral historian and I lean toward the human experience over the recorded archive. Often my process is that I would work with interviews only for a few days and then I would cut that off and then go into archival information that I had sourced. I wasn’t mixing them on the days because I found it really hard. I could almost hear somebody sometimes in an interview in my head kind of responding to the data or the data responding to the person in conversation. And so I had to have a wall there, and then I would be able to go back in and move in a clarifying line here or there to try to have a little bit of balance.
So that was one tactic I took, was to keep a strong boundary between the two. To provide them each with legitimacy, but not at the same time. So my day job since 2017, my oral history work, in terms of my job, has been related to former Indian residential schools in Canada and indigenous oral histories and land use and those types of interviews. And so my relationship with records and the way that I approach them and trust them is undeniably influenced by that work. And so I know from that how records are malleable, how things are left out and why, and things not being recorded in the first place, and what that means now a hundred years later. And so that had an impact on this book as well. I don’t want to say I don’t respect it because it’s really important. Those are often the facts that are needed and that tell a story, but they’re not the full “truth” if there is such a thing, right? So anyway.
I get the impression, I got it reading this book and I certainly get it in our conversation here, that really trying to present every side of what is a very complicated history and contemporary issue as empathetically as possible is something that is really valuable to you in your work. You’ve talked about it a little bit I feel like just now, but how do you make sure that that balance stays? And is it ever a struggle to feel like… Journalists these days are often accused of creating a false balance, so is that something you think about too?
Yeah, I thought about it all the time when I was writing this book. There were many times when I thought, “I should not be writing this book. Why am I platforming people with a criminal record?” Or, “Are people going to read this and think that? I don’t think the redwoods need to be protected?” Which is completely not the case. I had people voice to me they’re concerned that if I wrote about how trees were poached, that other people would read it and go out and poach trees themselves. So I mean, this is something on my mind all the time. But I always came back to the fact that I wasn’t approaching it with a sort of pro-logging perspective, but more that I wanted to situate this debate and this occurrence and criminal act in a much kind of broader national, in North America at least, but international concern, which is polarization, the roots of resentment and discontent between urban and rural, which I think it feels impossible that it could get worse, but it continues to get worse or more stark.
I felt that poaching was a really interesting way to talk about these issues. And poaching is environmental, but so are those urban and rural sort of rifts. And so I still kind of shy away. I realize I probably said it like 20 times in this interview, but I try to shy away from saying that I wanted to be balanced. It was more that I just wanted to talk about all the different angles and how it all fed into this one story that had been served to me through the news and through commentary on Twitter and other social media as undeniably something horrible that only a monstrous human would do. I totally agreed when I first saw like… I mean frankly, it was like CBC put a story out and then you’re seeing retweets in your feed with a comment that’s being like, “Heartless people would steal a tree. What’s wrong with you? You’re so greedy that you would take an old-growth for no money and cause harm.” That is absolutely kind of true.
But then once I started digging into it, and even just doing generic… Not generic, but base level, my first interviews, when people were saying, “There’s poaching because we have a math problem.” So I was thinking, “Oh my God. Oh, I didn’t think of that. I just didn’t think that would be the case.” So then I’m looking into why there’s a math problem. And then all of a sudden, I think it’d be really hard not to feel any empathy once you start going beyond that kind of surface level understanding of an action. And that’s what I wanted to show. I don’t know. I don’t struggle with it, but I still… I understand that point of view. I understand the sort of argument that some things don’t deserve balance, I guess. Or not balance. Some things don’t have one side or another, but this has more sides in my opinion.
No, that’s [inaudible 00:42:29].
Yeah, there’s also-
You don’t have to shy away from your answer.
Yeah. Well, I don’t know. Yeah, it’s still ever moving or ever shifting the way I think about things. I definitely have received emails from readers saying like, “Oh, you were duped by these guys who… They’re just bad people.” And I just don’t believe that. I wanted to write about from even, “Okay, if they are, how does that happen? How do you grow up also in one of the most beautiful places in the whole world and become committed to destroying it?” But I think that’s a big question and I think that that applies to all sorts of resources. That was something that drew me to this as well, is thinking about like we’re continuing to struggle with shifting natural resource extraction and adopting greener technologies or whatever word phrase you want to use. I think there’s a reason why, and I’d like to talk to people about it. And that reason is often history. It’s actually almost, all the time, history.
