When we came into this country, runaways, renegades, we were like birds that
had to sing. It was only ten years ago, but it feels like a hundred, or maybe a
thousand. No person can know what a thousand years feels like, though in the
first part of my life I was a geologist and was comfortable holding a foot-long
core of earth and examining such time—a thousand years per inch.
In the section of my life after that one, I was an artist, a writer of brief
stories in which I was comfortable holding a sheaf of ten or twelve papers in
which a lifetime, even several lifetimes, passed. A few thousand people would
read my slim books. They would write letters to me then and talk about the
characters in those stories as if they were real people, which strangely
Then came the third life. I became an activist. It was as if some wall or dam
burst within me, so that everything I wrote had to be asking for something—petition
signatures, letters-to-Congress, etc.—instead of giving something.
But any landscape of significance—of power, whether dramatic or understated—will
alter us, if we will let it. And I am being bent yet again, though not without
some fracturing; now I am into my fourth life, one which is built around things
more immediate than the fairy-wing days of art. Even this narrative, this story,
is fiction, but each story I tell feels like the last one I'll do—as if I've
become like some insect or reptile trying to shed the husk of its old skin, and
even now as I struggle toward the perceived freedom of the next phase of my life—the
light ahead—neither you nor I can really be sure of how much of any story is
fiction, or art, and how much of it is activism.
I am trying hard to move ahead cleanly into the next territory. But still,
things slip and fall back; the old, even when it is buried beneath the new,
sometimes rises and surges, pierces through, and reappears.
Sometimes it feels as if I am running toward the future, with a hunger for
it, but other times, as if I am simply fleeing the past, and those old skins.
It's so hard not to look back.
I cut sawlogs to sell to the mill. Prices are high, on the back end of an
election year (low interest rates, new housing starts), as the economies of man
heat to incandescence, fueled by China's child labor, Mexico's slave labor—fueled
by the five-dollar-per-hour slave labor even in our own country—and in sawing
those logs, the first thing I notice is whether the log I cut is an old tree or
a young tree. I don't mean whether it's a big one or not; all the logs I cut are
of roughly the same size—big enough so that I can almost get my arms around
them. They are each a hundred inches long, a figure I can measure off in my
sleep, or can pace blindfolded. I've cut so many hundred-inch logs that I tend
to see the world now in hundred-inch increments. That's the size long the L-P
mill over in Idaho needs for its laser-mill, which makes short (eight-foot)
two-by-fours. There's not a lot of waste. Those fucking lasers don't leave much
So the logs I cut are all about the same size, but each one is a different
weight and density, based mostly on age, and based also on whether the tree got
to be that big by growing quickly, or slowly.
The first cut you make into the log will show you this—will tell you just
about all you'd ever want to know about that tree's history. I can handle larger
individual logs, and sometimes I'll hump some big-ass honker, tight green
old-growth spruce or fir—four hundred fucking pounds packed into that
hundred-inch length—but mostly I try to carry out only the medium-sized ones,
which fill up the back of the truck quickly enough. Some of them will be eighty
or ninety years old, if they grew slowly, in a shadowy light-starved place (the
kind of woods where I best like to work in summer); and others, the same size,
will be only twenty or thirty years old, with their growth rings spaced a
quarter-inch apart or wider—trees that are seemingly comprised of liquid
sunlight, trees like pipestraws sucking up water and sucking down sunlight,
trees of no real integrity or use, weakened from having grown too fast, and
without ever having been tested.
But I get paid for volume, not quality, and I load them into the truck too, a
hundred inches at a time—though they feel light as balsa wood, after having
just handled an eighty- or ninety-year old log before that one, and I feel
guilty thinking of some carpenter three thousand miles away—Florida, perhaps—building
some flimsy-shit house with those studs—the wood splitting like parchment at
the first tap of a nail, and the carpenter cursing some unknowable thing,
groping with his curse to reach all the fire, each one a hollowed-out home to
woodpeckers and martens, bear cubs and flying squirrels. This old burned-out
forest still has its own peculiar vital force and energy and seems to almost seethe,
drunk or intoxicated on the health of so much available sunlight, and drunk on
the health of the rich fire-blackened soil—the nutritiousness of ashes.
