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Non-fiction review: Into the woods

'Into the woods'Into the woods
Anna Krien
Black Inc.

Anna Krien’s book begins with violence, travels through corruption and pain, and ends with a vague, vain sort of hope. With a structure like that, you might expect that it’s about a catastrophic event, some natural or human-created event that has crushed communities and people, and is now being overcome. And you’d be half right – it’s certainly about a kind of catastrophe in motion.

Krien’s book Into the Woods is a look at the history of Tasmania’s forests, the people who try to protect them, and the people who have been exploiting them. Let’s note that I’m using ‘exploit’ here in an economic sense: exploiting a resource is economically rational for as long as it lasts. But what the books makes clear is that as a resource, the forests won’t last much longer, and every avenue sought to prevent their demise – violence, law, litigation, sheer lies – has failed. The book follows Krien as she travels through Tasmania meeting everyone from activists to loggers to politicians (though Gunns themselves won’t talk to her), as she tries to figure out why the situation is as it is, how it got there, and whether it’s reasonable to be there at all. The answers are depressing.

I am an environmental scientist, I naturally lean to the green side of any argument, and I suspect Krien is the same – she’s certainly was there by the end. But I don’t think you need to be a greenie to be horrified by her recitation of facts regarding the Tasmanian forests. For example, while many of us can possibly understand using old growth wood to supply sawmills for extravagant projects – maybe even floorboards, if they’re really, really good ones – most of us won’t support using that same wood to make woodchips. By Gunn’s own statistics, up to 98% of the wood may become just that. And while we all recognise that political conflict can become violent, few of us would fail to cringe when told of activists being driven off the road and assaulted, or that Bob Brown – while an elected leader of Tasmania – was beaten with an iron bar, for which charges were never laid. There’s a particularly charming incident on page 10 that nearly had me put the book down then and there – look out for that one.

This isn’t to say Krien leans solely to the environmentalist side of the argument. She certainly does talk to as many people as she can, and she repeats as much as she can of the defences and arguments used by Gunns’ people to justify their use of the forests. And as they argue repeatedly, it’s hard to say it’s Gunns’ fault for exploiting a natural resource which the government has made available for purchase. On the other hand, it probably is their fault that they have engaged in what have been called SLAPP – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – and that they have reportedly made repeated efforts to bribe government officials. Other strong arguments are made when Krien considers the total number of people employed by logging versus the value of one of Australia’s most valuable forests and when she looks at the effects of poison sprays and bait used to encourage forest regrowth.

Into the Woods is tough reading because of the content rather than the style. Despite efforts to be fair, Krien acknowledges that her book will probably be seen as one-sided. She describes herself as seeing in shades of grey, while people involved will want the issues in black and white, and on those terms, she’s a traitor. Still, it’s hard not to agree with her at the end. No matter what’s at stake, jobs or money or companies, it’s hard to justify those numbers and how they came about when you consider the damage done.

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Comments

  1. Thanks Georgia for this review.

    I rushed out and bought ‘Into the Woods’ when it first came out eager to read it as part of the research for my novel which is in part about logging and spin-doctoring.

    Anna has done a terrific job of the research and while she wears her heart on her sleeve to some extent (though I see her more owning up to her bias – a transparency too few journalists achieve even though they like to bang on about it), she strives for balance. But ‘Into the Woods’isn’t written with academic distance, indeed, Anna is right there in the story. And it’s all the more powerful because of her presence.

    While I still have a few chapters to go, Anna is not without sympathy for the loggers and provides a context that explains though not excuses some of their attitudes. She also has some reservations about the protestors and their actions but her harshest criticism she saves for the politicians and Gunns.

    But perhaps what I like most about ‘Into the Woods’ is the beauty of the writing. It is thrilling!

    • I liked her cursing out the ferals and freegans for a while there. I laughed. And I do think she did a good job of critiquing the ferals – how in many ways they just don’t help.

      And yes, it’s very real because of her actual presence in the action. Stats are cold, but her story of wedging her car on a log, and people who keep talking to her even as they say they won’t, make it real.

  2. Thanks Georgia. It’s a shame that SLAPPS are used to silence dissent. Creating another element of fear to undermine public discussion and action.

  3. i was on a panel with anna at this years tina and she said that the feedback she had recieved from both environmentalists and loggers was that they felt they were fairly represented. That to me says that she has done a good job in her research and her portrayal, even if she is on the environmental side, is honest.

    The book also grew out of an essay originally and expanded as she spent more and more time in Tassie. I’m looking forward to reading it.

  4. I read this book to bring myself up-to-date with the Tasmanian forest issues. I didn’t bargain on not being able to put it down and as a result spending 2 days in deep angst! Krien writes so well and addresses the questions I wanted to ask. She gets right in there and in some instances, it was hard for her. I admire that. There’s enough detail in a really complicated, often murky narrative to bring the participants to life. I cannot recommend this book enough. It re-invigorated me by reminding me that there is so much at stake and still so much to loose.

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