Air Date: Week of November 29, 1996
Former logger Robert Leo Heilman comments on the trouble he had justifying to himself that his work was ethical. Heilman's collection of essays, Overstory Zero: Real Life in Timber Country, is published by Sasquatch Books.
CURWOOD: Humans were endowed with the powers of reasoning so we can rationalize when we have to, right? And as commentator Robert Leo Heilman points out, the difference between rationalization and denial is a slim one. Mr. Heilman is a former logger who says sometimes you just can't see the clear-cut for the trees.
HEILMAN: When you plant trees for a living it's best not to look at the clear-cut itself. You stay busy with whatever's immediately in front of you because, like all industrial processes, there's beauty in the details and ugliness in the larger view. Oil film on a rain puddle has an iridescent sheen that is lovely in a way that the junkyard it's part of is not. Although tree-planting is part of something called reforestation, clear-cutting is never called deforestation, at least not by its practitioners. The semantics of forestry don't allow that. The mountain slope is a unit, the forest a timber stand. Logging is harvest, and repeated logging, rotation. In the language, and therefore the thinking of industrial silviculture, a clear-cut is a forest. The system does not recognize any depletion at all. The company is fond of talking about trees as a renewable resource, and the official line is that clear-cutting, followed by reforestation, results in a net gain. But ask if they're willing to trade company-owned old growth forest for a clear-cut of the same acreage, and the answer is always, "No, of course not." So you keep hustling along, trying not to think, planting a new seedling every 8 feet, every 40 seconds, 700 times a day.
You tell yourself that it's the company that treats the land shabbily. You see your work as a frenzied life-giving dance in the ashes of a plundered world. You think of the future and the green legacy you leave behind you. But you know that your work also makes the plunder seem rational, and is at its core just another part of the destruction.
More than the physical exhaustion, this effort not to see the world tires you. It takes a lot of effort not to notice, not to care. When the world around you is painful and ugly that pain and ugliness seeps into you, no matter how hard you try to keep it out. It builds up like a slowly accumulating poison. Sometimes the poison turns to venom and you strike out as quick as any rattlesnake, but without the honest rattler's fair, humane warning. So you bitch and bicker with the guys on the crew, argue with the foreman and snap at your wife and kids. You do violent work in a world where the evidence of violence is all around you. You see it in the scorched earth, in the muddy streams. You feel it when you step out from the living forest into the barren clear-cut. It rings in your ears with the clink of steel on rock. It jars your arm with every new seedling.
CURWOOD: Robert Leo Heilman is a writer and a former logger. His collection of essays, Over Story Zero: Real Life in Timber Country, has just been released in paperback by Sasquatch Books. He comes to us from KLCC in Eugene, Oregon.
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