Western Montana, 1986
Our burn crew worked the eastern faces of the Mission Mountains in the fall, from the foothills stepping above the Seeley and Swan valleys to just below their ragged peaks. We would crummy up at seven in the morning at the Plum Creek office on the north edge of Seeley Lake, then drive to the designated unit we were slated to burn that day.
Seeley Lake is a forest town, tiny and ephemeral compared to the eternal peaks rising above it, nestled deep within a deeply forested land. Much of that land is public, managed by the Forest Service for wilderness, timber production and for other things. Most of the rest is owned by Plum Creek, managed for the quarterly statement.
Plum Creek is the corporate heir to the Northern Pacific legacy, the millions of acres of timberlands stolen from the First People who occupied them, then gifted by the culprits to Great Northern Railroad in the 1860s to sweeten the deal for the company to complete their northern-tier transcontinental rail. That’s how it was in those days, and still is. Steal the Land, then give it to someone else, like a railroad company who morphs into a timber company, then into a real estate company[i], and then into something else and just so, this was the Civil War-era legacy our burn crew waded to work into each morning. Wilderness to our back with the quarterly statement at our front. Heaven and hell screaming at each other.
The other big landowner in the Seeley-Swan, the Forest Service, was also a timber-cutting outfit in its own right. Chainsaws and tank-tread technologies crawling out of the back ends of two world wars arrived in force, created the potential. A sustained housing boom demanding cheap federal timber created the market, and for a couple of decades after World War Two the haughty foresters were given a free hand at squeezing every stick of timber out of every public acre they could reach with their preferred wound, the logging road. These were the times when the American template, her suburbs and shopping malls, her throwaway soul, were born and the chainsaws and bulldozers ate the forests alive, happily and efficiently for a while, and it was fast and not pretty.
Then, after about two decades, the inevitable happened. Reasonable people started reasoning, which happens in nominal democracies like ours from time to time, and occasionally that sort of thing has consequences.
“This Forest Service,” they reasoned, “is a public entity, isn’t it?”
Of course it is, they reasoned back.
“And aren’t we at least a nominal democracy?”
Yes, can’t argue there.
“So shouldn’t this Forest Service,” they reasoned louder, more confidently, “at least ask us, the public, first before they go ahead and strip our lands clean of its epic forests?”
Of course they should, and as occasionally happens in this country, an unusual number of politicians who were getting an earful from angry constituents agreed, because this was the sixties and seventies, those golden years of political hope and upheaval for anyone to the left of Richard Nixon. A raft of federal laws were forced upon land agencies by an awakened public more concerned with new-fangled concepts like ecology than with old-fangled ones like quarterly statements. The National Environmental Protection Act, the National Forest Management Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Wilderness Act, all these damnable acts!
The upshot was that the Forest Service was told to tone it down a bit, mandated by law to do so, but just a bit. They were directed to put some biologists and soil technicians on staff along with their foresters, or at least a couple of landscape architects for god’s sake! Hide the clearcuts, behind some geological contours, behind some trees, round off their edges, pretty things up a little, make them look more natural, less linear, so the People will quit their bitching. And that, dear reader, is how our government foresters segued themselves into the latter 20th Century, and became singularly but only slightly restricted in their abilities in laying down square-mile sections of trees within their care at a swath.
“Clearcutting,” the industry-subsidized Forest History Society still instructs us, “remains the silvicultural timber harvest method of choice, especially in the private sector, but…restrictions by various forest and ecosystem plans have made clearcutting on the national forests mostly a memory.” They were proud, in other words, of being able to do such a glorious thing, and still are, and they’ve never forgiven those who would presume to crimp their style, and maybe they never will. Don’t worry, then, about what you cannot change.
Plum Creek lands, on the other hand, are private property and so are not managed by any sort of nominal democracy or damnable act. Epic forests that existed within the linear boundaries of their land were seen as assets, and Plum Creek just went ahead and stripped those epic forests in square-mile blocks without asking anybody[ii].
A square-mile block of obliterated forest overlain on steep mountain terrain is hard to visualize, but it’s possible and here’s how. Next time you find yourself flying over a mountainous public forests intermingled with private lands in Western Montana, look out the window. You will visualize, from thirty thousand feet, a massive checkerboard, just like the square-mile sections on a Forest Service map, or cornfields in Nebraska. So tidy in such a jumbled-up country, neat squares of surveyed devastation that can be accurately described as nothing, if not engineered projections to the Universe of human hubris over reality: linear chaos. For us working through them on the ground, they were merely the distorted ecological disasters that they were, the massive jackstraw remnants of centuries-old forests bulldozed into windrows for our crew to burn. Don’t worry, these linear blocks of former forests would say to you if you were to look out your window. You can’t change it.