Then farther down the mountain, you'll be back into damp creekside silent old
growth: more moss, and that dark Northwest forest—spruce and fir.
Back home, in your cabin, your dreams swirl, as if you are still traveling,
still walking, even in your sleep, across this blessed landscape, with all its
incredible diversity, and the strength that brings.
In the first life, back in Louisiana, I took things. Just the oil, at first,
from so deep beneath the ground, and from such a distant past that at first it
did not seem like a taking; but then, gradually and increasingly, from the
I took boats, big boats, from their moorings at the marina at night: sailed
them all night long—sometimes alone, other times with my wife, Hope. Before
dawn we would sail back toward shore, then open the boat's drain plug to try to
sink it, or sometimes we would even torch the boat, and swim back in that last
distance to shore, and then watch, for a while, in the darkness, the beautiful
flaming spectacle of waste.
I would take everything, anything. The manhole covers to flood-sewers in the
street. License plates. Once, a sewing machine. From a backyard in suburban
Lafayette, a picnic table. It was as if I was trying to eat the world, or that
part of it. The newspapers began reporting the strange disappearances. They
couldn't make rhyme or reasons of it—there seemed no logic to it.
I went in through windows and from dresser tops took jewelry and other
riches. I didn't ever sell anything; I just took it. It pleased me. I would
place the objects elsewhere. There are diamond necklaces hung in the boughs of
cypress trees in Louisiana—pearl earrings in bird nests in the Atchafalaya.
I took cars: got in them and drove a short distance, then hid them, or sank
them. It filled a need in me. I would look at my two hands and think, What are
these made for, if not to take?
I believe in power. What I mean to say is, I ascribe great value to it, and
like to observe power in action. I like the way continents are always straining
to break apart or ride up on and over one another, and I like the way the
seedlings in the forest fight and scramble for light.
I like all that goes on in the hundred years of a tree's life, or the
two-hundred, or five-hundred years of its span—all the ice and snow, the
windstorms, the fires that creep around the edges of some forests and sweep
through and across others, starting the process all over, and leaving behind a
holy kind of pause, a momentary break in power before things begin to stretch
and grow again, as vigorously as ever.
It feels good after sitting hunch-shouldered at a desk these last ten or
twelve years to be hauling real and physical things out of the woods: to get the
green sweet gummy sap of fir stuck to my gloves and arms; to have the chunks of
sawdust tumble from the cuffs of my overalls—to have the scent of the forest
in my hair. The scent of leather gloves. The weight of the logs as real as my
brief life, and the scent of blue saw smoke dense in my leather boots. The sight
of bright-cut new yellow pine-wood—a color that soon fades as it oxidizes, as
the skin of a gleaming fish fades quickly, immediately after it dies, or as the
hue of a river rock is lost forever after it is taken from the waters of its
particular stream . . .
They can never find me here. They have been up here looking for me—with
warrants—and may come again—but I have only to slip into the woods and
disappear for a while. And perhaps this is where the activism came from, after
the storytelling—the desire to defend a land that defended me. The desire to
give, for once, after a lifetime of taking. Perhaps one reason none of us knows
what's inside the heart or core of anything is that it's always changing: that
things are always moving in a wave, or along an arc—and that the presence of
one thing or one way of being indicates only that soon another will be summoned
to replace it, as the night carves out the next day.
I thought I was made all along for writing short stories, and maybe one day
again I will be—as forests recycle through succession—but this landscape has
carved and fit me—it is not I who have been doing the carving—and I can
feel, am aware of, my change, so that now what I best fit doing is hauling logs,
one at a time.
