October 9, 2014

Quaker Logger

Found this in my Northern woodlands magazine 
and wanted to hold on to it so here it stays.

Theology of a Quaker Logger

Below is a message delivered by ESR student Martin Melville at Williamsburg Friends on Sunday, April 14, 2013:

On several occasions, F/friends have expressed surprise when I told them I am a logger and that I find logging to be deeply spiritual work. How, they ask, can it possibly be spiritual when you’re out there raping and pillaging Creation? The question itself belies a limited understanding of resource management.  The fact that they can ask such a question earnestly has led to introspection on my part to try to understand specifically what it is about this work that is so deeply spiritual, and how I might try to explain. Perhaps equally important is the fact that the decisions of landowners, the public, and my peers in the forest products industry can all have either positive or negative influences on the environment. Our current social fabric encourages us to pick a position based on whatever information we have gleaned from sources we deem credible. For whatever reason, we tend not to seek opinions or positions or people that don’t agree with what we have established as our worldview. One result is that many well intentioned positions actually degrade the environment. Ignorance is no excuse. For example, opposition to clearcuts (gasp!) results in subtle (or not so subtle) changes in the species of trees that grow in the forest, which affects the animals that can live there (no food or shelter, no animals). Oops.

This work is stewardship. A steward is one who cares for and is responsiblesomeone or something. Practiced correctly, and I must emphasize correctly, logging is the implementation of forestry, essentially where the rubber meets the road in stewardship of God’s creation. It is a weighty commission. Forestry is driven by silviculture, analogous to agriculture for farming, but more complex because of the many amenity values forests provide compared to crop fields. Its essence, though, is to mimic what occurs naturally in nature. Water stays clean. Animals have food and shelter. Carbon is sequestered and oxygen is produced. Trees die and let light in to the forest floor. Sometimes storms blow down large swaths of forest. Seeds germinate and grow into trees. Through management it is possible to more or less double the amount of merchantable wood on a plot of ground over a given amount of time. Out of all of this, it is possible to garner, to harvest, some amount of both timber and non-timber products which we as a society need and use in increasing quantities every day.

Work is a great way to experience the Presence. Consider Brother Lawrence, a 7th century monk who found it easiest to be aware of the presence of God while performing “menial” tasks. Among his favorite places was the monastery kitchen, doing the dishes. Brother Lawrence’s experience lacked the intense physical exertion which can be a great framework for deep meditation. Anything that requires concentration can serve to bring us into awareness of God near us: kayaking, mountain biking, working out at the gym, running…logging. One could refer to it as intensely physical meditation. 

Any kind of work where the product of your work can be seen at the end of the day gives a sense of accomplishment, gratitude and thanks. The typical logging job is large enough that it won’t be completed in a day, or even a week. You come to understand that those trees will still be there in the morning, waiting for you. Forestry works on an even longer time frame: often what you do today will not be yours to complete. Trees grow, but a tree planted today may take 80 years to be harvestable, I’ll not be around to see it.
It becomes apparent that what is important is the outcome, not so much how it was arrived at. I often say that if I learned nothing else from Geometry in school, I learned that there is more than one way to prove a theorem. The same is true for work. As long as safety and care for the environment are observed, I allow employees (almost) complete freedom in how they perform a task. In general, it is also helpful if each person tries to make the work the next will perform, a little easier. For example, there is usually a range of about ninety degrees in the direction a tree can be felled. The feller should choose the direction that will facilitate taking the tree to where it can be picked up by the truck, while minimizing damage to trees that will remain. Job descriptions are fluid. Ultimately they all boil down to the same one: in Pennsylvania-speak “if it needs done, do it.” To extrapolate to life, a range of solutions is usually available for any given problem. In most cases, we can be intentional in making our actions so that they make the life of those who follow, a little easier. If you see a place you can help, part of being faithful is acting instead of just watching.

A third, multifaceted, way logging is spiritual is the direct experience, the immanence of God. I believe, and experience that God is everywhere. I take the perhaps old fashioned approach that we are to worship the Creator, not the creation, (Romans) though I have come to understand that this is perhaps a narrower interpretation of the Presence than other religions, for example most eastern wisdom traditions and many aboriginal ones as well. One aspect of this approach is that God is accessible at all times. You could call it God wifi. Answers are just a prayer away. If we choose to be aware of it, we are constantly bathed in grace.
I became aware of that omnipresent grace at least in part because of the inherently hazardous nature of the work. Even a piece of branch 2 feet long and 2-3 inches in diameter has enough force to kill a person when it falls from a sufficient height. Every day, every action, every night you get to go home, all of life becomes a gift. Life in the woods is dangerous. I once provided some OSHA inspectors with felling instruction. They commented that all the branches and vines and other tripping hazards wouldn’t be tolerated on a factory floor, but out here they’re part of the job. You can get clobbered by a springpole,  a small tree bent into a tight arc packs a tremendous amount of energy. If you cut it off and you’re in the wrong place, it’s boom boom. Out go the lights. Trees can roll. They can sling debris back toward the stump as they brush past other trees on their way to the ground. If you can imagine it, it can probably happen. 

One of the early safety workshops I participated in used an analogy to drive home the point of risk and grace. “I have a bottle of 300 pills. Thirty of them will make you sick. Would you take one?” The instructor asked. The guys hemmed and hawed. “Yeah, maybe,” someone ventured. “OK” said the instructor. “I have the same bottle of 300 pills, only one of them will kill you. Do you still want one?” He asked the fellow who had volunteered earlier. “No way!” was the response. The 300 represent the number of close calls where there is no injury. The thirty represent the chances that the close call will result in an injury (1:10). And the one represents the chances that the close call will be your last. God tries to get our attention. He tries to get us to change our ways. If close calls don’t do it, sometimes an accident will wake us up. We are given many opportunities to see what is in front of us. If we’re faithful, attentive, (some would call it lucky), we recognize that tap on the shoulder and have an ah-ha moment.

Another place I became aware of grace is in recognizing just how frail, how ephemeral our earthly bodies are. As mentioned above, we can be killed by a small piece of falling branch. If you’re hit, you just crumple onto the ground in a heap, like the wicked witch of the west when Dorothy throws water on her. Then there is the dawning of the knowledge of how physically weak we are. That is the extent of the earthly power we possess.  I can maybe lift 150-200 pounds. In the power of the Lord, I can move mountains. All things are possible in the presence of God’s grace. 

If you spend time in nature, you know that it is easy to see God at work in the order of things and all around you, the essence of transcendence. It ranges from the intricate beauty of a Queen Anne’s lace plant to bird songs to…anything you see, smell, hear, touch, the presence is all around you. It is revealing to me to observe the difference between human notions of order and God’s order, the way nature looks before we’ve interfered. The woods is neat. So is the thicket. Every twig has its place. On the one hand, God is immanent: present at this very moment. On the other hand, God is transcendent, over-arching, one might say detached.