The Millworker and the Forest

Notes on natural history, human industry and the deepest wilds of the Northwest

  • Jim Podlesny gestures at a wind-ruptured Douglas-fir

    Craig Childs photo
  • Vertical accumulators for cooking acid at Rayonier

    Jim Podlesny photo
  • Woodmill winch

    Jim Podlesny photo
  • Detail of turbine room tool cabinet

    Jim Podlesny photo
  • Jim Podlesny stands in the light and shadows among a thousand giants

    Craig Childs

There are two ways to see the interior of a thousand-year-old Douglas fir. One is to mill it, where it will smell of fresh, powder-burned wood and will be hot to the touch from the band saw. The cut will be straight, an artistry of mechanics, something a shadow will fall flat against. The other is to walk into the Olympic Mountains in Washington, where wind has chosen the largest fir and ruptured it near its base. It will have collapsed into a wreckage of slivers and knots.

It will leave splinters in your fingers. The heart of the tree will be red as salmon.

Jim Podlesny emerges from the fir, sawdust in his hair, blades of sunlight against his shirt. He tells me how it happened, the kinetic energy, the explosion, the force of one tree taking down another in the wind. He submits his arms to the sky when he talks. In his story is a driven rain, streams of water cascading from the canopy. His words carry the weight of the wind.

"Look up into the crowns," he says. "You can imagine the wrestling match they had, trees leveraging against each other as they fell."

This Douglas fir had stood with 3 tons of water in its bulk, so when it fell, it burst open. It is a sculpture of cataclysm. A four-door sedan would fit into the erupted remains of its trunk. The wood smells sweet where it has split, and is damp to the touch.

We've come into the forest with packs, skirting the Elwha River to the center of Olympic National Park. We plan to leave the trail after 25 miles and push into Godkin Creek. The creek is an emptiness on the map where we will scramble across waterfalls and chip steps in snow to a corniced peak. Podlesny belongs to this land. He's walked all over these mountains, connecting summits to valleys, tracing a pattern across the entire range.

We cross creeks that carry the scents of snow and mountains down from a higher place. We sleep in the moss. Clouds, the voice of the nearby ocean, roam up and down valleys.

But, as I said, this is not the only way to see inside a Douglas fir.

Fast track to a bust

Jim Podlesny, millworker, 41 years old. He was hired by Rayonier Inc. in Port Angeles, Washington, the year wood pulp hit its worldwide peak price.

Four years, one month and ten days later, he lost his job when the mill closed. There were cries of foul play against the company, against environmentalists, the spotted owl and anyone within earshot. Anguish was spray-painted on the inside of the mill like angry prayers.

He was among the last dozen to work at the mill after the first 350 were laid off. Immediately he began scavenging compounds on the company property.

Raccoons and cormorants had moved into the structures after only a week. He thumbed through mechanics' logs and took black-and-white photos of the interior, of older machinery that dated to 1928. He climbed 300 feet up the recovery tower and took pictures of the mill below. From the twilight housing of sulfate digesters and bleaching tanks, he pocketed valve parts and hunks of metal that he could use at home. Or pieces that simply caught his eye.

The pulp mill history of Port Angeles is a series of mergers, closings and receiverships dating to the early 1900s. Mills opened and closed, slowed by environmental regulations, sped by clear-cut programs.

Under one name or another, Rayonier had been a pillar of the town since 1927. The company supplied 10 percent of the town's revenue, dumped $60,000 into scholarships each year, and another $40 million into the general economy. Six hundred jobs, not actually on the company payroll, were directly related to the mill, a symbiosis as complex as nitrogen-fixing bacteria at the roots of a 200-foot cedar. The town and the mill had melted together.

Then the supply of wood abated. The price of pulp plummeted. Some locals said it had nothing to do with the spotted owl and the Endangered Species Act. There just weren't enough big trees anymore.

The shortage was no surprise. In the 1970s, the government made the unprecedented move of opening federal land to clear-cutting. It was a way of flushing fresh cash through the economy, booming the Northwest. The result was simple to predict: Once the forest is clear-cut, second-growth timber will not make near the profits. Rayonier Inc. knew this. Official predictions of it were published 10 years earlier.

When a Northwest coastal forest starts from leveled ground, the biomass of greenery hits a peak after 50 years. Wood, however, continues expansion for another 600 years. If you cut it before 600 years, you're only getting scraps. The thing to do was to move to Port Angeles, make as much money as possible off old-growth harvest, then brace for the inevitable crash. But a lot of children were born in that time, mortgages acquired, V-8 extra-cab trucks purchased, loans taken.

When forests thinned, when certain regions were closed to timber harvest due to declining spotted owl populations, the industry faltered. Rayonier went from using 242 million board-feet in 1985 to 13.6 million a decade later.

Podlesny kept careful notes, each comment and date and rumor that worked through the ranks. He witnessed every step of the process because it was not merely pulp and jobs and forest. It was history.

