Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Spy in the House of Logging


Ah, the crackle of the annual campfire for University of Michigan's School of Environment and Natural Resources (SNRE). Gorgeous fall foliage rings the little lake at the heart of the small Saginaw Forest on the edge of Ann Arbor, as students, faculty, alumnae, and others gather to let the games begin.      

Photo of 2012 SNRE campfire by Dave Brenner
     A few years ago my relay team won the wader race. We took turns putting on a pair of rubber wading pants with built in boots to waddle through the woods then into the lake. Once in up to his or her ribs, each team member in turn navigates, flailing, round a floating buoy, clambers back up on the slippery bank, runs back through the woods, and flops hastily down on the ground, legs in the air like an infant on a changing table, while teammates wrestle the waders off one body and wriggle it onto the next team member for their sprint. 
(Photos of the wader race from the 2012 SNRE campfire by Heather Lutz Lesczynski; photo of the wader race team from the 2008 SNRE campfire by Jennifer Johnson)

Hip wader relay race

We were seriously competitive about the event. Who wouldn’t be? It is a gratifyingly immediate, hand-to-hand grappling with the elements of nature, which is also hilarious. Like almost all effective rituals, it subverts hierarchy (if only temporarily) and enables us to recreate our sense of ourselves as individuals and as a community in that moment. And yes, I teach as an anthropologist at SNRE. 
Established over a century ago as a Forestry School, in intervening years its mandate has broadened. The NRE students and graduates enjoying contemporary campfire rituals are less likely than their neighbors at other Michigan schools, or even than their predecessors at NRE, to have engaged in “dirt forestry” (or the actual technical practices of measuring, selecting and monitoring cutting of trees within forest swathes).  Instead, their core curriculum emphasizes remote sensing, policy analysis, economic assessment tools, international regimes, and negotiation and conflict resolution skills. The Environmental Justice Program privileges social activism and analysis within communities in polluted urban settings or rural areas where people have been alienated from land or displaced altogether. The Erb dual degree program confers both a Masters in Environmental Science and a Masters in Business Administration, for students working to integrate environmentally sound practices within dominant business processes across a wide range of sectors. The Landscape Architecture Program focuses on the design and use of both public and private spaces, integrating concerns about the built environment with those about natural systems.  The Sustainable Systems track offers an interface with engineering and trains students for innovation in green design of buildings, appliances, and energy systems.
Photo of a 1970s SNRE campfire, courtesy of Jim Diana
     Strange then, that in both archival and recent campfire photos we see the ubiquitous red and black checked shirt worn by the legendary Paul Bunyan. Pictured here as he appears on Wilkepedia, in a photo taken from a roadside memorial in Akeley, Minnesota, Bunyan is the most iconic figure of the forester as literally larger and stronger than other mortal men.  Common across commercial and cultural frontiers, that figure emerges from the very real physical dangers and challenges of life in logging camps, of which there were many in this part of the U.S., and just over the border in Canada. The State of Michigan has designated Oscoda, Michigan, as the official home of Paul Bunyan due to the earliest documented publications in the Oscoda Press, August 10, 1906, by itinerant journalist James MacGillivray, who is said to have collected stories from actual lumberjacks in logging camps. He later revised the piece, and published it in the Detroit News in 1910, thus fostering a kind of urban legend about rurality. 