I think it’s actually one-sided to just say money and greed is the reason that’s why bad people do bad things. I think it’s really complicated most of the time. But yeah, anyway, there times when I was writing this when I kept thinking, “Is this basically the equivalent of interviewing someone who doesn’t believe in climate change and then putting them on the same level as our most important scientists and saying considerate?” I don’t think it is, but of course I would say that. I don’t know. I don’t think it is either.
And also one thing I wanted to say too about this sort of the idea of balance, I always think it’s important to say that most of the people I interviewed for this book, they’re not people with media experience. It wasn’t an instance of a manipulation in that sense, where I was often dealing with people that sometimes had never been interviewed or asked about their lives at all. And that’s very different than I think “both sizing” an issue where one side is just massively more skilled at dealing with the media than another.
Well, on a slightly lighter note, I want to turn at the end of this interview and talk a little bit about your own influences. So I’m curious to know if there are other writers or maybe other media that you read or listen to or watch that inspire your writing.
Yeah, tons. I mean, where can I start? Obviously E.P. Thompson, very big for me. I think probably a lot of people would say that, but very important to my sort of approach. Svetlana Alexievich, very influential for me in terms of teaching me about long quotes, which I’d love to use more of next time actually. So anyway, we’re talking about drafting and all of this. If I ever get to write another book, I’d just love it to have these really long quotes in it. Anyway, that’s very Svetlana to me. I’m a big fan of writers like Wade Davis and David Grann. I really like John Jeremiah Sullivan. All of these writers are, I think, journalists, but in other ways, they really dig into their sources. I think that’s really exciting. And I really kind of look to them as people that work in non-fiction that aren’t straight journalists.
I also watch a lot. I love TV writing, so I really love shows that have, again, interesting perspectives on things that you might only know from one angle. There’s a show called Reservation Dogs that I think is amazing. The sort of dialogue is, I think, really as an oral historian, I’m like, “Oh, I can understand that somebody heard that and wrote it down.” Word for word, I love that kind of thing where the dialogue doesn’t entirely care about the audience and we’re just listening in.
What else? Ducks. Kate Beaton wrote this book called Ducks. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. It’s about the oil sands in Alberta, which is where I grew up. I’m very drawn to it. I mean, it’s a graphic novel. And it’s memoir, I suppose, in a sense. But it really asks similar questions, I think, to what Tree Thieves was doing, which is, here’s a industry that we know to be destructive and very powerful kind of corporate influence behind them, but also, people work on the oil sands, people work in logging. They worked there for all sorts of reasons. It’s not just to earn a lot of money in a short period of time. How do we learn about that and approach it and think about how we can, I don’t even want to say change, but how we can communicate with folks so that when it comes time to transition, which we should have done already but that’s beside the point, how can we approach people like humans and not just employment statistics on a piece of paper?
I think that’s mostly it. Yeah, these days I’m right back into kind of Scottish land stuff lately, so there’s a fellow named Alastair McIntosh, and his work is amazing. It actually really kind of ties in theology and sort of religious connections to the earth, which I think is really interesting and probably a whole new realm of study in theology there. But anyway, he’s quite amazing.
Well, before I let you go, can I ask you if you’re working on anything now that you’re up for talking about?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t really know how to be in the first year of having a book out and also working on other things. I’ve been finding that really hard. And I have a day job. There are days when I’m sitting here going, “How do people write another book? I can’t even imagine.” But I’m in my early days, I’m hoping to write more about community land and community buyout, which is a very sort of contemporary issue around the world. And so I’m kind of doing some reading on that right now. I’ve applied for some grants to be able to travel and do some interviews. I think that that can be a really hard thing to facilitate sometimes, is being face-to-face. So that’s where I’m at. I’m trying to write more about land ownership and communities that buy back land from concentrated ownership, I think is really interesting, or take it back in some cases and sort of the motivations behind it and difficulties as well at the same time, and what it looks like when land is perhaps owned in a cooperative way. We’ll see.
Well, Lyndsie Bourgon, thank you so much for joining me for this interview. It has been fascinating, and I really enjoyed reading Tree Thieves.
Thanks again to Lyndsie Bourgon for joining me for this conversation on Drafting the Past. And thanks to you for listening. You can find links to the books and other resources we talked about at draftingthepast.com. While you’re there, you can also learn more about supporting the show through Patreon, by buying show stickers and mugs and shopping for books, which I imagine is a shared interest among Drafting the Past listeners. Until next time, remember that friends don’t let friends write boring history.