When my parents were first married, my father wanted to name their newly created logging company "Moonscape Logging." Thankfully, my mother nixed that idea, although it was an apt description of the clear-cutting that happened on Washington's Olympic Peninsula in the '70s and '80s. Once logs were taken out of the forest, whatever remained got burned. Burning an old-growth clear-cut got rid of slash — the tangle of worthless leftover branches that makes replanting difficult.
Nowadays, loggers still burn small piles of slash but leave most of the branches on the ground, where they help replenish the soil and provide homes for animals. But these days, an ever-increasing demand for holiday decorations is changing that, too, and my father is tickled to find that he can effortlessly make money by selling branches he used to sweat to get rid of.
This year, my family's Christmas bonus arrived in October, when Guillermo, a Mexican immigrant, contacted my dad and arranged to harvest cedar boughs off the property. The next day, Guillermo's crew went to work. The crew was made up of six to eight people, all immigrants, who smiled toothy smiles and waved as we drove past.
Occasionally we'd hear them speaking to one another in Spanish as they worked in the woods surrounding the house. One of them would climb a cedar tree, sometimes going as high as 100 feet without a safety rope, all the while carrying a machete to hack off the tree's branches. At the base of the tree, other workers sorted through the fallen branches, removing the fragrant tips and tying them into bundles. They stacked the neat bundles of greenery, ready to be made into holiday swags, in the wide spot where my father used to pile logs. Every few days a giant truck would come and haul off a load of cedar boughs.
Soon, all up and down my parents' driveway, you could see partially shaven cedar trees, their trunks prickly with stubby branches, their tops green and weepy. The harvesters leave the top third of the branches, enough so that the tree suffers only temporary ill effects from its haircut.
There's good money for everyone involved in the "bough industry," which, at the harvesting phase of it, is underground and everywhere in the forests. My dad earned 5 cents for every pound of cedar greenery taken off the property. Amazingly, that's as much as he gets for every pound of raw cedar log he sells to a nearby mill.
Guillermo, who was the crew's foreman and agent, also earned 5 cents a pound, for a total of about $5,000. The workers earned 13 cents for every pound they picked, which, according to Guillermo, works out to about $250 or $300 a day. That may be good money, but it's a long, cold day of work and dangerous for the tree-climbers. We received 36 inches of rain in November, the woods were soaking wet and temperatures dropped below freezing. Guillermo told my dad he sometimes keeps his crew warm by doling out shots of tequila.
About a month into their work on my dad's property, the crew left to harvest boughs from a 40-acre forest before it was clear-cut. They were in a hurry to get that job done before the trees were felled, and before the Christmas market dried up. They returned on the Saturday before Thanksgiving to finish up cedar trees in my parents' front yard. It was the first time they'd worked in sight of the house. One of the men climbed into the tree while the other five people, including one woman and — unusually — a child, worked around its base. My mom's mini-dachshunds, upset about seeing strangers working so close to the house, went through periodic, maniacal barking fits.
I'd come over to help my mom clean before a holiday party, but we ended up spending most of our time sitting on the couch, reading through the magazines we were preparing to recycle, and drinking tea. After about four hours of working alongside the adults, the child, who looked about 8 years old, began making as much noise as the dogs. His crying was eerie and wailing. His mother and the other workers ignored him. The noise caught our attention while we wondered what to do. The dogs grew silent, and for a while my mother and I watched the kid, sprawled out in the middle of the driveway, bawling his misery and boredom to the trees.
Lissa James is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). She is a former intern for the paper who now lives in Lilliwaup, Washington.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at firstname.lastname@example.org.