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.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

14


"I DUNNO, Stef, might wanta sit this one out," Amy is saying. "They sprayed it heavy with 2,4-D."

"What's that?" asks Steffi.

Amy does a double take. "Umm, you are somewhat wise in the ways of the woods but naive as to the ways of the wood products industry."

Chuck beckons to Steffi. She and Amy follow him to the edge of the landing. He points at the nearest alder trees outside the burn area, which are dying, but don't look scorched. "See the tips of these twigs, they go all curly like a pig's tail."

It does look a little odd. "Mmm, yeah. What's up with that?"

"2,4-D kind of mimics growth hormones. It's making the cells that divide the most -- the ones in the growing tips of the branches -- expand erratically, shoving the twig around on its own axis in a spiral."

He points at the trunks. "Soon these trees will die, turn punky, shatter and collapse, because most of their cambium cell walls will have burst. We're hearing from the Farmworkers Union in California that this stuff affects people, too."

"So I'm, like, not going down there," concludes Amy, with a palm upturned. "Might wanna have a baby some day."

Juneen walks over. "Me neither. Last time I worked in this stuff, my period went two weeks off."

"Well, nobody's going to make you," says Chuck, taking off his hard hat and raking his hair with a grubby hand. "But we do have a contract, and if only the guys go, we're one short today and the fazoos will call it off."

Steffi's funds have been depleted by her down time and repair work; she's anxious not to just haunt camp, which is particularly muddy and miserable this week.

"I'll go."

Amy kind of looks daggers at her, but doesn't comment.

It's a strange place to work. The rangers claim the chemicals were all vaporized in the unit burn, but the air smells faintly diesel-ish and Steffi keeps trying to not breathe. She stops and dampens a bandanna and ties it round her face, as she's been known to do on fires at Timberland, but she still feels light-headed. She wonders if it's a placebo effect.

Too, there's nothing to grab on to. All the slash that survived the burn is so brittle she can't haul herself around the steep hillside by it as she's used to doing. Steffi can see other treeplanters having the same trouble. A Magruder loses his balance, grabs a branch to stop his fall; it disintegrates and over he goes. A few moments later, Lon repeats the performance. As he tumbles into a draw, Little Butch snaps his picture, while barely keeping his own footing.

Steffi finds a puddle and spots a thin sheen on the water. She looks closely. The sheen can be one of two things -- broken-up fractals of color, almost crystalline, which would be bacteria, or spirals and curves of color, which would be oil. It's definitely spirals and curves.

"Hey, inspector, what's with the oily puddles?"

The white hat, leaning on his shovel on a stump, grins. "S'just bacteria."

S'just bacteria, hippie girl. Suck it up and dig.


In Steffi's Technicolor dreams that night, a young man stands by her bed. He looks a lot like her, except he has a black beard.

"How's it going, son?" she asks him.

"Not too good. I'm 'developmentally delayed.'"

"What's that?"

He goes over, taps a dark glass window in a cinder-block wall. "Ask the guy with the notepad; he's in here listening to us. It's autistic to you. I also have birth defects. You'll take care of me for the rest of your life." He shakes his handsome head. "Sorry about that, but I know you needed the money."

She wakes up slathered in a cold sweat.


While she's lying there, staring at what's left of the dream, she notices the ceiling close above her head has taken on a rosy glow. There's noise, too: pops and snaps like someone dancing on that fragile slash, or like a really big bonfire.

The glow flickers. Okay, bonfire. She scrabbles over to the edge of the loft, looks down through the window. Yoder runs past it with a five-gallon bucket. He's glowing too.

There's shouting.

Fire? In camp? She doesn't believe it.

Chuck throws open her back doors. "Fire!"

She believes it.

In her finest long johns, Steffi adds Little Bird's white bucket to the brigade. What's burning is a small travel trailer. Flames are coming out all the windows and, before long, as camp is not near running water, the roof as well.

The main worry is the propane tanks, which are mounted on the trailer's tongue. Their valves have been cranked shut by a gloved hand, but where they are it's already too hot to try and dismount them.

All the extinguishers have been emptied. Burt has been pumping water from the camp's fifty-five gallon barrel, but it's taking awhile to fill each bucket. Several puddles in the beat-up gravel road have already been bailed onto the flames, mud and all.

They're out of things they can try, and backing away from the mess. Steffi turns around and finds Yoder gaping at the rapidly diminishing trailer.

"Sometimes ya gotta punt," Chuck says to them.

"Whose is that anyway?" asks Steffi. "I haven't seen it before."

"Belonged to the Magruders," says Yoder. "But the new guy rented it from them. 'Don't let him use the propane heater, they said."

"New guy?"

Yoder points out a young man standing not too far away. Nobody's standing with him. He's medium height, just a little portly (tree planting will take that off if he sticks with it, she thinks), black curly hair, a thin mustache. Steffi's thinking he doesn't look contrite enough about the trailer. Short a few?

Chuck calls him over. "Dale; Yoder, Stef."

Dale offers his hand. Sweaty palm; maybe he is contrite.

Chuck catches Steffi's eye. "Seeing as we don't have the yurt on this job, Stef, y'think y'could put Dale up for awhile?"

