This new edition of “The Eternal Forest” contains several additions of interest: a lengthy preface (1994) by Mr. Woodcock, archival photos, a life of Godwin, historical notes, and extracts from Godwin’s personal journal.
The protagonist of “The Eternal Forest” is called “the Newcomer”, who is really a projection of George Godwin himself. The Newcomer is in his early twenties. He has just recently come to Canada and built a house in the forest near a small community on the north bank of the Fraser River in what is now called Whonnock. (Godwin refers to it as “Ferguson’s Landing”). There is only one person in the community who is the Newcomer’s equal intellectually, and that is Old Man Dunn. They soon become close friends. The conversations between these two men often explore the theme of life in Canada. What kind of people live in Canada? What are their values? What kind of society have they created? How does this society compare with England’s society?
The following passage is typical of the exchanges between the two men. It probes England’s legacy and the kind of society which seems to be emerging in Canada. ‘Is this the best that we can do?’, Dunn (and perhaps Godwin?) seem to ask.?
Is Dunn’s view of things accurate? Is the Canadian society he describes (in 1913) already rough-hewn into a form from which it is destined never to escape? Is Canada currently (I am writing this in 2005) recognizable in Dunn’s view of things? “The Eternal Forest” is a provocative book.
“Every time white men enter a new land God gives them another chance,” he (Dunn) went on. The old man thumped his two hands down upon his legs: ‘Think of it! Think of this country! Here there is everything-an ideal climate, mineral wealth, billions of feet of magnificent timber, great waterways, fertile soil-everything. A race of wise men, settling here, could have made of this country a Garden of Eden. It is the Garden of Eden. And what have they done with it?’
The young Englishman (Newcomer or Godwin. Ed.) returned the old man’s enquiring stare with a hint of embarrassment. He was thinking: ‘Well, and what have you done with it? With this corner, this ranch, overgrown, neglected, this by-word of t\he settlement?’
The Newcomer said: ‘You could scarcely expect a race of Platos. After all, one must march by the slowest.’
‘In the Old World they have inherited their social evils from the days when men knew little of statecraft. And now they are cudgelling their brains how to rid themselves of that rotten legacy. But here, in Canada, they had a clear field. They could have built grand cities and towns.’ He snorted his contempt. ‘They will tell you that they have done so; but where in Europe will you find slums worse than those of Old Quebec, Montreal, or Winnipeg?’
The old man thrust his beard forward: ‘Eh? Or in Vancouver itself, a town, built overnight?’
‘They’ve handed their heritage over to the grafter, the land-grabber, the commission-snatcher. They’ve sold themselves to the big corporation which has no soul and is out for profits. And their politicians?-Riddled with graft!
‘Yes, that’s what they’ve done to Canada. And now the few men who are thinking clearly are seeing it. Yes, their universities have bred a few thinkers-McGill and Toronto. But the damage is done.’
Old Man Dunn turned towards the young Englishman and put a gnarled hand on his leg: ‘You’re starting out to make a home out of the bush,’ he said. ‘You look forward to seeing a return for your work and for your investment. If you make this place your permanent home, you will raise your children here. British children, Canadian-born they will be. Well, what are your prospects?’
The Newcomer made a mental note that Old Man Dunn overlooked one factor-work. If one worked one would be bound to make good. Work, say, like that fellow Johansson.
‘I know what you are thinking,’ said the old man, ‘you are thinking that you will win through by hard work-that hard work always has its reward: Samuel Smiles stuff. Well, I hope you do. This country needs, more than anything else, settlers from the Old Country. Aye, and from the rest of Europe too.’
He paused: perhaps he had spoken too freely, perhaps it was hardly fair to damp the ardour of this man just starting to fight the bush.
‘When I came here thirty years ago,’ he went on, slowly and without the passion which had made his deep voice boom as he denounced the evils which had crept into the new land. ‘I worked hard.’ He waved his hand towards the field where grazed a Holstein cow. ‘I cleared twenty acres of heavy timberland; I planted trees and berry bushes. I raised livestock’.
He shrugged his heavy shoulders: ‘Now I do just sufficient to keep me and the wife going. My time is put in reading and thinking-and trying to make folk see the way things have gone and the way they are going. Behind my back they call me The Sage. But they don’t mean that to signify that they respect me. No. They think I’m a lazy old man, that’s all.’
And Old Man Dunn rose stiffly. ‘Well, let ’em,’ he concluded. ‘Let ’em! Little folks, in a little settlement, with little minds and little ideas-when they’ve got any ideas at all!’
