Afternoon in the Garden of Good and Evil

Summer has arrived in Alabama. The snakes are out.

Snakes are never really “in” in most of the state. I suppose they go through some form of hibernation, although I have seen them sunning themselves on rocks in December and January on warm Winter days.

Once while hiking in the woods I looked down and found I was standing next to a water moccasin. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and I wasn’t really expecting snakes to still be above ground. My boot was right next to his coiled body. I was fortunate that it was cool and his cold reptilian blood was thick, or I would have been bitten. He was alert enough, even in his sluggishness, to show his true nature and intent: thick black body coiled, spade-shaped head back in striking position, mouth open wide, revealing his fangs and the inside of his cotton-colored mouth. Needless to say, I was displeased both with his presence and his attitude.

One of us did not have a happy Thanksgiving.

I generally have a “live and let live” philosophy about snakes. I am even tolerant of poisonous ones, as long as they keep their distance. I make one exception: the cottonmouth water moccasin. I will go out of my way to kill one. I could kill the last one without hesitation, sending the species into the oblivion of extinction.

I have spiritual justification for my bias. There is no doubt that the cottonmouth was the snake that deceived Eve in the garden of Eden. A careful reading of Genesis chapter two reveals this. God made a garden for Adam and Eve, and in this garden He planted two fruit trees, one of which they were instructed not to eat from. You know the rest of the story.

But what you may have missed is that the trees were planted by a river. Clearly, moccasin habitat. I rest my case.

The cottonmouth is the most aggressive of all the snakes in Alabama. They are territorial and will actually advance toward you (other snakes, like most wild animals, have the good sense to flee at man’s approach). I don’t like aggression in my fellow creatures. I meet it in Marine fashion: “with extreme prejudice.”

Some of my hatred of the cottonmouth moccasin is genetic. My ancestors have been at war with this snake for generations.

When I was a boy, I lived next door to my grandparents. They in turn lived next to a steep-banked creek (which we referred to as “the ditch”). The creek bed was probably twenty feet down, and the banks were brushy. It was cottonmouth paradise.

The only memory I have of my maternal grandfather was going next door to sit on the back steps with him each morning while he drank his coffee. I must have been three or four years old at the time (he died when I was young). While we enjoyed each other’s company, there would be a big pot of water slowly coming to a boil on the kitchen stove.

When he finished his coffee, we would walk over to the ditch and pull up a long cotton rope, at the end of which was a wire minnow basket.

Most days, the trap would contain a large, angry cottonmouth moccasin.

The basket was laid in the driveway, where the moccasin would thrash and strike the sides of his wire prison. My paw-paw would go into the house and get the pot, which by then contained boiling water.

We would then dispatch the evil viper to moccasin hell, where I’m sure there is weeping and gnashing of fangs. One less snake to slither up and bite an unsuspecting three year old.

No pardons given. Swift and terrible execution by scalding. Good triumphs over evil.

You must excuse me if I end the story here. I think I’m going down to the creek to do some hunting this afternoon.

Survival

Williams Timber is a large company as logging businesses go in Alabama. They have a spacious modern office, several foresters and timber buyers on staff, multiple logging crews, and a whole fleet of log trucks. They are clearly a top-flight organization, not only buying and selling timber but managing and brokering timberland as well.

I meet Mr. Williams in his office in south Alabama. He operates in the same area of the state as Mr. Mac and Vernon. As with the previous two companies, I am interested in the financial health of the business.

Williams Timber appears to be much more prosperous than the former two businesses, so I ask him how things are going.

At no time during the conversation do I sense the desperation I previously encountered. But I sense no optimism, either.

Mr. Williams explains that his logging crews are operating at about 60% of their capabilities. The reason is simple: the mills that they rely on to purchase the harvested timber are full to capacity. Their “order” is reduced, and crews that need to run five to six days a week to be profitable can fill their order in four days. Revenues are down due to the reduced orders, but expenses have increased with no corresponding increase in revenues. Especially significant is fuel cost. The diesel fuel that is the lifeblood of logging is more than one dollar a gallon higher than a year ago. Consider that typical logging operation consumes 1000 gallons a week, and it’s easy to see an extra thousand a week can make the difference between survival and failure.

Mr. Williams mentions that he has recently discovered a new way to make a little extra money. It is not something he is especially proud of.

The telephone call came from New York City a few weeks ago. “Do you have a truck and trailer capable of moving logging equipment?”