She's not r-e-e-e-al into it, but nods.

Dale has saved his backpack full of to-be-laundered but not much else. By the fading firelight, Steffi leads him through the stinking pall of smoke to the housetruck's stoop. Huh, Ritz Hotel after all.

"You can have the blanket; anywhere down here. I'm up there."

"Up there looks comfy," he says hopefully.

"You can have the blanket; anywhere down here. I'm up there."

"O-o-kay, I gotcha."

"'Night."

"Sure, 'night." He settles on the locker across from the Airtight and fishes in his breast pocket.

"Oh, and there are house rules. No smoking indoors."

Dale stops fishing. She half expects some grumbling but there's none forthcoming.

Home sweet sleeping bag. After Steffi closes her eyes, Dale gets chatty.

"Anybody rents ya a trailer, they oughta at least fix the heater first, y'd think."

Steffi's not sure she has anything to say to this.

"Where ya from?"

Where is she from? Steffi does have an Oregon driver's license; for three years now. It bears the address of an apartment where she crashed awhile; she's not sure she even remembers whose it was.

"Greenwood."

"No kiddin'? But I mean, before that."

"Oh. Georgia."

"Oh, wow. Me, I'm a native."

He says it in lowercase, and Steffi understands him. She's heard people use the term a lot. It means born in Oregon. "So, Eugene?"

"Naah, Klamath Falls I think."

"You ... think?"

"I'm adopted."

"Um. Sleep now?"

"Oh, uh, sure. Sorry, I talk a lot."

Well, at least he recognizes it.


In the early going, Steffi finds Dale a less than ideal roommate, and frequently has to re-establish boundaries and ownership, but, she reasons, there's an extra body in the crummy at a time when two crews are having trouble making up a day's one-crew roster. Dale gets up, sort of ready and sort of willing, day after day. That, even his hostess has to acknowledge, counts for a lot.

Some people take to tree planting naturally; some do not. The crew watches Dale's lessons and, discreetly, shake their heads. He has trouble finding the line or getting his trees "right-side-up" as the old saw goes. He blurts out things to the suspectors they shouldn't hear, and his contributions at crew meetings are less than edifying.

But he's a good cook. That, his fellow crew members admit, counts for a lot.

On the fourth night, Dale fixes dinner for the landlady. She has to admit she's impressed. The crew authorizes him to make a town run with the "sixpack" to buy supplies, and soon he has everyone looking forward to supper every night.

The work is slow, many of the units are a long crummy ride from camp, and the suppers are often prepared by lamplight.

Comes a day, the crew is so tired no one wants to even try to leave the crummy.

They all sit there, some still in wet caulks. Dale rolls a big one, lights it, passes it around. Steffi, as usual, waves it off with thanks. She thinks maybe she'd like a little air. With an effort she heaves herself up, staggers to the crummy door, cranks it open, and steps down to the wet sun-burnished grass. Pretty. Takes three steps toward Ritzy, and sinks down to rest against a stump.

The sky has cleared at last, and there's a pre-sunset sky-show in progress: shades of rose, pink, mauve. Other planters drag themselves out, discover the cloud show, and settle into an ever-growing heap around the stump. Dale is the last out, carrying what's left of the damp roach gripped in a long pair of tweezers. He's watching his own cloud show, by the look of him, and he drifts off to Ritzy and falls into his own bed, a pallet of foam rubber and blankets he's acquired since Fire Night. Steffi can see his boots sticking out of his nest, by the open back door. Looks like he is asleep already.

Some of those around her are napping also. Steffi just watches the sky. The closer evening comes, the better the show, apparently.

She's admiring purple and crimson streaks, in layers above the nearby ridge tops, when she spots Dale coming down Ritzy's steps with his boots, hard hat, and lunch box. These he thumps down with a flourish on a step. Bodies stir all around Steffi.

"So, y'all want pancakes for breakfast?" Dale folds his arms and surveys the crew, beaming good nature.

Eyes meet eyes round the circle. "Oh, uh, yeah, Dale, we want pancakes, you betcha" the crew choruses. "You betcha."

"Comin' right up." Dale marches back into the Ritz; presently smoke issues from the chimney, and soon the heavenly smell of buttermilk pancakes draws the full attention of everyone present.

It's a good dinner, served outdoors. No one goes lacking for butter or syrup, and there's enough jam for the jam fanciers. Dale pops in to the kitchen to fulfill a last request, then goes over to his boots, hard hat and lunch box, and heads over to the crummy.

Halfway there, it dawns on him that it's getting darker, not lighter. Slowly he turns and looks at the sky. A star has come out. His gaze drops to the onlookers, all still sitting around the stump with their plates on their laps and their forks poised in the air.

"It's not morning, is it?" he asks mournfully.

Everyone cracks up. The Magruders, who have been a bit formal with Dale up to this point, are laughing the hardest. Both of them stretch themselves out on the ground and pound it with their fists, wheezing themselves breathless.

It takes him a few moments, but Dale pulls himself together and cracks a lopsided grin.

"Well, okay, ya hadda good dinner, anyhows."