Whistling is Martin Melville, 2012.
Below is the written version:
The Forest Products Industry in Pennsylvania has traditionally been an important part of the state’s economy and culture. Loggers are an essential part of the chain of production, yet they are often maligned and generally invisible. The goal of this project is to give them faces, for it is harder to stereotype when you know those who don’t fit the stereotype.
This writing/podcast project covers Pennsylvania, for there are loggers in every county. Most of them work and live in rural areas, but with the advent and continuation of urban sprawl, suburban and even urban logging is becoming more common. Many of us are introverts, or at the least, private people who would sooner be left to our work. We find, though, that the world will not leave us alone.
Matthew Keefer notes that while many loggers profess Christian faith, there is not a statistically valid correlation between profession of faith and on the ground practice. I would observe that in American society today, there is little, if any, linkage between work and spirituality. My own understanding of ministry as the Work of God is present in my understanding that those who have no voice or are invisible (i.e. loggers in this case) should be heard and seen. As ye have done to the least of these, so have ye done to me (Matt. 25:40)
Loggers are generally an under studied population. When I contacted the Forestry department at Penn State, there was a good understanding of their place in the supply chain, but no one could speak to their culture or lives. I contacted the Sociology Department at Penn State, figuring that rural sociology gets studied, but they sent me over to the Forestry Dept., where I had already been. I am aware of another ESR student who is doing an interview project among the gay population in Indianapolis. While both of us focus on oppressed populations, my sense is that his direction is different.
Historical & Structural Context.
Agriculture is the number one industry here. For the purposes of classification, forest products falls under Ag. In 2004, the PFPA site states, the industry generated $5.5 Billion in revenue, including $700 million in exports. At that time, it was responsible for 11% of manufacturing jobs. Including direct employment and support industries such as equipment and finance, the total was estimated at 100,000. The PFPA website states “in some rural areas, forest products industry jobs are the primary source of economic creativity and jobs.”
Primary manufacturing included loggers, sawmills, and paper mills. These facilities take raw material from trees and process it into a usable form: logs, rough-cut green and kiln-dried lumber, and paper & board products.
Secondary manufacturing takes the rough lumber and makes things from it, such as furniture, flooring, cabinets and pallets.
A third level includes lumber wholesalers, equipment dealers, forestry professionals and associated service industries such as insurance and banking.
Based largely on anecdotal evidence and observation, several currents have undercut the health of this industry. First, it might seem odd that the fall of the Berlin Wall would have anything to do with forestry in Pennsylvania, but it did. Eastern Europe and parts of Russia have significant hardwood forest resources, and as the economies of Eastern Europe opened, we found ourselves in competition with them on a world market. Their oak (and other species as well) aren’t as high-quality as ours, but if the price is lower, their logs will sell before ours.
Second, Manufacturing moved offshore. North Carolina was a major market for hardwoods used in furniture and cabinets. First the furniture industry, then the cabinet manufacturers packed up and went to China in search of lower production costs.
A third impact was environmentalist litigation around forest management in our only national forest, the Allegany (ANF). Sales of timber on the ANF fell by more than 90%. Not unrelated to the environmentalist outcry, is the public perception that cutting trees- -any trees- -is bad for the environment. An adversarial relationship exists between the forest products industry and the environmental movement. A Cornell University graduate student studied the problem and pronounced it intractable.
The fourth and most recent impact was the economic downturn of 2008. It could be more aptly called “falling off the table.” Housing starts plummeted from around 2 million/year to under 400,000. As noted above, much of our lumber is used for cabinets, flooring and furniture. We live in an inelastic, commodity market where we feel the repercussions (figuratively) if a gnat sneezes in Shanghai. When housing starts fell, consumption contracted accordingly and production capacity fell to match. Between 1/3 and ½ of forest products businesses failed, many of them small operations with less than ten employees. I found employment stacking lumber for a sawmill, harsh treatment for a logger.
Again, it is worth noting that loggers are an experientially diverse population. In terms of education, Keefer found that statistically speaking, they are roughly normally distributed: some didn’t complete high school; the bulk did complete high school; a few have college degrees and a small number have advanced degrees. The educational level and the rural culture most of them live in assuredly influence and comprise their worldview. Creation is understood as abundant and there for man’s use. Community and family are understood as important values. To outsiders they might seem backward, but in the context of their social location, it “makes sense” to them.
Religiously, the majority are Christians. Theologically they are diverse, ranging from fundamentalist to non-practicing. In general, they understand God as present, interested in their well-being, and able to protect them from the dangers of work. Politically rural Pennsylvania is conservative, based on yard signs, candidates supported by the PFPA PAC and elected officials.
Loggers are generally some of the nicest, most generous people I know. They are often quiet and somewhat shy, modest, private people. The statement “I’m just a logger” reflects both that modesty and society’s indictment of those who make their living from natural resources. Many work alone, though economic currents encourage larger operations. They (and I myself) acknowledge the danger of working alone, but prefer to be out there, just them and the trees. Trees are easier to deal with than people. Yet their privacy, while it is who they are, does not answer society’s questions about who they are and what they do.
How they respond to crisis depends on the nature of the crisis. If it’s a broken-down machine, the focus is on problem solving: how do we get it fixed as quickly as possible? If the problem is societal disapproval, the tendency is to withdraw and figuratively pull the covers up over their heads.
In this country, we are experiencing polarization on many levels. One is what I refer to as the urban-rural disconnect. Those who live in cities often have little first-hand information about natural resource management or life in the sticks. Even among those who profess care for the environment, science-based knowledge is either absent, selective or suspected of corruption and collusion. The ministry aspect of this project is realized through the telling of the stories of an invisible, unheard , virtually unknown and often demonized part of society: loggers. By creating podcasts with their stories, the invisible will be given voices and faces.
I know many loggers from my years in the industry and the years (from 1998-2001) when I administered logger training programs in Pennsylvania. I will make first contact by email or mail, then follow up with a phone call, asking for the privilege of talking with them about logging. As mentioned above, many are shy or private. Out of respect and my own commitment to integrity, I will adapt the documentation of our conversations as needed. I plan to record conversations with my computer. When allowed, I will use the recorded voices in the podcasts. In other cases, I may read their thoughts and comments from a transcript of the recording. In cases where they are not comfortable being recorded, I will do my best to take notes. Before posting, they will be given an opportunity to listen to the podcast so that they can be assured that I have been faithful in portraying what they have given me.
Mission: to make the invisible visible; to give loggers faces. If ministry is doing the work of God, raising the least of these is part of that work. . Part of reconciliation is bringing different sides into contact with each other. When “other” earns a face, it is harder to think ill of them.
In the Quaker context of there being “that of God in every person,” there is by extension some Truth(s) which can add to the completeness of the body of Christ (as the Church) and to the wholeness of humanity. It can be referred to as “pointillist,” or “fly’s eye” images, where each bit of Truth contributes to the wholeness of the image. It is in this way that telling the stories of the invisible functions as a ministry.
In terms of ministry to me, I believe that I am blessed and privileged to be telling the stories. I am in awe of the wisdom of these men & women, as I suppose one should be in the presence of any Wisdom.
Resources: If I need something, I get it. For example, microphone & software. If it needs to happen, it’s up to me: work schedule, research, making appointments, recording, editing, posting.
Keefer, Matthew. Pennsylvania’s Logging Community. State College PA: PSU Press, 2001.
Macdonald, Samuel. Agony of an American Wilderness. Rowman & Littlefield, 2005.
 (Keefer 2001)
 (Macdonald 2005) p. 69