At seven in the morning at the Plum Creek office, though, we weren’t worried about anything. It was too early. Most of us were treeplanters and thinners, wildland firefighters and wilderness trail workers, local hippies and rednecks conditioned to the rigors of woods work and to the various levels of landscape-sized catastrophes we would daily wade through. We were playing the odds, at this late-fall point, between summer wages and unemployment. By late October we were done with our truly backbreaking season, looking to pad off the last few weeks with some laid back work before we set our jaw against another stretch of unavoidable winter that would shut our good-paying work down. Why not, we mused, saunter around the skinned-off hills for a few weeks with nothing heavier to carry than a drip torch and a hard hat? You don’t even need to bend over much on a burn crew, you just drip your fire down into the sweet spots of the massive slash and walk on into the autumn of the Mission Mountains, which is the definition of beauty even if your job was walking through catastrophes, which ours was. At seven o’clock each morning, then, we only concerned ourselves with knowing that we were heading towards another burn unit, and we only sought help in interpreting what we knew was coming.
Our drive to any particular unit within the long and gorgeous Seeley-Swan country took anywhere from thirty minutes to two hours, depending on the location of the unit in relation to Seeley Lake, but we always drove slowly to the unit of the day. This was partly because of Plum Creek’s inscrutable corporate reasoning to pay us by the hour for going to work but not to pay us for coming home. There was clearly a jaded bean counter somewhere in the Plum Creek offices who thought she could get the best of us, but no one’s as jades as a professional treeplanter, So we always made sure we gave ourselves plenty of driving time even if the unit was close, so we could smoke up whatever shake or bud was riding with our crewmates in their lunch pails and be hooting happy-- which as far as we could tell was the central goal of forest work--when we arrived on the scene to divvy up our drip-torches. It was such a little victory each morning, but if you haven’t done so already, give yourself a few years of industrial-scale grunt work and you’ll learn the same truth that every other class of laborer who’s ever graced the planet in the last few thousand years has learned and passed on. Little victories add up. Plum Cree, zero. Treeplanters, one. Move on.
Drip torches are funny-looking, task-specific tools, gallon-sized cans made of thick aluminum filled with a mixture of diesel fuel and kerosene. A large handle is welded to their side and a curly spout on top keeps the torch at its tip from lighting any more of the mixture than the flaming drip with which it was our job to immolate the landscape of the day. They cost about a hundred bucks at any forestry supply store, and were very durable. In fact they seemed to last forever. Our drip torches bounced around jauntily on top of our crummies in their homemade angle iron racks. These crummies of ours were two beat-up suburbans carrying anywhere from six to ten workers each and when we finally arrived and piled out of the dirt-caked rigs into a crisp fall Mission Mountain morning in jolly confusion and thread-bare work clothes, we looked like the atavistic pilgrims from another time that we were, maybe Okies from the thirties, if anyone had been looking, which they weren't.
After work, and because of Plum Creek’s scheduling fetish, we drove dangerously fast back to town, because remember: they weren’t paying us to drive home, where we’d again pile out of the crummies and into our favorite bar—I’ll call it the Wilderness Bar—located right in downtown Seeley. Many times as fall’s early dark tamped its paw down on the town outside, we’d be inside sipping Miller’s on tap and slipping quarter-sized chunks of our paychecks into the poker machines under the dusty, watchful eyes of the dead deer and elk mounted on the blackening log walls around us. We loved this bar. It even came complete with one-sentence homilies to sanctify our particular brand of worship.
“GOD IS A COWBOY”, declared a cobwebbed script in lariat rope above the bathrooms on one end of the bar, and we agreed that this was a reasonable statement. Weren’t we were squandering our winter-survival funds after our days’ saunter out in the mountains? How much more godlike can you get?
A little more problematic was the competing assertion scripted in chainsaw-chain above the bar’s main entrance: “THE LORD IS A LOGGER”. After wandering all day through massive Plum Creek clear cuts, experiencing first-hand what this God had in mind for us and ours, we weren’t so sure. But both sentiments were heartfelt, sanctified by a dirty glaze of nicotine, spiderwebs and drunken thoughts aimed upward, and all things being equal, we loved this bar.
