by Karl Marlantes
[Through the experience of Matti, a recently arrived Finnish immigrant, Marlantes describes the first harvesting of the colossal old-growth forests in the early 1900s in southern Washington.]
He started at the bottom, setting chokers.
Setting chokers was the toughest, dirtiest, most exhausting job in the woods. A choker setter’s job was to dig, burrow, climb, and crawl under and over the huge logs to wrap a steel cable, called a choker, around the log and back onto itself using a C-hook. The thinner choker cable was attached to a much larger cable called the main line, which was reeled in by the steam donkey, sometimes hundreds of yards away. When the main line was jerked into action by the donkey engineer, the smaller cable choked down on the log, hence its name. The log was ripped from its place on the ground, twisting as it moved, to be hauled at great speed up to the landing next to the steam donkey. When that log moved, the choker setter must have already been moving out of its way, or he would be killed or maimed. Choker setters had to be young, strong, fast on their feet, and fearless. It was where all loggers started – real loggers.
Matti swelled with pride as he headed for the ravine through the jackstraw confusion of slash.
The thrill of the new job lasted about thirty seconds. He would reach the top of a tangle of limbs, feeling them moving beneath him, only to fall through to the ground, the top of the tangle above his head. It took a huge effort to get back on top of the slash. He could hear Huttula cursing at him for his slowness, obviously enjoying himself. Breathing hard, he watched Huttula and other experienced loggers moving across the slash as if they were dancers, timing their moves, using the spring-back of the limbs to move gracefully on to the next tangle. They covered ground easily at ten times his own speed. He arrived at the downed trees in the ravine gasping for air, understanding fully what loggers meant by brush legs.
Fallers were chopping or sawing trees, balancing six to eight feet above the ground on metal-tipped boards hammered into the tree’s side. This way they were above the swell of the tree’s butt, making it easier to fell. Two fallers to a tree, they swung their double-bitted axes alternatively in steady, efficient rhythms, each bite of the ax taking out large chips of wood. Other fallers who’d already made the undercut were balanced on the back sides of their trees, pulling twelve-foot-long crosscut saws between them. Back and forth, each pulling in turn, cutting toward the undercut, pouring oil or kerosene on the saw to keep it from binding, occasionally driving wedges to keep the cut open. Sawing without a stop, sometimes for hours before the tree started to tremble then groan as the remaining wood hinge between the undercut and the saw gave way with a sustained cracking sound. The fallers would then scramble for their lives, as the huge tree moaned and whistled through the air, nearly silent once the splintering at its base ended, to smash into the earth, sending vibrations through the ground for hundreds of feet. The fallers would gather their equipment, walk to the next tree, and do it again.
“You pay attention,” Huttula said: “All the time. No daydreaming about your girlfriends. I tell you to do something, you do it instantly. Watch everyone, all the time. Work from the uphill side whenever you can. If you lose your balance, always fall toward the rigging. Don’t walk, don’t run. Fly. The place to rest is in your grave.”
With that, he pointed to the main line. “Take that choker.” He turned and pointed to a huge log. “Attach it to that.” He walked away.
Matti was joined by another choker setter and the two of them hauled on the choker, pulling the heavier main line sideways along with them. When they reached the log, Matti’s eyes were at the same level as the point where the curve of the log started moving away from him.
At a shout and a curse from Huttula, Matti began digging under the giant log, burrowing his way, dragging along the twenty-pound C-hook and resisting cable, to get it to his partner on the other side. Matti pulled the heavy cable through and tossed the C-hook up over the cable. With his hand held above, his partner gave the signal to Kulleriki. Kulleriki piped the signal that the log was rigged. Matti ran for cover as the huge log was jerked into motion, spinning about a quarter of the way around to accommodate the angle of the cable. When that happened, Matti learned this first lesson of logging: to stay away from where the cable would end up after it was tight, not from where it was now. He dived for the ground to avoid being hit. The thick flying cable would take off a leg or head like a scythe through barley. He didn’t have time to think about how close he’d come to dying, because Huttula was already pointing at the next log as the haul-back cable went screaming by them, pulling the chokers back into position for the next turn.
It went like that until they had twenty minutes for lunch, and then it was like that until the light failed.
That night, ravenously hungry, Matti ate as he never had eaten in his life. He’d thought he was in great shape, but he felt his body stiffening as he ate. By the time he reached the bunkhouse, he felt as though he weighed three hundred pounds. He threw himself facedown on the hay of his bunk without taking off his clothes. Roused from the bunk before first light, he stumbled to breakfast to begin again. He’d never felt so alive.
Copyright © 2019 by Karl Marlantes