I'm short—a low center of gravity—with short legs, but long arms, and a
heart and lungs that don't get tired easily. The red meat, the core of me, is
stronger than ever. Certain accessories or trappings, such as ligaments,
cartilage, disks, etc., are fraying and snapping—I get them mended, stitched
back together, stapled and spliced or removed—but the rest of me is getting
stronger, if slower, and I keep hauling the logs out one at a time, stepping
gently over and around the fairy slippers and orchids, and choosing for my
harvest only the wind-tossed or leaning trees, or the trees that are crowded too
close together, or diseased. I try and select individual trees like notes of
music. As one falls or is removed, others will rise, and with each cut I'm aware
Art is selectivity—that which you choose to put in a story—and it's what
you choose to leave out, too. This new life is still a kind of music, a kind of
art, but it is so much more real and physical and immediate. It feels right to
be doing this—hauling the logs out, carrying them over my shoulder one at a
time like a railroad tie, some as dense and old as if soaked with creosote, or
green life: and the more I carry, the stronger and more compact I get—the
better I fit this job. As I choose and select, I listen to that silent music all
around me, faint but real, of what I am doing—not imagining, but doing.
Sometimes I work in the rotting areas, other times in the burns. I become
smeared with charcoal, blackened myself as if altered, and that night heading
home I will stop and bathe in a stream and become pale again under the fierce
stars and will sometimes think about the days when I wrote stories, and then
further back, about the days when I practiced geology, and then even further, to
childhood and joy and wonder: but without question these days I am a black beast
moving slowly through magical woods, growing shorter each year under those logs,
as each year a disc is removed—as if I am sinking deeper and deeper into the
old rot of the forest, until soon I'll be waist-deep in the soil—and it is
neither delicious nor frightening. It is only a fit.
A thing I do sometimes, when I have a log I'm really proud of, is to haul it
out and carry it on my back and place it in the road next to some other logger's
truck, or sometimes even in his truck, like a gift.
It is nothing more complex than trying to work myself out from under some
imbalance of the past. It will take a long time.
People are curious about who's doing it—the log fairy, they call him—and
here, too, I take precautions not to get caught. I haul the heaviest, densest
logs I can handle.
I know I'll get back to hauling the balsa-wood longs from the fields of
light. I know it's not going to make a difference—but I try only to select the
densest, heaviest blown-down logs from the old forests of darkness, and I try to
envision them, after their passage to Idaho, or Texas, or wherever they go, as
standing staunch and strong within their individual houses' frameworks. I
picture houses and homes getting stronger, one at a time—one board at a time—as
they feed on my magical forest, and then I imagine those strong homes raising
strong families, and that they will act like cells or cores scattered across the
country—like little stars or satellites—that will help shore up the awful
sagging national erosions here at century's end. It's a fantasy, to be sure, but
you tell me which is more real: an idea, such as a stated passion or desire of
one human's emotions—susceptible to the vagaries of the world, and fading
through time—or a hundred-inch, two hundred-fifty pound green juicy fir on
one's mortal shoulder. You tell me which is the fantasy and which is real.
I am so hungry for something real.
As I said, when we came up here to escape the law, we were artists: that
second life. I breathed art—inhaled it, as the timber companies are inhaling
this forest's timber—and I exhaled it, too. It was easy to write stories, even
poems. I don't even know what I'm doing, telling this one—only for a moment,
and one more time, it is as if I have stepped in a hole, or have put back on one
of the old dry shed coats from an earlier time.
It was like a pulse, back then. There was an electricity between me and the
land, and there was one between Hope and the land, too, and one between Hope and
I'd work in my notebooks, sitting out at the picnic table, the sunlight
bright on that paper, my pen curlicuing words and shapes across that parchment
like lichens spreading across the page in time-lapse warp-speed—and Hope would
paint landscapes with oils, as she had done down in the South.
Back then she had worked in greens and yellows and had always walked around
with dried smears of it on her hands and face, so that she seemed of the land,
and of the seasons down there, as I tried to be—the incredibly fertile, almost
eternal spring of greens and yellows, in Mississippi—but then once we got up
to this valley, the colors changed to blue fir, and blue rock, and to the white
glaciers, and white clouds; and those became the colors affixed to her body, the
residue of her work. There are four distinct seasons up here, as if in some
child's fairy-tale book, except that after Mississippi's slow motion, the
seasons in Yaak seem almost to gallop—the quick burning flash of dry brown
heat, August, then an explosion of yellow and red—October—then
more blue and white, blue and white, then winter's black-and-whiteness, seeming
to last forever, but snatched away finally by the incandescence of true spring—and
even now after a decade (the trees in the forest around us another inch larger
in diameter, since that time). Hope is still searching to settle into the
rhythms of this place—the fast rhythms on the surface, as well as the slower
ones frozen in the rock below.
