During the Watergate summer of 1973, while Sam Ervin roasted Nixon administration witnesses, I worked as a roofer on a housing development in Cochiti, New Mexico. The days had an amazing sameness. The one hundred degree-plus weather held for weeks on end. Though there were six different floor plans for the housing units that we were building, they had only two roof styles– one with a skylight in front and one without. The shingles were either light or dark brown. Each roof took two days to lay. Every measurement, every vent, and each piece of metal flashing was the same as the roof before and the roof that followed. The gravel-coated asphalt shingles formed a Euclidean hell more arid and featureless than the surrounding desert.
Every day a certain cloud would form over the same peak of the Jemez range in the distance. When it grew to the right size, I would confirm with my pocket watch what the cloud had already told me: lunch time was at hand.
In the relative coolness beneath the roof we ate our meal with the assembled hardtimers, hippies, chicanos and indians who made up the construction crews and listened as the contractors argued. There were frequent arguments, sparked by trade chauvinism, conflicting schedules and methedrine.
One day the head electrician and the framing foreman got into it. The electrician drew out the blueprints for the house and pointed from the plans to the wall and back again saying: “See? It calls for a doubled stud right here. How the hell can I hang a box here unless you double it up?”
The carpenter was nonplussed. “This place was screwed-up from the get. The foundation’s off; the slab’s wrong. Face it: it wasn’t built to the plan—it was built to the hill. You’ve got to make allowances.”
Despite the fact that the carpenter really should have doubled-up that stud, I remember feeling that there was something important about the exchange without understanding its significance. Like a sufi story, the carpenter’s complaint came back to me over the years, always ringing true, but only slowly revealing its implications.
It was, I believe, the ancient conflict between what is and what ought to be, between the vision and the reality, between mind and matter, with mind stubbornly insisting that its expectations be met and reality even more obstinately refusing to be something it isn’t. “Wish in one hand and shit in the other—see which one fills up first.” goes the proverb.
We were, as craftsmen, caught up in a no-win situation. Someone, or some group of somebodies, somewhere, had created a plan, a vision set forth on paper, as clean and abstract as a problem in geometry. A housing tract, consisting of housing units, would rise on some lots. Every detail had been considered beforehand. It simply remained for us to follow the dictates of blue lines on white paper.
And yet, that paper village could never stand on this earth. Nature, both human nature and Mother Nature, insured that. Stubborn reality refused to conform to the unreal desires of mind. Each piece of the plan, when put into execution, asserted its own individuality against the mind that treated it as undifferentiated, interchangeable parts. No two houses could really be the same. No two nails, of the kegs we pounded, were identical; no two boards or shingles or grains of sand in the concrete were truly the same as any other that ever was or would be. A common everyday miracle prevented, once again, the drabness of human thought from reproducing itself. Walt Whitman would have been pleased.
It’s amazing to me how little respect most people seem to have for reality. The mind is a wonderful thing and perhaps most wonderfully of all, capable of tricking us into accepting its version of what takes place around us. We mistake our perceptions for the stuff of existence, repeatedly, even when we know better. Like a kitten trying to touch its image in a mirror, we reach out to the world we think we see, only to find that it’s not really there.
I know many people who are terrified by the notion that reality is, by its nature, incomprehensible. A very few are delighted by it. Most people, it seems, never take up the question at all.
I have heard and read about some of the reasons that so many of us trust our perceptions more than we trust the world as it is. It’s difficult to sort them all out and get a clear picture, but it’s not hard to see the results.
In the spring of 1980 I was finishing up my fifth winter as a tree planter in southern Oregon. It was my sixth crew in five seasons and by that spring I’d planted150,000 seedling trees, enough to replant something close to three hundred acres of logged off mountain slopes. At ten planters to a crew I must have helped reforest about 3,000 acres, all within an eighty mile radius of my home.
One morning we were planting some freshly clearcut land up Buck Creek, a three hundred acre rocky, ravaged reforestation unit. Our crew was attempting to plant douglas fir seedlings with ten inch roots in a perfect eight foot by eight foot grid pattern in shallow, eroded soil and logging debris.
Over and over again, we bent our backs and swung our hoedags only to clink against rock covered with three or four inches of topsoil. We did what we could for the land, finding small pockets of soil built up on the backside of the huge, sap oozing stumps of the forest that used to be and scratching holes in the shallow spots as proof that we’d been there and found the spot unplantable.
“Shit!” someone spat after yet another arm jarring clink, “I feel like a goddamn chicken scratchin’ around out here.”
“Buck-buck-buh-gawk! Buck-buck-buck-buck-buh-gawk!” I answered, and the crew took up the call.
