Loggers and Liberation Theology, Part 2

Below is the print version. It’s the end of Fall Term. I may post regular text entries during winter break, and I plan to talk with other loggers during my “time off.”. Class resumes Jan. 27.

In Loggers & Liberation Theology, Part 1, I tried to explain what liberation theology is. In this essay, I try to make the connections between life among loggers in Pennsylvania, and rural residents of Latin America. Your feedback is always welcome. We pick up the story….

That’s all very well, you say. How does any of this relate to (mostly) white, (mostly) male loggers in Pennsylvania?

Keeping in mind that generalizations are risky and that loggers are a surprisingly diverse group, consider the following:

I’ve spent 35 years in the woods. I’ve been a tree climber for ten more years than that, and I’m not 60 yet. I’ve had as many as four employees, and as few as none. I often tell the boys that they should come get me if they find themselves in a situation they aren’t sure how to deal with. I say there’s very little you can do that I haven’t at least tried. I qualify “the rules” by saying there are a lot of them, and very few are absolute, meaning there are almost always exceptions. I’ve facilitated logger training classes on many topics from safety to silviculture. I tried for several years to start a logger’s organization. I am very much present in the observations that follow.

Loggers are typically disempowered. We are on the bottom of the pecking order. We wind up dealing with scenarios that others- -foresters, sawmills, and land owners—create. I have often been told that “foresters don’t respect us.” Contract provisions require us to (figuratively) sign our lives away and post our first-born as bond. Sawmills often pay more for timber on the stump than they do for logs delivered to the mill. One outcome is that we are very good at finding ways to “make it work.” If there’s a “rock” (read: barrier) in the way, what are (in today’s jargon) the possible work-arounds? Another result is to invoke the prayer of St. Francis: Lord help me change the things I can, accept the things I can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference. The list of things beyond our control is long: weather, the cost of fuel, the cost of equipment, whether the guys show up for work, contract provisions, (sometimes) the timber we cut, the rate we can charge per ton or per thousand board feet. For instance:

At one point I was working with the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE), a branch of the Small Business Administration. The fellow I was working with was incredulous that I didn’t know how much a load of logs was worth until the check came back from the mill. “How can you run a business like that,” he asked. I answered “You find ways.”

Economically speaking, we tend to bump along the bottom. In the logger training classes I facilitated, it was common for the guys to grouse about having to lose a day’s production. The implication was that losing this day’s income was enough to put them over the brink. Many of us run equipment that is 30 years old or older. Few of us assign ourselves a salary, living instead on the margin of profit- -or the depreciation of our equipment, our equity. Profit- -the difference between what it costs to do the work of felling, skidding and hauling- -is razor thin. In the past, while we were often very good at logging, running a business was an afterthought. The paradigm has shifted. Now, if you’re not a businessman, it gets harder and harder to survive. It is true that we don’t live on $2/day, like the campesinos in Honduras. Profit margins have shrunk year by year. The cost of everything from machines to supplies has increased.

In the late 1990s, I tried to arouse interest in starting a logger’s organization. The goals were simple enough: pool our resources to start a coop to buy supplies, networking, social interaction, business advice. As I called my friends and explained the idea, to a person, they said “gee. That’s a great idea. Right now I’m so busy trying to survive that there’s no way I can help out.” Yet many of them somehow persist perennially. As Isasi-Diaz wrote “in some way or other, they survive.” Solutions vary.

Some loggers have responded by increasing production through the acquisition of new, more productive equipment. In this way, logging is not much different from agriculture: the family farm is a thing of the past. The logger who has a pickup truck and a chainsaw is as well. Or is he?

Creativity plays a huge part in the ability of these loggers to survive against the odds. On one hand logging is, and likely always will be, hard work. But there is another philosophy that says “don’t make it harder than it needs to be. Work smart, not hard.” This approach has led to many of today’s logging machines being developed by loggers: harvesters, fellers, loaders, forwarders. One motivation is the rat-wheel of productivity. Another has been the constant search for a better way. Still another is the shift in societal values that looks down its nose at manual labor. An ever-present motivator has been safety. A man in a machine is far less likely to be injured than one on the ground.

