An Occupational Disease

It was the damp, chill autumn time, barely too warm for frost and too wet for comfort. We were working on a Bureau of Land Management stream-cleaning contract, clearing out a log-jam in the Siskiyou Mountains near the California line. My partner, Brian, and I sat up on the stream bank among sword fern and viny maple and waited to see what kind of fool the log would make of the government inspector.

The odds were about 50/50 that he’d shortly be a dead fool or a maimed one, and better than even that he’d end up a cold wet one. Regardless of the outcome, we sat in the fog-wet brush near the yarder’s tailblock, me smoking a hand rolled cigarette, Brian with a jab of chew in his cheek, not talking, keeping our thoughts under our hardhats.

Below us and about one hundred feet upstream, the inspector stood where I had stood an hour before, on a wet boulder, looking up at an old rotting log which hung overhead, wedged between moss-dappled rock walls above a small pool. Behind the log a waterfall fed the pool.

Standing there in mid-stream on the slick rock, with the sound of splashing water and the mass of the log above and before me, I’d seen the possibilities and didn’t like any of them. If my chainsaw didn’t get stuck, if the log’s compression didn’t send it buckling my way, if I could shift my balance away from the log so that I didn’t fall into the pool, if I didn’t slip and fall breaking an ankle or rib while scrambling out of the way, I would merely get drenched on a cold mountain-fall morning. From above, up on the bank, it had looked routine; but standing there on that rock I could see that it was lethal. I gave it up as too risky and then Brian walked down there, saw in hand, and came to the same conclusion. “It’s funny,” he said after climbing back up the bank, “it looks easy from here.”

Now it was the government man’s turn down there in the hole. He had showed up an hour later, looked down from the bank at the rock and log and pool and declared the log removable. The contract specified a clear, debris-free channel and he was there to make sure we fulfilled the contract.

We refused. “It’s not safe.”

“Hell, I could cut it out of there myself.”

“OK—go for it.” Brian handed him a chainsaw.

There was no use arguing with him, the log had fooled us too, until we stood in the only spot where you could lay a saw on it. If he wanted to prove us wrong, we’d give him the chance. The man might die, as easy as not. The log might crush him, pin him or drown him. We would, of course, try our best to save his life afterwards. But it was his choice now. Anything might happen—and to us it was all the same. Our hearts stayed as gray and featureless as a fog bank.

Though loggers are often portrayed as hard characters, neither of us was cruel or deliberately heartless. Our indifference to his fate could easily be ascribed to machismo, a matter of manful pride, or to class differences with the inspector, whose boast had challenged both our craftsmanship and our courage.

Logging is rough work. Hard labor, long hours, dangerous conditions and male-only companionship almost guarantee a hardening of the heart. There’s also what poet Gary Snyder, after watching pipeline workers in an Alaskan bar, called “The pain/ of the work/ of wrecking the world.” Work gloves can protect soft hands but tender psyches just develop calluses. Pride and the nature of logging go a long way toward explaining our attitude, but not far enough.

We are all loggers in our way, though for most of us the brutality and violence of our jobs is more subtle. “I’m sorry,” we say, “it’s company policy,” as if the rules of corporations were as real and immutable as the laws of nature. Alienation is an occupational disease, one that afflicts each of us when we sell our time for money. It brings a numbness of spirit that makes all sorts of horrible situations seem routine.

At work we become ashen-faced zombies, obediently carrying out tasks whose meaning and effects we seldom care about. We save real living for the weekends. Perhaps there is something in the nature of money itself that poisons all human relations it enters. Or maybe it’s something in human nature that leads us to sell off our lives, to trade the possibility of love for a strictly limited security. Whatever the cause, ultimately it whittles us down to its own inhuman scale. Most people are likeable enough away from the job and even at work. We each contain a complexity and beauty beyond the ability of art to portray. We also contain a bleakness of spirit unimaginable. It is in the humdrum, the daily grind, the unreal world of work that we cross between the two without noticing the change.

One hundred feet away, down in the creek bed, the government man stood where Brian and I had each stood in turn. If he tried to cut that log, then he was a fool to doubt us and so whatever happened to him was simply his own doing. We waited and watched as he started the chainsaw and held it at arm’s length overhead to start his cut. Wood chips cascaded down into the pool, exhaust smoke mingled with the morning mists. Then he stopped, withdrew the saw, shut it off and came trudging back downstream and up the bank to where we sat.

“You’re right,” was all he said, and we were, of course, pleased to hear him admit it.

History: Northwest, The Sunday Oregonian, Portland OR 1988; The Sun #147, Chapel Hill, NC, 1988; The Central Valley Times, Grants Pass OR 1995; Overstory:Zero, Real Life in Timber Country, Sasquatch Books, Seattle WA 1995.

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3 thoughts on “An Occupational Disease

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  2. An Occupational Disease
    I absolutely loved reading this essay. My husband is a logger, and he always has a story to tell. He talks about the way land management treats them, and he is always going on about how all the guys on his crew think they are the best and constantly are trying to outdo each other. It is funny to me how the male ego can get in the way of a happy work place. This essay sounded just like what my husband tells me. There are many times that I sit back and think that it couldn’t be as bad as he portrays. It is a very hard job and takes a lot out of the man performing the work. Knowing my husband I know that he is a soft heart, but when I have had the chance to meet his co-workers they do seem very hard or rough, but after spending time with them I soon learned that most of them are great people no different than they man working a 9 to 5 job behind a desk. Logging is long hard hours and really takes a toll on your body. My husband is always hurting somewhere, and sleeps long hours whenever he has the chance. Every time is had to deal with an official from land management is comes home in a mood because what the official is requesting isn’t possible but they are left to figure it out or chance getting shut down. I will print this essay out so my husband can read it, and possibly share it with the next official he encounters.

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