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Human nature exposed in the woods

By G.D. Maxwell Like so many things in life, I imagine you can apply the 80-20 rule to explain the garbage I keep finding where people have camped before me.

By G.D. Maxwell

Like so many things in life, I imagine you can apply the 80-20 rule to explain the garbage I keep finding where people have camped before me. The 80-20 rule, if you’re not familiar with it, is one of those gems of insight business consultants come up with to explain the obvious to the myopic, who feel better paying someone $2,500 a day to tell them the same stuff their staff has been telling them for years for a pittance. It suggests 80 per cent of your customers really only provide 20 per cent of your profits and vice-versa, 20 per cent of them drop a wad and account for 80 per cent of what you make. Like any chestnut of wisdom, it is a blunt instrument but carries a kernel of truth.

The 80-20 rule explains things like VIP lounges at airports, champagne in first class, valet parking at impossibly expensive restaurants, the Chateau Whistler, and why you see 80 year old rich wankers with 20 year old pneumatic blondes on their arms. I also imagine it explains the bizarre things I find left behind in fire pits and around camp sites. Eighty per cent of the people only produce 20 per cent of the trash and 20 per cent of the people should be paddled out to the centre of the lake and dropped in with a sizable chunk of cement tied to their legs for the crap they leave behind. They are pigs and it’s damn insulting to real pigs for me to call them that.

It never ceases to amaze me, for example, that people who have evolved enough to be able to light fires whenever and wherever they want to, still haven’t grasped the simple fact that aluminum foil doesn’t burn. For all its brilliance and manifold uses, aluminum foil only has three outstanding physical characteristics. One, when you wad it up and toss it on the floor, it drives cats crazy – recognizing there are many who would say making a cat crazy is more akin to a short putt than a drive. Two, if you have a lot of fillings in your teeth and make the mistake of believing someone who says chewing a piece of foil is cool, you will see sparks fly out of your mouth, which is unquestionably cool but hurts like hell for the next several days. Don’t ask how I know. Finally, if you warp aluminum foil around a potato, drop it into a fire, let it burn for a couple of hours and take it out, you will have an overcooked, charred lump of potato, as opposed to an ingot of molten aluminum or aluminum ash. It’s not supposed to burn, idiot.

It may be man’s quest to overcome the laws of nature, or the timeless desire to achieve some magical, alchemical transformation, but I suspect it’s more likely laziness and a total lack of concern for their surroundings that move people to try and burn foil. The paradox of why they drive all the way to a remote lake to conduct this experiment still eludes me but I have spent many zenlike moments ruminating on it as I pick foil out of cold ashes wherever I camp.

While ubiquitous, foil is not the most puzzling thing I find in abandoned fire rings and around camp sites. At a tiny, perfect lake in the B.C. Interior – site of an apparent potato massacre – someone tried to burn a speaker out of his radio. I assume it was a him because I can’t imagine any woman who would ever think sitting around a fire and burning a speaker would be cool, but hey, who knows? I’m sure there is a story behind the speaker but I suspect it is a short one.

Moron One: "Whoa dude, the freakin’ speaker just quit workin’."

Moron Two: "Throw it in the fire."

Moron One: "But the foil’s not all burned up yet, man."

It you have an active imagination, you can almost understand finding a burned-out speaker in a fire pit, you say. Okay, how about a core sample? After spending the day backtracking over miles of logging roads in the forest outside of Quilchena, we found ourselves not exactly lost – the accuracy of Forest District maps being a whole different column – but unexpectedly on the shore of a stunning lake that turned out to be at about the same elevation as Flute. It was chilly, drizzly, and the sun played peekaboo with way too many clouds... a B.C. kind of day.

Being short on sun and long on altitude, we were well along the path to hypothermia when the sun began to set, a supposition on our part since we only noticed the sky getting darker, not the sun going down. While my numb fingers picked foil out of the fire ring, I uncovered a cylindrical hunk of rock. About eight inches – metrically-challenged zone – long, blackened, polished, and marbleized, it was a drilling core sample from God knows where. Even I can’t make up an interesting story about how in the world it might have found its way into someone’s campfire. Not surprisingly, it didn’t burn either.

If human garbage is a source of endless amusement in the woods, human avarice lacks any semblance of humour. Making a turn in the road and coming into a cutblock, I couldn’t shake the feeling of stumbling onto a battleground. Like the site of any massacre, the more recent the battle, the more grisly the carnage. The rubble of a forest lay in a tumbled heap on the ground. Land unaccustomed to direct sunlight seemed to shrivel in the glare of its nakedness. Spirits of the wounded cried out.

In a forest of second or third growth lodgepole pine and poplar, a 20 acre swath of pine had been mowed down by men wielding efficient machines. The trees still standing on all sides are no bigger around than a man’s thigh. No value as lumber, these trees must have been cut for pulp or chips – wood by-products. Yet, everywhere within sight, hundreds, thousands of trees no smaller than those that must have been taken, lay like matchsticks, helter skelter across the battlefield. Trickles of streams had started to run where none ran before. Here and there, the road was being eroded by running water. Given what was laying on the ground, I wondered if this cut was made to satisfy the company’s requirement to cut or lose their licence.

The sight reminded me eerily of old pictures of buffalo killing grounds where acres of sun bleached bones litter the ground, the meat having rotted off them or been cleaned by carrion. Obviously, the loggers responsible for this mess took little wood, left a lot, like trophy hunters who would cut the ears off the buffalo to prove their kill, leaving the rest to rot.

If I had some foil, I might start a fire to purify the dead and dying. What a waste.