Still, the work is dangerous. Survival- -going home to your wife and kids- -depends on instinctively choosing the appropriate reaction in clutch situations, often many times a day. Depending on which labor statistics survey you choose, we are either the #1 or #2 most dangerous occupation in society today.

In 2005, we were salvaging timber blown down by hurricane Ivan. There were big trees on top of little trees. Some were uprooted, others were snapped off. Some were suspended above ravines, still many feet in the air. Such timber is home to many versions of potential, that is unreleased, energy. Branches and trunks can be loaded like giant springs. If not properly secured, stumps can roll over the cutter when their trunk is severed. A wrong guess or assessment results in a crushed chest, a collapsed lung, a shattered leg. Add to that the fact that you’re holding a 6-horsepower saw in your hands, with a saw chain that is literally going eighty MPH. At lunch one day I overheard one employee saying to another “this is boring as hell, except then you realize that if you make one wrong step you could die and you’d better pay attention.”

As Isasi-Diaz says, [this is] reality of vital importance, this has to do with their own well-being… and survival. But wait. There’s more. The similarities continue.

We often refer to ourselves and say: “I’m just a logger.” Our kids come home from school and say “daddy my teacher said cutting trees is bad. Does that make you a bad person?” Isasi-Diaz says “Lo cotidiano also concerns what grassroots people think about themselves and what they do.” Loggers are “grassroots people.” They are “organic individuals.” Perhaps their self-deprecating attitude is modesty; perhaps it is a reflection of who society tells them they are. They are who they are. There is no pretense of being someone else, so we pick up the pieces and move on….

This is in no way an attempt to romanticize poverty. It is, however, to echo Christ’s injunction  that true riches lie not in the things of this world. The poor in Central & South America have no choice. They took no vow of poverty. But, as the golfers say, you got to play it where it lays. Their resilient creativity is a coping mechanism. Some of us in the US do have other options for supporting our families. Still, when the chips are down we do what we believe we must, whether the rest of society approves or not. Yet even those of us who could find other work rarely leave this way of life. It is often said that logging is a way of life, more than it is a job. My own son has acknowledged that he has “sawdust in his veins.” There are reasons this is true. Among them might be the subconscious knowledge that this way of life is indeed a source of riches.

We live in the outdoors. We see sunrises and fawns and hoar frost. We deal with whatever Mother Nature or the terrain, the tree, the mill, with whatever they deal us. The degree to which it is necessary to think on your feet cannot be overstated. Surprises are rarely good, so we take steps to avoid them. Survival is directly related to having the “correct” reaction in an instant. For us, it’s better than Sudoku.

Isasi-Diaz says “Action often seems unmethodical or ad hoc…. this sort of disorderly approach to life indicates the importance of being intuitive and totally present to details.” As noted above, failure to be present, to “live in the moment,” as Quakers used to say, can have dire consequences. It is also present in the patchwork way some loggers cut jobs: chasing the next load of logs to generate cash to pay bills. I have heard more than one forester puzzle over why the logger on their job jumps around so oddly from patch to patch.

That is not to say that our actions are random, even though to observers they might appear so. It is imperative to our survival that we take action to control the things we can. We plan the direction a tree will fall. We plan the direction of our escape. We evaluate overhead hazards. We evaluate the soundness and lean of the tree.

We were not always so methodical. Research in the 1980s showed that loggers were largely unaware of (or couldn’t name) the actions and conditions in their work that would kill them. With this in mind, a group of safety-minded folks imposed some structure on the felling process. A Swede named Soren Erikson developed a method he called The Game of Logging (GOL). Leading causes of injury and death were identified. Classes were held. And still stuff happens. We are tired or distracted. We miss observing hazards. Some things are unknowable from where we stand.

