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.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Chapter Eight


- 8 -

THE NEXT couple of weeks are like a dream to Steffi; the jelly rolls are so heavy, and the days so hot, that she has little sense of living in a camp in general, or in her house in particular. As she's putting in a tree, she must find a rock or stick, as required by the contract, to put next to the south side of its little trunk. This will give it a spot of summer shade later in the year. She wonders if she remembered to water her little jade tree that she bought for her 'kitchen' windowsill, or to close the doors behind her as she trudged, in the gray dawn, to the shade house to bag up.
    She unbuckles her web belt, slides out of the punishing tree bag and places it in the shade of a tall stump, then digs out a shallow hole in front of the bag to sit in and dangle her feet downslope; an impromptu chaise lounge.
    Burt is planting through along her line. Yoder, not carrying a dag and bag, is following along watching Burt and asking questions. He spots Steffi and comes over to sit with her.
    "What are you up to?" asks Steffi.
    "I'm trying to learn how he does it. He's putting in a thousand trees a day, and I'm only at, like, three hundred. Even you, you do six sometimes."
    "So, did he show you anything new?"
    "Well, he has no wasted motion. Makes every step count. And doesn't seem to stop for lunch." After a moment of silence, Yoder looks at Steffi imploringly. "I try to do those things. It doesn't seem all that complicated. But I feel like I'm just stumbling around out here."
    "Burt grew up on a ranch, Yodie. You're from, I think I heard, Newark?"
    "Yeah."
    "And you're how old?"
    "Seventeen."
    "Bet ya've never been anywhere but school till you got that van."
    "Uhhh, yeah. Well, I've sailed a boat some, on the Chesapeake."
    "Well, then, nothing time won't cure. From what I've seen, tree planting is just like being on the water. Any sailor has to get his sea legs on the first voyage. Burt has hill legs. We all do."
    "It's your first year, too, Stef, how come you caught onto it so fast?"
    "Lots I don't know yet. But I'm a country girl from the red hills of Georgia ... and ... "
    "And?"
    "I'm an 'only.' And my dad really, really wanted a boy."
    "Oh. I think I know what you mean."
    "Well, put it this way; if you've shot squirrels and cleaned them for Brunswick stew, you can adapt to a lot of things."
    "I'm a vegetarian."

:::

