Submitted by Roscoe:
Treeplanters live through the winter in order to get to the spring. Too much rain, too many dark days, and too much mud will do that to you. Winter gets old. Winter feels older than the giant old growth trees that have somehow escaped a century of double-bit axes and 36-inch monster Stihl chainsaws. It weighs on you like a waterlogged, oily canvass tarp. Winter means that it is very cold and wet when you wake up at 4:30 in the morning. It is very cold and wet when you sit hunched over on the slope gulping down your thick high-carb, high-calorie lunch sandwich. It is very cold and wet when your exhausting labor day ends. It is very cold and wet outside when you slide into your sleeping bag for a deep night’s sleep. Your dreams are of the sun and of the warmth of spring.
Treeplanters in the Northwest do the brutal physical work of creating future green life and beauty on the battle-scarred, ruined sites of the industrial forests. Until fairly recently, clearcuts were the dominant form of logging. On a clearcut, every single tree was cut down -- every single tree. Clearcutting was about efficiency. It was done to remove any standing trees that might impede the dragging of logged trees up the slope to a flat, bulldozed landing area where a variety of large machines and vehicles awaited them. On the landing, the trees would be limbed and then bucked into 40-foot lengths and loaded onto log trucks.
Loggers -- in their hard hats, calf-high, spiked, caulk boots, striped Hickory shirts and suspendered black Ben Davis jeans -- sawed their way across the steep slopes of the Pacific Coast Range and Cascades. Once the site had been clearcut, only the most profitable timber was removed. The rest was left behind where it had fallen. When I first became a treeplanter in 1973, I was astonished, -- no, horrified -- by the thousands of leftover trees that littered every logging unit.
The next steps in this process of industrial forestry added significant insult to injury. After the logging crew had packed up and moved on to another site, herbicides would be sprayed by helicopter on the fresh clearcut in order to kill all remaining live brush. Then, a fire trail would be hand-dug around the entire perimeter of the unit. Later, when fire conditions allowed for it, the dead brush-covered clearcut would be set afire in a broadcast burn. Work crews with napalm-filled drip torches would drop blobs of fiery gel, setting fires at scientifically determined points on the unit. The torched site would then become consumed in flame and a massive tower of smoke would shoot upward in the summer and fall skies. Charcoaled soil and charred downed trees now took the place of the former verdant, living forest. This piece of temperate timberland had become transformed into an industrial forest war zone. Then, competing brush eliminated through incineration, the site was ready for the final act: the planting of thousands of young trees to replace those that had been felled. Enter the treeplanters.
A treeplanting crew is a tight, isolated family. You and your crew are out there -- way out there -- living on the edge of those ebonied clearcuts. The nearest town, most likely composed of a bar, a grocery store, a laundromat, a post office and a hardware store, would be a one-to-two-hour drive down constantly curving logging roads with 200-foot vertical drop-offs to one side. No guardrails there, no fog lines there, no pavement there. Sometimes visibility was seriously compromised by some combination of horizontal rain, shifting fog, fatigue or drink.
A treeplanting crew is also a military squad of sorts in which misery, danger, exhaustion, boredom, adrenaline and esprit de corps are shared. Whether you liked a particular crew member or not, you had to respect them for putting up with the mud and the rain, with the aches and the pains. You shared that apprehensive feeling you experienced as you arrived at the landing area of yet another clearcut to be planted, as you got out of the relative warmth of the steamy, crew-transporting truck called a “crummy” (for obvious reasons), and as you peered over the edge at the yawning precipice that would be your worksite for the next week or so.
Sometimes looking over the rim of the clearcut took your breath away and your stomach tightened. The rain lashing your skin, the temperature a few degrees above freezing, the drop-off so steep you would marvel that anyone could have remained standing on this slope as they logged this place. You would try to picture yourself standing on the same slope, not with a 3-foot long chainsaw, but with a 35-pound bag of Douglas Fir seedlings strapped around your waist, swinging an 8-pound, long-handled planting tool called a hoedag.
The two-foot-tall young trees you were to plant were making their destined journey from 3-year-old seedlings in a nursery to becoming the next generation of 100-foot tall timber. The industrial forest computer models had already projected them to be cut down 50 years in the future. Their expected volume had already been calculated based on the direction of the slope, the elevation of the unit and the type of soil. Treeplanters and the trees they planted were intricately joined together in this industrial reforestation industry through the elements of rain and soil.
Hoedads Co-op Incorporated, formed in 1971, was the first worker-owned, worker-managed reforestation cooperative in the Northwest. Members of the Hoedads provided an important influence on the forestry practices of the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management -- from breaking the "males only" ethic of forest work, to questioning the wisdom of monoculture reforestation, to challenging the liberal use of herbicides. The Hoedads also engaged in extensive lobbying at the national and state levels for increased funds for reforestation, for worker safety and for the promotion of sustainable forestry practices.
But that’s not all the Hoedads did. In addition to treeplanting, Hoedads did precommercial thinning, firefighting, trailbuilding, technical forestry, watershed rehabilitation, campground construction, resource inventory, and other forest-related labor. With up to 13 crews at a given time with names like Mudsharks, Cheap Thrills, Cougar Mountain and Full Moon Rising, Hoedads worked in every state west of the Rockies and Alaska and lived in the most remote areas in the mountains of the West, often in primitive conditions set in the middle of vast expanses of clearcuts.
