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Mike Poole

I was born in St. John, New Brunswick, where my maternal grandfather was the owner of the largest brush, broom and mop factory in the British Empire. Or so he said. He had an ego of matching proportions, which when coupled with a blue stocking Baptist righteousness that forbade the playing of cards or radios on Sundays, made him an overbearing presence. At least, this must have been how my father viewed matters, for he moved the family west to Vancouver in 1942. We spent a year there, Dad labouring in the wartime aircraft factories on Sea Island and me starting school in tony West Vancouver. (All that eastern money left behind, we were able to afford to rent a house in Caulfeild only because the 20-minute drive into downtown Vancouver was considered at that time to be too far.)

Then in the summer of 1943, the family made a romantic leap of truly audacious proportions. My Toronto-raised father and three brothers, none of whom had ever been afloat on salt water, bought a derelict tugboat and went beachcombing. This meant moving to cheaper seats in the country. I remember arriving at Hopkins Landing aboard our redoubtable tug – the Lindy Lou - in August of that year with our few possessions, and moving into a tiny, damp house in the woods, just back of where the Langdale ferry docks today. For my cosseted mother, an accomplished pianist and product of Upper Canada finishing schools, the move was a shattering cultural shock. No neighbours, no electricity, no water when the ram (a kind of current-powered pump) jammed with autumn leaves, not even the support of a husband, who was gone for weeks at time, jerking logs off the beaches and waiting for a break in the winter storms long enough to tow their precious booms to Vancouver.

But what was hell for my mother was heaven for me. I’d been set down in a kind of Huck Finn paradise, where a kid could grow up messing about in boats, riding the booms, catching salmon with such regularity, my mother routinely sterilized Mason jars and readied the pressure cooker for canning whenever I set out. I’ve never forgotten the feeding frenzy that brought 22 coho to my spoon in 90 glorious minutes. There were no licenses, no limit, and no one believed there would ever be a need for either. How wrong we were.

By my teens, I had begun to chafe under the limits of life in the boonies. The twice-weekly Union Steamships had been replaced by car ferries, and our classroom shacks by a proper high school. But it was a time in this country when the flight to the cities had begun and rural people were disparaged. The word “farmer” was an epithet for anyone backward or stupid. When the kids arrived for the summer from the posh west side of Vancouver, quick with the latest lingo, I felt inferior, out of it. By the time I left the coast straight out of high school in 1954, I had dug a deep psychological hole for myself. I still remember the cringing embarrassment of being asked at some city social occasion where I was from. “Up the coast,” I would mutter vaguely, anything rather than admit that I came from a jerkwater place called Grantham’s Landing. Only years later, when the hippies were going back to the land, did I come appreciate the value of my rural roots. While kids from Chicago and Toronto and any number of other cities were caught in a heartbreaking struggle to master the most basic skills with tools and gardens and engines, I had imbibed these things as naturally as breathing the country air. It was a great gift, which I have drawn on all my life, building boats, canoes, houses and traveling the sea or mountains with ease and confidence. I think of it as a gift of freedom, the freedom of the country.

But as for city matters and my chosen career in journalism, I had no confidence because I didn’t deserve any. I might have been able to grind the values and set the tappets of a Briggs and Stratton, but I couldn’t spell or type or even garb myself in a suitable manner. (A city editor dressed me down before the entire editorial floor for “Coming in here looking like a goddamned high school basketball player.”) That was at the Vancouver Sun, as bad a newspaper then as it is now, where I began by filling paste pots and sharpening pencils. I was a copy runner, the doormat below the bottom run of the newspapering ladder. Painfully, slowly, I learned to spell Nanaimo and became a reporter of sorts. But I was going nowhere fast. In 1955 the P&O ships began calling at Vancouver, bringing a wave of journalists trained in apprenticeship programs on newspapers in Australia. They had shorthand, knew how to interview, do investigative reporting. At the same time, Brits were arriving, people like Jack Webster and Doug Collins who were emigrating to escape the grey austerity of post-war UK. They were even better trained. The local press barons resisted the expense of training and instead told punk reporters like me: If you want to be our man in Moscow or London, better get yourself some education.

At this critical juncture, enter the eastern money: my maternal grandparents offered to stake me to two years of university, a not inconsiderable undertaking, given that I was married with two children. The university, for reasons too complex to recount here, turned out to be Washington and Lee, a quirky little place stuck in a Confederate time warp in the lovely town of Lexington in the heart of Virginia’s exquisite Shenandoah Valley. It was intimate – scarcely a thousand students – southern and wealthy, and what it lacked in Ivy League stature it more than made up in tradition. Robert E. Lee had become its president immediately after the Civil War in 1865, and founded America’s first journalism school. (Perhaps because he felt he’d got bad press in the war.) With scholarships, summer work and another dollop from the east, I crammed four years into three and returned to Vancouver bearing a letter from The Sun, offering me my old job back. But it was not to be. I arrived home to find another letter waiting: there was a recession and The Sun was laying off reporters. I had a wife and three children and no job.

For the next five years, I took anything I could get that would turn a dollar, mostly industrial editing and flack work. (I still preen myself on having edited a dairy magazine called Butter-Fat.) Then, in the mid-sixties, a TV commentator’s job opened at CBC Vancouver. I auditioned and got it, but it was hardly a glamourous posting on the road to television stardom. I was to be the host of a show called Country Calendar, standing with a microphone in front of a manure pile, telling people how things were down on the farm. I learned a lot and met many fine people, especially on the farms, but I disliked the exposure of facing the naked lens, and within 18 months I had maneuvered myself behind the camera and into production.

