I saw a man fishing along the Coastal fork of the Willamette near his “river home,” a small tent camped twenty feet up the bank between a huddle of trees. He offered me a mug of Cabernet and we chatted as the sun blushed and sank into the mattress mountains.
“Good day, idnit?” he said.
“Absolutely,” I said.
“I’ve traveled the country a dozen times and nothin’ beats this.” His noble manner, his candor, and his friendliness made the outdoors seem truly his. His nature turned the tent into something as kingly as the mansions littered along the McKenzie out on OR-126, or moreso.
After a few glasses, the fizzy feeling bubbled up, I asked him about his life. “What’s your story, Mr. John?”
“Hmm?” he said. “What’s that?” He spoke dreamily, elbow on knee, his temple lying on his fist like a pillow.
I brushed on a British accent and asked him: “From Whence do you hail and to where are you going?”
He told me that he was born in one of those “drive-by towns where folks are killed much less from gunshots than from nothing-to-do.” I squeezed one eye and squinted at him in the orange light, a mythical figure.
He came from a “rotting-carcass town,” he said, and told me how his community nesting there was picked clean by the Northwest Forest Plan. Neither men nor mice intended to wreak havoc on this human ecosystem, but the fact remains: families and small businesses live and die by the stroke of D.C. pens and Timbco keys that turn the growling engines of their prosperity to a choking silence.
“Logging wasn’t the kick starter or the engine of our economy—hell, it was our economy, our whole economy, pure and simple. It was our bread-on-table, our house-over-head, beer-on-stomach, clothes-on-back,” he said. He meant it and his factual account was only lightly touched with anger.
He is no reactionary. He head-nodded slightly at the end of the story before dousing the memory in wine.The pressure welled a bit behind my eyes when he said he missed the engine-roar and mountain air.
He didn’t want sympathy, just an acknowledgment.
John told me he was glad that I spoke with him like he was a person, conceded that there are some inhumane consequences of ecological policy that neglects to protect the communities it negatively impacts. We are obligated as a community to offset these effects with job-training and subsidies to help the Timberjack Harvesters and the others now sitting around foodless kitchens, ramming their heads into the walls. We put out the forest fire and throw some communities to the incinerator.
Timber sales have hit rock bottom internationally, and Oregon stands to lay its trees down like discount escorts. A plan that cuts 2.5 million acres of our 3.2 million acres of BLM land may look attractive to hungry people in a ravenous economy. The thing is a damned one-night stand that will leave our state broke, our land naked, and our rivers disease-ridden. The fearless strides we take to kitchen faucets, the confidence we have as we gulp down glasses of water on hot summer days are at risk.
The liquidation of our forests creates few jobs, and we cut them down faster than we can grow them. It will be no time at all, it seems, before we have to sit around in barren fields and wait again for growth. The guns, walking sticks, and fishing poles may some day be archaic instruments in ancient garages or curious museums. It could happen, would happen, can happen, and will happen if we aren’t quick to act—remembering those we’ve hurt and helping them through the rumbling dark must also be top priority.
THE SHORT OF IT: If in creating and implementing our environmental policy we remain bat-sh*t blind to the pain we inflict on rural Oregonians and their communities–which are also our communities–we are ethically out-of-order and politically unwise. Bolstering our environment does not necessitate ripping our communities apart and to let that happen is morally reprehensible.
–Steve Coatsworth (union-loving, community-oriented environmentalist,) signing off.