Between her chores of running the household and helping raise the children, I
do not see much blue paint smeared on her, nor any other color. And we just
don't talk abut art any more. An overwhelming majority of that art which we see
discourages us, depresses us—no longer inspires us—and whether this is a
failure within us, or within the artists of this age, we're not sure.
It seems like a hundred years ago, not ten, since we first came up here. Back
then I would stumble through the forest, pretending to hunt—sometimes taking a
deer or elk or grouse—but mostly just thinking about stories: about what had
to be at stake in any given story, and about the orthodox but time-tested
critical progressions, or cyclings, of beginning-middle-end; and of resolutions
within a story, and epiphanies: all the old things. They were new to me then and
seemed as fresh as if none of it had ever been done before.
I did not know the names of the things past which I was walking, or the
cycles of the forest, or the comings and goings, lives and deaths, the
migrations of the animals. At night, hiking home after I'd traveled too far or
been gone too long, I did not know the names of things by their scent alone, as
I passed by them in the darkness.
Those kinds of things came to me, though, and are still coming, slowly,
season after season, and year after year; and it is as if I am sinking deeper
into the earth, ankle-deep in mulch now. I keep trying to move laterally—am
drawn laterally—but recently it has begun to feel as if perhaps the beginnings
of some of my old desires are returning—my diving or burrowing tendencies: the
pattern of my entering the ground vertically again, as I did when I was drilling
for oil: desiring to dive again, as if believing that for every emotion, every
object, every landscape on the surface, there is a hidden or corresponding one
at depth. We tend to think there are clean breaks between sections of anything,
but it is so rarely that way, in either nature or our own lives: things are
always tied together, as the future is linked, like an anchor, to the past.
Hope and I don't talk about art any more. We talk about getting our firewood
in for winter, or about the deer we saw that day. We talk about the wildflowers,
or the colors of the leaves—that's the closest we come to discussing the
shadow or memory of her work—and we do not come close to discussing mine,
either, or the memory or buried shadow of it. We talk about things,
instead, and hand things to each other, for us to touch: a stone found on the
mountain that day, or an irregular piece of driftwood. A butterfly,
wind-plastered and dried, pinned to the grille of the truck, looking remarkably
like the silk scarves and blouses she used to paint. We step carefully, desiring
to travel further into this fourth life: being pulled into it by unknown or
rather unseen rhythms. Walking quietly, carefully, as if believing perhaps we
can sneak away from those old lives, and be completely free of them, and in pace—once
more—with the land.
The logs that get you are almost always late in the day. You overextend, in
your love, your passion for the work—the delicious physicality of it: the
freedom of being able to work without acknowledging either a past or a future.
You spy a perfect fallen tree just a little bit out of your reach, and at the
bottom of a steep slope. You have to cross a tangle of blowdown to get to it.
It's a little larger than you should be carrying and a little too far from the
truck—you've already hauled a day's worth—but all of these things conspire
within you, as you stare at the log, to create a strange transformation or
alteration: they reassemble into the reasons, the precise reasons, that you should
go get that log.
And always, you do, so that you will not have to go to bed that night
thinking about that log, and how you turned away from it.
There are seventy-six species of rare and endangered plants in this forest—Mingan
Island moonwort, kidney-leaved violet, fringed onion, Maidenhair spleenwort—and
I know them all, each in both its flowering and dormant state. Most of them
prefer the damp dark depths of the last corners of old growth up here, though
others prefer the ashes of a new fire, and appear only every two hundred years
Still others seek the highest, windiest, most precarious existences possible,
curled up in tiny clefts at the spartan tops of mountains, seeking brief
moisture from the slow sun-glistening trickle of glaciers. I know all of them,
and I watch carefully as I walk with the log across my back, across both
shoulders like a yoke. Again it is like a kind of slow and deliberate, plodding
music—the music of humans—choosing and selecting which step to place where,
to avoid those seventy-six species, whenever I am fortunate enough to find any
of them in the woods where I am working. They say the list is growing by a dozen
or so each year. They say before it's all over, there won't be anything but fire
ants and dandelions. They say . . .
