Eyes of Fire: Greenpeace at 35 Years
Published on Friday, September 15, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
Eyes of Fire: Greenpeace at 35 Years
by Rex Weyler

Today is the 35th birthday of Greenpeace. Some of the founders have passed on: Irving Stowe, Ben Metcalf, Davie Gibbons, John Cormack, and Bob Hunter. A new generation of environmentalists face challenges that we did not imagine thirty-five years ago when a little fishboat departed from Vancouver, Canada to sail into a nuclear test zone. The following accounts of that voyage are from my book: Greenpeace (Raincoast Books, Rodale Press): As May Sarton says: “One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.”

The Phyllis Cormack slipped quietly out of Burrard Inlet at dusk on September 15, 1971, past Point Atkinson and Bowen Island and into the gentle roll of the Strait of Georgia, the half-moon high above the port stern. Captain Cormack and Dave Birmingham stood alert in the wheelhouse. Everyone else sat below, drinking wine or beer around the galley table.

Cormack gave the wheel to Birmingham and directed him northwest along the coast. They would cross the strait at the southern tip of Lasquiti Island and then head north-northwest toward Discovery Passage where the open water collapses into treacherous narrows.

Birmingham, a modest man in work clothes and wire-rim glasses, was a no-nonsense, capable, even brilliant, engineer. Cormack confided, “We’ll shape up these hippy farmers and newspaper guys.” The two men could stand for hours without speaking. Then Cormack might say, “Stay outside of White Island there, then ya just head north a’ them lights.”

“Yup,” said Birmingham, and it was done.

. . .

The 66-foot halibut seiner Phyllis Cormack cut through the calm water, far more sound and stately than she may have appeared to Jim Bohlen a year earlier. Marine View Boat Works in Tacoma, Washington built the fish boat in 1941, designed for stability and space, beamy, with massive oak timbers and fine, edge-grain gumwood planks fixed flush with each other against the oak ribs. She rested solidly in the water, not tossing about at each petty stirring of the sea. The wheelhouse and flying bridge stood forward with just enough room at the foredeck for a few coiled lines, two air-intake columns, and the anchor chain. The iron-plough anchor sat out on the bow where a forebrace rose over the wheelhouse to the single mast, rising thirty feet above the cabin, amidships. Metal stabilizing poles stood up from the gunwales on either side of the boat, to be lowered in heavy seas. Off the wheelhouse, outside on the flying bridge, was a second wheel – weathered wood, with eight spokes and knobs, looking to Bob Hunter like the Buddhist eight-fold wheel of the Dharma.

The Greenpeace symbols – a peace sign and an ecology sign – appeared on a great, pale-green, triangular sail, fixed to the mast and to a boom that was lashed securely to the stern. The decks were rough, working decks, tortured by boots and salt, knives, chains, and fallen tools. A large square hatch-cover stood three feet above the afterdeck. Behind that, the deck rose to the stern, where aluminum rollers sat ready to feed seine nets to and from the sea. The boat was painted white and trimmed out in aqua-green, with PHYLLIS CORMACK in black letters at the bow.

The glum engine room and oily bilge notwithstanding, the Phyllis Cormack made for a proud vessel. As beamy and stately as she was, however, this was no pleasure boat. The cabins were small and the gangways tight. Six small, round portholes provided scant light in the confined forward crew cabin, where ten bunks had been crammed for this voyage, although a fishing crew would be smaller. Sleepers had the Northern single-sideband radio hissing above their heads and the diesel engine pounding below them. The captain’s quarters opened from the wheelhouse.

Hunter relished steering and grew fond of both the boat and the skipper. The Phyllis Cormack passed red-barked arbutus, eagles feeding in the eddies, abandoned canneries, and boarded-up hovels swallowed by the forest. As they rounded Chatham Point into Johnstone Strait, Ben Metcalfe raised the marine operator on the single-sideband radio. Metcalfe’s transmission would be broadcast across Canada on the CBC that evening:

“We Canadians started the Greenpeacing of America last night,” he began. “We call our ship the Greenpeace because that’s the best name we can think of to join the two great issues of our times, the survival of our environment and the peace of the world. Our goal is a very simple, clear, and direct one – to bring about a confrontation between the people of death and the people of life.” The crew crowded around the door to listen. “We do not consider ourselves to be radicals. We are conservatives, who insist upon conserving the environment for our children and future generations… If there are radicals in this story, they are the fanatical technocrats who believe they have the power to play with this world like an infinitely fascinating toy of their own. We do not believe they will be content until they have smashed it like a toy. The message of the Greenpeace is simply this: The world is our place … and we insist on our basic human right to occupy it without danger from any power group. This is not a rhetorical presumption on our part. It is a sense and idea that we share with every ordinary citizen of the world.”

. . .