When he speaks of the pulp mill his words are steam and darkness and steel digesters with great welded rivets. People sweating, hauling, cursing; people with short, powerful nicknames, and sons of sons of sons who have always worked in the hiss and the groan of Rayonier.

There were, of course, those in the community who were ecstatic to witness the closure. The mill's effluent bore toxins of epic proportions. Sulfates and oil and a brew of nasties spilled into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Sulfur dioxide and ammonia escaped into the atmosphere at regular intervals, altering the color of houses in certain parts of town.

The EPA has volumes of violations from Port Angeles alone, naming Rayonier as the heaviest single polluter in the state the year it closed.

Whenever Podlesny entered the bleaching area or the room where hot caustic was handled, his lungs went tight. But even as he describes stainless steel so corroded by acids it looks like brass from a sunken ship, his fingers stretch out and clutch at something, at the shape and the age of the material, at its purpose and how the metal wore against the onslaught of toxins. He'd lived in the underside of civilization, in the smoke and cogs.

A cathedral of cedars

Here, the underside of wilderness. We have come off trail and steps are taken in half-light, down in the fallen timber and webs of salal brush. Packs are removed, pushed ahead. Handholds are trusted, abandoned, roots used as ladder rungs. This is the steep-sided valley of Godkin Creek. Waterfalls dance between a hundred fallen cedars.

The forest looks like calculus folded over itself a thousand times, equations of devil's club and liverworts and fat bog moss and red-stemmed feather moss.

There is an orchid called fairy slipper, Calypso bulbosa. Podlesny finds one of the small lavender flowers growing solo behind a log. The dip and roundness of its corm and its hood have the grace of Roman archways. Haida women once ate these buttery corms in hopes of enhancing their breasts. Considering the evolution of all plants and animals it is probably one of the most architecturally advanced pieces of reproduction ever generated.

It is here alone, its lip facing the log as if the remainder of the world is of no concern.

Godkin Creek has a tight bottleneck, then opens to a flat valley just before the final stone headwall. We come down on this flatness, balancing on logs hung over the creek. If you take the inner wilderness of Olympic National Park and hold it in your hand, your fingers will be the rivers, the Queets, Hoh, Sol Duc, Quilcene and Skokomish. The lines crossing your palm will be the Elwha and the Quinalt rivers. The very center is a piece of land tucked into a hole, shadowed by mountain spikes.

We've come to that place.

This forest is a cathedral of red cedars and Douglas fir. For every acre, 100 tons of water are suspended off the ground in trees. Seven hundred tons of wood per acre.

There is no sign of mountains beyond the darkness of trees. Spiderwebs are cast like drift nets. Moisture oozes from every hole and a fistful of squeezed club moss runs water down the arm, lacing around as if it were blood. Most nutrients in the forest are bound into the trees and are not returned until the trees fall. A 30-ton conifer will hold 2 tons of nitrogen and 3 tons of calcium. Once fallen to the ground and saturated with moisture, large logs will take five or six hundred years to disintegrate, all the while doling out nutrients to the soil.

I am climbing through all of this life, trying to keep up with Podlesny, searching for motions through trees in order to stay on his route.

He is a destination hiker, so familiar with long stretches of walking that he does not tire until 12 cumbersome miles have passed. At 17, he hiked the entire Appalachian Trail in five months, he says. Later, he tinkered with the trail again, this time for nine months. In one swoop he hiked from Mexico to Canada on the Continental Divide, then added another 2,318 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.

He is sparing in his rest stops, conscious always of mileage and the losing and gaining of time.

We set camp in the darkness near the creek. Five cow elk lumber downstream, crossing one at a time. When we see them, we both freeze, holding whatever posture we've got. My knees are tucked uncomfortably. Podlesny's hand is caught reaching for the stove. Midway across, the elk scent something unfamiliar. Heads turn. Ears perk. Their uncertainty is obvious in the way they exchange glances with eyes alert, seeing who will react first. They shift with suspicion and slowly retreat. That is when Podlesny and I again breathe.

"The paycheck"

People who watched these forests become lunar landscapes and who protested the dumping of toxic mill waste tried to boycott Rayonier. But the product was not something you could isolate.

The mill produced raw cellulose, forced from wood chips in a 280 degrees Fahrenheit bath of sulfur and ammonia. The pulp comes out in the form of thick paper and is sold to unrelated companies; they dissolve and mold it into oil filters, toothbrush handles, rayon fabric, chewing gum, kitchen sponges, eyeglass frames, pudding thickeners, film and handy wipes.

To boycott Rayonier one would have to abandon most amenities of civilization, stripping naked to disappear into the wilderness.

Jim Podlesny hikes in $2 garage sale boots and with a used $15 pack, a fair enough boycott. But he does not own these as a conscious statement. He understands products and resources and the extraordinary value of every manufactured item.

He grew up in Lancaster County, Pa., a region of Depression-era machinery and low-end industry.

