Books·How I Wrote It

How Harley Rustad's award-winning magazine article about saving a tree grew into the book Big Lonely Doug

The West Coast journalist on writing about the logging industry, environmental activism, Indigenous land and cultural rights.
Big Lonely Doug is a nonfiction book by Harley Rustad. (Harley Rustad, House of Anansi Press)

When magazine journalist Harley Rustad first documented a story of a logger named Dennis Cronin and the ancient Douglas fir tree he ended up saving, it was in the context of a well-read and much discussed article for The Walrus about environmental conservation and the fight to protect the old-growth trees of the West Coast. 

Rustad's nonfiction book Big Lonely Doug expands on the original award-winning 3,000 word magazine piece to provide more context and insight into the motivation of the characters protecting the majestic tree that presently stands at roughly the height of a 20-storey building on Vancouver Island. 

Below, Rustad discusses how he wrote Big Lonely Doug

Small action, big reaction

"On the surface, the story of Big Lonely Doug is a pretty simple one: it's one guy, one tree and one small action. The big challenge for me was taking this pretty simple story that fits perfectly in 3,000 words and open it up to include more of the history, ecology and character development to answer the question of why that one guy saved this one tree."

Bigger than Big Lonely Doug

"I first started thinking about writing a book during the editorial process for the magazine article. In the end, the piece was about 3,000 words. My editor at The Walrus and I realized there was more material than we could include in print. We just kept cutting so much out, including additional context around the history of logging in the region, the simmering tension between environmental activists and timber workers and also what is currently happening on Vancouver Island and across British Columbia from a Indigenous land and cultural rights perspective.

"I was lucky because, in going from a magazine article to a book, I already had a lot of research completed. I had done a lot of interviews and reached out again to these people to talk more in depth about the topic at hand."

Back to the ground floor

"I naively went into this thinking I could keep the same structure of magazine article and just logically expand it into a book. I quickly realized that wouldn't work. I got stuck, to be honest. I had to go back to the ground floor and do a lot more reading and research to re-imagine a different way of telling this story. That meant digging into archives, talking to more people and reading more news articles documenting the battles between loggers, activists and corporations. It was a lot of work."

Roughing it 

"I'm a pretty visual person when it comes to writing. I do need to see things in front of me. I was lucky because my employer gave me a six-month leave to work on the book. I moved from Toronto back to the West Coast for six months. I was based out of Victoria and spent a lot of time up in Port Renfrew/Cowichan Valley area and up coast. I did a lot of reporting out of my tent and also used a small cabin that I rented in Port Renfrew. I was borrowing my dad's truck to drive through Vancouver Island's Carmanah Valley and up to Clayoquot Sound to explore the back roads.

"I had maps, drawings and structure outlines in planning things out. The place where I was staying was a bit of a mess for months. I also did a good chunk of the writing out of my tent. I didn't have electricity for my computer and my computer has a terrible battery. There were definitely parts of the book that were written by hand." 

Harley Rustad's comments have been edited for length and clarity.