      A contradictory figure, Bunyan is at once representative of the power of the untamed forest frontier, and the power of the forces that tame it. SNRE is a crucible for some of those forces, especially the proliferating fields of environmental expertise. In that respect, our school's transformations reflect changes in the forestry sector itself, which has for over a decade been self-consciously moving “beyond the timber barons” (Poffenberger 1997).  In 2008 those changes nearly cost the SNRE its Society of American Foresters accreditation. This caused a great deal of soul searching among school administrators, and some outcry among alumnae.   
       So who are we, gathered around the campfire, gearing up for the annual log-sawing competition? Our graduate training does confer a “professional skills set,” one far more heterogeneous than the kind business schools tend to offer. There are no systematic “cases” written by students and faculty of environment schools, providing fodder for benchmarking, strategy, and emerging standards for either organizational accountability or corporate social responsibility. Many of our grads are out there navigating the divides between federal agency, NGO, and corporate sectors in environmental fields. 
      Some also face a gulf between field personnel and home office staff within professional organizations that span sites and countries.  The intimacies of direct physical engagement with ecosystems have come to characterize a (hard) core of field conservation researchers who track and trap animals or spend time with communities of hunters, herders, farmers, and traders. This group of practitioners, while they may need to know how to use powerpoint or write a grant proposal, must often also master accurate use of GPS devices, chain saws for road maintenance, or even rifles. Their field skills are constantly evolving, even as the institutional cultures and political economies of international conservation organizations come to more closely resemble commercial sectors, and many career trajectories entail early fieldwork, with later program leadership within major metropoles, in a transition that mimics that of many colonial explorers who later become administrators, moving "from boots to suits." 
Not unlike conservationists, many anthropologists move from the muddy boots of early career fieldwork to…well, not suits; often to more stylish boots. We, too, venerate the lone fieldworker, and elevate him or her to iconic status. In reflecting on the contradictions inherent in my own career, the figure of Paul Bunyan haunts me. Sure, environmental professionals can be a rather macho lot; but is it any wonder that they, too, fall prey to the ways that human imaginations conjure gigantic figures to embody the challenges forests and wilderness pose to human perspectives? What if the Great White Hunter (or anti-hunter, or logger, or miner) remains in our psyche not despite but due to rapid technological change? Transformations in the ways we tame nature outpace the evolution of our imaginations, leaving us in love with cultural anachronisms that embody the menace of natural systems and the rivalries among humans competing to make them into commodities.  
Campfire in the 1960s (right), and in 2006 (left). Photos courtesy of Jim Diana

Or perhaps that is too pessimistic. Watching the sawing competition over several years of SNRE campfires, I realize that much is going on underneath the surface: 
  “Short strokes at first, then long, long, long, then short towards the end…” whispered one contestant to his partner, as they watched other teams and prepared themselves to take up the saw. The comment was partly instructional and partly descriptive; they were watching a team with a diminutive woman outdo the time of a previous team of strapping, muscular men, by virtue of fine-tuned coordination between the two partners. The ritual of the crosscut saw contest is itself a moving target; it has come to reflect new forms of competition as the composition of SNRE students and faculty has changed over the years; it has never been only about brute strength, but also about syncopation; communication.
This may also be true in arenas beyond the academic world where core forestry skills anchor annual festivals and themed attractions. Paul Bunyan Land, in Minnesota, combines rides and events to honor his legacy.  An annual "timber sports" event pits teams and individuals from across the U.S. against one another in events that range from competitive chainsawing to log tosses and tree chopping with an axe. Oscoda Michigan's annual Paul Bunyan Days include a classic antique car show, children's activities, a Lumberjack Show and a crowd-awing Chainsaw Carving Championship with participants coming from across the nation.”

    Nor are such characters as Paul Bunyan unique to North America. Mitsuo Yanagimachi's 1987 Japanese film "Fire Festival" follows the decline of an island-based forester who is domineering personality; a skilled hunter and womanizer, prone to pursuing bloodsport through his hunting dogs, he is a complex and unlikeable central character. In the end, he stands accused of sabotaging marine conservation and tourism development efforts on his island home near Osaka. Without giving away the film's startling end, we can say that he ceases his efforts to stave off new economies of forest use in which his towering physique and enormous ego would be less relevant. In the still from the film, below, he stands naked before a Shinto temple, communing with Gods of the Forest. 

     Meanwhile, back at the SNRE campfire (pictured, left, in a photo by Dave Brenner), it is nightfall and nobody is naked.  Variously wet and muddy students and faculty gather by the fire to sing of bygone days on forest frontiers. Some years, for the neophytes who don't know the words, there has even been a projector and slide show with lyrics to ensure a rousing chorus. Favorite old songs evoke Paul Bunyan and his pre-industrial counterparts who loom in various corners of American labor history:  John Henry, driving his steel hammer as fast as the machines that would eventually replace him, or Big Bad John, the miner who through sheer physical strength, propped a sagging timber to save lives in the mine. These figures are anathema to mechanized technological progress, if not opposed to it, even as they absorb its power ("turn him into axe blades"). These sung stories render the bodies of heroes machines, worthy of commemoration and celebration;  perhaps they are finding new salience in an era of increasing climate extremes that call for greater physical endurance.