“Of course. We have to move our equipment all the time.”

“Are you familiar with Smith Logging? My records show they operate in your area.”

“Yes, I know Joe Smith.”

“I want you to go pick up his all of his equipment and bring it to your location. I’ll arrange to have it picked up from there. He’s seven months behind on his payments.”

Mr. Williams goes on to tell that the caller asked him to go at night, when no one would be there. For this service, he would be paid a nice fee.

He initially refuses. “I’m not going to pick up a man’s equipment in the middle of the night. I know Joe. Our kids went to school together.”

The New Yorker is adamant, but Williams finally persuades him in to allow him to talk with Smith about the situation. Three days later, Smith sends in a partial payment that forestalls the repossession.

A month goes by, and New York calls again. Williams again calls Smith. This time he is told to “come get it.”

Since that time, he has picked up the equipment of three other loggers.

Williams shakes his head and sighs. I don’t know what some of these ol’ boys are going to do if things don’t get better soon. We’re all struggling to survive.

I don’t have an answer either.

I just know the woods are getting a little quieter with each passing day.

The Writing on the Wall

A few weeks ago I stop by a little wood frame house in rural south Alabama. There is a “timber company” sign out front and some worn-out logging machinery in the back lot. I want to meet and introduce myself to the owners. According to my records, they are long-time members of the Alabama Forestry Association, and I want each of us to be able to put a face with a name.

I am invited inside by Vernon, a fifty-something-year-old man who has been in the logging business since his teen years.

There are brief introductions all around. A young and pretty secretary looks up from the spreadsheet she is intently staring at to smile and nod. Vernon’s brother and business partner since childhood is slumped in a chair. He offers a half-smile and extends his hand. “Excuse me if I don’t get up. I’ve been in the woods all day and I’m just plain whupped.” I understand completely. I’ve been there. Not that long ago, in fact.

Vernon invites me into his office. Would I care for something to eat or drink? A coke-cola or some sweet tea? I assure him that I am fine. He offers me a seat on a comfortable couch.

Vernon’s office is a museum of a life spent in the outdoors. There are hunting trophies on the wall–whitetail deer with magnificent racks, mule deer mounts from out West, wild turkey mounts, and even a beautifully-posed mountain lion. The coffee table is covered with an amazing display of arrowheads of all sizes and descriptions. There are tiny bird points, stone tools, and some of the most exquisite spear points that I have ever seen. Vernon explains that his brother has found most of these treasures in their trips to the woods over the years. He admits that he is not especially good at finding them, as his focus is usually on the trees and not on the ground. I smile, because I have meager collection for the same reason. A timber man is always looking up, evaluating and calculating, so he misses much. It is a clear case of “not being able to see the forest for the trees.”

After some small talk, I ask Vernon about his business. He tells me his story in a flat, deadpan manner that reminds me of the narration of Captain Willard as he recounts his mission in the movie “Apocalypse Now.”

Vernon’s grandfather introduced him to logging when he was just a boy. In those days, pulpwood (or “pupwood” as it is typically pronounced) was cut with chainsaws into 5.25 foot pieces and hand-loaded onto the metal racks on the back of short trucks. It was hard, back-breaking work, but Vernon and his brother loved their grand-daddy and the time they spent with him in the woods.

He remembers that Saturday so long ago when they cut and delivered five loads in a single day. And he especially remembers the pay he received for that day’s work. There is a trace of a smile when he says “I didn’t know any way a man could spend that much money.”

Vernon and his brother were hooked. They continued to work with their grand-daddy until he died, then they started their own business.

I interrupt the story here. I ask if their dad logged with them as well?

“Lord, no. It was my grand-daddy on my momma’s side. My daddy was a shop keeper. He tried to log with us one time, but it didn’t work out. He was a good man, but too impatient for logging. I swear, I believe daddy could tear up a hammer with his bare hands. He kept breaking all our equipment.”

Vernon and his brother did quite well for a long time. As the logging business became more mechanized, they adjusted their business and bought better equipment. The two were soon buying their own timber and running four separate logging crews. Business was good–plenty of mills to haul to, and plenty of timber to cut. There were cycles in the economy when things “slowed down,” but overall they made adjustments and stayed profitable.

About ten year’s ago, Vernon realized the peaks and valleys in the market were beginning to get shorter. Hard work was no longer the only key to profit. Markets for his timber began to shrink. There was still plenty of timber to cut–just not as many mills around to receive it. He began to explore other options and do some research. Although he doesn’t use the word, I understand his thinking. He was looking for a “niche”–an area that was being overlooked by other logging companies.

