Brush Cat recounts a year in the life of men who perform one of the most dangerous jobs in America -- logging New England’s vast forests for timber used in hundreds more ways than most of us realize, from houses to furniture to paper to electricity. In the spirit of John McPhee and Tracy Kidder, we meet an unforgettable cast of characters; feel their pain and exultation; and come to realize the centrality of wood in all our lives.
From useful tips on how not to lose body parts to a chainsaw, to the terror of huge trees that fall the wrong way, to the inconsistent and wrong-headed ways government manages foresting, Brush Cat covers it all. McEnany also explores the world-wide demand and use of wood and wood chips, the effect of climate change on the forest, and the money that keeps it all moving. This book clears the branches to reveal one of those hidden jobs that directly impact our lives.
McEnany (co-author of Bode) offers a spirited account of life among the burly, hard-living men who log New England's timberlands that's part self-deprecating memoir (he's a self-admitted klutz around chainsaws) and part serious study of both the ubiquity of wood in contemporary America and the future of domestic logging in the Atlantic Northeast. The good news is that the eastern forests continue to be a valuable renewable resource when logged with sustainability in mind, reports the author. The bad news: sprawling development, increasingly onerous governmental regulations, climate change and the consequent truncated logging season are all gnawing at the loggers' precarious livelihood. Unlike the forests of the West, where mechanized logging is the norm and huge swaths of forests are clear-cut indiscriminately, New England woodlots are almost all privately owned land of 25 acres or less, and logging is done by the “Brush Cats”- independent, self-sufficient woodsmen, who are said to have the most dangerous job in America and are profiled with a mix of comic hyperbole, measured awe and deep affection in this loquacious study. (Mar.)
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A tribute to the work and lifestyle of independent loggers tallies up harsh odds against sustainable future prosperity. McEnany (co-author: Bode: Go Fast, Be Good, Have Fun, 2005) has spent the last two decades in New Hampshire and other Northern forest environs observing and unabashedly admiring what could be a dying breed: the independent logger, known colloquially as a “brush cat,” praised here as a rugged, hard worker and a protector of America's forest resources. The author diligently differentiates these individuals from the major timber companies working largely in vast Western forests that tend to be less variegated than Eastern ones. These companies often employ mechanized “clear cutting” that wipes a wooded area clean of every stick and, as a result, have become high-priority targets of major environmental groups. Independent loggers, the author stresses, tend to be as interested as anyone in conserving and managing their “woodlots” in the forest. They cull dead, dying and waste timber, creating space for more valuable, healthy trees to provide a future crop. They work with few assistants, sometimes even single-handedly, cutting their "skid rows" into the target areas so trees felled by hand with chain saws can be dragged out and loaded onto trucks. Government figures and insurance-company actuaries amply bear out the author's contention that this is America’s most perilous occupation; plenty of gory examples from real cases demonstrate what can go wrong when trees are felled. McEnany also provides updated information on what role climate change appears to be playing in our forests. Warmer winters allow more parasites to survive to attack trees; less snow means frost lines go deeper, the spring “mud season” is protracted and the brush cat’s window of opportunity keeps shrinking. At times a bit labored in its advocacy, but an eye-opener nonetheless.
Dead trees go into everything from your toilet paper to your McDonald's milk shake (thickened with wood flour!). As Jack McEnany writes in Brush Cat, it all starts "with some guy trudging into the woods with a chainsaw." That guy has an increasingly tough job: Climate change has shortened the New England timber season from six months to four, the housing crash has caused the price of lumber to plummet, and logging is America's deadliest occupation, more dangerous than even deep-sea fishing.
Set in the northern woods of New Hampshire, where McEnany has lived for 20 years, Brush Cat is a sympathetic look at the challenges facing this dying American industry. The book is "mainly about people": loggers, mill owners, waitresses at breakfast joints, and a host of others who enable us to use wood and paper, well, like they grow on trees. McEnany's respect for his subjects is reflected in his amusing prose ("Bob used his saw with the authority of a Benihana chef") and his earnest attempt to follow a logger who agrees to have a "yutz like me with him in the woods" only "for as long as we can stand each other."
Loggers' skills are less in demand now than ever. Not that we're cutting down fewer trees; it's just that fewer Americans are wielding the saws. Machines are doing more of the harvesting, and much of our wood now comes from Siberia and Southeast Asia. In the US, what was once big business is now a novelty. McEnany asks the owner of a mill town turned theme park in Berlin, New Hampshire, about logging's transformation from the state's No. 1 industry to a tourist attraction. "The mill is gone," he says wistfully, but "the memory isn't."
Although the logging industry is a lightning rod for green concerns, McEnany effectively presents the case for generations of independent loggers who work the Great Northern Forest in New Hampshire. This is his home, and he did his research on the job and in the local bars. He dips deeply into the centuries of economic interdependence between the towns and the woods, while also describing the care with which brush cats tend to the trees. McEnany’s wide-ranging narrative includes everything from poet Robert Frost to detailed analysis of the U.S.Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, which is regarded as essential to the future of New Hampshire’s forests. But this is more a book about men and how they live than it is about the politics of sustainability. And even as he celebrates hard work in the great outdoors, McEnany does not romanticize his subject; he respects the men he writes about too much for that. For a smart discussion about responsible logging practices, Brush Cat should be a title of choice.