One crisp fall day we drove up to what had been an old-growth cedar grove, tucked into the folds of a steep drainage within the mid-elevation skirts of the Mission Mountains. It was one of several old-growth stands located only where proper elevation and moisture allowed monsters, and this, too, was holy ground. Monsters these certainly were, who had contemplated peaks housing spirits of even more-ancient ones for centuries. Hundred foot high dead tops, scrubbed to their characteristic bones by uncountable winter blizzards lifting the hair off of peaks, lacing prayers into the wind. We knew who they were, just as we knew that these prehistoric devourers of carbon were alive when the great comet called Europe crashed into the western hemisphere, the comet only the size of three Spanish galleons, the crater ending up blasting out to about the size of the moon, lopsiding everything. This cedar grove, we could clearly see through our good-time haze, was part of that crater. An obvious part.
The whole grove had been lain down. Six-to-eight-foot diameter trunks horizontal in pick-up-sticks disarray, the slash of their trunks mixed into their upper canopies twenty feet deep in places. It was an immense mess, and that day, with my flaming drip-torch dangling from my gloved hand, my boots hardly touched the forest floor far below me, which, prior to a few months previous, had seen no more than mottled spots of sunlight for hundreds of years, even on the hottest summer days. It had been covered with lush fern mixed with low-growing foamflower, trillium, grouseberry and almost nothing else. Starting next Spring, after we got done with it, it would see as much sun as a Wal-Mart parking lot.
The stand had been destroyed because of a quirk in Montana tax law, which valued standing timber on private lands as “inventory”, subject to a tax. Since taxes are not good for quarterly statements, the Plum Creek managers decided to cut down vast tracts of timber lying within their Western Montana holdings, including this cedar grove, and then burn them, soley for the purpose of liquidating their inventory, thus avoiding the tax. There was no local market for the cedar. The mills weren’t taking it because of the glut from Canada. But Plum Creek had done its math correctly. The land was worth more to them destroyed than whole, even without any receipts for the cedar wood because Plum Creek was not obligated to concern itself with such romantic and hard-to-define notions as ecological disasters. It was only obligated to concern itself with the quarterly statement. Simple. Please allow me repeat that one more time: Quarterly Statement.
Gifford Pinchot, the man credited with introducing the industrial version of what’s now known as the “conservation ethic” to Western Civilization, saw this coming and he had something to say about it.
“Many thousand square miles of forest have been ruined by reckless lumbering because heavy taxes forced the owners to realize quickly and once for all upon their forest land, instead of cutting it in a way to insure valuable future crops. For the same reason many counties are now poor that might, with reasonable taxation of timber land, have been flourishing and rich.”
He enshrined this economic tenet in his 1905 “Use Book”, one of the Forest Service's very first publications in a long, long line of many, and in most aspects Pinchot aimed his long career at curbing the European proclivity for seeing forests as a problem that needed fixing.
“The old fairy tales,” he underscored for his fellow travellers of white privilege in another book “which spoke of (the forest) as a terrible place are wrong.” And it’s true, that for several decades, Pinchot was successful in making “conservation logging” synonymous with “forestry” in the minds of those who worked the Land. But old habits die hard, and inevitably, after a mere few decades and in the name of “forestry”, along came this cedar grove.
Anyone who owns a home with a cedar roof and has sweated out a wildland fire within spitting distance of worry knows that cedar holds an excellent flame once you get it going, which doesn’t take much, and as we dripped our flames into the brown sweet spots that were so recently the canopy of greater trees than we were human, we could see that this unit was dry enough. This cedar unit would go up in one giant puff.
And so it did. But the art of a burn crew is to release such inert and dangerous chaoses in as orderly and safe a manner as eight bucks an hour can buy, and so we took our time. After all, this was supposed to be laid-back fall work.
About mid-morning, I looked back at what we’d lit so far. I was standing, as I had been many times that day, high off the ground with my drip torch dangling, its diesel flame dripping downward. The whole mountainside was a curtain of flame, pure orange heat. It was amazing to think that we had been standing there an hour before, that we had unleashed that much energy with so little of our own, and my face became cherry-hot as much by the thought as by the nearest conflagration about a hundred feet away, which I had lit.
