Western resource extraction, now and then


For four years Boston-based photographer Eirik Johnson, a Seattle native, travelled around Washington, Oregon, and northern California taking pictures of loggers and fishermen. His photographs, collected into the series "Sawdust Mountain," are on display at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington until this Sunday. The series depicts the visual impact of natural resource extraction--clearcuts and slash piles, dams and gill nets--alongside the social impact of collapsed natural resource-based industries. Former timber boom towns like Aberdeen, Wash., decorated with murals of men using cross-cut saws in old growth forests, now have abandoned log dumps and factory buildings and a population struggling to find an economic alternative to timber.

The photographs document both man's awesome ability to alter the natural environment and his adaptability: mills now cut less desirable species like alder instead of fir or cedar, forest workers salvage cedar shakes from old growth stumps, and nurseries and hatcheries produce millions of seedlings and eggs to supplement natural supply. These images are disturbing but not judgmental, inviting sympathy for the people still dependent on the natural resource-based economy rather than animosity. The photos and the people in them are sad and gray and hushed, hunched beneath a perpetually cloudy and beautiful sky, and the series comprises what Johnson describes as a "melancholy love letter of sorts" to life in the rural Northwest.

At the University of Washington exhibit Johnson's work is accompanied by a collection of old-growth logging photographs taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the likes of Darius Kinsey and Carleton Watkins.

Kinsey's logging photographs, in particular, are beautiful and epic. And they bring to mind a question I've hardly been able to fathom, let alone answer: How could the people who logged the old-growth (including several of my great grandfathers), who didn't believe in sustainable forestry, still cut everything in their path? These loggers didn't bother to replant or start nurseries or even pay the taxes on land once they'd logged it. They viewed the forests as one-time boon, and they logged their way westward under that premise.

So why, when they came across a tree big enough to stop work to photograph, a tree they thought might be the biggest tree in the entire state, did they still cut it down, especially when they were convinced it wouldn't come back? This is an interesting question to ask oneself while looking at Johnson's photographs of logging in the second and third-growth forests, which we're convinced will grow back and be valuable again because we replant. But as Johnson's photos suggest, the secret to post-boom success may not be our mastery over forest dynamics or salmon reproduction, but our ability to adapt and make do with less and less.

"Sawdust Mountain" is scheduled to show at the Aperture Foundation Gallery in New York this April. If you can't make a show, visit Johnson's website to see the images or buy the monograph.

Lissa James lives on the Olympic Peninsula where she works for a timber and oyster company. She's also an occasional contributor to High Country News. Her most recent HCN magazine story can be read here.