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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Tree Trade

Air Date: Week of

Author Jack McEnany spent a year trying to learn how to fell trees with some of New England's toughest loggers. His new book, Brush Cat - On Trees, The Wood Economy, and the Most Dangerous Job in World, profiles a rugged group of conservationists. He spoke with host Bruce Gellerman.


GELLERMAN: Well - from World Water Day – to World Forest Week.

The United Nations has just published its report - State of the World’s Forests 2009. The global economic slowdown has cut down the rate of deforestation worldwide, but we’re still losing nearly 30 thousand square miles of trees a year.

Forests provide habitat for a huge number of species of plants and animals - and absorb much of the world’s carbon dioxide.

In his new book Jack McEnany takes a logger's eye view of the forest and the trees. It’s called: Brush Cat: On Trees, the Wood Economy, and the Most Dangerous Job in America. Jack McEnany spent a year learning the logging trade in New Hampshire - and it’s from the studios of New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord that he joins me. Hi Jack!

MCENANY: Thank you, thank you for having me.

GELLERMAN: You know, the title - you write that you were going to call this “Brush Apes.” What’s a brush cat and what’s a brush ape?

MCENANY: Well they’re both sort of old-timey names for loggers, independent loggers who, you know, work in the woods basically by themselves. But I showed the book to one of the loggers I was working with, Bob, and he liked everything about it except the title. And he threatened to call me pencil monkey for the rest of my life if I didn’t change it.


MCENANY: So I came up with “Brush Cat”. Bob wanted “Guardians of the Forest” which I thought was a little over the top.

GELLERMAN: Bob sounds a little over the top actually. These brush cats, these guys who are really good at it, can fell a tree within just inches of where they think it’s going to, where they want it to fall.

MCENANY: They can put it right where they want it, right where they want it. And that’s all part of the magic of being able to do it properly and making a living at it. Because, you know, if you drop it where you don’t want it to fall, it could fall on a young oak that in five years you could make you know, $1000 or $2000 from when you cut it. But if you, you know, miss by four, five inches, you just ruined a payday down the road.

GELLERMAN: I was surprised and I gotta tell you a little bit disappointed that they don’t shout “timber!” you know when the tree’s coming down.


MCENANY: Bob always told me the best pair of eyes looking out for you are your own. He would watch out for me, but he wouldn’t guarantee that he wouldn’t drop a tree on me, because that’s how most people get hurt in the woods. It’s not a chainsaw accident, it’s a dead branch falling out of a tree. It’s a tree falling in a way that you didn’t expect because maybe it was dead inside.

GELLERMAN: You say that it’s the most dangerous job in America. I always thought that was commercial fishing.

Author Jack McEnany (Photo: Alli Gaulin)

MCENANY: Yeah, it turns out according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s 132 deaths per 100,000, I believe, for loggers and 74 deaths per 100,000 for commercial fishermen. Now, every now and then some profession like mining, you know, when the administration pulls all the OSHA regulations from the mining industry, there’ll be a spike in that particular profession for a year or so, but logging is almost twice as dangerous as commercial fishing.

GELLERMAN: Bob the logger has a list of why it’s better to log in the deep cold of winter. I wonder if you’ll go through them for us.

MCENANY: There are five advantages to working in this time of year as enumerated by Bob. 1) No bugs. 2) With all the leaves off the deciduous trees its easy to see what, if anything, is worth bush whacking. 3) The days are short and you can’t cut trees at night or at least you’re not supposed to. 4) In case of an accident, blood flows significantly slower. And 5) No bugs.

GELLERMAN: I guess even the green flies will eat you alive.


GELLERMAN: It’s also a generational business. This is one that really has a lot of tradition and it’s handed down from father to son, principally.

MCENANY: Yeah, well, it’s, you know, it’s sorta like making violins, [laughs] you don’t pick it up in your 40s. It’s very complicated to make a living as a logger. You know, you’re a single guy or maybe two people, you know, a father and a son, and you’re out there in the woods, working alone, while on one side you have the state with lots of rules and regulations on everything about, you know, how and what you cut to the pole fords that you put across streams. On the other side you have the mills that you sell to that were locally owned operations. Now many of them, most of them, are owned by transnational corporations. Are you’re this one single guy who’s trying to make a living out of a very, very complicated situation.

