Marshall McLuhan’s vision of electronically-connected community hasn’t worked out the way he envisioned, and the Global Village isn’t what his urban-based proselytizing followers claim it is. It has become a subsystem of the global marketplace. Nice for wealthy interactives living in big cities, but for most people in the hinterlands–the people who were supposed to reap its greatest benefits–it’s Willow River.
Fifty years ago, Willow River, a small community about thirty kilometers east of Prince George, B.C. was my idea of paradise. About 300 people lived in its orderly grid of streets, the men worked at the local sawmill and the women did their shopping at the general store at the northeast corner of the street grid. Willow River had its own community hall and baseball diamond, people kept their small houses painted, gave up large portions of their yards to vegetable gardens, and life was coherent and good, if not over-supplied with consumer luxuries or, on some Saturday nights, any overabundance of peace and goodwill.
My family occasionally picnicked out there, drawn by the orderliness of the picnic grounds and the unspoiled beauty of the Willow River, which had its share of elusive Dolly Varden trout and a wealth of sandbars to play on. In the heat of late summer, the water even grew warm enough to swim in—if you weren’t afraid of being swept downriver into a rocky canyon, and your parents were less than completely crazed with the urge to supervise. I swam there a few times—safely, since I’m writing this—but what I liked most about Willow River was its baseball team, the Willow River Red Sox. The team, pulled together from locals—most of them loggers along with a few ringers brought in by the millowners—wore the same red-and-white uniforms as the Boston Red Sox. I showed up for every game they played in Prince George, certain they would clobber the local team. More often than not, they did.
Last week I revisited Willow River. The small grid of streets was intact, and the general store, miraculously, was still open. Everything else was changed, and not for the better. It felt like a ghost town-in-the-making, the houses rundown, the vegetable gardens grown over with couch grass or submerged by the hulks of logging equipment and wrecked cars abandoned to the elements. The surrounding forests, I can testify from close experience, are nearly as empty as the town, a patchwork of clearcuts and half-hearted reforestation, much of that now doomed lodge-pole pines the pine beetle is exterminating across the north. Even the picturesque bridge that crossed the Willow River is gone, the victim of a too-heavy logging truck. In its place is a single-lane Bailey bridge no one seems too interested in replacing with a permanent structure now that the timber is gone. The only wood going through Willow River today goes through on the train, car after car of plastic-covered spaghetti bundled by Canfor and its subsidiaries for the global marketplace. The only thing new in Willow River, actually, is a slightly cheesy softball diamond at the top of the street grid. The old baseball diamond is gone.
In 1997 the RCMP descended on Willow River to break up a child pornography ring run by a local couple. They were eventually convicted of 19 counts between them, and packed off to jail, the husband as a dangerous offender. But somehow the convictions didn’t make Willow River in 2005 feel like a safe, good place to live. It felt demoralized, empty, squalid. Most of the houses seemed deserted, and the locals that were out and about didn’t seem eager to make eye contact.
I stopped into the general store to see if things were any better there. At first glance the store seemed unchanged—spacious, with bare wooden floors and rafters. Then I noticed it wasn’t exactly thronging with customers, and the shelves were more sparsely stocked than I remembered. At the back a couple of older men were sitting at a table drinking Nescafe, the air around them blue with cigarette smoke. When they saw I was a stranger, they scrambled to hide the astrays. Eventually a middle-aged woman appeared from the back room, and ambled up to the cash register to ask if there was anything I needed help with. I bought a bag of potato chips and a Coke, and asked how things were around town.
She shrugged. “About as good as you can expect these days, I guess.”
I pointed to the souvenir T-shirts hanging in the window. “Too bad you don’t have a Willow River Red Sox hat,” I said. “They were my favourite team when I was a kid.”
“Oh yeah,” she said, mildly interested. “I’ve heard old-timers talk about them. By the time my husband and I bought the store—we’ve been here since 1987—they were long gone by then. A lot of things are gone.”
She didn’t seem distraught about living in Willow River. She was, actually, more cheerfully matter-of-fact than anything. We chatted for a while and then I asked her the question that had been on my mind since I walked in the door: “What happened out here, anyway? The town’s deserted.”
Another shrug. “Well,” she said, “the mill closed, so a lot of the people here aren’t working anymore. They’re here because they can’t afford to live in Prince George. Maybe a few old-timers are still around.”
“This used to be a lively little town. I didn’t see anyone out on the streets.”
She laughed. “They’ve all got satellite TV. They’re doing what everyone out in the country does nowadays. They’re watching television.”
Apr. 7, 2005