Vernon found one. He built a small sawmill that transformed low-grade hardwood that other timber companies didn’t want into railroad cross ties. He signed a contract with Norfolk-Southern Railroad, and for the next five years they bought every tie he could produce. For a time, it seemed that he would have a problem figuring out a way to spend all that money again. At its peak, the mill employed twenty men and kept all four of his logging crews busy.

Then one day the world changed again. The railroads lost the freight market to truckers and quit buying his product. He searched for other markets, but there were none. Four logging crews quickly shrank to one, and twenty men with sawmill paychecks became ten.

Vernon admits he is fresh out of ideas. He is now faced with record costs and few markets. He is, in his words, “just hanging on.”

He shakes his head as he shows me out. Tells me he appreciates me taking the time to stop by and meet him. We both share our hope that the economy will soon get better and his business will pick up.

But I admit that I drive away with a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that the writing is already on the wall.

Red Letter Day

We interrupt the story from the Alabama woods to recount a snippet of life from the writer.

Today is a red letter day–a mile marker on the road of life.

My youngest son, Kyle, will receive his diploma from Auburn University. He will accomplish this in four years, unusual today in the era of changed majors and “what do I really want to do?” and parents who are able to finance indecision.

He has achieved much, and we are justifiably proud.

His older brother John came by for supper last night. He is a fine young man in his own right. A talented musician and a hard worker, I can honestly say that he has never disappointed me in any way. We think alike, he and I, and often he will say something in social situations before the same words get out of my mouth.

We talked of his brother’s big day. I mentioned that it was a big day for me too.

He asked what I meant.

I told him that I was free. I had fulfilled my obligations. I was an old lion who had raised two cubs to become lions themselves–adult lions who were trained and ready to go out into the jungle and make their own way. As such, I was now free. The old lion can now go anywhere and do anything–he is free to to roam the jungle unfettered by responsibility. Adventures await. The old lion will venture out.

The response with immediate: “where he will be promptly pulled down and eaten by hyenas.”

That’s my boy.

Mr. Mac

I return a call to Mr. Mac, a man who has left me a voice message that he needs to speak with me “as soon as possible.”

We exchange pleasantries–the little snippets of politeness that used to be a part of the preamble to ever Southern conversation but are now becoming rare. “How’s the weather down there? How is your garden coming along? You’ll getting any rain?”

I ascertain two things almost immediately about him by his choice of words and his soft Southern phrasing: Mr Mac is old, and he is Black.

He is from the little south Alabama town of Grove Hill. I have been there recently talking with loggers and forestland owners. Although it is the county seat of Clarke County, it is the kind of old Alabama town that has seen its better days. Other than a few small stores, a couple of churches, and the county courthouse, there is not much of a town left. Grove Hill appears to be in the throws of a long, lingering death. The surrounding countryside is mostly small farms and forest. The few houses that remain are weathered and are older than their inhabitants. The unemployment rate in Clarke County is 17%. If you don’t log or farm, there is little to do.

Mr. Mac cuts to the chase. “I was wondering if you could help me? I been seeing the news on T.V. about them storms (which he pronounces in the low-country manner that sounds like “stoams”) up north, and I was wondering if you might know of any work we could find?”

Mr. Mack goes on to explain that he has been a logger for 40 years. His son and grandson have grown up logging with him. They are all currently out of work.

I ask some questions. “What kind of logging equipment do you have?”

Mr. Mac admits that he no longer has any logging equipment. It is worn out or repossessed by the lender. He offers no explanation, and I do not press the issue.

He hopes to find work with someone else. He assures me that he can run any kind of logging equipment, as can his son and grandson. I hear pride in his voice as he tells this. He is down but not beaten.

Mr. Mac says that times just got too hard, and he could no longer make a living as the owner of a small logging company. His equipment got old, he could not afford to replace it, and in time it just “wore him down.”

Now he simply wants to work. He still needs to “put bread on the table.” He is willing to go to North Alabama and clean up storm timber if necessary. This alone is revealing. Most loggers hate storm salvage work. It is difficult and dangerous.

I take down his name and telephone number and promise I will let him know if I hear of any work associated with the clean up of the nearly 192,000 acres of timber in Alabama that have been devastated by the tornadoes a week ago. He makes me promise to leave a message if he doesn’t answer. He assures me that he will likely be in his pea patch if he misses my call, and he will call back.