It was spring, a beautiful, sweet smelling sunny day and a sort of madness, compounded of ten wiry bodies in motion, sunshine, and the frustration of the work, overcame us. We glanced over our shoulders slyly, challenging Jack, the foreman, to stop our clucking insurrection.
Jack surveyed the scene from his stump top roost, leaning against his inspector’s shovel. He lifted his hard hat, scratched his head and decided to try to change the subject. As was his wont, he spoke of the wonders of modern forestry.
“Boy they sure did a nice job on this unit. Lots of reprod.” He gestured toward some scraggly residual trees. “The loggers sure pissed and moaned when we made ’em get good suspension but those naturals will really take off now that we let the sunlight in. In the old days we wouldn’t have bothered, you know. Hell, ten years from now this’ll all be thick as dog hair with young firs.”
“Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-off!” someone down the line called out amid the clucking and chinking. Jack pretended he hadn’t heard.
I thought of the hardscrabble canyons of Rock Creek, of the old units logged twenty and thirty years ago that we’d replanted all winter long, trying for the fifth or sixth time to bring back the forest on land whose soil had been muddying the river for decades. Something sad and ugly rose within me. I stood up, leaning on my hoedag to straighten my sore back, hitched up my tree bags to ease the chafing on my hips and turned to face my foreman.
“You’re nuts.” I told him, “This is totally fucking insane.” I gestured downstream at the silted creek bed, at the place where we’d found chips of jasper knapped from tool cores by the Indians, at the stark grey face of Buck Rock gleaming in the sunlight for the first time in ten thousand years, at the yarder tower roaring it’s diesel roar and hooting like an owl as it dragged a turn of logs uphill to the waiting log trucks.
“Look at this place Jack. This ain’t a forest–it’s a fucking disaster. Get your head out of your ass and look at it. A hundred years from now people will wonder how the hell we could have been so fucking stupid.”
The clucking had stopped. The rest of the crew stood still, grinning and watching and waiting to hear Jack’s reply.
“This is good ground. This unit will come back just fine. We’ve done a good job logging it, the best anybody can do, with all the best techniques we’ve got and it’ll come back just fine.”
It was time to back off. I knew that. It was one thing to bait the man as a joke but challenging his profession was stepping over the line. I couldn’t back off though. The accumulated poison of five winters of tree planting had turned to venom.
“Bullshit. You’re fucking crazy. All you company foresters are insane. Just look at this place Jack. Take a look around you and see what’s really going on here. It’s totally fucking insane.”
“Look, Heilman, don’t fuck with me. I run a good crew and we do good work. What do you know anyway? Huh? I’ve got a masters degree in forestry–I know what I’m talking about. You don’t know shit.” he said, as if mountains were blackboards.
I’d blown my next winter’s job, his tone said. I thought of November and the uncertainty of finding another crew to work on. In the ten years since dropping out of high school I’d been laid off, fired from or quit thirty different jobs.
“Yeah, what do I know? I’m just a dumb-ass tree planter.”
“Shut up and get back to work.”
I glanced at the last seedling I’d planted, chose a likely spot eight feet away for the next one, took two steps and swung my hoedag. Up and down the line the laughter and clucking had died and the only sounds were the scraping and clinking of hoedags on rocks and the distant roar of the yarder.
Jack wasn’t a bad guy to work for at all. In fact, I liked him and respected him a good deal. It’s not easy to ride herd on a bunch of mud-spattered brush apes and he did it well. But like a lot of nice people, he’d bought into a plan, some words on paper which he never questioned despite the evidence all around him. In his view, the plan itself was foolproof. If anything went wrong it had to be because the plan hadn’t been executed properly. It never occurred to him that no plan, no matter how detailed, could ever encompass something as complex and miraculous as a mountain slope.
The lack of respect for the fact of individuality, makes all sorts of horrors and cruelties not only possible but seemingly desirable. After all, if the universe is composed of interchangeable pieces, the annihilation or impoverishment or demeaning of any one piece, whether a rock or a mountain, a tree or a forest, a person or a people, a valley or a planet, cannot have much importance.
The illusion of sameness creates a devalued currency in our language, thoughts and emotions. We forget that the word only stands for the thing suggested, and the object itself is, by its essential nature, unknowable mystery and sacred in and of itself—simply by being.
Uniformity is a convenient fiction, useful for fooling ourselves but useless for seeing things as they really are. Never trust anyone who believes in the reality of units. They have sold their share in living for counterfeit coinage.
History: The Sun #189, Chapel Hill NC, 1991; Left Bank #2, Extinction, Hillsboro OR, 1992: The Central Valley Times, Grants Pass OR 1995; Overstory:Zero, Real Life in Timber Country, Sasquatch Books, Seattle WA ,1995