                                                      The Frozen Logger

…I had a logger lover, There’s none like him today
If you poured whiskey on it, He’d eat a bale of hay
He never shaved a whisker, From off his horny hide
But he drove them in with a hammer, And bit them off inside

My logger came to see me, ’Twas on a freezing day
He held me in a fond embrace, That broke three vertebrae
He kissed me when we parted, So hard he broke my jaw
And I couldn’t speak to tell him, He’d forgot his mackinaw

And so I watched my lover, Go sauntering though the snow
A going gaily homeward, At forty-eight below…
It froze clear down to China, It froze to the stars above
At a thousand degrees below zero, It froze my logger love

They tried in vain to thaw him, And if you’ll believe me sir
They turned him into axe blades, To chop the Douglas fir

              Anthropologist Beth Povinelli, in her 2006 book The Empire of Love, notes that where there are Heroes and Ogres one does well to watch also for Fairies, who embody different relationships of risk and mystery, not only virility and competitive mastery but also queer, subversive encounters with human limits (or the limits of what we understand and normalize as the human). Yet in new economies of corporate environmentalism, the dichotomies of opinion leave little room for such nuances. NGO staff and media professionals celebrate conservation icons as Heroes, even as activists and academics castigate them as postcolonial personalities. All of this proceeds as if more playful, nuanced, and differently historically-rooted metaphors were irrelevant.
And perhaps they are, for the logics of virility and competition still have a way of suffusing our social interactions. Two years ago, as I sat on a hay bale near the SNRE campfire, I overheard a set of exchanges from first year students sitting behind me. They were clearly trading tales of their summer adventures camping in Yellowstone and other famous national parks…”but did you do the sky trail?” (sheepishly) “Naw, man, by that time we were so beat we just sat in the campsite.” (rebounding) “but we did get stuck on the way into the park behind a herd of buffalo, so we were late getting to camp.” Such good-natured exchanges are not only about “on-the-groundsmanship,” but also about one-upmanship; they are conversational contests that establish a kind of "tree-cred."
When I turned around I noted a silent member of their circle, who shifted uncomfortably from foot to foot. He was the only one in the group not bragging about having “bagged peaks” on his summer trek. I asked his name, and he said he was Steve, a dual MES/MBA student who had decided against the wine mixer hosted by the business school that night to join instead the NRE campfire. “I feel more comfortable here,” he explained. “Even though I know none of these guys think I’m a real, ‘hardcore’ environmentalist because I’m in business school."  
     Revisionist history, new ecology, and reflexive anthropology have undone anachronistic notions of forests as virgin, or their inhabitants as either noble or savage. But we still idealize business as tainted, and environmentalism as pure, perpetuating tensions between those sectors, despite startlingly similar rivalries within them. After all, this is Michigan, whose gleaming architectural monuments to the modern pursuits of medicine, dentistry, and engineering sit side by side with the vast stadium that may be the ultimate emblem of our preferences for primordial pastimes. After all these thousands of years, people still love a massive arena filled with a screaming crowd that watches helmeted combatants, below. Within our relentlessly adapting institutions of higher education, there is still a place to pit individuals or teams against a single slippery slope or tree, anchoring hierarchies of old school skill even within increasingly diverse communities of advanced collaborative knowledge and action. And maybe it is true: those muddy boots moments help to extend and invigorate these new communities, rather than merely policing the boundaries of their membership in so many of the same old ways. Fire Festivals call forth the new, too.

References Cited (and deepest thanks to Gayle Rubin for her close reading of a draft over Zing's grits and chicken livers one rainy Ann Arbor weekend morning)

Poffenberger, Mark. 1997. Rethinking Indonesian Forest Policy:  Beyond the Timber Barons. Asian Survey 37: 453-469

Povinelli, Beth. 2006. The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Geneology, and Carnality.  Durham and London: Duke University Press.