The Newcomer picked up his sack and set off. As he came out onto the dusty road, now pencilled with giant shadows from the inclining sun, the gaunt figure of Johansson came into view. Johansson, swinging his great hands like clubs. Johansson, a day’s work done, going to milk a cow, to saw wood, to add a little to that fencing, to do a bit of hoeing. They walked together in silence.
This talk with Dunn was the first of many such talks, talks from which the Newcomer was able to sketch in the life of this rugged old miner until, at last, he saw Dunn clearly against his variegated background.
The dreamy pony-boy in the Yorkshire pit. The old parson who saw in the coal-smeared boy the making of a scholar. Those long nights in the dingy cottage spelling out the Greek grammar by candlelight. The encouraging words of the old scholar. The dream of Durham University. The mine disaster that took away the bread-winner, and the years in the mine, first as pony-boy, then as hewer.
All this was a matter of time and growing intimacy. In the end the whole pieced together as the odyssey of a frustrated man. The first adventure overseas, the burly young man in revolt against intolerable conditions, seeking a new land; and the fair and slender girl standing beside him on the deck of the emigrant ship.
Yes, all this Old Man Dunn sketched in, bit by bit, casually. ‘For a time I worked in the lead mines of Nebraska.’ And he would hold out his hand which shook with an incipient palsy. ‘Yes, that’s why I quit that work: poison. A man can stand it just so long-but no longer.’
And that episode when he and his wife had gone south to Florida. Blue skies and golden orange groves, but no market for the fruit. And the ache for the sound of British voices. And then the trek to the North-West.
Failure, in a word.. Restlessness, the eternal quest and defeat. And yet defeat without surrender.
‘In the philosphy of the Western world,’ he would declaim, ‘men worship material success. The how don’t matter, so long as a man can steer clear of the penitentiary. What he is, nobody ever asks. They say, ‘What’s he worth?’ That’s their criterion in this country. Nobody cares whether he has harmed the community, whether he has fleeced simpletons, worked raw grafts, pushed the country a bit further along the road to damnation. They worship money success and that’s all there is to it. Canada has become the land of the commission-snatcher and the back-scratcher. She calls out for workers. What she really means is that she is running short of mugs to rob.’
But it was Old Man Dunn’s failing that he did not select his audiences. He proclaimed his doctrine (that service was the root principle of any community claiming to be civilized), and he boomed his denunciation of the men who took, but gave not in return, whoever might be listening.
In that way he made a mortal enemy of Carlton Tidberry, MLA, the member of the Legislative Assembly in whose constituency Ferguson’s Landing lay. To be called a ‘no-good grafter’ to his face was too much for Mr. Tidberry. It happened to be true.” (p. 97 ff. “The Eternal Forest”, 1994 edition).
How Archival Photos are used in this novel
Photos had no place in Godwin’s original (1929) The Eternal Forest, but I believe they have a place in the 1994 edition. They help the reader to appreciate visually many of the things which Godwin describes. In a number of cases I have included archival photos from approximately 1910 side by side with counterparts from 1994.
Two important themes in The Eternal Forest are Godwin’s critique of British Columbia society and his own personal growth which was largely fostered by his contact with nature.
Following are six photos (or sets of photos). The first three pertain to B.C. society (1. ambitious architecture; 2. Aboriginals; 3. real estate). The last three illustrate Godwin’s inner growth through the influence of the forest. (4. the B.C. rainforest; 5. Mount Baker; 6. Flashbacks in the rainforest: the Inner Temple Law Court in London, England.
The first photo below shows the old Vancouver CPR Station about 1910; the second photo I took in 1994. It represents the same vista.
1. Ambitious Architecture: Old CPR Station, Vancouver
“And now has come Vancouver: young, raw, unsophisticated; arrogant like a lad newly in long pants, conscious of departed childhood and deceived by budding virility into belief in its maturity.
Skyscrapers, shouldered by old frame buildings of discoloured wood, rough streets with wooden sidewalks right next to macadamized thoroughfares, canyons of Portland stone through which surge the unending tides of motor traffic. A railway terminus vast as a Byzantine cathedral, and banks housed more magnificently than any London or Paris can show.” (The Eternal Forest, p.109)
2. Aboriginals: native people gathered for a potlatch, Quatsino, Vancouver Island, about 1910
“Through the glass of the window Lulu watched the scene below. A temporary encampment was set on the boards of the train depot: a dozen or more families of Indians, oblivious of everything about them, contriving to make themselves comfortable on their baggage.