Some years ago, a Penn State student was killed while walking up the mall to class. She was hit by an elm branch and died instantly. The ensuing investigation claimed the branch was healthy.

Just last week as I drove out to the highway, I crested a hill and there sat a fire truck and a West Penn Power truck. The powerline lay pinned under a large oak branch. The day was calm.

Thirty years ago, working near Dubois PA, I was walking back to the truck for lunch. I heard a sound like wind in the trees. There was no wind. I sprinted. The branch hit the tip of my chainsaw bar which was facing behind me. The difference between me and the Penn State student was that my brain recognized the input: the sound of wind on a calm day meant something was falling. It was time to leave.

So, in spite of the array of things we don’t have control of, awareness plays a big part in survival. We live and work in this environment every day. In many ways we do have control. In others, we don’t. Remember that reference to the prayer of St. Francis. We decide when and where and how to work. We observe. We are aware. There is a tension between that which is known and knowable, and that which we must depend on Divine assistance for, which feeds a richness to life that is unknowingly missed by those who live more securely. While there are striking similarities between PA loggers and Latin poor, we are different, too.

I think it is important to note the social and theological differences between Isasi-Diaz and me. As a Quaker, I believe that war, whether on a large or small scale, inward or outward, is wrong. In the limited reading I have done on Liberation Theology, I get the sense that the Robin Hood approach of “take from the rich and give to the poor (by whatever means necessary)” is understood as “OK.” For me, Christ calls those who have (the “wealthy”) to help those who have not: widows, orphans, and strangers. While it may be up to us to show them their little deaths, it is not up to us to correct their sins. That is the Holy Spirit’s work.

Today, in what some call the post-modern period, absolute Truth is seen as a chimera, an illusion. I have observed that where theology is sound, that is where Spirit is alive and well, it crosses the lines that humans construct to define themselves and others. Political differences blur and fade. Social agendas merge. So while the situations of loggers in Pennsylvania and campesinos in Latin America are not entirely analogous, they have similarities in the ways they experience and interpret life.

As loggers in the US, most of us have food, heat, lights, and a car. We are still called to live by our wits. Sometimes our inability to pay the bills is taken as dishonesty. Sometimes our actions don’t make sense to those watching. In the book “The Witness of Preaching,” Thomas Long asserts that the Holy Spirit needs an editor because, unfiltered and uninterpreted, it makes so little sense to us. So it is that Isasi-Diaz can characterize actions in the framework of lo cotidiano as ad hoc or disorderly. She doesn’t say it, but perhaps the problem lies in the layers of insulation built up by modern society between us and Spirit. Put another way, that need for an interpreter is only another mark of the estrangement of humanity from God. Perhaps we should be less linear, less methodical.

I was in Honduras twice: once to help their logging industry set up training programs; once for almost a month to investigate illegal logging practices. We hired a driver and traveled extensively in rural parts of the country. It was true that the people were poor, but they had smiles, they had community. What was true there is true here: loggers are about the most generous, caring people I know. It seemed they knew and owned true riches, that they had found something the rest of us hunger for in our consumption-driven society.

I don’t know whether other loggers in Pennsylvania think they are oppressed and/or need to be liberated. Many signs say they are & do. I don’t think many (any?) see or understand change in social and cultural structures as political. I do not know whether, as Isasi-Diaz says of Latin American poor, Pennsylvania’s loggers question reality. It has seemed to me that to question reality requires a sense of empowerment that is largely absent here. These are questions I will ask as I interview the loggers themselves, across Pennsylvania.

I do know that the similarities between loggers here and Latinos/Latinas thousands of miles from here are striking. They are a sign of the universality of the human condition. They are also a sign of the presence of God among us. Peace, friends.


4 thoughts on “Loggers and Liberation Theology, Part 2

  1. Pingback: A (Real) Logger Speaks Up | strongrhyss

  2. Jack G

    After 38 years of doing this work, it’s nice to see someone else put it into words. Most people wouldn’t even believe it.


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