By Dave Mance III
My father’s a forester, and I remember clearly driving around with him visiting logging jobs when I was a boy. It was the early and mid-nineteen eighties, and I see now that the trips were both business and his way of showing his kid what real work looks like. Sometimes the visits were adventures; we’d bull the old S-10 pickup up a skidroad into a logging camp, which in the late twentieth century just meant a pull-behind camper on a landing, a scarf of smoke rising through a tin straightpipe in the wall, inside extra fuel and a sharpening station and probably a Stihl calendar on the wall featuring a bikini-clad woman holding a chainsaw, the juxtaposition of cutter teeth and bare flesh enough to make an OSHA inspector look out the window for other signs of the apocalypse. Sometimes the visits were more mundane, but no less memorable. Conversations on the landing. The smell of pine and wool and chain oil. The roar of the old Detroit Diesel engines. I’m remembering the characters who presided over these scenes as I write this: Scott Mayer, a logger and beaver trapper whose house in Manchester Village – number four Newhouses hanging on the garage wall – stood as a testament to the old Vermont as the town domesticated itself around him; Claude Dern, who cut trees and wrote murder mysteries and entertained children with a talking bear cape named Bruin; some German guy whose name and story I can’t remember doing a cable job in Rupert, me just standing there, awed, as two thousand pound logs hung like giant closepins and disappeared over the face of ledges so steep they may as well have been the end of the world.
The loggers in Kathleen Kolb’s paintings and Verandah Porche’s poems have different names and come from different towns, but they’re the same people, unified by both the work they do and what the work does to them. Loggers come from all walks of life – more so than in most professions. I know guys who dropped out of high school at age sixteen and others who have Ivy League educations. But there’s this common thread in their constitution – a constitution born of risking your life every hour of the work day, of making a living from the land, of that whomp you feel in your belly as a hundred-year-old pine falls and collides with the earth.
This is all here for you to see in these paintings and poems. The adrenaline seeker; the falling pine; the truthteller; the camaraderie around a load of logs; the forester, pointing out how removing trees both disrupts a forest biome and creates space, creates new life. All of the complication inherent to a harvest, inherent to this working landscape, where standing trees provide the clean air we breathe and fallen trees the roofs over our heads, provide refuge for some animals and obstacles for others, and the decision of what to take and what to leave falls on the broad shoulders of a tiny man at the foot of a giant. Feeling the tree’s lean with his body. Firing up his saw.
I’ve known Verandah Porche since I was a boy, and thirty years on I’ve yet to meet someone who can capture the poetics of daily life like she can. Her poems in this exhibition shine – the hard edges in “Morning Work on the Landing,” the soft, soulful lines in “Fuel of the People.” But her great gift is in the way she brings poems out of others. In the poem she constructed with Judy Dow, “Harvesting Red Osier,” Dow describes the mechanics of an Abenaki dream catcher – how the webbing catches the dreams and holds them, and the good dreams flow down through the feather to the sleeper below. Verandah’s sort of a human poem catcher, in the way she can sit with taciturn Vermont loggers and filter poetry out of blunt prose; Verandah the feather through which a coolant exchange becomes a transfusion, through which Joseph Gilkerson’s recollections of his father Bruce become epigraphs.
There’s a chicken and egg relationship between Porche’s writing and Kolb’s paintings in this exhibit, even though I know that the paintings came first. In some cases the poem picks up where the painting leaves off, giving us a richer understanding of the men in the scenes. But in other cases it’s the paintings that do the heavy lifting – communicating something that language is just too limited to capture. Addison County Forester Chris Olson expresses his affection for loggers in the exhibit, evoking lungs full of saw exhaust and cable splinters in your palm for two hundred and fifty dollars a thousand. Who would do this? he asks, rhetorically. But the answer is there in Kolb’s work. The light in “Grappling Logs at Dawn.” The image of “Talk at the End of the Day” that renders what’s being said obsolete, the act itself, amidst the purple winter shadows, its own sort of celebration, or prayer. This is hard work – it can be dying work – and yet it’s beautiful in a way that few jobs can match.
When I was driving around in that pickup truck with my dad in the eighties, my grandfather was still alive, and he was old enough to remember when teams of horses pulled hitches of logs around and the belt-driven buzz saw on a John Deere Model A was a technological miracle. My father’s old enough to remember the days before hydraulics, when they built elevated headers on landings so you could roll the logs onto a truck – you can still see these mounds of earth in the woods if you know where to look. In my youth, it was cable skidders, the loggers cowboys tackling these mountains with iron steeds, one hundred and seventy horses in engines that screamed like souls in Hades.
Today, logging has become a video game, as feller-bunchers have come to revolutionize the industry. Whereas in the old days you had to get out before you ruined your back, these days you abuse your body by sitting in a cab all day. Type two diabetes is the new crushed foot. Mechanization has been good and bad for loggers; best of all is the improved safety – the fact that more loggers go home to their families each night after work. Maybe worst of all, though, is the way the machines have thinned the ranks. There’s still roughly the same amount of wood being cut these days in the Northeast as there was thirty years ago, but there are fewer people doing it. Many loggers are reaching retirement age, and some in the industry worry if anyone will want to take their place.
What a blessing to have Kolb and Porche to pay homage to the men still working in the woods, to capture this moment in time.
copyright 2015 by Dave Mance III