From that place of collective amnesia, or wishful dreaming, called a highway, I spotted a billboard advertisement declaring a stand of identical trees, as neat and regular as a monogram embroidered by machine, a “working forest.” The construction-orange color scheme reinforced this image of trees at work except that unlike the human workers filling in potholes farther down the road, the trees’ work consists of the seemingly effortless process of putting on weight/wood. Yet at the end of their years-long workday, instead of returning home, they are transformed into things humans either value, like their homes, or use and discard, like napkins. The labor of trees seems easy until one remembers that it ends by sacrificing the employee.
The harsh parallels between the work of industrial trees and the human captives of industry continued to unfold for me along that stretch of highway devoted to soothing delusion—where there was no beauty strips to bandage the vegetative carnage, the sign was intended to soften the construction-site roughness of clearcuts reaching clear to the road.
My paternal grandfather was a World War I combat veteran who volunteered with a French unit years before the United States entered the war. He returned from the spectacle of slaughter industrial in scale and anonymity, enabled by the mechanical “triumphs” of machine guns and heavy artillery, to be ground down eventually by body-breaking labor for peacetime industry. His lungs, weakened by exposure to mustard gas on the battlefield, limited his employment prospects to working outdoors. If he had lived in a rural area, that might have led to a logging job. Since he lived in Brooklyn, New York, he ended up working for a plumbing supplier, loading pallets, laden with huge pipes, onto trains. He survived one of the failed offensives to which Great War veterans applied logging metaphors—soldiers as grist for a mill of death, cut down in the prime of life, corpses stacked like wood or splintered into pieces by shellfire that also blasted forests into deserts of dust—only to be “harvested” by work.
Like the trees, he didn’t complain.
Military historians attribute the catastrophe of the First World War, among other things, to generals whose antiquated strategies had not kept pace with the technology of the era and who remained safely in the rear, distant from the misery of the trenches. Yet, as the visible face of war, soldiers often receive the opprobrium for decisions they did not make. The same blame can too easily be turned upon the loggers on the front lines of post-modernity’s war against trees : those who wield the chain saws and the other equipment that demolishes forests and leaves behind a landscape unsettlingly reminiscent of the battlefields my grandfather slogged through.
I wonder how often the “generals” of forest-product corporations visit the clearcuts and view the devastation for themselves. And if they do, do they perceive their surroundings as the wreckage of an ecosystem or as a lawn that has been mowed, as easily regrown as grass? So often we hear the reassurance, “Forestry professionals have to replant twice as many trees as are cut down.” But how often is this done (as opposed to paying a fine), and what steps are taken to ensure that the trees survive? Do the replanters attempt to restore the variety of species and ages of trees found in a natural forest, or are the new inhabitants all the same age and variety, like food crops in a vegetable garden? These are some of the questions I strive to answer in my exploration of the employed forest near my home.
And then there are the consumers, noncombatants who benefit from the labor of trees. Paper has not yet become the pulpy dinosaur that futurist epithets like “the paperless society” have touted. Consider how often paper products pass through our hands: coffee cups, napkins, paper towels, paper bags, the morning paper, memo-pad squares…all the products of another invisible working class, the working trees.
Since I first climbed the maple in the backyard of my childhood home, I have befriended trees. I harbor joyful memories of that tree and others, sensuous in their specificity: the black bark dust the maple shed when I took hold of its branches, the smooth gray outer layer of an enormous beech tree, more like skin than any other bark I’d seen, the fascinating rectangular tags of bark found on the terminal twigs of a Dutch elm… Around the same time, I started my writing life with poems and little stories, inscribed on the bodies of trees.
Because I am both a friend to trees and a participant in their unwilling sacrifices, I’m compelled to chronicle their changing workplace behind my house. Maps already exist of the numerous gravel roads that bring log trucks in and out of the forest, but by mapping the roads and naming both the stands of living trees and the clearcuts that fracture the forest, I strive for understanding, memorial, and perhaps redemption: work on behalf of the trees who have been forced to work for me. You are welcome to accompany me on my journey as I share what I learn from the trees you and I have, intentionally or unintentionally, hired.
Look for more discussion of similar issues in future posts.