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A Life in the Woods

Coming of age when the logging was good.

By 11.8.11

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Light on the Devils: Coming of Age on the Klamath
By Louise Wagenknecht
(Oregon State University Press, 232 pages, $19.95)

In the 1970s I lived in rural Northern California when the U.S. timber industry was in the last stages of a halcyon period of growth. Busy lumber mills dotted the map, the timber companies logged the vast U.S. Forest Service "sales," and logging trucks ran the roads. The Northern spotted owl -- whose 1990 listing as "threatened" under the auspices of the Endangered Species Act would doom much of the Western timber industry-- was just another bird. Louise Wagenknecht's Light on the Devils is a memoir of her family's experience in this milieu that now hardly exists.

William Faulkner famously said that "The past is never dead. It's not even past," and the American West with a documented history and culture barely two centuries old is fertile ground for memoirists of both sexes, but especially for women writers of a feminist bent who grew up there (Mary Clearman Blew, Kim Barnes, Teresa Jordan, et al.). The form has its flaws, of course. After all, who's to know the extent of an author's veracity? Great memoirs are valuable for their literary excellence, a book such as Frank Conroy's Stop-Time comes to mind. Light on the Devils (the Devils are a local mountain range) follows the feminist model, yet also falls into the category of memoir-as-lucid-prose.

Louise Wagenknecht was born in 1949 and grew up in the logging town of Happy Camp in far Northern California. There in the Siskiyou Mountains near the Oregon border her stepfather John Brannon worked as a "timber cruiser and log scaler" for the U.S. Forest Service. "Mother" was a homemaker. Louise was the oldest of three children, having a sister and brother, Liz and Tommy. The family lived much of their lives out-of-doors. A world of hunting, fishing, vegetable gardening, and firewood gathering.

Logging was a major industry in the 1950s and '60s as America experienced explosive growth in the post-World War II era. Expanding suburbias sprouting from coast to coast needed lumber to build them. Many of the people that Wagenknecht knew while growing up were either Klamath National Forest employees or loggers and mill workers. Her stepfather -- once a logger himself -- was looked down on by the latter two as a "piss fir," an expletive directed at all Forest Service personnel and related to the unpleasant smell of white fir, a tree considered mill trash and good for nothing but wood chips.

Happy Camp, California, in 1962 had a population of roughly 1,000 and boasted four mills, an amazing number when compared to the state of the timber industry today. The town also had the usual collection of stores and rough-and-tumble logger bars. It had a new high school to replace one built of logs. And a plus from 13-year-old Louise's point of view was the town's movie theater.

The town was surrounded by the Klamath National Forest, vast tracts of Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, trees with giant trunks like "ancient temple columns" and "older than George Washington." It was on the Klamath River, where ospreys flew with "wings bent in the sun" as they swooped down to catch salmon. Wagenknecht's stepfather John roamed the woods "cruising" (marking) timber to be harvested by the logging companies, and inspecting their ongoing operations. The commonly used phrase was to "get out the cut." The Happy Camp District of the Klamath National Forest by itself produced 55 million board feet annually. And that was just one district in one national forest. Hundreds of miles of roads were built for timber access throughout the region. Every summer the fire season meant smoky skies and the occasional "white, boiling cloud like a cauliflower" hanging over a distant ridge. John spent many days absent from home while on fire duty.

Living in Happy Camp also meant hunting and fishing. John Brannon got his deer every fall, not as a trophy, but for the meat. Venison was a staple for many people during the long rainy winters. Wagenknecht herself hunted when she came of age, accompanying her father on weekend forays into the woods. The more deer tags in a family, the more meat in the freezer. But to put that meat in the freezer was hard work. A heavy deer carcass hanging in a shed at the end of the day had "forelegs cut off at the knees so that they poked forward like the arms of a sleepwalker."

In school, Louise was something of a naturalist, a passion that better prepared her for a subsequent career in the Forest Service. She read books about the natural world and animals , especially horses, and took long solitary hikes in the woods. She and her siblings kept pets both domestic and wild, ranging from Bob the dog and Boots the cat to a gopher snake and salamanders.

Far Northern California is known for extreme weather, its climate similar to the neighboring Pacific Northwest. In winter the storms slam the coast, dropping copious rains or heavy snow. In 1964 Happy Camp was inundated by flooding, and a few weeks later hit by a massive snowstorm. Wagenknecht writes: "At the edge of the creek, we looked out at water the color of creamed coffee. A refrigerator passed us, riding high above our heads on the hump of water in the midst of the creek."

It was around this time that the 15-year-old discovered what would be her life's work. While riding in a Forest Service truck with John Brannon during the severe floods, she "fell in love with what my stepfather did for a living. On that slick mountain road, sitting between two men in green shirts in a green pickup, I felt connected."

Though life was not all tied to the natural world. There's the typical life of any adolescent and their social travails in school. There's the suicide of a friend and the death of another in a car accident. It's never an easy time, whether a kid grows up in the city or the country. The book ends with its author going off to attend Chico State College (now California State University-Chico) in 1967, as another chapter in her life opens.

Light on the Devils is a throwback to a different America, a place where people worked hard and took their sense of self-reliance for granted, an America that today seems to be slipping away. And it's a vivid book: I can still see those big Ponderosa pines, the sunlight splintering in the branches.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.