On Trees, the Wood Economy, and the Most Dangerous Job in America
St. Martin's Press, Hardcover, 9780312368913, 240pp.
Publication Date: March 17, 2009
A Year in the Woods
Brush Cat recounts a year in the life of men who perform one of the most dangerous jobs in America—logging New England’s vast forests for timber used in hundreds more ways than most of us realize, from houses to furniture to paper to electricity. In the spirit of John McPhee and Tracy Kidder, we meet an unforgettable cast of characters; feel their pain and exultation, and come to realize the centrality of wood in all of our lives.
While they are first and foremost loggers cutting down trees, they are also ardent and effective conservationists who depend on healthy, intact forests for their long-term survival. True, some loggers are wood pirates, but most are pragmatic environmentalists, always asking the question: How do we keep this crop alive and thriving forever?
The narrative moves deftly from useful tips on how not to lose body parts to a chain saw, through the terror of huge trees that fall the wrong way, to inconsistent and wrong-headed government forest management. It explores the worldwide demand for wood and wood chips, as well as the effect of climate change on the forest, and traces the money that keeps it all moving. Brush Cat clears the branches to reveal a hidden and fascinating world.
Wall Street Journal
April 1, 2009Hard Work at a Cutting Edge Cold days are good, one logger says, because 'in case of an accident, blood flows significantly slower."By GEOFFREY NORMAN In any gathering of men who take down trees for a living you will see a few battle wounds. Sliced digits. Crooked legs. Scarred faces. Chain saws are fast, powerful and unforgiving, and the ones that the professionals use resemble what the ordinary citizen buys from Home Depot about as much as a Chevy off the lot resembles the Impala SS Jimmie Johnson drove at the Daytona 500. Then there are those dead limbs -- "widow makers" -- that break off as a tree is coming down, whipping through the air and occasionally landing on a logger who considers himself "lucky" if he is merely injured. Hazard also comes from the heavy equipment for bundling logs and moving them out of the woods on greasy skidder trails and along narrow dirt roads. Those bundles can roll over and crush a man if he isn't careful, or even if he is.
In "Brush Cat," Jack McEnany offers a vivid account of the "wood economy" of New Hampshire, never stinting on the danger in this line of work. "According to the U.S. Department of Labor," Mr. McEnany writes, logging is "the most dangerous job in America," handily beating out the number-two killer profession, commercial fishing.
So why do it? What, to use a term from Econ 101, are the incentives? Looking for an answer to that question, Mr. McEnany spent some serious time with loggers -- both in the woods and in the bars where they restore themselves at the end of the day. The answer turns out to be simple -- they do it because they love it. Why they love it is a little harder to figure out.
It is not, certainly, because logging makes them rich. Loggers these days are, for the most part, independent contractors. They do not work directly for the lumber mills because the mills generally don't own any land. So the logger is working for himself. He cruises a piece of property and estimates how much timber of value he can take off it. Once he makes a deal with the landowner, he goes out and starts cutting. He gets paid by what he produces, and he gets his money only when he manages to move his timber to the end-user -- the mill or, more and more often, a plant that generates electricity by burning "biomass" (wood chips).
All this means that he works whenever there is work and whenever the weather permits. A bad wet spell can make the roads and skidder trails impassable. Hot dry weather is OK, but not what loggers prefer: Black flies and other insects swarm in the summer and feed on exposed flesh. A cold day is ideal. The ground is hard and logs slide smoothly over it. Cold days are also good because, according to one of the men Mr. McEnany interviews, "in case of an accident, blood flows significantly slower."
Loggers are heavily invested in their equipment -- not just those industrial-strength chain saws but trucks, chippers and loaders -- so they need to work just to keep up with their costs of capital. The equipment burns gas or diesel lavishly. Thus the price of oil is as important to a logger as it is to a spot-market trader. When housing construction is booming, lumber is in demand and the money rolls in. But housing construction is cyclical, to put it mildly, and it can freeze up tight -- as it has in recent months -- sending the price of timber into free fall. Other challenges plague the logger's peace of mind -- e.g., the seasonal shutdown of roads and the all-season attempts of conservationists to lock up good timberland.
So logging is both physically dangerous and financially vulnerable. But it is also a way of life, and the men Mr. McEnany spends time with plainly wouldn't do anything else so long as they have the choice. Their feeling for the life comes down, in part, to the fact that they are independent. They are moved by that old American desire to be your own boss, even in a tough business.
And there is an art to being a good logger, as Mr. McEnany makes clear; mastering it becomes a source of pride. How to get at a stand of trees is not an easy calculation, for instance -- deciding which ones to take down first (so that falling trees don't hang up in standing ones), making a tree land where it can best be "limbed." Like just about anyone who has been around a real professional at work, Mr. McEnany feels something approaching awe at the expertise on display. There are the simple things, like the ability to pull a rat-tail file across the teeth of a chain saw just so and in a few efficient strokes sharpen it up and get back to work. Other skills strike Mr. McEnany as almost sublime. When he watches a logger use the "open-notch" method of felling a tree, he is, he says, "smitten, mildly euphoric, actually excited about cutting trees."
The open-notch method requires sticking the nose of the chain saw directly into the trunk of a tree instead of cutting horizontally. It isn't something that an amateur should ever try, and an OSHA inspector would probably faint dead away if he saw it being done. Do it wrong and the saw -- with the blade turning at about 1,000 revolutions per minute -- will come back into your face. Emergency-room doctors in small rural hospitals know the effects of "kickback" as well as their urban counterparts know gunshot wounds.
"Running a chainsaw all day for a living," Mr. McEnany writes, "is an extraordinary acceptance of personal responsibility." A logger -- or "brush cat," as Mr. McEnany calls him, preferring that term to "brush monkey," a common but less flattering one -- cannot control the price of lumber or oil or the many other variables that affect his bottom line. But at the actual point of professional contact, when he is taking down, say, a 60-foot-high hemlock, a logger holds his life and his livelihood in his own two hands. Not many of us ever experience that feeling.
Mr. Norman is a Vermont writer and editor of Vermonttiger.com.