I am not optimistic I can help Mr. Mac. He is part of the nearly 40% of small independent loggers who have gone out of business in the last five years.

Next time I will tell you about Vernon. His logging business still survives, but but the writing may be on the wall for him as well.

Rustlings in the Leaves

The silence in the woods. It increases with each passing day.

I present a snapshot of a day for your consideration–one piece of a large puzzle.

I spend a morning sitting in a crowded state house conference room in Montgomery, listening to a debate. At issue is regulation of logging at the county level in Alabama. The elected suits that sit behind the table will decide whether this bill will come before the Alabama House of Representatives for a vote. The legislation under consideration would standardize the regulatory process to prevent Alabama’s 67 counties from having 67 different sets of ordinances.

The meeting is contentious. Lots of political spin and a few bald-faced lies. I am called upon to speak on behalf of loggers. The meeting has run long, and before I utter my first sentence the chairman tells me to “make it quick.”

Indeed. Thank you, sir.

I make it quick. But I make it count. Three points and the truth. I respectfully request that the honorable gentlemen do the right thing with regard to the issue at hand.

I return to my office down the street from the state house mentally weary and thoroughly disgusted. There is a light flashing on my office phone. I have voice mail.

The call is from Mr. Mac. He is from the little town of Grove Hill in south Alabama. Mr. Mac says he urgently needs to talk with me. Would I please call him back as soon as possible? He leaves his number, and reminds me “to have a blessed day.”

I’ll tell you a bit about our conversation next time.

The Silence in the Woods

A soft breeze is blowing through the woods of Alabama. Unlike the shock and devastation associated with the tornadoes we experienced here last week, this wind is a gentle whisper that has gone largely unnoticed.

It is a wind of change. A way of life is disappearing.

Most Alabamians are unaware of the growing silence. From the Shoals to the Gulf, life goes on for most of us; and yet the changes taking place in the Alabama forest may prove to be as dramatic as the disappearance of King Cotton was to our countryside one hundred years ago.

The forest itself is healthy. Alabama is blessed with some of the best forest land in North America, if not the world. All but our elderly citizens would be surprised to learn that we have more forested acres in the state now than in recorded history. It is the cornerstone of our economy, providing more jobs and more income than any other industry.

But we are in a transition period–what economists call “an adjustment.” And every day that passes brings a little more silence to the Alabama forest.

It is a complicated story with a difficult plot.

Please allow me to share it with you in the days ahead.

The Angry Hillbilly

The level of death and devastation in my home state of Alabama is almost beyond comprehension. There are 249 dead, and the number will likely continue to rise as rescuers and clean-up crews access areas that have been unreachable thus far.

And while media attention has been focused on the large towns like Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, there are the small towns that have been equally devastated. Little communities like Phil Campbell, Mount Hope, Dadeville, and Cullman. Then there are the other communities, too small to even have a name.

I am still haunted by a newspaper account of the devastation in Phil Campbell. A man on a four-wheeler rode up to the rescue team and cried out “My family…they’re all dead.”

I do not believe I will ever be able to get that image out of my mind.

And I am angry. A seething, boiling, murderous anger.

Anger at God? No. I do not blame God for acts in His creation. It is not in my theology.

My anger is directed at some of my so-called countrymen.

First there were the jokes. “Did you hear that the governor’s mansion was destroyed in Alabama? They were only able to save the wheels.”

Then there were the Internet comments. I submit a few for your consideration:

“God’s wrath for all that Christian Right, Teabaggers, & GOP mean spirited behavior toward there (sic) fellow man.”

“Pledge as little as possible, so the rednecks who always demand spending cuts are satisfied.”

“Do you suppose that the infantile, southern, fundamentalist, birther (sic), climate change deniers might finally see the light at the end of the funnel?”

“It’s almost as if the ‘gods’ are trying to tell these Republicans and their Southern states something.”

I could go on. There are hundreds more comments like these.

It is hard for me to imagine that the United States will continue to exist as a nation. I sincerely believe we have reached a level of division that cannot be resolved with intelligent discourse and debate–a level that existed only once before in our nation’s history: just before the War Between the States.

My country is becoming my enemy, and it makes me angry. Why should we send our tax dollars and our precious sons and daughters to shed their blood in hell-holes like Iraq and Afghanistan for these people who hate us?