She noticed that they had divided themselves naturally into family groups. There were a number of women. Some were young, with bright and comely faces. These stood against the station wall, their papooses tightly strapped to their back. Others were old, immensely old, with the faces of mummies and eyes that no longer sparkled, but were dull and fish-like. Women who had ripened and faded young, women with old faces scarred by a a thousand wrinkles, so that they looked like forgotten winter apples. (…) p. 112
“Patient people, folk of a fast-dying race which has given place to the white usurper. A people who have lost both land and religion.” (The Eternal Forest, p. 115)
3. Real Estate: Godwin’s Satire of Customs, Mores and People? and bust cycles which he observed in Vancouver
“The several real estate booms which had hit the West had sent land prices soaring (…).
Lots changed hands four, five and six times a day. Men dealt in them as men deal in stocks and shares on the Stock Exchange, dealt in them as men deal in groceries.
Everybody was rich, or seemed so, and every car was crowded with happy buyers being whirled out to see the land they were buying, the land which was to make them rich quick. It was the only business being done in the city.
Outlying shack villages caught the mad fever. Pittsville on the Pitt River (a dump of wooden shacks with a general store, a third rate hotel and a tar-papered pool room) boldly proclaimed itself a city in the making.”(p.136)
Above: on the left is an advertisement which I found in a newspaper from circa 1910. On the right is an extract from The Eternal Forest.
The Eternal Forest contains portraits of numerous characters. The following is Godwin’s portrait of Fuller, an eccentric chicken breeder.
“Everywhere the settlement hummed with life, but nowhere more actively than on Fuller’s chicken ranch. It was, like its owner, plain but exceedingly efficient. The house, square and unpainted, was ugly; the land had been defaced by long, low colony houses for the flocks of white Leghorns. White wings were everywhere–the only beautiful things in the place. From sun-up to sundown there was incessant cackling.
Most of the folk at Ferguson’s landing raised chickens: Fuller alone made them pay. He was certainly under the patronage of the deity of the fowls. His snow-white birds developed none of the maladies which annually ravaged the flocks of less protected ranchers. He never had gapes or roup among his flocks; never did one of those proud pullets so far forget herself as to contract prolapsus of the oviduct. But the gods, even the gods of the fowls, are jealous gods; they exact a price. Fuller had grown every year more and more like an egg: his head was a brown egg with eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Even worse, when his little wife had her babies, they took after their father. Their little faces were like eggs too: white eggs, too big for their little bodies.
He was busy about his incubator sheds, where the floors were a yellow carpet of teeming life. Hundreds of baby chicks, moving, scrambling, jostling.
Fuller watches them with his sharp eyes. “The survival of the fittest is the law of life,” he says, “but I could never see why one shouldn’t help it along. A chick that can’t barge hard enough to fill its crop will grow to be a poor loafing sort of hen with no vitality.”
He stoops and picks up a tender ball of golden fluff. Its little head, with its bright, beady eyes, is between thumb and forefinger. It is dead. He has helped along the law. Yes, Fuller is the only man who understands chicken farming. “Those other fools keep hospitals,” he says.
“At two years,” he would declare, “a hen has done her job of work, Then she is ready for the crate and the Chinese dealer at Sapperton.” (p. 75-76)
4. The impact of the forest on Godwin
This photo shows the kind of forest which Godwin came to know intimately during his years in Canada. Here are two sample passages from The Eternal Forest.
“Long days in the silence of the bush, sawing wood. Perfect stillness everywhere. Beauty all around. A symphony in greens and browns. And the smells! Scents of the aged earth. Moist, living smells that touched the nerves and evoked emotions that belonged to a time long, long ago. The smell of the past, the first smells at which the nostrils of the first man quivered.” (p. 155)
“The shirted figure, bare-chested, lithe, swung the axe. And the axe spoke: a tongue of living wood spurted from the wound in the tree’s side, the tree vibrated, passionately resentful. The bush watched.
The alders were felled easily because they were young and their green and grey mottled bark, beautiful as the skin of snakes, concealed a soft, sappy wood. They reeled under the blows, groaned, swung drunkenly, and spun earthwards. With bent and twisted branches they throbbed for a moment like living things feeling the agonies of death, and came to rest.
The giant Douglas firs were no such easy game. Their corrugated trunks, fluted from base to summit, symmetrical as Corinthian columns, soared up into the sky and spread branches like great dark and velvety fans against the leaden sky.
Against these, even the axe lost sense of power: it became a pigmy tool wielded by a pigmy hewer. For these are the mighty ones of the bush, the worker told himself, the aged fathers of the forest. They have looked upon the Valley through the centuries.” (p. 34)
5. Mount Baker
The following passage comes near the end of the book. Godwin and his wife are trying to decide whether to remain in Canada or return to England.