The Wall Street Journal
In any gathering of men who take down trees for a living you will see a few battle wounds. Sliced digits. Crooked legs. Scarred faces. Chain saws are fast, powerful and unforgiving, and the ones that the professionals use resemble what the ordinary citizen buys from Home Depot about as much as a Chevy off the lot resembles the Impala SS Jimmie Johnson drove at the Daytona 500. Then there are those dead limbs -- "widow makers" -- that break off as a tree is coming down, whipping through the air and occasionally landing on a logger who considers himself "lucky" if he is merely injured. Hazard also comes from the heavy equipment for bundling logs and moving them out of the woods on greasy skidder trails and along narrow dirt roads. Those bundles can roll over and crush a man if he isn't careful, or even if he is.
In "Brush Cat," Jack McEnany offers a vivid account of the "wood economy" of New Hampshire, never stinting on the danger in this line of work. "According to the U.S. Department of Labor," Mr. McEnany writes, logging is "the most dangerous job in America," handily beating out the number-two killer profession, commercial fishing.
So why do it? What, to use a term from Econ 101, are the incentives? Looking for an answer to that question, Mr. McEnany spent some serious time with loggers -- both in the woods and in the bars where they restore themselves at the end of the day. The answer turns out to be simple -- they do it because they love it. Why they love it is a little harder to figure out.
It is not, certainly, because logging makes them rich. Loggers these days are, for the most part, independent contractors. They do not work directly for the lumber mills because the mills generally don't own any land. So the logger is working for himself. He cruises a piece of property and estimates how much timber of value he can take off it. Once he makes a deal with the landowner, he goes out and starts cutting. He gets paid by what he produces, and he gets his money only when he manages to move his timber to the end-user -- the mill or, more and more often, a plant that generates electricity by burning "biomass" (wood chips).
All this means that he works whenever there is work and whenever the weather permits. A bad wet spell can make the roads and skidder trails impassable. Hot dry weather is OK, but not what loggers prefer: Black flies and other insects swarm in the summer and feed on exposed flesh. A cold day is ideal. The ground is hard and logs slide smoothly over it. Cold days are also good because, according to one of the men Mr. McEnany interviews, "in case of an accident, blood flows significantly slower."
Loggers are heavily invested in their equipment -- not just those industrial-strength chain saws but trucks, chippers and loaders -- so they need to work just to keep up with their costs of capital. The equipment burns gas or diesel lavishly. Thus the price of oil is as important to a logger as it is to a spot-market trader. When housing construction is booming, lumber is in demand and the money rolls in. But housing construction is cyclical, to put it mildly, and it can freeze up tight -- as it has in recent months -- sending the price of timber into free fall. Other challenges plague the logger's peace of mind -- e.g., the seasonal shutdown of roads and the all-season attempts of conservationists to lock up good timberland.
So logging is both physically dangerous and financially vulnerable. But it is also a way of life, and the men Mr. McEnany spends time with plainly wouldn't do anything else so long as they have the choice. Their feeling for the life comes down, in part, to the fact that they are independent. They are moved by that old American desire to be your own boss, even in a tough business.
And there is an art to being a good logger, as Mr. McEnany makes clear; mastering it becomes a source of pride. How to get at a stand of trees is not an easy calculation, for instance -- deciding which ones to take down first (so that falling trees don't hang up in standing ones), making a tree land where it can best be "limbed." Like just about anyone who has been around a real professional at work, Mr. McEnany feels something approaching awe at the expertise on display. There are the simple things, like the ability to pull a rat-tail file across the teeth of a chain saw just so and in a few efficient strokes sharpen it up and get back to work. Other skills strike Mr. McEnany as almost sublime. When he watches a logger use the "open-notch" method of felling a tree, he is, he says, "smitten, mildly euphoric, actually excited about cutting trees."
The open-notch method requires sticking the nose of the chain saw directly into the trunk of a tree instead of cutting horizontally. It isn't something that an amateur should ever try, and an OSHA inspector would probably faint dead away if he saw it being done. Do it wrong and the saw -- with the blade turning at about 1,000 revolutions per minute -- will come back into your face. Emergency-room doctors in small rural hospitals know the effects of "kickback" as well as their urban counterparts know gunshot wounds.
"Running a chainsaw all day for a living," Mr. McEnany writes, "is an extraordinary acceptance of personal responsibility." A logger -- or "brush cat," as Mr. McEnany calls him, preferring that term to "brush monkey," a common but less flattering one -- cannot control the price of lumber or oil or the many other variables that affect his bottom line. But at the actual point of professional contact, when he is taking down, say, a 60-foot-high hemlock, a logger holds his life and his livelihood in his own two hands. Not many of us ever experience that feeling.