Saturday, March 21, 2015

"It's Painful To Watch A Giant Tree Being Killed"

That's a comment recorded on an earlier post "Wildlife Photos", in response to a 1940-1950 era photo of two "lumberjacks" halfway through the onerous job of cutting down a tree with a diameter of over twenty feet.

The thing about my readership is that they are generally fine people with a truly droll sense of humor.   (I don't get a lot of readers who are tree huggers and PETA members, for obvious reasons.)

Anyway, it's not always easy to tell if a sensitive person might have stumbled on my website and made a SINCERE comment.

But I really liked that photo of two small men hewing mightily at a mighty forest leviathan.  Because my father was one of those brotherhood of manly men, and so were most of his brothers.   So I'm going to assume that someone who sincerely mourned the felling of a "Giant Tree" might have seen the photo, and might really have felt that that commercial act was a travesty of nature.

Or yadda-yadda something-or-other.

Anyway ....

I have a photo somewhere here which shows my father (Vernon) and my uncle (Orville) working on a tree which was probably not much more than ten feet thick ... with a two-man crosscut saw!  Those things were usually not much more than 6 feet long at best, but longer spans (seven feet) were available.   So when you're working to bring down at ten-foot tree, it takes some special techniques.

For example:  the big trees were generally on a steep slope, where the sun can reach better to grow bigger trees.  And the trees were so thick at three or four feet from the ground (about the most convenient height to use a 2-man saw) that it was not economical to try get ALL of the length of the tree.   To compensate, they would cut 'steps' (wedges in the tree) and then insert planks into those step.   Then they would climb up on the steps and use them as a platform from which they could fell the tree through a MUCH smaller diameter.   And, they had a 'flat'' or 'level' surface to work on ... which is important when it would take you HOURS to fell a single very-large tree under the best conditions.

And in the forties, logging was a VERY important industry.  Remember World War II?  The War to End Wars to End Wars?   When America was taking every man who was sort-of sane and more-or-less healthy, Loggers (real men of the error never used the term "lumberjack" to describe themselves) were exempt from the draft.  

Not all of the family were loggers; one of my father's brothers, for example, drove the first American tank which entered Rome after the German Army was driven out of Italy.  I suspect he volunteered because driving a tank was a LOT easier than Logging!

My father once talked to me about the logging industry.  He said: "Trees are just big weeds.  You chop them down, turn around, and they've grown back again".  (I think that was before the term "renewable resource" was invented.)   But he liked clear-cutting for a couple of reasons.  First, because it left the forest floor open to sunlight, which encouraged the regrowth of the forest as quickly as possible.  And second, because it made it a LOT easier to get the logs out of the cutting area.

Moving the logs was very important; if you didn't have a good skid road, and a good landing, you had to use drag lines to haul them a long ways before you could haul them to the saw mill.

One of my father's job was as a "Choker Setter".   Let me explain:  there are four steps to logging on a slope (which, in Oregon forests .. everywhere!)

Step 1: find an area where there are enough mature trees to make it worth the investment in time, money and labor to get them out, but you can still drive a logging road to a 'landing' (a flat area where logging trucks can be loaded with cut-to-length logs).

Step 2: Buy the land, or (best) the logging rights to the area.

Step 3: Get a bunch of hard, tough men who don't know any better and pay them to cut the trees down.

Step 4: Drag the trees to the landing, load them on the truck, and haul them to the mill to be made into boards and other conformations suitable for construction.

The tough part is not Step 3; it's Step 4.

That's where "Choker Setters" come in.

When a tree has been felled, somebody comes along and lops off all the branches, and the top of the tree (where it's just too thin to be economically worthwhile to haul  and mill it).

Remember I said all this work was done on a slope?  Okay, not universally true, but more often than not there was a LOT of good wood on slopes.  (I remember in the 1960's riding through the woods with my father and one of his brothers .. uncle Shorty, in fact, when we were going deer or elk hunting ...and hearing them comment to each other about the trees, in their typical laconic manner:

"Huh.  Good wood" one would say.

"Uh huh.  Lot of work to get it out, but damn sure make enough to pay the bills" the other would say.

uh .. that's about it.  They didn't have to say a lot.  I took that to mean that they were glad they were finally out of the woods (both had evolved into Diesel Machinery mechanics or millwrights by then), but they were nostalgic about the years they spent logging.

See, when my father was setting chokers (this was in the 1930's), he was downslope one day and ... oh wait, This needs more definitions:

A choker is the bight end of a drag chain.  The drag chain is a link chain (or more modern, a wire cable) with an actual chain at the end, with a hook on it.  The choker setter crawls downslope to the downed/trimmed log, wraps the chain around the butt end (stump end) of the log, and then fastens the hook back to the chain.  Then he gives a signal to the drag team, and they haul the log up the slope and .. eventually .. to the landing, where it is loaded on a truck and hauled to the mill.  More about that later.

When the choker-setter gives the signal, it signifies that he is clear of the log.  And the chain.  Nowdays, the chain is hauled by a tracked tractor; back in the '30s, it was hauled by a team of horses.

One day, when my father was setting a choker, something startled the horses and they began moving away.  The slack went out of the drag line, then the chain tightened, and it caught my father's finger between the chain and the log.

It pinched is finger to the point that it was only connected to the rest of his hand by a layer of skin.

Of course, they hauled him into town (Elgin Oregon, if it matters) and the only doctor in town said there was nothing he could do to save the finger, but he could make a nice stub out of the skin that was left.

So the skinned the finger and threw it away.  Sewed the skin over the stub, and my father had nine-and-a-half fingers for as long as I never knew him.

That's the difference between a "Logger" and a "Lumberjack".  Loggers are Real people, and Bad Things happen to them.

When I was 15, my  19-year-old cousin was married to a logger.  His job was to fasten the chains that held a stack of logs on a logging truck.  One day the chains snapped or slipped or something, and a couple of tons of logs cascaded down on his body.  He was crushed.   a few months later during deer season, I remember the men were all out hunting and the women were gathered together in our home.  One aunt looked around, noticed the universal lack of husbands, and thoughtlessly commented: "Well, I guess we're all hunting widows this week".  Then she realized what she said, turned to my cousin and said: "I'm sorry, Honey.  I didn't think before I spoke".  My cousin left the room, and later returned red-eyed but smiling ... a little.

That's what it's like to be a logger.  Or a logger's wife .. or widow.

Logging is a whole lot harder on the men than on the trees, and sometime on the logger's wives, too.

  But it's a way of life.  Loggers still lose limbs to chainsaws; not so often to axes, as it use to be, because they don't use axes that much and chainsaws can take a whole leg off when it hits a log a LOT faster than a slipped axe can take off a couple of toes.

 I have another cousin who worked for 20 years as a logger ... and then was unable to work for the rest of his life because of spinal injuries; he finally had to have his spine fused to relieve the pain.  He slept sitting up in a chair for the rest of his life, because he couldn't lay himself down in a bed any more.

The money is good ... really good, but only for a few months of the year; they save the money, and feed their family through the winter when the woods are closed, and can't wait until the season turns and they can get back to the woods again.   Their family and the trees, that IS the entire scope of their life.  (Well .. that, and hunting season after the woods are closed.)

And then it kills or maims them.

Yes.  I, too, hate to see a Giant fall.

Especially when they're blood kin, and they are either living on disability insurance or their wife's earnings.

Or they're dead.

1 comment:

Mark said...

I used to hunt with a logger. He would look at a forest patch and say "look at all those stumps"