Hunter admired the tough captain. He studied his moods and steered around them carefully. He studied his desires and tried to please him. Cormack, for his part, appreciated the effort and more or less adopted Hunter. The young writer dubbed the Captain, “Lord of the Piston Rings,” and although the elder skipper didn’t recognize the reference to Tolkien, he took it as a compliment.

Cormack, however, could turn ferocious when the crew made minor errors. Darnell opened a can of evaporated milk upside down in the galley, and when Cormack saw it, he shrieked. “Bloody idiots!” He hurled the can overboard and stomped back into the galley. “You damned perfessors don’t know shit!” The Captain grabbed his coffee and disappeared into the wheelhouse. The crew learned from Birmingham that opening cans upside down was considered bad luck and obviously the Captain took it seriously. There were more rules. Hanging cups open end out was also bad luck. Standing in a doorway could prove perilous as the Captain might run you over as if you were invisible. When the skipper entered the galley, anyone sitting at the end of the table would be well advised to slide over and make room. Ignorance of these rules was no defense.

On the third day, the Phyllis Cormack passed through Johnstone Strait and approached the Kwakiutl Indian village at Alert Bay. Cormack informed the crew that they had been invited ashore for a blessing and a gift of salmon. Lucy and Daisy Sewid, the chief’s daughters, met the crew at the dock and escorted them to a formal ceremony in the longhouse. Kwakiutl families came aboard and blessed the ship, and fisherman brought Coho salmon. Daisy Sewid told Hunter that although the Kwakiutl supported Greenpeace, the ceremony was made possible because the fishing families from the village were devoted friends of John Cormack.

The following morning, Hunter filed a column with The Vancouver Sun, by radiophone. He saw something disquieting in the closed canneries and abandoned fish boats along the coast. The Kwakiutl had lived from the bounty of the inland sea for thousands of years before the factory trawlers arrived in the 1960s with their massive drift nets. Catch levels in the North Pacific had reached all-time highs and then crashed. As the Pacific perch, herring, and yellowfin sole disappeared, Japanese and Soviet trawlers moved north after the Bering Sea pollock. By the fall of 1971, the pollock harvest had increased from 175,000 tons per year to almost two million tons per year, and then declined like the other commercial species. Crab and shrimp populations went into decline. Hunter saw in the depressed fishing economies a warning from the environment, a sign that humankind had reached some dangerous Rubicon.

After transmitting his column, Hunter dug into his duffle bag and found the Warriors of the Rainbow. Since the book had first been given to him, he had browsed the stories, and even quoted from it in his new book, The Storming of the Mind. Now, he read with a fresh perspective. He paused at an excerpt from The Ten Grandmothers by Alice Marriott. “Of course you don’t know what it’s about when I sing of the old days,” said the Grandmother. “You’re just calves. You don’t remember. You were born inside the fence, like my own grandchildren.” Hunter found himself weeping on the back deck.

A story called “Return of the Indian Spirit” told of a 12-year-old boy who asked his Great Grandmother, Eyes of Fire, “Why have such bad things happened to our people?” Hunter discovered in the story a confirmation of his feeling in Alert Bay, that the aboriginal people had something important to offer humanity. It impressed him that they didn’t hate the race that had stolen their land. In the story, the old Grandmother tells the boy that there are many good things in the religion of the White race, and that they were sent here to learn about other ways of being. She tells the boy of a prophecy that someday people from all the races of the world will join together to save the earth from destruction and that these people will be known as “Warriors of the Rainbow.”

The Phyllis Cormack passed between Hope Island and Cape Caution, and into Queen Charlotte Sound. Long, lazy swells rolled in from the open ocean, and crewmembers had their first taste of what they would face in the North Pacific. Cormack tucked inside again through a patchwork of narrows, 100 miles north to the Kitasoo fishing village of Klemtu. Cheering Kitasoo children, who had seen their departure on television, met them at the dock. They grabbed the hands of the crew of the Greenpeace and toured the boat. They fawned over the longhaired crewmembers wearing beads and bright colors – Hunter, Moore, and Thurston. They sang nursery rhymes, television theme songs, and national anthems, to entertain their guests. Hunter could not stop the tears from welling in his eyes. These people are counting on us, he thought to himself.

A special appreciation should go out today to Dorothy Stowe, Dorothy Metcalf, Zoe Hunter, Bobbi Hunter, Jim & Marie Bohlen, Paul Watson, and many others who helped create Greenpeace. And a special appreciation to the thousands of Greenpeace volunteers and supporters around the world who keep alive the dream of a green and peaceful world.

. . .

Rex Weyler is a journalist, writer, and ecologist. Between 1974 and 1982, he served as a director of Greenpeace, editor of the Greenpeace Chronicles magazine, and was a co-founder of Greenpeace International.