The inspectors are difficult at first. They keep wanting to look in everyone's bag to see if anyone's unrolled their trees and hidden the burlap somewhere. But, while nobody's perfect, the Hoedags, as putative self-employed persons who want to take pride in their work, and who think of themselves as environmentalists to some extent, want their trees to live. They look for stumps and logs to plant a tree to the north of, nestled between roots and stones, with all-day shade on the all-important root collar. They argue for a looser interpretation of the specs in order to wide-out or tighten down the spacing to find such spots. The CO, who putt-putts round the unit on a green ATV, gets it and relents. With morale improved on the hill, the crew, which had fallen behind, begins to make up ground.
    But there's still an issue; it erupts at a camp meeting.
    Amy leads off. "There are some people here, you know who you are, plant a lot of trees all the time and make really good money because it's by the piece. But some of us feel like it should be by the hour because, even though we're slower, we help the crew meet quota every day. If there were just you six or eight fast ones, you couldn't work. So we're vital. But we get penalized for it for not being built like football players."
    "Is this a girl-guy thing?" asks Murray. 'Cuz Stef makes good money and she's a girl."
    "I'm only average," puts in Steffi. "When you make eighty bucks, I make sixty-five, and I'm okay with that, s'all."
    "But," says Amy, "I've been here like forever and I put up the yurt 'n take it down 'n make town runs 'n split kindling and make a lot of the breakfasts ... "
    "Which are always eggs 'n broccoli," someone shoots back, "'n I hate eggs 'n broccoli."
    "Don't interrupt, I have the floor. But I'm only making, like, thirty dollars a day, and I gotta ask, am I digging myself a hole just to be here?"
    "Look, if it's by the hour it's not worth it for me to be here," replies Burt. "Why should I make, like, fifty a day when I can be on a crew where I'd make eighty or a hundred?"
    Jerry-up has been listening quietly. He raises his hand.
    Like Steffi, he's not a huge producer, but has been making out okay. He's in it for some aspects of the lifestyle, she thinks. And she's learned to pay attention to what he has to say. Almost thinks of him as her Guru from Brooklyn.
    He gets the floor and stands up from the hay bale where he's been sitting. He spreads his hands. God, the guy really does look like those old paintings of Jesus. "Hey! I hear where everybody's comin' from." He gestures around the room. "Each of us is a body in the crummy, like Amy says. And we help out around camp and keep it from becomin' a nightmare, even though that doesn't pay nothin.' On the other hand, without at least half the crew putting out eight hundred to a thousand trees each, we'd fall so far behind the Forest Circus would shut us down. So high production is high value too, but it's gotta have an incentive. Burt's got a little place out near Greenwood an' so do the Magruders; they're gonna run cows some day. Crew loyalty is not gonna buy those cows all by itself. They could be doing other work, like Burt says."
    "You got a motion?" asks Chuck.
    "Sure. Have the treasurer take the total payment for each unit and divide it in half. Pay out one half by the hour and one half by the tree."
    "Huh?" asks Burt, who sees dollars signs being flushed away. "How th' hell's that an incentive?"
    "It's called being a cooperative. Look ... you pay your  low-rollers something to be in the crummy. Keeps the contract open. Your low-rollers pay the high-rollers to stuff the hillside with trees. Also keeps the contract open. It's better than by the piece for Amy, but better than by the hour for you."
    "I dunno." Burt is trying to work out how much he'd lose by being here.
    "Was there a motion in all that?" asks Chuck.
    Juneen, who's secretary, chants from her scribbled notes. "Have treasurer take total payment for each unit and divide it in half. Pay out half by the hour, half by the tree."
    "Is that right?" Chuck asks Jerry-up.
    "Uhh, yeah."
    "Discussion to the motion?" Chuck asks the circle of dirty faces round the interior of the yurt.
    Jerry-down, a bigger and slower-thinking guy than Jerry-up, rises in place and is recognized. "Umm ... every unit is diff'rent. So, y'know, like ... we get to th' landing, look it over 'n vote right there. Lots of slash and non-plantin' spots? By th' hour. Kinda average? Half-'n' half. All gravy? By th' piece."
    "That an amendment?" asks Chuck.
    "Uhhh. Sure, why not."
    Chuck looks at Juneen.
    "I make that pay out each unit by vote of crew on the landing, hour, half-and-half, or piece."
    "Wow, good job, Junie. That about right, Jerry?"
    'Yeah. Umm, yeah."
    "Discussion to th' amendment?"
    "I like it," says Isaiah. "Gravy units will help th' Magruders buy cows. Slash units will help Amy get paid to crawl through slash, which is a thing she does, like, a lot, without fussing. It's equitable." Anything Isaiah says tends to wrap up a discussion. People can feel consensus building. "And ... I call the question."
    "On the motion with the amendment?"
    "That is cor-r-r-rect."
    The motion, as amended, passes. The treasurer is going to have a lot to keep track of, but Steffi thinks it will be worth it. Well, she hopes it will. She was elected crew treasurer only a week ago, and math is not her strong point.
 
:::

The sun angles down among the larches on the western ridges, lengthening the shadows. There's an evening star.
    "What are you gathering up all that orange stuff for?" Steffi asks Willard. Willard, a quiet guy who's at every contract but has little to say and has apparently no legal address, is dragging a bunch of "orange stuff" off a stump into his empty tree bag.
    "It's, it's called 'calf's brains' -- it's a - a - a mushroom. Almost. Almost as good as morels and, and it's, it's all over the place here, fuh-fuh-free.. Try it, you'll ... you'll like it."
    Willard's recommendation carries some weight. He's always returning to camp from somewhere with a grouse or a trout in his tree bag. He seldom seems to need to make a town run. A peculiarity of the guy is that he forages, hunts and fishes in this rugged region year round.
    Barefoot.
    Plants trees barefoot, too. Some people give him a wide berth but Steffi likes him. Something about him reminds her of her own childhood, especially the part where she ran away from home and lived in her own handmade wigwam in the dead of winter.
    Steffi finds her own orange-crowned stump and rakes the fungi toward herself with her dag. She's got a plastic bag left over from lunch and dumps the goods into it, tying the end off. She's got fifty trees to go and doesn't want to get the mushrooms all gritty.
    In the evening, Steffi builds up the fire from the morning's coals in the Airtight and puts on her Cold-Handle skillet with the usual sliced potatoes in olive oil with Italian seasoning. Then she brings over the baggie from her tree bag, snips the calf's brains into the skillet with scissors, and stirs it all with a chopstick, listening to the sizzle.
    When dinner's done, she brings the skillet, with a fork, over to her desk, where she has a book open on a kind of easel. The book is by Ed Abbey, and she's got it open to the page where he climbs to a spot in the desert, atop an almost totally unclimbable pinnacle, that he's sure no one has ever reached before, only to find a clearly delineated arrow, made of small stones, pointing to absolutely nowhere.
    This, she thinks, savoring the calf's brains, is the life.

