It is the 50th anniversary of Ken Kesey’s iconic novel Sometimes a Great Notion. You can’t have lived along the Oregon coast, especially if your family are loggers, and not felt some kind of kinship with that book and the movie that followed. It told of what it is like to live on the edge of the world and fight against the odds to maintain a toehold in an industry that chews up the strongest kinds of people. I come from people that were unwilling to give up or give in to the confines of a place or an era or a lot in life. I come from people that were willing to take on the challenge to fight for a way of life, to persevere, to stick together, to be brave. I am an Oregonian and I’m proud to say I am a logger’s daughter.
I don’t think there is anyone who saw the movie version of Sometimes a Great Notion that will ever forget the moment when Paul Newman holds his cousin as he is being sucked under the water to certain death, drowned by the forces of a livelihood that is cruelly impartial when it comes to taking the lives of its workers. Many will forget what makes up the fabric of this raw and unyielding story or what Kesey was talking about in terms of the harsh and hard Stamper family with their “never give a inch” credo. What they take away is the heart breaking death scene of a favorite character in the arms of his family and at the feet of their business. The losses are real as are the tragedies, the triumphs and the politics but there was more to it than that.
Long before logging was the political debate that it is today lumbermen were seen as larger than life, heroic, formidable men. I come from such men. My father was an Oregon logger and my grandfather was an Oregon logger. My Grandpa died dodging the end of a choker when it broke loose from its logs. As he jumped out of the way of that flying death he was still a young man who was trying to patch up the relationship with his oldest son after years of tension and conflict. They had made a good start in the year leading up to that day. Trying to put behind them the ravages of a broken family and the ruthlessness of the Depression and WWII. Then on that fateful day in the Oregon woods, in that moment of flight, my grandfather missed his footing, gave his inch, broke his neck and was gone forever. A victim of the tenuous life he had chosen and passed on to his son.
It was during that time that the Stampers’ world came to life on the page drawing the reader into the land of big trees, rugged men, and the women who stood along side of them. To literature it is a great work of fiction but for me, this logger’s way of life, was reality. Ours is, much like Kesey’s novel, a story of hard fought battles against an unforgiving environment in a place where civilization was barely clinging to the edge of the rocks along the shore like so much debris. But isn’t that the essence of Kesey’s story? The story of a family who for generations were driven by the need for freedom of choice and from the oppression of constantly being forced to live by the rules of others; to have a place of their own to live as they chose?
In 1956 my family was faced with the heartbreaks that often accompanied the life of a gyppo (independent) logger in Oregon. Then much like now, being independent and without the weight of a corporation behind you, the little guys often took a beating and in the end were forced to give up the fight and move on. When like many, my parents were faced with the loss of what little they had they had to make a choice. Did they hang on and try to find a different kind of work or move to the City or did they go somewhere else and start over? In the end my folks decided to start over and moved to the last frontier rather than let failure keep them down. They picked up stakes to try their luck in a different forest, in a different state to achieve their goals, to make their way, to log, to survive, and perhaps to prosper.
It was a daring move and fraught with the uncertainty of beginning life in the middle of nowhere. They were poor and getting poorer after the Depression and WWII had taken what little ground they had to stand on right out from under them. They were both born into poverty and yet they were not defined by it. Nor did they let the realities of their upbringing and the state of the world into which they were born render them hopeless. Instead they were convinced that there could be more for them, a better life for their children. They were willing to leave everything and everyone they knew to start fresh. They were willing to move to Alaska. It was a hard and grueling life especially in the beginning but it was a glorious childhood that they gave me. Living in camps that were filled strong men and forests of unequaled portions taught me a love of the earth, a respect for its fickle nature and a connection to the earth as rooted as the trees that grew there. Filled with the raw beauty of a world unspoiled by the tread of civilization and undaunted by the mandates of society I was raised to appreciate the woods, nature, the sea and all that they offered up to us.
As Ken Kesey sat at his typewriter putting down on paper the words of his gripping novel, I was living in a culture where the triumphant and tragic larger than life tales of working in the woods on the edge of the world were still being played out. Men in caulk boots walked the floors of my mother’s cabin leaving countless holes in the wood to document their passing. We were a part of the fabric of that time and that place. Kesey created his fictional story of a fiercely independent family clinging to their spot and as he did my family labored to carve out a life in the reality that was logging in the 1950’s.
To give up everything they knew in exchange for the tenuous life of a logger in the land of the midnight sun seems both courageous and crazy and it was in fact both. We had to learn how to use our ingenuity, to live off of the land and to respect the elements and the earth. We learned to subsist where there were no interstates or ATM’s, no bus or taxi to take you out of town when the going got rough, no easy way out, no escape hatch and we took the lessons to heart. It was a life of independence and hard work, and as a result hard work does not frighten me. I became skilled in woodcraft. It was a rite of passage to be able to light a one-match fire. I learned how to check my back trail so that I wouldn’t get lost going home. I knew how to shoot a gun and hit my mark, cast a rod, and spear a crab all before I was 10 years old. As a result, I can walk through uninhabited wilderness and feel at home and because of that I know how to walk into a crowd of strangers and not lose myself. I know how to be observant and quiet but have no fear of taking quick action. I know now that I have the skills to survive in the real world and on the cruel streets of any city.
It is these values and strengths that my logging family passed on to me. They are in fact the attributes that define much of who I am today. While big corporations may have other motivations, a logging life isn’t just about wantonly cutting down trees. These skills, this respect for the land and nature, these make up the character of the logging culture I grew up in. Whether in Oregon or Alaska or anywhere that loggers ply their trade, it was growing up in logging camps and the tough men and women that make up the core of that culture to which I owe my fortitude, tenacity, and as my Mom would say my pluck or as others would say, my stubborn resilience.
I have often thought about how grateful I am for my upbringing. It is to that fierce independent spirit that is part and parcel of being a logger’s daughter that I owe my ability to stand up for myself and to live life on my own terms. And for that and so much more I am sincerely proud to say, that I AM a logger’s daughter.