Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Maine Gazetteer: Logging on the Penobscot

As the white pine was being decimated, spruce logging began in the middle of the 19th century, and it wasn’t long before almost all species – fir, birch, larch, oak - were found to be useful. Bangor became the biggest lumber city in the world, the speculation in land and timber rivaled the technology and housing booms/busts of recent years, and the Penobscot River was the key to it all, the logs’ highway.
People romanticize the life of the 19th century Maine logger in logging museums and television specials. It was not romantic. It was hard.
Lumbermen would start work in the woods in the late fall, when the freezes started, and stay the whole winter. They lived in crude smoky camps, slept on cut boughs, and ate beans and pork and dried cod day in and day out (but in great quantities: 4 meals a day, an estimated 5,000 calories of protein and starch). They cut trees with axes and hand saws, cleared paths down to the rivers, hauled up water to make the paths icy, skidded the logs along behind pulling oxen, and piled them on the river bank or on the frozen ice of the river itself, waiting for the spring thaw. When the ice was out, they pushed the logs into the water, freed log jams, herded the logs through the cold lakes, danced along the immense booms with pike and peavey staff to sort the logs for the mills.  It was dangerous and dirty work. Many were killed or disfigured. They saw their families a few months of the year.

Why is this romantic? It seems to be a peculiarly American kind of romanticism: the company of men, the battle against nature, self-reliance, the peace and beauty of the forest (after the loud and noisy day was done, I guess). As he was for many things, Thoreau was both vector and cure for this disease. In The Maine Woods, after describing the primitive construction of the houses the loggers lived in during the winter, hardly distinguishable from the hovels for the cattle, he then has this to say: “They are very proper forest houses, the stems of the trees piled up around a man to keep out wind and rain, - made of living green logs, hanging with moss and lichen, and with the curls and fringes of the yellow-birch-bark, and dripping with resin, fresh and moist, and redolent of swampy odors, with that sort of vigor and perennialness even about them that toadstools suggest.” (pp 18-19).


                                  Excerpted from Saving Maine: A Personal Gazetteer
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