:::

The crew wants to finish the contract in the next two days. They offer to split into two groups, if the CO will allow them to work that way. He will; what's more, his people need to go to a fire training and they are willing to drop off the trees in the shade at the units and let the Hoedags finish the job without "supervision." They'll be inspected later, after they've already long gone. The last two units are very far apart; one is eleven acres and the other is twenty. The low rollers will go to the eleven and the high rollers will go to the twenty, and both groups will camp primitively on site, staying till the unit's done, then rolling back to the crew camp to pack up and go away.
    Steffi's not a high roller by any stretch, but she's encouraged to go to the twenty with them, so in the afternoon she puts together some stuff in her Kelty backpack, rolls up her sleeping bag and a tarp, bungies them onto the frame, and throws her load in the back of the crummy with everyone else's. The other crew will use Juneen's Ford six-pack, which is practically a crummy in its own right.
    The twenty-acre crew hop in and drive for about two hours to reach their job, and find it pancake-flat. As promised, there's a tarp over a snowbank with thousands of jelly-rolled trees, mostly baby lodgepole pines, waiting for them.
    "Shall we do this one by the piece? Buy some cows and retire to our mini-ranchettes?" grins Burt. Heads nod.
    Camp is made right out in the open clear-cut, with a small fire. Sleeping bags radiate from the fire, cowpoke fashion. Steffi thinks of the crackling-cold night under the frozen stars in Arizona. A lot has happened since then.
    Not long before dawn, she's awakened by a cold nose. No, wait, it's somebody else's nose! right against hers. Mildly disgusted, she wriggles her arm up out of the bag to shove the interloper away.
    Hairy. Tiny hands grip her finger and the cold nose shifts to sniff her hand.
    Okay, now she's awake.
    It's a raccoon.
    "Go. Git!"
    The animal nibbles at the heel of her palm.
    "No, seriously, bug out or I'm gonna bean ya." She digs out her flashlight and tries shining the creature away. It just grins in its bandit mask and sits up, waving its paws in the light like someone making a shadow play.
    "What's  up, Stef?" asks Chuck sleepily.
    "Fracking coon won't leave me alone. Gahh! Now it's in my hair!"
    Chuck and one of the Magruders rise up and prod the raccoon off into the dawn with sticks.
    "Wow," says Chuck. "It's light enough to work. What say we hit it now and see if we can do the whole thing today?"
    "With six people?" asks Burt, sitting up.
    "Why not? On this ground you can do one to two hundred trees an hour, even with th' shade blocks."
    "You can. I dunno about me," doubts Steffi.
    "Aw, let's at least have a go. We can be back in camp tonight, all the comforts of home."
    With a groan, Chuck's companions lift themselves into the chill air. The raccoon anxiously watches from a safe distance as the now alarmingly tall animals mill about, eat, drink stale coffee made the night before, wander off to the bushes one by one, then drag their dags and bags from the roof rack of the crummy and head over to the jellyrolls.
    "Oh, these are a hundred to the roll!" someone says.
    "Yeah, with pines you can do that."
    The roots cling to a pencil-straight taproot. Definitely made for fast planting. Steffi loads herself with four rolls, a quart of water and a tin of sardines. She can use twigs as chopsticks to eat brunch, then bury the can underneath one of her trees.  This should see her through to lunch time.
    Step, step, step, step, swing, draw tree, poke it into the hole, tamp, shade block with a stick or stone, repeat.
    The sun rises over a far ridge and begins shortening stump shadows all around her. Birds are singing. With her gloved right hand holding lightly onto the end of her hoe handle, Steffi reaches for a tree from the left pocket of her bag. Whoa, empty. She moves the right-pocket bundle, chilly to the touch and heavy, into her left pocket. Wow, a hundred trees already. She looks along the line; the guys are way ahead of her, planting like machines, grinning.
    She can feel it in her bones. This is going to be her highest production day. As in, never again a day like this. It will be all downhill from here.
    That's fine. Nobody lives forever.