In 1975, Steffi Smith, twenty-five, journeys from Georgia to Oregon in search of a new life. There, a friend tells her about a unique way for her to make a living: joining a forestry services co-operative, whose members live a gypsy existence amid the mountains and rivers of the great Northwest. The rest follows.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Chapter Three

- 3 -

"HI, I'M Chuck, this is Willard, Amy, Juneen, Bill, Mike, Murray, Jerry-Up, Jerry-Down, Burt, and Marie. We're gonna pick up the MaGruders and go on up the hill."
    "Uh, hi, I'm Steffi Smith." 
    "Pleased to meet ya. Kinda crawl on to the back there, put yer stuff under the seat, and take a nap if ya want, it's a dark commute."
    Steffi has never seen a set-up like this before. As it pulled up, one headlight bright, the other dim, it looked, in the dark, like some kind of over-extended station wagon, but it seats twelve, plus the driver. Five forwards, two reverse. An unholy aroma of abused bodies, mud, long-dead food, and of the ashes of some kind of burning weed. She settles in next to a large form hunkered in the darkness.
    "Hey, I'm Burt. Ya remember, ya puked on my porch."
    "Sorry about that."
    "Well, things happen. Sleep tight."
    "Uh, yeah."
    Burt shifts around a bit, winds up with his massive head on Steffi's shoulder.
    Steffi shifts away a bit, till Burt's chin finds a less obtrusive purchase, and watches the darkness through the vehicle's interior toward the front window. Occasionally the crummy passes one or two deer, their eyes shining briefly into the mystery of human passage. A lighter flares, and something glowing is handed from seat to seat. Steffi waves it off when a hand appears.
    Lots of country miles, like driving through a snake's guts, later, Chuck pulls the crummy off onto a wideout, just as some daylight has begun to seep over the horizon. Two bushy-beards with Lennon glasses throw their caulks, lunch sacks and hardhats in and climb into the last front seats. They're twins. Must be the MaGruders. The gears rattle and grind a bit, then the rig turns onto a gravel road and starts climbing, in second gear, then low, then low-low. Steffi's ears are popping. Then the noise stops.
    "Piss stop!" yells the driver.
    Moaning, the crew crawl over one another and line up alongside the road, the men standing in front of the crummy, the women squatting behind it. No one looks at anyone else. There's something in front of them worth seeing, anyway.
    At her feet Steffi sees the world drop away, a sea of stumps almost at right angles downwards, receding into a cloud bank that stretches to the horizon. The sun is rising over the clouds, setting all their faces on fire, bright orange with morning's promise. The air is already so clear, above the cloud banks, that Steffi can see individual fir trees on islands of mountaintop three ridges away. The horizon actually seems curved, like an ocean's rim. Steffi has seen a lot of beauty already, done some hiking, been above clouds before, been out of sight of land, has watched the Mississippi and the Rockies and stuff roll by Rocinante's windows, but somehow none of it has prepared her for this.
    Like, the sun comes up and that's your basic C major chord like in the movies, but then, on the clouds, there are all these pastels, modulating into one mysterious minor key after another. There's a worshiping silence, and then somebody whispers, "Holy Shit." As though they'd seen this maybe a hundred times, yet it gets to be new all over again every time, because it's that good. With all the city folks still in bed. And suddenly Steffi knows this is what she wants to do, be here with these people and do what they do, so she can be in places like this for as long as she can get away with it.
    When the crummy starts up again, things begin to happen all through its innards. Feet squeeze into tall caulk boots, coffee is poured, low conversations, coughs, noses blowing. The MaGruders are eating identical oatmeal from identical wooden bowls. Hard hats are fished out from under seats. A wisp of smoke drifts back from the front, and another small soggy hand-rolled cigarette travels from hand to hand. By the time it gets to Burt, it's small and even soggier. He produces a tiny surgical clamp, clips it onto the brown paper along what's left of one side, inhales from the smaller, non-smoldering end, and offers it to Steffi, saying, in a curiously high-pitched voice, "want a hit?"
    Steffi's thinking of the fits of coughing some where up front. "Uh, no, but thanks."
    "Suit yourself. This stuff helps keep the rain outta your bones." He sips at the remainder of the glowing coal, lips pursed.
    They're arriving at a Scene of Destruction: upended stumps, raw boulders, rusted jerry cans, a cleared flat gravel space big enough to turn around a tractor-trailer truck, oil-slicked puddles, sawdust, deep tire tracks. A green pickup is standing there tilted in the giant tire tracks, with a pile of brown paper sacks the size of trash bags in the truck bed. Two men in rain gear walk over to the crummy.
    "Hey, Chuck." 
    "Hey." 
    "Got a full crew?" 
    "Yeah, twelve an' a newbie."
    "'K, well this one's all slash down the right hand side, 'bout five acres, then a rockpile, good ground below the rockpile, steep but good coming up the left side, twelve acres overall."
    "Well, we could do it in a day if you'll let us wide it out a bit."
    "Well, I might woulda, it's northeast aspect and we think it'll survive good, but the C.O. says  stick to the contract, so we gotta hold you to the nine-by."
    Steffi suddenly realizes she's listening to Greek or Chinese or something. Arrh, every new trade, a new language.
    "Hey, Steffi!" Chuck's waving, in one hand, a large rubberized canvas bag sewn to a heavy web belt, and in the other a wicked-looking tool the size of a pickax.