That is my old life. This is my new one. My newest one. This one feels
Still, the old one, or old ones, try to return. My right side's stronger than
my left, so that I use it more. By the end of the day it's more fatigued than
the left, and it feels sometimes as if I'm being turned into a corkscrew; and
because of this slight imbalance, accumulated and manifested over time, my steps
take on a torque that threatens to screw me down deeper and deeper into the
ground, like the diamond drill bits I'd fasten to the end of the pipe string
when I worked in the oil fields. And late in the day I find myself once again
daydreaming about those buried landscapes, and other hidden and invisible
A midnight run to town with four gleaming, sweet-smelling larch logs—hundred-inch
lengths, of course, and each one weighing several hundred pounds. A cold night:
occasional star-showers, pulsing of northern lights, sky-electricity. Coyote
yappings on the outskirts of town. A tarp thrown over the back of my truck, to
hide the logs. One in one logger's truck, another in his neighbor's truck. So
silent. They will think it is a strange dream when they look out in the morning
and see the gift trees, the massive logs, but when they go out to touch them,
they will be unable to deny the reality.
The third log into the back of yet another sleeping logger's truck, and the
fourth one in the front yard of the mill itself, standing on end, as if it grew
Home, then, to my wife and children and the pursuit of peace, and balance. In
the winter, Hope and I sleep beneath the skins, the hides, of deer and elk from
There is an older lady in town who works on plowhorses—gives them rubdowns,
massages, hoists their hips and shoulders back into place when they pop out—she
says they're easy to work with, that a horse won't tense up and resist you when
you press or lean against its muscles—and when my back gets way out of line, I
go visit her, and she works on it. I lie there on her table by the woodstove
while she grinds her elbow and knee into certain pressure points, and she pulls
and twists, trying to smooth it all back into place, and she uses a machine she
calls "Sparky," too, which I have never seen, as she uses it only on
my back. It sends jolts of electricity deep into my muscles—which, she says,
are but electrical fibers, like cables, conduits for electricity—and the sound
that Sparky makes as she fires round after round of electricity into me (my legs
and arms twitching like some laboratory frog's) is like that of a staple gun.
And sometimes I imagine that it is: that she is piecing me back together,
that she is pausing, choosing and selecting which treatments to use on me that
day, so that I can go back out into the woods to choose and select which wood to
take out and send to the far-away mills, who will then send the logs to . . .
We are all still connected, up here. Some of the connections are in threads
and tatters, tenuous, but there is still a net of connectivity through which
Whenever a new car or truck enters the valley, I run and hide. I scramble to
the top of a hill and watch through the trees as it passes. They can never get
me. They would have to get the land itself.
The scent of sweat, of fern, of hot saw blade, boot leather, damp bark; I
suck these things in like some starving creature. All the books in my house now
sit motionless and unexamined on their shelves, like the photos of dead
relatives, dearly loved and deeply missed. Sometimes I pull them down, touch the
spines, even say their names aloud, as one would the name of one's mother,
"Mom," or one's grandmother, "Grandma."
But then I go back out into the woods.
Once, carrying a log across a frozen pond, I punched through the ice and fell
in up to my chest—the cold water such a shock to my lungs that I could barely
breathe—and I had to drop the log and skitter out, then build a quick fire to
warm up. (The heater in my old truck doesn't work). Some days, many days, it
feels like two steps forward, and two steps back, as the land continues to carve
and scribe us at its own pace.
And now when I take my pick-up truck to the mill and off-load my logs next to
the millions of board feet that are streaming through it like diarrhea through a
bloated pig's butt in the feedlot—what difference do I think it will make? How
does my fantasy stand up then, under the broad examination of reality?
In protest, I haul the logs more slowly than ever. In protest, I take more
time with them. I touch them, smell them. I tithe the best ones to strangers.
Sometimes I sit down and read the cross-section of each log, counting the growth
rings. Here is where one seedling grew fast, seeking light, struggling for
co-dominance. Here is where it reached the canopy and was then able to put more
of its energy into girth and width rather than height—stability. Here—this
growth ring—is the drought year; then the succession of warm, wet growing
years. Here—the next band of rings—is where the low-intensity fire crept
through around the forest, scorching the edges of but not consuming the tree.
