Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 5, 2010

Into the Woods, by Anna Krien, Guest Review by Sally Cripps. #BookReview

 As regular readers of this blog know, I was away overseas in September/October and so was unable to review a book sent to me by Black Inc just before I left.  Into the Woods, The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests by Anna Krien is an important book, because it deals with the ongoing issue of logging in Tasmania.  It was probably just as well that I was otherwise engaged: I feel very strongly that wilderness should never be sacrificed for short-term local employment opportunities that will inevitably come to an end anyway when the timber is extinct.  I doubt if I could have reviewed this book dispassionately.

Fortunately, Sally Cripps from ANZ LitLovers agreed to review the book for me.  Here is her review:

 I had the opportunity to hear Australian Press Council Award winner Anna Krien speak at the Brisbane Writers’ Festival earlier this year and I’m sorry now that I didn’t attend her “What Makes a Great Interview?” session with Stephen Romei. Into the Woods: The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests was a book that raised as many questions as it answered for me and I would dearly like to have heard Anna speak more about its creation and intent.

For a book marketed as a complete guide to the saga of the logging of Tasmania’s wilderness areas (“She speaks to ferals and premiers, sawmillers and whistleblowers” the back blurb claims), and as reportage (“intrepid reporting” and “a dramatic work of reporting” is how publisher Black Inc describes it), I found it to be a very emotional examination of the conflict.

It opens with a prologue in which Tasmanian Devils feature as roadkill to logging trucks, a symbolic allusion to the plight of the state in general if the woodchip industry is allowed to roar unchecked across the landscape. It’s a situation that Krien confesses brings her to tears, and it sets the scene for the rest of the book. Her ferry crossing of Bass Strait describes the car sticker messages, where “Save the Styx” vies with “Greens Tell Lies”. We have become accustomed to seeing this intense and divisive debate raging across our newspapers and TV screens in unsatisfactory sound grabs – so, would this book be able to guide us through the arguments and provide some enlightenment?

Krein explains her motivation for exploring the issue, footage of a violent confrontation between activists and loggers at a blockade in the Upper Florentine in Tasmania’s south west, which reached her on the mainland. A look at the contents page shows that in good journalistic fashion, Krien has divided the chapters into the various sectors in the debate – ratbags, loggers, and the company (Gunns), with politicians of all colours featuring throughout. I found this misleading. While she stays with friends who describe themselves as “ferals” at their town base in Hobart and at a blockade site, and provides some excellent insight into the motivation, means and tactics employed by this group, no such light is shone on the workers caught in the crossfire. The section devoted to loggers includes vignettes of a fear-filled evening visit to a male-dominated pub, a blockade supporter who cops abuse in the logging town she lives in, a wood craftsman who naturally hates the concept of valuable timber being turned into woodchip, and a small family-run logging operation with a deep distrust of the media, amongst others.

I was sorry that Krien couldn’t find one timber worker who passionately believed in what he was doing and whose livelihood depended on the business continuing, to spend a few days with, to give readers a better picture of this part of the debate. She touches on the difficulty logging workers say they have with a lack of fluency with the written and spoken word, which means they struggle to express themselves well in the all-important media battle. Sadly, I don’t think Krien was able to present their point of view for them. On page 89 she says, “I will probably betray these men, at least that’s how they’ll see it. They deal in black and white, in absolutes and taking sides, while I’ll write a flimsy watercolour”. Later she describes the forest debate as a minefield where “you need a bullshit detector to pick your way across it”. As a person self-charged with wielding such an instrument, she doesn’t have an easy job. However, I felt let down when she revealed that in her bewilderment she turned to her activist friends to talk through the contradictions – “we spend the night pulling these arguments apart and seeing if w can put them back together”. How much more of the book was filtered through the eyes of one element?

There is an interesting passage where Krien examines the semantics of the forestry debate, where euphemisms abound – logging is ‘harvesting’, woodchips are ‘feedstock’ and so on. I wonder if she was aware of the number of times she humanised trees in an interesting form of anthropomorphism, such as on P78 where “like a carcass in an abattoir, the forest is divvied into cuts” or on P 127 when the sound of a huge tree falling is likened to a childhood incident in which someone fell off a swing and broke their arm with a “sickening crunch”. To me this was also an example of language being used to manipulate.

