Winner of the 14th Annual Oregon Quarterly Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.
Although I live 2,900 miles away now, the smell of wood chips on a suburban lawn still makes me think of the Oregon woods and the years I moonlighted as a freelance writer for a logging trade magazine. Perhaps "daylighted" would be a better word, for I went out in the woods days, while putting the finishing touches on my master's thesis nights. The switch from the abstract concerns of a grad-student grind at the University of Oregon to the earthbound duties of a freelance writer slogging through muddy forests was, in its way, as radical as the shift that came a few years later when I moved for an editing job from cool, misty, far-left Eugene to hot, sunny, far-right southwest Florida.
In Eugene, my graduate teaching fellowship at an end and my funds deflating, I answered a call in the Register-Guard classifieds for a writer for TimberWest. The magazine's subtitle—The Journal of Logging and Sawmills—said it all. Hesitant about covering the demonized logging industry, I nevertheless welcomed even the minimal cash infusions freelancing promised while I finished my thesis on Ambrose Bierce, whom I'm sure would have delighted in my ethical quandary. Like most at the UO in the early 1990s, I considered myself an environmentalist. Could a tree hugger learn to love logging? Soon enough, I got a chance to find out, when the magazine's owner, John Nederlee, called. The job was straightforward. I'd write about logging crews scattered throughout Oregon, chronicle their daily challenges and how they overcame them, and photograph the machinery—lovingly referred to as "iron"—they used to cut, limb, and buck trees into logs, stack them in decks, load them onto trucks, and transport them to the hungry mills waiting in the Willamette Valley.
I knew nothing about logging and labored under the sort of Disneyfied misconception about the work that most Americans have of many things in life. In our Hollywood-saturated culture, life may not imitate art; but in the minds of many, life does imitate movies. Soon enough I learned that the industry differed radically from my cartoonish conceptions of stout, bearded lumberjacks toting axes and crosscut saws. Even chainsaws seemed like quaint relics compared to the big, computerized machines that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece and did the bulk of the work in the woods. To compete in a cutthroat business, most loggers had to use this machinery, which could saw through two-foot-diameter trees in seconds and stack 100-foot logs like a man chucking cordwood in a pile. Many of these machines were advertised in the magazine's glossy pages.
The job seemed simple enough, despite the moral quandaries involved, but it did present some challenges. "Shows," as the loggers called their work, typically took place in remote places far distant from paved roads. More than once my 1986 diesel Ford Escort bogged down to its axles in mud, and loggers had to take a break from their work to pull me out. That was embarrassing, but not as bad as the occasional near-collision with fully laden log trucks coming around blind curves as they roared down narrow logging roads. Eventually I learned to avoid them by buying and using a CB radio tuned to the truckers' channel.
Inured to their lives in the woods, the loggers took a far more relaxed view of the many dangers of their work than I. One blithely told me tales of crew and family members getting squished—his word—by falling trees, snags, or limbs. "Widowmakers," he called them. A hook tender for a crew I visited one chilly winter day in the Coast Range told me that a coworker had been decapitated a few weeks earlier by a steel cable used to reel in logs through the forest. This was all in a day's work for tough men who seemed remarkably amiable despite the tales they told of bloody Saturday-night brawls in the little bars that dotted the foothills nearby.
Yet somehow this hard and violent life seemed as refreshing as a whiff of fir-scented air to someone more often stuck inside the cloistered confines of Knight Library squinting at century-old microfilmed newspapers, or in an overheated classroom listening to dry-as-dust professors drone on about theories of social responsibility. Strangely, I found my biggest challenge to be learning the loggers' lingo. These people spoke an almost entirely alien language. Seldom more than 100 miles from the UO's J-school, working above little logging towns like Sweet Home, Mill City, Willamina, and Lebanon, I sometimes felt as if I were trying to communicate with a group as exotic, say, as the Trobriand Islanders one of my professors liked to cite in lectures. These loggers rattled on, often incomprehensibly (at least at first), about towers, talkie-tooters, skylines, mainlines, carriages, tailholds, spar trees, squirt booms, feller-bunchers, forwarders, decks and landings, choker setters, hook tenders, chasers, buckers, fallers, crummies, grapple Cats, loaders, shovels, skidders, stroke delimbers, and turns.
One man had to explain to me that the mistletoe he was complaining about was a parasite on trees rather than a cheery relic of Christmases past, as I'd surmised.
Attempting to describe the show he was working on, another explained, "We're working with a Timberjack harvester with a harvester-processor head and a Valmet forwarder, a clambunk forwarder, and long-log forwarder, with four sorts, but there's a lot of dog hair." Translation: He was using a super-fast machine to fall, limb, and buck trees into logs to be picked up by a fleet of tractor-like contraptions with attached wagons to be hauled and stacked in four different piles according to species and size, but the thickly forested terrain covered with spindly trees—the dog hair—was making the job slow and difficult.
Loggers didn't eat lunch; they put on the nosebag, a term dating to the days of horse logging. At the ancient Hull-Oakes steam-powered mill in Bellfountain, which specialized in processing old-growth logs the size of freight cars, the venerable Ralph Hull, bearded like an Old Testament patriarch but dressed in a striped logging shirt and stiff black logger pants, looked as if he'd stepped out of a photo from the 1930s (which is when he started in the business) as he explained his operation to me. After mentioning the pond monkey's part in the process and seeing my puzzled look, he pointed to the mill pond, where the resident pond monkey, a gangly man in a small vessel called a boom boat, was pushing logs around to feed into the mill.
Eventually, after many questions, all answered patiently and politely, I came to learn the language of logging. I like to think that I came to understand the loggers, too. Had they committed a world of sins? Perhaps. I particularly remember one older logger's sly grin as he reminisced about how much old growth he and his company had taken out of the woods in logging's heyday back in the 1960s. But those days were gone, we both knew, and as he drove me to a quiet, secret spot, a cathedral-like grove of old growth that had somehow escaped the industrial maw of modern logging, he seemed glad it had been spared.
Still, no one showed guilt or contrition. In these men's eyes, they and their forebears had supplied the raw materials that not only built the state and the country, but laid the economic base of a pyramid atop which we stood and looked down. This was so, even if we academics were oblivious to these men's lives as we sat on chairs perhaps lathed out of Oregon wood in the warmth of our classrooms heated by hog fuel, and wrote our conclusions about social responsibility on paper that might have been made in some Northwestern mill.
These men and their culture, in their way, seemed as threatened as any we might have studied farther afield. In just 15 years, one logging company's payroll had declined from 125 employees to 25, the owner told me. If the short-term economics of industrial logging were as much pyramid scheme as economic pyramid, inflated in a housing bubble pumped up by a culture enslaved by growth, was that the loggers' fault? They were born to the business, second- and third-generation loggers cutting second- and third-growth forests, struggling to survive. In the heat of a Florida day, when I smell cedar chips freshly spread in the yards of suburban McMansions, many of them empty or in foreclosure, I sometimes wonder if they have.
Daniel Lindley, MS '93, is a writer and editor who lives in Naples, Florida. He is the author of Ambrose Bierce Takes on the Railroad and coauthor of The President's Pianist.