Quite unexpectedly, my journalism career had turned out to be in pictures, not print. Even more surprisingly, I found that I was gifted with a visual sense. With little effort, I could visualize film sequences, imagine how a shot would look through any lens of a given focal length, adapt to the grammar of camera movement and film editing. And my timing, again purely by chance, could not have been better. The environmental movement was just taking off and I was on board. A report on native people flooded out by the Bennett Dam on the Peace River got me into prime time on the CBC network. And onto the radar of the SOCRED government in Victoria, who were furious and held a press conference, with the Hon. Ray Williston (he of the eponymous Williston Lake behind the Bennett Dam) attempting damage control. The Politics of Power, and hour-long portrait of the Fraser River came close behind, winning the CBC’s Wilderness Award for the year’s best documentary.

By this time I had left the CBC in favour of freelancing, a more precarious existence but one that gave me greater freedom to choose my subjects. The first of those was the South Pacific, where I spent the better part of a year moving between island nations with author, George Woodcock. The result was his book, In the South Seas and a film series of the same name. If I’d thought the experience would be idyllic, I was sorely mistaken. The venture was desperately under-funded, so that I did the work of three people and came home so exhausted, I lay about in a daze for weeks.

In the mid-1970s, the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline was nearing completion and the threat of tanker traffic down the B.C. coast was fast becoming a reality. Victoria Liberal MP David Anderson had become too vociferous in his battle against the tankers, and was banished by Pierre Trudeau to the back benches. Something had to be done; a strong statement of the risk needed to be made. A young UBC professor named David Suzuki was just beginning to make waves as the host of a program called Suzuki on Science. Although we’d never met, I asked him if he would host a documentary on tankers. I told him I was on a tight budget and could pay him very little. Who cares, he said. Let’s do it.

Tankerbomb, as the film was called, went off like a rocket. There were questions in the House of Commons, newspaper editorials, a flood of letters-to-the-editor across the country. The National Film Board immediately bought 35 prints and put the film into distribution. Tankerbomb won the CBC’s Prix Anik Award, the renamed Wilderness Award, for the year’s best documentary. And it correctly predicted the Exxon Valdez disaster, which was just a few years in the future.

Beginning in the early 1980s, I began directing the occasional show for the CBC’s long-running drama, The Beachcombers. The series was a phony, without real roots in the coast or community. But the money was very good and I needed it. Directors in Canada, unlike their American counterparts, retain no residual interest in their work. Except for scripts, which I normally wrote myself, there were no royalties. But I’d stayed in touch with David Suzuki, and in the early 1980s I found myself making the first of what would become a string of films for his series, The Nature of Things. Many films and many awards would follow, most of the latter things of little consequence. (Wildlife and nature film festivals are a dime a dozen.) But there accomplishments and moments of recognition I took pride in. Ducks in Danger, a good film with a terrible title, won one of the top prizes at Wildscreen, the Olympics of nature film festivals in Britain. Island of Whales, which I directed for independent producers in Vancouver, won a Gemini, Canada’s Oscar. (This was my one brush with stardom, recording my script with Gregory Peck in Los Angeles.) And I felt I had done something worthwhile with Trading Futures, a two-hour CBC special on the down side of the global economy, which took me from Africa to the Arctic and many points between. It was that film, and the two years it took me to make it, that pushed me into a psychic collapse (known in more plain-spoken times as a nervous breakdown) and out of the film trade.

The breakdown had been 40 years in the making and would, I was told, take a long time to mend. Casting about for something to do that was healing to the soul and at the same time ecologically and socially benign, I seized upon growing marijuana. Not the artificial business of indoor cultivation with lights and chemicals, but doing it the old fashioned way, high on a mountainside, with the sun on my back and the wind in my teeth. It was a wonderful experience, a boon for mind and body. Cops and thieves, of course, got most of the dope, but I came away with a book: Romancing Mary Jane – a year in the life of a failed marijuana grower. This was actually my second foray into print. In the late ‘80’s I’d taken a break from film making to do a solo 1000-kilometer canoe trip down the BC coast. That adventure became Ragged Islands – a journey by canoe through the Inside Passage. Leaving aside the lies and exaggerations of these efforts, Rain Before Morning is my first work of fiction.

Special interests, hobbies? Having grown up with my toes in the water, I remain as attached as ever to the sea. I’m currently rebuilding a 35-year-old boat, small, fast and cheap enough in this day of extortionate gas prices to take me deep into the mainland inlets, where the wily cutthroat trout is to be found. Fly fishing has been a life-long passion, enhanced now by angling with two grown sons who have long-since surpassed me in skill and knowledge. At one time I built canoes and paddled them on lakes and rivers all over BC. But I’ve grown too fat and feeble for such pursuits and content myself and annual fly-in fishing trip with friends, this year to the remote Firesteel River in north-central BC. The last canoe I restored, a rare Peterborough built in 1912, now hangs in the Smithers airport, a memorial to the trapper and trader who used it on the nearby lakes for more than 50 years.

Apples, of all things, were at one time a consuming interest. When we first moved onto the coast in 1943, there were still orchards that had been planted in the early years of the century. By the 1970s, when I acquired an acreage of my own, they had mostly died out. I resolved to reclaim some of the fine old varieties. Travelling as I was to make films, I collected scion wood in England and eastern North America and grafted it onto root stocks that eventually became a collection of more than 90 heirloom varieties. Although I sold the place two decades ago when the upkeep had become unmanageable, the apple varieties have been passed from hand-to-hand, finding their way into orchards all over southwestern BC, which I find a pleasure to contemplate. Meantime, I have transferred my affections to the more than 200 rhododendrons that grace our driveway and the few corners of my wife’s precious garden where they are allowed to intrude.

What next? Another book, I expect, though I’m not sure what. And in fact, the subject is less important than the activity. Not to be writing seems, for me at least, to be less than fully alive.

August, 2006
Halfmoon Bay, BC