    "This here's a dag and bag. Mostly we own our own here, this'n's a spare. Yuh want to stick about eight bundles of trees in here -- " He demonstrates with twist-tied handfuls of green-topped, brown-rooted seedlings -- "these are fifties, so that's four hundred, and keep track of yer totals. This job's 'by-the-tree.'" Now grab yer dag, follow me."
    The tool has an ash handle a bit over three feet long, curved like a single-bitted axe handle. Steffi sees that it has a long flat blade at the end, at right angles, for punching into the ground at the end of a swing. The other crew members have curved blades, and theirs look sharper, too. This spare must be an older model, the one no one else wants. 
    Par for the course.
    The trees are heavy around her waist. The unpadded belt is cutting off circulation, bruising something. With the unfamiliar caulk boots, rain gear, hard hat, gloves and tree bag, Steffi feels like a deep-sea diver. She's sweating already, and she's not even off the landing.      
    Everyone else is already gone.
    Chuck disappears into thorn-covered brush ahead of her. There are seedlings everywhere, protruding from freshly upturned earth, and from the fog below, Steffi can hear matter-of -fact conversations mixed with the thunk of the crew's hoedads into the ground.
Chuck leads the way, half crawling in mud and rotting vegetation, till they come out into open ground downslope from the brush.
    "We are on what's called a clear-cut. Fir trees don't like t' grow in th' shade, so the loggers take 'em all an' leave this field of stumps. We put in th' next crop of trees an' they all grow up together in th' light."
    He waves his arm across the vista expansively. "It's all black 'cuz they have burnt up th' branches 'n such -- slash -- helps us get at it t'plant, 'fertilizes it some. S'just slash-'n-burn agriculture, s'all."
    Chuck points to the nearest people, who are thunking holes in the earth, among the stumps, and whipping little dabs of green from their bags to the holes. They're spread across the hillside on a diagonal. "This here's the 'line,' see? Trees above yuh, no trees below yuh. On the other side of th' creek, it'll be just th' opposite. So yuh go nine feet -- that's three hoe handles till yuh get yer eye -- put a tree in, then nine feet to th' next one, like a checkerboard. 'Course, stumps and stuff will mess up yer grid, so yuh gotta adjust to it."
    "Th' 'suspectors' -- " he nods toward the green hats, who are standing on stumps, leaning on shovels, chatting -- "are not yer friends, and they are going to be inspecting tight here. Ninety per cent quality pays a hundred on contract price, eighty pays ninety, seventy pays eighty, sixty-nine pays not a gahdam thing." 
    He looks over at them again, to make sure his voice hasn't carried.
    "They're under pressure from above to pay ninety or less, so we gotta keep our numbers up. That means planting tight-by, go eight feet instead of ten, when the logs and stuff'll let yuh."
    One of the inspectors ambles over to watch the lesson.
    Chuck chops at the mountainside upslope from his boots, with a two-handed grip on his 
dag.. But the point of the blade doesn't enter the ground. He's turned the blade sideways, and is chopping out a foot-square section of turf. Then he throws his right arm behind him, letting the tool handle slide in his hand till it reaches the end, and brings the dag over his head in a wide arc, burying the point of the blade all the way to the handle's bracket in the soft earth.
    "Y'open the hole with the hoedad at the bottom by pulling up on the handle, see? Then the top by pulling down. Now yuh've got a hole twelve inches deep and four across all the way down. Right? Now take yer tree and dangle the roots down; give 'em a shake so they'll hang loose and won't get caught upside down, see? 'Cuz roots upside down don't work -- they'll die on yuh; if all the roots are upside down the whole tree'll die. They only work one way. When it's sunny, keep it in yer shade, too, and don't hold it out in the wind too long. All that sun and air'll kill yer tree. Now yuh pack the dirt around the tree with yer hoedad blade, once, twice, like this, so there's no air pocket -- that air will kill yer tree in the ground just like it will in yer hand. Now press down with yer foot, but not too close to the stem and not too hard. There's hair roots, yuh can't see 'em, on every root that yuh can see, and if yuh get rough you'll strip those off at the base, and they'll die, and there goes yer tree, 'k.? They are babies. You are their mummy. Yah? Now on to the next spot."

:::

Steffi spends the next half hour fumbling around with the awkwardly heavy tool, the dirt and the pencil-sized seedlings, trying not to fall off the mountain. Chuck sticks with her, correcting her moves, commenting. The inspector watches, amused. A bald eagle flies overhead, resplendent even in the rain, but no one's watching. The hillside rings with tools hitting stones and pebbles, with hard hats smacking into slashed limbs and boulders. Spiked boots chuff into slick logs and clatter on rocks. Across the hillside, in the mild, soporific rain, she hears a constant refrain of heavy breathing and muttered curses.
    It's hard, it's uncomfortable, it's cold, it's wet, it hurts to be here. But Steffi's feeling a rising excitement, like she's singing inside. This activity seems to have limitless potential of some kind, for measuring one's self against one's self, like track and field. She hefts the hoe over her shoulder and punches it deep into the earth.
    "That's th' spirit," says Chuck. "Y'gotta be hard out here, tough like iron, but aware of absolutely everythin' -- yer next spot, th' next person, th' suspector, th' tree total, th' specs, th' strategy, loose rocks n' logs. everythin'."
    "Like an iron Buddha."
    "Uhh, yeah, like that. "