I read each of the logs in this manner, as if reading the pages of some book.
Maybe some day I will go back to books. Maybe someday I will be drawn to
submerge back into the vanished or invisible world, and will live and breathe
theory, and maybe Hope will start painting again.
But right now I am hauling logs, and she is gardening, raking the loose earth
with tools, though other times with her bare hands, and it feels like we are
falling, and as if we are starving, and as if I must keep protesting, must keep
We try not to buy anything, any more—especially nothing made of wood. It's
all such utter, flimsy shit. One touch, one stress upon it, and it all splinters
to hell—a hammer or ax handle, a wooden stepladder, a chest-of-drawers . . .
It is all such hollow shit, and we are starving.
Before I burned out in that third life. I was asizzle. I remember awakening
each morning to some burning smell within me—scorched metal-against-metal.
Manatees, ivory-billed woodpeckers, whales, wolves, bears, bison—I burned for
it all, and did so gladly. The forest loves its fires.
The reason I think I left the second life—left art, left story-telling—was
because it had become so safe, so submerged. It wasn't radical enough. They say
most people start out being radical when they are young and then gravitate
toward moderation in middle-age, and then beyond moderation, to the excesses of
the right—but for me it has been the opposite—as if the land itself up here
is inverted, mysterious, even magical—turning humans, and all else, inside
out, in constant turmoil, constant revolution.
We—all painters and writers—don't want to be political. We want to be
pure, and artistic. But we all know too, I think, that we're not up to
the task. What story, what painting, does one offer up to refute Bosnia,
Somalia, the Holocaust, Chechyna, China, Afghanistan, or Washington, D.C.? What
story or painting does one offer up to create and counterbalance the
ever-increasing sum of our destructions? How does one keep up with the pace? Not
even the best among us is up to this task, though each tries; like weak and
mortal wood under stress, we splinter, and try to act, create, heal. Some of us
fall out and write letters to Congress, not novels; others of us write songs,
but they are frayed by stress and the imbalance of the fight. Some of us raise
children, other raise gardens. Some of us hide deep in the woods and learn the
names of the vanishing things, in silent, stubborn protest.
I want to shock and offend. Hauling logs? My moderation seems obscene
in the face of what is going on on this landscape, and in this country—the
things, the misery, for which this country is so much the source, rather than a
source of healing or compassion.
Paint me a picture or tell me a story as beautiful as other things in the
world today are terrible. If such stories and painting are out there, I'm not
I do not fault our artists for failing to keep up with, or hold in check, the
world's terrors. These terrors are only a phase, like a fire sweeping across the
land. Rampant beauty will return.
In the meantime, activists blink on and off like fireflies made drowsy over
pesticide-meadows. Activism is becoming the shell, the husk, of where art once
was. You may see one of them chained to a gate, protesting yet another
Senate-spawned clearout, and think the activist is against something, but the
activist is for something, as artists used to be. The activist is for a real and
physical thing as the artist was once for the metaphorical; the activist, or
brittle husk-of-artist, is for life, for sensations, for senses-deeply-touched:
not in the imagination, but in reality.
The activist is the emergency room doctor trying to perform critical surgery
on the artist. The activist is the artist's ashes.
And what awaits the activist's ashes: peace?
There is, of course, no story: no broken law back in Louisiana—no warrant,
no fairy logs. I am no fugitive, other than from myself. Here, the story falls
It—storytelling—has gotten so damn weak and safe. I say this not to
attack from within, only to call a spade a spade: a leftover lesson from art. I
read such shit, and see such shit paintings, that I want to gag; one could spray
one's vomit across the canvas and more deeply affect or touch the senses—what
remains of them—than the things that are spewing out into the culture now.