Over the years, more than 35 crews came and went. There were all-women crews, there was a Mexican American crew. Some crews were explicitly political, some wanted nothing to do with politics. Some crews were ruggedly libertarian and individualistic, some were idealistically collective. Crews specialized in complex lines of work such as range fence-building, bridge construction or using dynamite for trail creation. Others crews were marginally functional collections of misfits and quickly ceased to exist. Still others were hard-living, production oriented, money-generating machines.
Additionally, Hoedads spawned a dozen other forestry cooperatives in the Pacific Northwest, providing the business management and forestry skill training ground for many of those other worker-owned enterprises. The Hoedads also served as a role model for the national worker cooperative movement of the 1970’s. Hoedads earned the respect of people throughout the U.S. for putting their political and social ideals into practice.
In Eugene, Hoedads provided loans and grants to many local alternative businesses -- from providing initial operating expenses for the WOW Hall (Community Center for the Performing Arts), to providing startup money for cooperative businesses, including restaurants, auto repair shops, wholesale food suppliers, and construction companies. Hoedads also provided financial resources to the environmental group, NCAP (Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides, to community agencies such as the Siuslaw Valley Health Clinic and to NEDCO, a community-based housing agency. The Hoedads flexed their organizational muscle in local politics, enlisting hundreds of Hoedad volunteers and electing Jerry Rust, the first Hoedad president, as a Lane County Commissioner in 1976. Rust ultimately became the longest-serving commissioner in Lane County.
The Hoedads disbanded in 1994, due largely to the dramatic decline on federal lands of reforestation and other logging- associated forestry contract work. In some ways, a deeper factor led to the demise of the Hoedads: the times had changed. A new generation of motivated idealists did not emerge to replace those whose bodies had broken down from the harshness of the physical labor or those who had left Hoedads to pursue other livelihoods or to provide more stability for their families.
The Hoedads provided a seminal experience for hundreds of people from across the U.S. It provided a rich medium for experiments in areas such as workplace democracy, gender, race, sexual orientation, alternative economics and the environment. In their own unique way, the Hoedads personified the essence of what is called the 60's -- the idealism, the excesses, the bold experiments, the failures and successes.
The warp and weave of the Hoedad fabric was rich. Its strands were multihued and complex. It was of a time. The Hoedads provided a home for refugees from America’s heartland and its cities, for emotionally-charged environmentalists, for analytical Marxists, for cooperative utopians, for instinctive anti-authoritarian anarchists, for passionate feminists, for newly empowered lesbians and gay men, and for committed, dreamy hippies.
This was indeed a sea change. In years past, treeplanters were picked up off of the curbside of Skid Row on Burnside in Portland and at Snappy Service Café near the train station in Eugene. Many treeplanters were the male dregs of the working class, people who had a hard time keeping a job. They were dispensable. They were disposable. For many of them, few cared whether they lived or died. In reality, most of these treeplanters did not care whether the trees they planted lived or died, either. The Hoedads provided a qualitatively different ethos: workers mattered, trees mattered, work mattered, democracy mattered, emotions mattered, relationships mattered, voices mattered, respect mattered.
But still, what mattered most of all was the mud, the steep slopes, the waist-burden of the heavy trees, the sweat, the pain, and the rain. The Hoedads' history of participatory democracy, of the creation of a diverse workplace in the forest, of hard-earned environmental initiatives – none of it would have been possible without the mud and the rain, without hands in the dirt.
Now, on a Monday morning in August, I sat alone on the stairs to the basement at my home. I found myself not able to hold back the tears. The 2001 Hoedad Reunion was completed and people, who had gathered together briefly and happily, became a diaspora once again. Three nights before, the party-lit basement had been the site of one of a number of Hoedad crew parties taking place across Eugene. People danced to live rock ‘n roll. They tilted their heads skyward in raucous laughter as they exchanged outrageous memories and exaggerated tales. People danced, they rummaged around in their memory cells, they delighted in what they had created together and in what they had experienced together. Hours of smiling made for many sore faces.
The next night of the reunion featured a big bash at the WOW Hall, where numerous three-day-long Hoedad general membership meetings had transpired as members tussled in rough and tumble democracy. As was the practice at the end of the general meetings, there were now live bands, numerous kegs of beer and the scent of marijuana emanating from small circular knots of people.
On the reunion’s final day, Hoedads gathered at Cougar Mountain, a 350-acre piece of land near Cottage Grove. Cougar Mountain was the spiritual home of the Hoedads. In 1973, when Hoedads expanded exponentially, the land had been put at risk as collateral for the bonding capital that enabled Hoedads to bid on a host of federal treeplanting contracts. Members of the land collective at Cougar Mountain were the nucleus of the very first Hoedad crew in 1971. Now, 30 years later, the day-long reunion party featured a roasted pig that had been tended through the night and live music blasting from a solar-powered concert stage.
With the reunion all said and done, here I was sitting alone on the basement stairs. I looked across the room to a large poster, a photo of the last treeplanting crew I had been on. The picture was taken in the early springtime in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, whose mountains were the steepest and most dangerous of any I had ever worked. The crew and I had made it through the winter, but I now had a ruptured disk in my back. I was in a great deal of pain, yet I kept planting because the contract was behind schedule and my crew needed me.
I now stared at the large black and white photo. Then came the tears and the sobs. They didn’t stop for a long time. I kept repeating, “We tried so hard. We all tried so hard.” The photo blurred, but the image remained crystal clear. -- Roscoe