At that moment my drip torch lit a sweet spot directly below my boots. It caught and spread willingly, like they all did that day, and before I had time to realize it, I was in some sort of danger, maybe the same kind that got Joan of Arc and those other martyrs who played with fire into their trouble. Maybe I’m wrong about them, but I had a lighting-quick revelation that day anyway, that you don’t necessarily have to be smart to be a martyr.
Usually I was much more careful, although excitement is part of the attraction of woods work, and we sometimes courted it. This was a bit much, though, which a crewmember crawling over the debris nearby pointed out to me by screaming wildly and trying to cuss me off the pile I’d accidentally lit under myself.
I had enough presence of mind to jump down and try to worm my way out through tangled branches as thick as my torso. But the problem was my boots. They were stupid. That is to say, they were steel-toed, high-heeled logging boots, the kind I never wore. Usually in woods work I wore tennis shoes, because they were lighter and allowed me to be more nimble when in a tangle or when doing piecework like treeplanting. The more nimble you are in piecework the faster you are and the more money you make. That’s not complicated. Logger boots are, though. They’re heavy and they slow you down, and I never used them, for piecework or for anything else. But Plum Creek paid us by the hour and didn’t require us to be nimble, or even fast. What they required was for us to wear stupid, steel-toed logger boots, which were almost always made with an inexplicably-high heel like you were cowboy working from a horse. White’s were the only logger boot that was designed correctly enough so the heel wasn’t a liability. You could buy them custom fit to your foot if you wanted. But they cost two hundred bucks and I wasn’t going to pay top dollar for an eight-dollar-an-hour job. So I bought the cheapest logger boots I could find at Missoula’s Army-Navy store, “Gorillas” at fifty bucks a pair, no sales tax in Montana. They featured block-like high heels attached to floppy souls that buckled under you more often than not, and made you stumble even on level ground.
About halfway down from the twenty foot pile, one of the heels plunged itself between two thumb-thick branches of slash and I became stuck as a lamb chop caught between the grids of a barbeque grill. I looked down at the progress of the fire starting to rumble beneath me and this is when I got my first excellent view of the Afterlife, the transformation, the vaporization of gases and ages into pure yellow heat fringed with waving orange flame.
As any adrenaline junkie knows, there’s an indescribably-pleasurable rush in seeing your own end before it happens. Maybe that’s all that martyrs look for after all, and if that’s the case then virtually anyone could qualify to be one, and within a blink of time that doesn’t even count as thought, I realized that, since you obviously don’t have to be a genius either to be a martyr, I could be one, too.
That’s when my stupid, steel-toed logger boots sprouted wings. Right then, magic, the very ingredient in life that we kill ourselves seeking, and I was once more the expert slash climber Plum Creek was paying me eight bucks an hour to be. I leapt, wormed and crept, bursting away from the slash like an action-movie hero and I was out well before the flames took their final run to the top of the pile and all those centuries of beautiful carbon sequestration became one with the belchings of a coal-fired power plant in someone’s China or Texas. It really is a small world, always has been, and getting smaller every day.
But magic, at least, is funny, especially when you look back at it. Therefore I’ll admit that maybe it wasn’t quite as close a call as I remember, but that’s all I’ll admit, because isn’t it also funny how we remember things? Impression leading into detail, not vise versa, an upside-down imprint. It happens all the time. Ask any martyr.
So here’s my secret. The real problem for me that day in the cedar grove was that someone had put some really good bud in their lunch pail that morning, and in our righteous, working-class glory we had smoked a good bit of it up before we arrived at the job site. By the time I was standing on top of the world as I had formerly known it, I was crying.
A wall of fire, maybe the devil’s own face, laughed back at us as we drove down the crooked mountain fast, hit the blacktop of the valley and zipped down into Seeley Lake. We parked our dirty crummies in front of the Wilderness Bar, piled out once more to gamble our paychecks away a quarter at a time, drank to forget, especially about irony, which is only a human construct after all. Nature is what she is, and she ain’t what she ain’t. But irony, that’s the face of the new attack—maybe the final one—on Nature by her human wards.
There is a sickness passing through the Land, and it will consume us if we don’t identify it and take the necessary steps. The sickness is plainly evident everywhere, in everything we touch and do and our current prospects are dismal because of it.
No, this sickness has been around a long time, and nothing we touch or do anymore is immune nor can it be otherwise. It will consume us if we don’t fight back. But fight what?