The day after we returned from the river we headed inland again, but this time in a helicopter, the commercial charge for which, if we had had to pay it, would have been something like $700 for the 70-mile flight. A young pilot efficiently hauled us into the air, and with bored indifference carted us upriver. Only the day before, we had been on the river with the old man, watching how every channel, island, sand bar, even every submerged rock was known to him and loved by him. Now we were in a machine, a marvelously ingenious machine that could hover, move sideways, climb quickly, drop suddenly, do everything but dance, and to the men running such machines the superb wilderness below was featureless, boring and meaningless. Efficiently they had bulldozed all the trees down the bank. Efficiently they had transported into the wilderness a small township of tents and big huts and great machines. Where there had been trees and rocks and water through 8,000 years, disturbed only occasionally by animals and a hunting man, now there was a restaurant with fluorescent lights, a shower room with constant hot water, the ceaseless crackle and roar of the radio-telephone system, the whine of chain saws and machine shops, the constant coming and going of helicopters and airplanes. Where there had always been hunters, deeply contented with their work and their way of life, now there was a largely bored work force, men who were hostile to the landscape and felt the landscape was hostile to them, men who either had nothing better to do elsewhere in the world, or who had come up here just to make money, lots of it, quickly, so that they could do their living later, at some other time that usually never arrived. When work stopped, there was Ann-Margret simpering across the screen to remind the men that if they could ever get out of this god-forsaken hole with money, it would buy lots of beautiful arse when they got back to the big city. A great big pinned-up nude stood on the wall above the head of the cheerful fat cook in the restaurant where we were fed liver and potatoes. We sat next to Brian Deveney, a young helicopter pilot whose previous job had been flying around Cambodia shooting people in trucks. He worked every day from 10 minutes past seven in the morning until nine o’clock at night, flying back and forth over the wilderness. “This is some of the most barren country in the world today,” he said. “It has all been scraped clean by glaciers years ago and virtually nothing has grown since.” The other day, he said, he had flown inland to a Lake Vincelotte. “Now I know where nowhere is.”
Though he probably didn’t realize it, he was expressing the official government attitude to this environment: the publications of the James Bay Development Corporation describe the region as empty, undeveloped, “a land of tomorrow,” and the river as “wasting away in foam and swirls.” Between this impersonal attitude of the machine men and the deeply personal human attitudes of the hunters, no meeting ground existed.
This passage is reprinted with permission from author Boyce Richardson’s 1991 book Strangers Devour the Land.