“But, damn it, where does all this work lead to? We both work like slaves and, confound it, we get nothing out of it.”
But for all his grumbles, he had come to love the bush. It drew him mysteriously—the strange quietness of it, working, day after day, with the bush at the back of him, and below, the valley with the wide and tranquil river; and far beyond, again, the rolling land that swept, green and dappled, to the violet horizon in Washington State across the border.
He had come to know every detail of that scene and every varying mood of it. He knew exactly how Mount Baker gleamed when a faint haze hung over the Valley. It was like a floating island at those times. It was not hard to see it as a fairy castle set in the clouds; its white, conical head was easily conjured into a turret of ivory.
But while the beauty and the solitude, which had given him a perspective of life, called, drawing him, magnetically, to stay there in the bush forever and forever, the other side of him irked to get back to the hurly-burly of civilization–the civilization he yet hated.
They talked their future over many times. And, as is ever the case, advanced not one step towards the solution of their central problem: the education of the boy and the founding of a secure future.
In some way, both felt that they had been cheated. Certainly they had been deluded, listening to the bland talk of the Vancouver real estate men, reading their lying literature which made ranching in the Valley appear as a picnic in the garden of the world. (p. 191)
6. Flashbacks in the rainforest: the Inner Temple Law Court in London, England.
In the forest of British Columbia Godwin has many flashbacks to places in England which were familiar to him. This photo shows the Fountain Court at the Middle Temple Law Court in London, England. Godwin studied law there briefly before moving to Canada. The following passage is found near the end of the book. Godwin (“The Newcomer”) has no money to pay his property taxes so he pays the government by working on a road gang. At lunch break one day he disappears into the forest and reads Charles Lamb’s Elia. This reading triggers the following flashback:
“He could hear the fountain now, the fountain in the old, leaf-strewn court where the pigeons walked with confidence and the old plane trees cast their shadows. Sometimes it played, and sometimes came a porter and shut off the stream. That always disappointed the idlers resting at the midday hour. They would be there now: that is, if England was really true, and not merely the shadow of a dream.
Queer, the evocative power of words, little wriggly things. Symbols, yet much more: magicians that conjured up the past and things forgotten, flooding the mind with memories, stirring emotions dormant and forgotten. And sounds: with them it was the same.
Talking water. Water splashing from the fountain. Water singing through the bush, dancing over shale boulders. Water lapping under the bow of a boat; the drowsy monotone of little waves breaking upon golden sands in summertime; the mournful clang of bell-buoys over grey, troubled waters; the haunting, eerie hoot of foghorns across slow-heaving, leaden seas.” (265)
George Godwin’s Private Journal
Godwin never meant to publish this journal, but it is a valuable piece of Canadiana. The first of the following extracts from Godwin’s journal satirizes the narrowness of a certain kind of upper class Englishman in Canada. The second tells of Godwin’s appreciation of Wagner’s music.
(1) “When I first met Jackson-Woodville he must have spent thirty-four of his sixty years in the Dominion, yet the fetters of his caste still hung close about him. Thirty-four years is a considerable length of time but J.-W. might have landed in Montreal yesterday for all the change that has come about in his narrow, limited outlook on men and affairs.
He still views the spacious world through the little window of class prejudice. Contact with men of all kinds and conditions has availed nothing.
The seed was sewn In a county rectory, at a public school and in a university, and it has indeed flourished. He will remain convinced that an English Gentleman is, by natural right and beyond all question of doubt above all his fellows. J.-W. would divide mankind into two great and ever-to-be-separated classes: (a) those of his own class and in this category he includes others who qualify for special reasons (the introductory remarks are telling): “So-and-so. Nice people. Father is Ambassador to Whaloobollo.” Or: “Thingamee. Fine shot, Thingamee. All round man. With me at Balliol.”
On the other hand, should the subject come under the second category of less distinguished mortals, J.-W. will use a very different kind of introductory remark: “Honest little fellow, Hobbs. Great worker.” Or: “Very decent man, Boggs. He gets through more work than any man I know. Wife’s no good. Etc.” (p. 308)
(2) “My other consolation (at public school) came with the evening chapel service. I sang in the choir and would find consolation in the music. The words of the Te Deum conveyed some vague promise to me of future compensation for present ills. The poetry of the psalms stole over me. I found a sensuous enjoyment in the volume of the organ music. I was anything but religious but those services were to me at that time what the music of Wagner came to be some years later. They took me to the verge of the unknown, quickened in me hitherto unknown emotions, and intensified a longing, hardly recognized by myself, to love something. In these moments of emotion I ached to pour out a love–how, or upon whom, I knew not, but this knowledge would come later.” (p. 304).