I enjoyed Krien’s sharp outline of the Machiavellian government handling of the issue over the years. As one with firsthand experience of being at the mercy of political whim, as a grazier trying to jump through Queensland’s vegetation management hoops, I could clearly recognise everything governments here have done in the pages of In The Woods. Ignoring science, selectively using science, shifting bureaucratic goalposts, expedient political dealings, needing money for Treasury coffers – it was all a familiar tune. How ironic that such tactics earnt the wrath of Greens in Tasmania when they are praised by the same people in Queensland. In a similar vein, activist Prue paints “Show Us the Maps” on her Maydena fence, echoing Queensland landholders’ fruitless calls for maps of proposed Wild Rivers declaration areas.

I finished Into The Woods with a much broader understanding of the chronology of the debate and what each decision led onto. The political scene – there are many premiers mentioned, often saying contradictory things – had the potential to be confusing but Krien steered a clear path through the Hare-Clark electoral system, Liberal-Labor-Green accords and the claustrophobic relationships inherent in a small population base. It was hard to know how well she got to grips with Gunns, the timber company at the centre of the dispute. With virtually no access granted by company representatives she had to rely on reports from other media encounters – the ABC’s Four Corners program, Hobart Mercury articles and so on. But as is known only too well, claiming much of your business dealings as commercial-in-confidence and speaking only through media releases and scripted conferences leads to a lack of trust. If Gunns comes out of this book looking like a master manipulator with everything to hide, they only have themselves to blame. I felt that Krien did an excellent job of distilling the many items on the public record with her own research to give readers a clearer picture. Seeing a number of her conclusions about Gunns’ future difficulties – woodchip mills closing, exit packages for loggers – being played out in the news at the moment, confirms that her analysis of the company is close to the mark.

Krien warned that she was “on a journey through selective truths” (P118). Readers are relying on her judgement to guide them through this tangled forest. I have to say that I thought a lot of good research was marred by a lack of understanding in some areas. When she says she is tired of people telling her they are fourth generation Tasmanians, does she ask herself why this justification is trotted out so often? To my eyes, this is a natural response for a group which feels it has been excluded, and believes that its future is being dictated by people who have come in from outside. If she truly wanted to display an understanding of all the issues in play, she should have acknowledged this and dug a little deeper. There is a message for all engaged in public policy, especially on the environmental fronts of water and climate change management – we each bring something to the debate; sidelining any one group only makes resolution more emotional and challenging.

It was ultimately disappointing to come to the end of the story proper and have Krien suggest that Gunns and its supporters “are fuelled by something as simple, base and merciless – and so like a Grimms’ fairytale – as hate”. I thought it was a simplistic and emotive ending, after so much effort had been put into going deeper than that. If anything, the book shows accurately how difficult it is to leave one’s baggage behind when challenged with coming up with a workable solution.

 Sally Cripps has been a journalist, sub-editor and editor for independent rural weekly newspapers in western Queensland since 1983. She currently works in a freelance capacity as journalist, photojournalist, copy editor, researcher and publisher. In addition, Sally has been a shire and regional councillor since 2004, is a past director of Desert Channels Queensland (one of Australia’s 56 regional natural resource management groups), and runs a wool/meat sheep enterprise in conjunction with her husband, a seventh generation Tasmanian expat.

© Sally Cripps

For a different perspective, visit Whispering Gums for an excellent review of this book.

Author: Anna Krien
Title: Into the Woods, The Battle for Tasmania’s Forests
Publisher: Black Inc, 2010
ISBN: 9781863954877
Source: Review copy courtesy of Black Inc.


Responses

  1. An excellent and well-written review Sally.

    Helen

  2. Excellent and really thorough review Sally.

    I wasn’t as bothered by the gaps as you were. She certainly tried hard to cover all grounds. I enjoyed for example her discussion with timber-workers in the pub. In the end, like Chloe Hooper in The Tall Man, we are all influenced by our own world view and I think Anna Krien was pretty upfront about that from the beginning. You have a point about the ending, but somehow the older I get the more I’m starting to feel that too much of what happens in the world is governed by simple emotions than by logic and above-board analysis. But, perhaps she could have made that point.

  3. As someone whose work is ecology-based, I’m increasingly frustrated by the fact that the “elephant in the room” in such cases as you [Sally Cripps] write about is always the multinational corporation–and yet most people can’t think about something they can’t visually picture.

    • I haven’t read the book, Shelley, so I can’t comment – sorry!
      Lisa

  4. Thanks for the link, Lisa.

  5. Sally,

    I thoroughly enjoyed your review for its unemotional analysis of the book (and issue), a refreshing perspective.
    Many thanks.

    Angus

  6. […] Into The Woods: The Battle For Tasmania’s Forests by Anna Krien (See Sally’s review) […]


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