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[Editor's note: Click the arrows above to view the photo essay about 21st-century work in B.C.'s forests by Hans Peter Meyer.]

"The romance is gone. In the '70s, if you had some iron, a timber sale, some men, you were making money. All you needed to do was get the wood to the beach. Today, there's no romance. It's all business now."

My guide told me this recently as we bumped along the goat trails in Knight Inlet.

He was answering the question I've been pursuing with my camera these past few years.

What is it like to be working in the woods today in British Columbia?

I've been in and around the industry all my life. Growing up in the Comox Valley, almost every adult male in my life was a logger. In high school, a significant number of my peers barely graduated -- or simply dropped out -- because they were set on a life-long career in the woods. As I get into the working woods today, I'm finding a very different environment.

In my youth, industry and all who worked around it were experiencing a heyday, even a gold rush. It was not unlike what's happening in the oil patch today -- lots of work, and a lot of money to be made, by everyone. The forest industry was "our industry." From Vancouver to Rupert, the money flowed in from the forests, fuelling a high standard of living we all enjoyed.

Loggers were heroes in this story of prosperity. Their working landscape was dramatic, the timber big, and they wielded hefty iron as they brought it to market. In town, they weren't yet a pariah on the environment, they were builders of our common wealth.

From heroes to zeroes?

Today? The kind of romance that comes from wrestling with big wood is pretty much done. Contrary to my guide's opinion, the industry has always been about making money -- at least for the boss logger (or boss planting contractor, for that matter). The romance we've lost has to do with a cultural shift. Vancouver was once proudly the "Big Smoke," a direct reference to smoke-filled industrial False Creek and the city's debt to the felling and selling of timber. Now Vancouver is calling itself the "Greenest City." No place for bush-apes or dirt-eating planters.

A romance remains of course. Wherever we face hard, dangerous conditions and hard work we create romance. You'll see it in Charlotte Gill's Eating Dirt, her acclaimed book on tree planting. When I was planting, we used to call it our "terminal uniqueness" -- glorying in our marginalized, never-to-be-understood hardship and difference. With both planters and loggers I hear the same minor key romance, that of the always-misunderstood hard-done-by pillar of the economy or the environment, take your pick.

A vignette of decay and tentative hope

Last summer I boated into a small camp that had just reopened on the northwest corner of Vancouver Island. The new contractor had inherited a mess of rusty iron, tired machine shops, bunk houses, cook shack, and eroded haul roads. This had become a familiar story in my coastal journeys as I again and again happened upon relics of yesterday's glory, mouldering infrastructure that no one is willing to invest in.

And the people working here were the same: not quite ready to commit to the coast's recent good fortune. A building boom in China means a demand for the coast's junk wood, small, ugly second-growth Douglas Fir and Western Hemlock that no domestic mill deems worthy of interest. Yesterday's loggers took pride in producing the world's best construction grade wood. Now they're logging junk wood that meets a need for disposable concrete forms. Can you feel pride in that?

As I talked to people in camp, I met a constellation of attitudes and tensions about today's industry.

A young man, still a teen, was trying out various woods jobs. He was part of the "young forest worker program," one effort to get young people interested in and aware of the forest industry as viable career path.

I met a lone mechanic overwhelmed with the task of kick starting the machinery for the new show. "Yup, I'm the only mechanic. We're supposed to have two more guys coming, but..." He shrugged his shoulders and went back to the endless work of repairing trucks and machines that had limped through the last decade.

On the dryland sort a scaler, one of the growing number of "women in forestry" I'm seeing in the woods, was happy to be back in camp after several years in town. Her work, measuring and valuing logs, had disappeared around 2005 along with the market for coastal logs. She thought she'd made a career change, going into human service work. It was good, she said, being close to home, close to her marriage and her community. But the money sucked. And the work, it didn't suit her temperament. When the camp job came up, she went. She was smiling again. Just glad to be in the coastal hinterland once more for however long it lasted.

Up at the office/cookshack, the new superintendent wasn't so relaxed. Industry restructuring (a euphemism for drastic cutting as multinational corporations dominate the busines) had taken his career about seven years ago. Like the scaler who'd lost her job around the same time, he'd retrained, as a home heating installer. "But look at me," he said. "I'm a big guy. I couldn't handle it, crawling around under houses."

When the telephone from camp rang a couple of weeks before, he dropped his new career and packed his kit. Unlike the scaler, however, he wasn't smiling. How long would this current China-driven demand keep him from the crawlspace?

An endangered species

The people I meet in the coastal hinterland like what they're doing. They're not the cultural and economic heroes they were, but they're good at what they do and in camp they're rewarded for working hard. In town, like the rest of the industry, they keep their heads down.

Nevertheless, there isn't enough here on the coast to hold enough of them. Some of the young up-and-comers I photographed in 2011 are now gone to the oil patch because they can't live with the ups-and-downs of the timber industry. Across the province as the workforce ages there isn't enough young blood to replace the old. The forest industry is keenly aware at demographic challenge. Its stock of experienced grey-headed long-timers is slowly retiring, and the competition for experienced young labour pulled towards construction projects and the oil and gas industry, is fierce. The "young forest worker" initiative is a small effort to stem the tide. Everyone's a little nervous.

A sea of green

Nevertheless, the trees are still growing. The region can't but help to grow trees. Within a dozen years of any clear cutting, you'll have a carpet of trees covering even the most noxious of clearcuts, even without planting. Stuff just grows here. Really well. And trees love it. To fly over the carnage of the heyday today is to marvel at the forests' regenerative powers.

But we need people to work these woods. Lots of men, and increasingly more and more women, love working in the woods. It's not the heroic vocation it once was, but people are still drawn to it. The oil patch is a temptation, but most would rather stay closer to home. And there is the sheer beauty of the coastal landscapes. It inspires some kind of romance for sure.

On the practical side, the work is becoming more knowledge-based and technically oriented. Fallers now carry satellite-connected tech to send log lengths and scale downtown from remote locations. It's still physically demanding work. And the clout of organized labour isn't what it was. But it is the industry of this coast. And, despite all the anxiety and shyness to commit to investing in infrastructure, there's still an attraction, some vestigial romance, to working in the woods.  [Tyee]

Read more: Labour + Industry

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