There he spun toilet paper onto mandrels and cut it into rolls, manufactured mousetraps, paper towels and hairdryers. He hoisted pig ladles of molten iron at the Lancaster Malleable Iron Company.

He tells me about a paper mill from when he was young, how after his shift he would walk back and stare at the retired machinery, these hulking forms in dim corners, trying to decipher how they had worked.

Efficiency. Timing. The production and working parts of a country. When I ask, he tells me that he does not need to reconcile wilderness and industry. They lead in and out of each other. Rayonier finally closed only 10 days ago and now he is in the forest. I ask him about toxins at Rayonier and about ethics, how he could live with these on his back.

"The paycheck," he says. "Too much is bad for the world, but a human has got to make a living." For Podlesny, the mill is history. The molten iron and toilet paper are history. You can close your eyes to industry but your life is made of it. He tells me that it is the path society has chosen, living off cellulose pulp and steel.

Who is more part of it, the maker or the buyer? The man who works at the mill or the backpacker who wears the product?

The final roll of Rayonier pulp came to the end of production Feb. 28, 1997. As a woman moved left, a man lowered the roll of paper pulp, another man moved across with a knife.

Behind him the pulp slivered open. Cut paper folded to the ground like cake batter. This was grabbed by another. The motions were fluid, practiced thousands of times. With his free hand, the man on the lever lit a cigarette that had hung in his mouth for half an hour.

"That is poetry," said Podlesny. "The way they move, it's just poetry."

A millwright took a pencil and wrote THE END across the last fresh, white sheet.

Seeing all the parts

There is a rhythm to the forest. It does not come visible until you've lurched off trail for a few days.

The rhythm is in the standing and downed trees, patterns of waterfalls and the shadows of newly uncurled ferns. The topography at the back of Godkin comes mostly from fallen trees. It is a convolution of crossed logs and great uplifted roots nursing new trees. About a third of the forest floor is covered in fallen trees, coming to nearly 65 tons per acre of decomposing wood. A quarter of the biomass in the forest consists of debris.

With matchstick geometry, downed trees heap across one another, leaving caverns and catwalks below. Thirty feet off the ground it is a balancing act to step from one fallen tree to the next. Podlesny steps from log to log beneath me. They are old, young, hemlock, spruce, fir, rotted, healthy. He calls these trees related, says they were gathered here by a single wind.

Then he flails his arms, describing the windstorm, how it corkscrewed the forest until trees broke. The wind came from the north - Alaska - and he names the islands and mountains in British Columbia it passed over before hitting this coast and routing up Godkin.

He parades over the lattice of carnage. "It was just one tree," he says as he moves. "It grew better than the rest and sent its crown above the canopy, where the maelstrom grabbed it and knocked it over, taking its neighbors down with it. That's why you see these good, healthy trees down. And then these other trees," he teeters through the hollow of an old cedar, "came down under them. You see which one was first, then second and third."

He has a calculator for a mind. He sees the working parts of everything. He can weed out any phenomenon and find its source, its purpose.

We climb 4,000 feet to the lip of one of the interior mountains. Snow cornices curl off the summit like wisps of smoke. Elements seem naked and simple compared to the forest below. Glaciers and stones slide into each other.

Just below the summit of Crystal Peak, a small maple leaf has landed on a cornice, ushered here by an old wind. It has been here long enough to warm in the sun and has melted its way six inches into the snow. Left behind is the cookie-cutter pattern of a maple leaf at the top of the world.

Olympic National Park and regulations in surrounding federal land are why this forest has not been cut. Otherwise, some way would be found to get in here; new roads or helicopters. Certainly, as the industry has suffered, eyes have turned this direction - hungry eyes.

Even Podlesny lapses into talk of board-feet and good lumber as he walks the forest.

I look at the forest and try to see air filters and cellophane wrapping and toothbrush handles. I search in these trees for the labor of a community, the income of families. But the ends of the spectrum are so far apart.

I see instead fading light between a thousand trees, the swift creek tumbling into obscurity. Another solitary calypso orchid dappled in purple over a lush floor of club moss. We will always have big, dark secrets, but none will be as big or as dark as this.

It would come so sweetly to say that there is reconciliation between industry and wilderness, or to say that they are in perpetual contradiction. But this is not the place for such simple language. At its foundation, industry is organic. Look at the people in Port Angeles and tell me that it is not. The environmental, ethical issues with logging and pulp mills do not influence the integrity of their job.

If the lives of people are organic, then the forest of Godkin Creek and all surrounding valleys is the interior mechanism of everything living. It is the blood. The genetic strands. Standing here in the forest, there is no doubt of this.

Where the wilderness and industry meet is an act of nature, indisputable, raw, and as entangled as an island of storm-toppled trees.

Craig Childs is a naturalist and author who lives in Crawford, Colorado. His latest books are Grand Canyon: Time Below the River (Arizona Highways Books, fall 1999) and The Secret Knowledge of Water (Sasquatch Press, April 2000).

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