Lonely Doug

The haunting photo, and its subject, that almost never were

Sidney Coles

crop of wetplate image of Big Lonely Doug by Ken Miner

Detail of Big Lonely Doug | Photo by Ken Miner (cropped from original)

One is the Loneliest Number

 – Aimee Mann  

I follow Ken Miner up the stairs from the sunny parking lot off of Government Street in Victoria and down a long hallway. There is a gallery space with vinyl floors on the right, and on the left, a community darkroom. Canisters, jars with a light chemical smell and a long black ceramic sink fill the space.

Ken’s studio space is bright. Portraits of people in various tones of black and white line the walls. A faded, velvet high back chair set against a heavy curtain inhabits it like an aging monarch.

When I turn back towards the door, I am confronted again with the image I saw in a storefront downtown. It’s still a gut punch, especially, if you’ve been involved in the infamous Fairy Creek Blockade on Pacheedaht, Ditidhat and Huu-ay-aht First Nations territories– one of the longest acts of civil disobedience from its beginning in August of 2020. 

It’s a black and white print of Lonely Doug, and one of the most haunting images I have ever seen.  The dusty gravel logging road winding through the fore is ominous. In a patch of light, the overlapping skeletons of dead trees cascade down the hillside, and just off centre stands Doug in a mantle of mist. A ghostly figure appears to Doug’s left which an Indigenous observer once told Ken was a guardian of the trees and animals that have been lost and those that remain. I ask him to tell me about how he got the shot. 

“I nearly didn’t make it up there with my van,” he says. His hand swipes at his brow in a kind of nervous reliving. “Those logging roads are wild. We were up there for four days, camping and taking photos around Fairy Creek and the Gordon River Valley.” 

The area he is speaking of is home to what remains of old growth forest around Port Renfrew at the south end of Vancouver Island. If you’re unfamiliar with Lonely Doug’s story (as it was immortalized in print in Harley Rustad’s eponymously titled book), it’s a sad one, so get a tissue. 

Doug, whose Latin name is Pseudotsuga menziesii, would have been felled over a decade ago had it not been for the complex impulse of a logger named Dennis Cronin. Cronin was surveying a cut block, marking trees too small for cutting with neon orange tape and with red, the most prized, when he came across the sixty-six-metre giant. Doug could have been sold for thousands but Cronin took a “Leave Tree” ribbon out of his pocket and tied it to a root of that wonderous thing.

A year later, every last tree on cut block 7190 was gone, save Doug. Today, he stands alone amid gnarled stumps, coppice, nurse trees and resilient understory. A wonder of photosynthesis, decay, and meristematic cells, he’s one of last of his kind.  

“There aren’t that many of us with these old cameras anymore so there were a bunch of people watching. Adam Gibbs, a YouTuber who was doing an interview with me about the wet plate process, was filming. It was threatening rain and that made for added pressure.”

Ken and I are standing close together, eyeing a framed 30 x 40 print of that plate on the wall.  As he talks about how the shoot ended, he becomes teary eyed. I lower my head. I am surprised by his vulnerable candour and won over by it. The wet process is all done on location. The glass plates are hand poured on site and must be exposed while the chemistry is still wet. Miner has a dark room in the back of his van, so that day, he went to work in the cramped space, perched roadside high above the valley below. 

“Five hours later, I had three clear glass plates but I couldn’t see anything on them. In fact, I nearly threw them onto the road outside the van.” 

Miner pauses. I hold my breath.  

“But then I scanned the last plate into my computer and the image of the tree came up on my big desk-top monitor. When I saw it, I rolled my desk chair back and said ‘holy shit’ and the hair at the back of my neck just all stood up.”  The hair on the back of my own neck lifts and prickles. 

The tree has become an icon and symbol of the environmental movement and the fight to protect old growth on Vancouver Island. Miner’s haunting image is not well known outside of the photography community, which can appreciate what a labour of love it was to bring a one hundred-and-twenty-year-old Century View camera up a logging road, set it up on a tripod in the rain, and make a miracle of very old technology to affix the image of Doug to a plate of ground glass. But miracles do happen and Miner’s is worth taking in. 

20 foot tall puppet of old growth stump with an owl peeking out with protesters in the street

Mother Tree puppet surrounded by biodiversity art. Photo by Desiree Wallace, Stand.earth.

Recently, hundreds gathered in Victoria for the United for Old Growth rally. A large crowd marched to the provincial Legislature to demand that BC Premier David Eby honour his promise to protect old growth forests on the island and across the province.

People carrying bright posters and puppets, an undulating river replete with aluminium salmon, a pod of orcas on poles and a small army of fabric trees made their way along Government Street. Environmentalist David Suzuki joined speakers from the Kwakiutl, Stellat’en, Spuzzum, Pacheedaht, and Da’naxda’xw/Awaetlala First Nations. Canadian rock legend Neil Young appeared and performed “Heat of Gold” and “Comes a Time:” 

Oh, this old world keeps spinning ‘round

It’s a wonder, tall trees aint’ layin’ down

“I only came for the trees up there,” said Young, clasping the neck of his guitar. By up there, he likely means down there, around the Fairy Creek watershed where hectares of gnarled stumps and bald mountain sides tell the story of our collective failure to protect old growth, and where Lonely Doug stands as a marker of our shame and a sentinel of hope. 

Sidney Coles PhD, DPE candidate OISE, is an equity and human rights advocate and a recent transplant to BC.

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