The left has vanished, has been consumed by the right. On one day, the Sierra
Club announces it is against all logging on national forests—"zero
cut"—and the next day it turns around and endorses President Clinton for
re-election, who has just endorsed the industrial liquidation of five billion
board feet of timber in one year alone. Hell yes employment is up, this year;
what about after the re-election, when the five billion drops back to zero,
because it's all been cut or washed by erosion? Clinton tosses in the Tongass
National Forest in Alaska—old growth coastal rain forest—gives the timber
company a one hundred year lease on it. And the Sierra Club, bastion of
radicalism, endorses him.
Trying to shore up his base among the environmentalists—a long nasty word
for which we should start substituting "human fucking beings"—Clinton
designates a couple million acres of Utah desert as a national monument; the
year before, he signed a Senate bill protecting California desert. He's made
some moves in the direction of protecting some Pacific Northwest old growth,
too, but nothing for the Yaak; whether planned or not, he is making a political
trade of rock for timber—trading the currency of Yaak's wildness for votes and
red rock—and this is an alteration, a transformation, which will not bear
scrutiny; it is not grounded in reality, it cannot be done, it is surficial,
flimsy, it is theft. He is not the environmental president. He is trading rock
for timber. Each has its inherent values but each is different.
The Yaak, perched up on the Canadian line like some hunch-shouldered griffin
high in a snag looking down on the rest of the American West, can act as a
genetic pipeline to funnel its wild creatures and their strange, magical blood
down into Yellowstone and the Bitterroot country, and back out toward the
prairies, too. It can still resurrect wildness. There is still a different
thrumming in the blood of the Yaak's inhabitants.
The damn Nature Conservancy won't even get involved up here. The timber
companies owned the land along the riverbottoms in the Yaak, and they clearcut
those lands and left town rather than waiting for the trees to grow back as
they're always bragging they'll do: but before leaving town (shutting down the
mill behind them, so that now we have to export our wood, and jobs, to Idaho),
the timber companies subdivided the hell out of those clearcut lands, turned
them into ranchettes like cow turds all up and down the river, and still I
couldn't get the damn Conservancy to become active up here.
When I wrote to them, they wrote back and told me the valley wasn't important
enough. They hadn't ever seen the damn place. Now the vice-president of the
timber company—Plum Creek—that's selling off these lands in such tiny
fragments sits on the board of directors of the Nature Conservancy.
I don't mean to speak ill of anyone, and certainly not of a man I've never
met, but Plum Creek's got several tens of thousands acres in the south end of
Yaak, in the Fisher River country, which is the only route by which a wandering
grizzly can pass down out of the Yaak and into the rest of the West.
Plum Creek owns the plug, the cork, to the bottleneck—these lands were
given to them by Congress over a hundred years ago—and so now the situation is
that one man—one human, more heroic then any artist or group of artists ever
dreamed of being—will do either the right thing and protect that land, or will
do the wrong thing and strangle the last wildness.
If you think I'm going to say please after what they've already done
to this landscape, you can think again. It is not about being nice or courteous.
It is not even about being radical. It is simply about right versus wrong, and
about history: that which has already passed, and that which is now being
written and recorded.
I can hear my echo. I recognize the tinny sound of my voice. I know when an
edge is crossed, in art: when a story floats or drifts backward or forward,
beyond its natural confines. And I understand I am a snarling wolverine,
snapping illogically at everything in my pain, snapping at everyone—at fellow
artists, and at fellow environmentalists.
I am going to ask for help, after all. I have to ask for help. This valley
gives and gives and gives. It has been giving more timber to the country for the
last fifty years than any other valley in the Lower Forty-eight; and still not
one acre of it is protected as wilderness.
I load the logs slowly into the back of my ragged truck and drive them slowly
to the mill in protest. The valley cannot ask for anything—can only give—and
so like a shell or husk of the valley I am doing the asking, and I am the one
saying please, at the same time that I am also saying, in my human way, fuck
Somebody help. Please help the Yaak. Put this story in the President's or
Vice-President's hands. Or read it aloud to one of them by firelight on a snowy
evening with a cup of cider within reach, resting on an old wooden table.
The firelight on the spines of books on the shelf flickering as if across the
bones or skeletons of things; and outside, on that snowy night, the valley
holding tight to the eloquence of a silence I can no longer hear over the roar
of my own saw.
Somebody please do this. Somebody please help.