The Men in the Crummy probably wouldn’t have agreed with Noam Chomsky, though for reasons Noam might have trouble appreciating. I think about them whenever I read one of Noam’s essays about mankind destroying the planet, how Trump is really an authoritarian dictator or the elites in society have rigged everything to suit their own ends. I generally agree with Noam, at least in the aggregate. But I suspect the Men coming back from the woods, clad in their striped Dickie shirts, suspendered jeans with frayed edges and heavy work boots, all covered with dirt and pitch, would have been a bit skeptical.
The Men weren’t stupid. Their disagreement wouldn’t have resulted from a lack of understanding, or sophistication. Behind the hardened parts of their lives they were every bit as emotionally and intellectually engaged as Noam – just without the time, training or platform to be able to express their view of the world. Most left high school at some point to work in the woods, like their fathers and grandfathers.
Those who didn’t have the physical strength to work in the woods worked in the mills, ripping apart the timber brought down from the hills in trucks or on painfully slow-moving trains. They were good jobs, in the woods or the mills, where hard work could leave a man with enough money to pay a mortgage, raise a family and go to the bar on Friday nights. Which isn’t to say the work wasn’t dangerous. As a hospital volunteer I recall watching a young man in preop, with a large branch sticking out of his abdomen, writhing in pain even as nurses pumped him full of morphine. He was still dirty, his thick callused hands covered in pitch and blood.
The Men in the Crummy would have raised an eyebrow when Noam wrote about humanity wrecking the planet. After all they’d heard it before. Many had been targeted by environmental groups during the Spotted Owl wars of the 1980s and 90s. Back then trees were being spiked with long nails, hidden beneath the thick bark – little chainsaw land mines designed to break a chain when a logger tried to cut the tree down. When loggers pointed out that a thrown chain could actually kill the logger (an event not unheard of even without the nails) the logging companies gave them metal detectors. In response the environmental groups threatened to use ceramic spikes, to the same end. Neither the logging companies nor the environmentalists cared much about the men with the chain saws – and the Men in the Crummy knew it.
Ironically, no one was more invested in protecting the woods as the Men in the Crummy. When they weren’t setting chokers or pulling cables down from the top of a tower they would be fishing or hunting, often with their kids, basking in the vast beauty of their workplace. They were the hunters who killed a deer on the first shot and doused the campfire completely before they left. After a tract of trees was cut, the Men would carefully replant. If anyone understood the importance of the great Doug Firs, their place in the natural cycle or the need to manage the woods it was the Men in the Crummy.
One of the strengths of Noam’s writing is the clarity that rises from nearly complete certainty. It negates obfuscation and sidelines doubt. While there will never be unanimity among those who study a given subject, at some point decisions must be made whether or not to act. So, whether he ends up being right or wrong, Noam’s certainty never bothers me. But the stakes of that certainty, those decisions to act, have a greater impact on some folks than others. They affect someone’s livelihood, someone’s family and way of life. Certainty is helpful, but mostly when it ends up being correct.
For years courts tried to settle what science hadn’t. They ruled that the Northern Spotted Owl was endangered due to logging – and not just in old growth forests. Millions of dollars were spent on various plans to allow logging while preserving Spotted Owl habitat. In time the constraints became too much for the logging companies, which eventually decided it was far easier to log in Canada. They left, and the Men in the Crummy were no more.
But ending Oregon logging didn’t slow the decline in Northern Spotted Owl populations. Over time it became clear that the narrative of habitat loss had been grossly over simplified. A more complex, and perhaps inevitable, change was underway. The Northern Spotted Owl’s existence was being threatened by a cousin, the California Bard Owl, which was gradually moving north displacing its neighbor. Given that, I doubt the Men in the Crummy would have appreciated Noam’s clear certainty.
I read somewhere that Noam Chomsky is from New York, birthplace to most of the world’s great English writers (Tony Morrison – my favorite – being an exception). Locality is important when it comes to forecasting the future. Many of the Men in the Crummy owned sizable bits of forested land, on which they had built small houses or placed mobile homes. Most of them were property rich, cash poor. They owned next to nothing, drove twenty-year old cars and never took a vacation. But a million dollars-worth of trees might be growing on their property.
The trees in most cases would never be logged, but the fact that they were there, the fact that they had value gave the Men piece of mind. The property (and trees) might provide for an easier retirement, or more likely become an inheritance. When the Ninth Circuit decided that saving the Northern Spotted Owl required closing off vast tracts of land to logging, private landowners panicked. In the course of a year, large tracts of the forested hills up and down the valleys of Western Oregon were suddenly laid bare. Timber prices dropped as the Men in the Crummy cut down their trees, sold out and left. No more logging, no more good jobs, no more future.
All of which is why the Men in the Crummy would have been skeptical when Noam writes about climate change. I don’t need Noam Chomsky to tell me it’s real, though I appreciate him writing about it. Evidence is all around, from shrinking glaciers to a vast increase in the acres burned by forest fires. We all do little things to try and offset our carbon production and reduce the quantity of carbon released in the atmosphere. But in the end, I can think of very few who have paid much of a price.
I still drive a nice (though fuel conserving) car, live in an air-conditioned (but energy efficient) house and probably emit more than my share of carbon. Who is going to pay the price for it all? I certainly won’t. Yet somewhere there are those who will. They have good lower middle-class jobs, hope their kids have opportunities they don’t, seldom take vacations and drive twenty-year old cars. They aren’t doing anything wrong and they don’t deserve what is going to happen to them. But it will. In the end it may not even make a dent in climate change, but by the time we know whether our efforts pay off lives will be upended, and voices silenced. Noam might write something about them (he’s written about everything else – so it’s definitely a possibility); but it won’t change what’s coming.
Today the Men in the Crummy have mostly been reduced to a caricature. When the Portland Timbers soccer team takes the field “Timber Joey” (who before his reign as a mascot was a logger) revs his chainsaw up in the front of the hoard of screaming millennials drinking craft brewed beer. I doubt any of them have ever seen a Crummy or met any of the Men who rode them back and forth to the forests.
Strangely, I think the Men in the Crummy would have taken a liking to Noam Chomsky. They might have loudly disagreed with Noam, but then offered to settle the matter as all great conflicts are resolved, with a couple shots of bad whiskey. Sadly, it’s unlikely that will ever happen. The Men in the Crummy are all but gone, and Noam is in his 90s. In a world where conflicts go unattended, where we don’t talk to those with whom we disagree, it would have been nice to see Noam take a ride in a Crummy. I think he would have done it, given the chance.
Micah L. Thorp is a physician and occasional writer living in Portland, Oregon.