GELLERMAN: You talk about skid row. I guess a skid is what you use to pull these trees out of the forest. But that’s where the notion of skid row comes from?

MCENANY: Yeah, precisely. Back, you know, in the old timer logger days when the loggers lived in camps deep in the woods and would come rowing out every two months or so with a big wad of cash in their pockets, they’d set up shop in a bar or in a brothel and stay there as long as the money lasted. And where the loggers frequented, it became to be known as skid row, because that’s the name of the roads that the loggers cut into the woods to harvest trees from. The word hooker also came from loggers. A hooker is someone who puts the chain around a hitch of logs and then pulls on it to let the skidder driver know to pull it away. And so this translated over into the brothels if a man would get hooked, although, you know, I mean honestly, who was doing the hooking, I’m not quite sure. I think I give a little too much credit to the loggers there, but that’s where the word came from.

GELLERMAN: You know we all know that woods used in everything from cutting blocks to tables to you know, paper, but you’ve got some uses here I’d never imagined that wood was used in.

MCENANY: Yeah – it’s 10,000 products and growing. Especially with the new technologies. They now can reduce wood to its basic hydrocarbons and then rebuild it so that it’s really indistinguishable from plastics except that there’s no petrochemicals involved. And, of course, the houses we live in, the furniture we sit on, often the clothes that we wear, are all made from wood, made from wood fiber.

GELLERMAN: Milkshakes?

MCENANY: Yeah, that was, that’s what really intrigued me when I first moved here in 1984. I went on a tour of the mill in Groveton and they made this stuff called wood flour. Now I thought it was pulp for paper and I asked the manager and he said no, our biggest client for this stuff is McDonalds. And he said what do you think they put it in? And I thought oh my goodness, the bread, the meat? He said non-dairy shakes. He said why do you think they’re nondairy?


MCENANY: So, it’s all cellulose. Which I guess is good roughage.

GELLERMAN: I’m gonna have to chew that one over.


GELLERMAN: There seems to be a big difference between the forests of New England, the northeast, and the forests of the northwest, the way they’re logged.

MCENANY: Yeah. Well, you tend to have more monoculture forests out west. And, you know, you’ll see a lot of clear cuts, because every tree that you have a contract for is the same kind of tree, so cut ‘em all. Whereas in northern New Hampshire, Vermont, upstate New York, it’s the transitional forest. You have a lot of conifers and a lot of hardwoods. Just really any kind of wood you’d want or need is in those forests. And so, in order to log them effectively, you have to cut very selectively. And leave the hardwoods behind to cut again in five or ten years when they become mature. And because you want them to mature well, you’re very careful about how you take the logs out of the woods that you are cutting, so that you don’t bark them and ruin the young trees. There’s more of an artisans approach to logging in the northeast, I think than out west.

GELLERMAN: Yeah. You refer to them as conservationists.

MCENANY: Yeah. Not all loggers, but I would say the vast majority of them are – have a much greater respect for the forests than most of us. You know they see it for what it is. It’s not only a great resource, but it is almost like people who live on a small island, the relationship that they have with the ocean. You know, the ocean gives and the ocean takes away. And that’s the way most loggers see the woods. And they’ve been really, really affected by climate change. Twenty years ago mud season began around April first. But now it begins on March first. That’s another four weeks, one twelfth of the year, during the cold months when it’s best to log, just cut out of their income. And it’s a bottom line issue for them. They don’t just [laughs] – they don’t think of it in the abstract, it’s their wallets that it hits. And Bob is actually, because the logging business has gotten so difficult in the past couple of years – Bob is thinking of using that B.S. in geology he has from Northeastern and becoming a teacher at the age of fifty years old because he can’t make a living as a logger any longer.

GELLERMAN: Can you do the accent? One of the things I like about your book is that you really, you really nail that New Hampshire accent.

MCENANY: I don’t know if I can do it without swearing. I’ll try.


MCENANY: Noice, noice. You know, in the North Country, whenever anything good happens to you, whether it has to do with a day off from work or a new car, invariably everyone around you will look at you and say “Must be noice. Must be noice.”


GELLERMAN: Well Jack, it was noice speaking to you.

MCENANY: Well thank you very much. It was noice speaking to you too.

GELLERMAN: Jack McEnany’s new book is “Brush Cat; On Trees, the Wood Economy, and the Most Dangerous Job in America.”



For more on Jack McEnany and his book, click here


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