Fair warning: this post contains a lot of bitterness and vitriol. I debated whether or not I should post it at all and in the end, after talking with a friend, decided that I should. For people not steeped in the timber culture, the attitudes held by a lot of Fort Bragg citizens don’t make sense. I think this post might help newcomers and outsiders understand a small portion of the complex emotional equation they are getting involved in. Be warned–this post is an accurate expression of my attitudes about a lot of issues. It is also not an expression of everyone’s views, and I do not claim to speak for anyone other than myself although I suspect many (not all) residents may find threads in common with my words. Others may disagree vehemently. That’s ok. Life’s no fun when we all get along.
This post is not nice by any stretch of the imagination. It might contain hurtful things about people just like you, or it might not. But if you’re feeling particularly sensitive today, I would skip it. Go look at Friday Cat Blogging instead. It’s pretty cute.
In order to understand the mixed feelings many people born and raised in Fort Bragg have about the mill, and the mill site, it is first important to understand the position that the mill holds in our history. I’ve written elsewhere about my relationship with Georgia Pacific, but I’ll expand upon it here for a moment, because I think it’s an iconic example of the forces shaping public opinion about the mill.
The first thing that you must understand about the mill it that it epitomizes the class divide on the coast. In the class divide lies the root of the conflict, on the one side the old timers and on the other the new money. I think we all know where I fall. This story is about class divides because the mill made them.
I started out at Fort Bragg Elementary School, two blocks walk from the house on Chestnut Street we moved into when we came back from Europe. Due to my limited communication skills, I was placed in the “second reading group,” and I spent my days with the Hispanic and Central American students, learning my place in the world, until I proved that I actually could speak in English, take care of the class parakeet, and that for all my accent I was as white as all the kids in the first reading group.
Every morning, my father would help me to get dressed and then walk me down to school, through a neighborhood that in those days (and not so very long ago they were) was still partially rural. I’d spend my days in school and then my father and I would go for a walk on the logging road that went right by our house, down to the river, where we’d play in the mud and build fanciful structures out of sticks. The open land that we used to walk across has since been paved across with a large housing development of matching cookie cutter homes, and the logging road is inaccessible today from town. I stumbled across it from the back way recently and thought I had crossed into a dream world. I don’t know how much longer that land will be rural, serene and peaceful while only moments from town.
I grew up watching logging trucks haul massive trunks, sometimes so massive that multiple trucks were required. The highway was clogged with big rigs carrying timber everywhere. My next door neighbor in Caspar was a log-truck driver, and in those days you were paid by the load, not by the hour. He made a great deal of money driving dangerously. Too much, maybe. He’s dead now. I remember he used to get cases of produce to use as ballast going back over 20 if they couldn’t load his truck fast enough, and he’d leave them on our porch in the night. We’d wake up to seventy pounds of organic peaches.
The mill whistle went off every day at noon, and you could hear it clear to Mendocino if the weather was right. We all set our watches by it.
Here’s how important the mill was in our lives:
Of the thirty-odd students in my class, the parents of at least 70% of them were employed by Georgia Pacific or some subsidiary of the timber industry. Another 20% or so worked for the hospital, and the remainder found “odd job” work. The father of my best friend was a foreman on the green chain.
They had a very nice house. The G-P kids were better than the rest of us, and they knew it. Not all of them had nice homes–some of them actually came from terrible homes, but all of them were higher on the food chain because their parents worked for the mill. My dad had spent several years working as a private contractor for a sustainable logging company–he used to take me out in the woods with him when I was a baby. Therefore, I was admitted marginally acceptable status among the G-P kids, although they had their suspcions about “sustainable” logging, whatever the hell that was.
Every year, we would go on a tour of the mill for Fire Safety Awareness Week. We’d be given earplugs and goggles and led through the industrial maze that was the mill going full steam. The kids who were lucky enough to have parents who worked for the mill would wave at the people they knew. And then we’d go out to the headlands and watch the fire department extinguish a grease fire, practice stop-drop-roll, and be given baby trees from the G-P nursery to take home and plant. They would, of course, subsequently die, but it was a nice gesture. None of us wondered how many of the trees died when they planted when in clearcut areas.
The mill donated classroom materials. The mill sent in speakers. All of us were little loggers in training. I won a prize at the Redwood Empire Fair in the second grade for my diorama on logging. The diorama is long gone, and so is the pro-logging stance it proudly outlined.
Here’s what we didn’t talk about:
The mill kids missing parents. The disabled fathers roaring like wounded giants from their recliners in front of the television, beer in hand. The missing fingers, the limping, and the other assorted dangers of the timber industry. The declining fish population. The high rate of particulates in the air around the county.
ILater, I transferred to Mendocino Grammar, and it was like entering another world. An affluent world, for starters. Most of the parents there owned their own businesses or were independantly wealthy. Most of my friends had very nice houses. I was actually in a lower strata thanks to my father’s lingering association with timber (though by then he was working somewhere else, he would still act as a consultant). G-P did not donate classroom materials to Mendocino Grammar. We did not go on tours of the mill site. When I introduced my Mendo friends to my old Fort Bragg friends, there was a clear class divide–a class divide I was on the wrong side of.
Only a few years later, in high school, I was protesting Maxxam, chaining myself to trees, putting together graphic illustrations of the environmental devastation of clear cutting, fighting to protect old growth, kissing spotted owls, tree sitting, marching to G-P headquarters in Atlanta and nearly getting myself arrested. My connections and experience with the timber industry made me a forceful spokesperson and nice sound bite. I had found my social niche, and my ethical one as well.
Looking at the devastation Georgia Pacific, Pacific Lumber, Louisiana Pacific, and other corporations have wreaked on Northern California is nothing short of horrific. Don’t believe me? Read Clearcut if you want a better idea. Or step outside of your goddamn car on the “scenic corridor” sometime, walk past the thin greenbelt of trees, and look at the denuded hillsides on which trees used to grow. Look at the rivers choked with silt and valuable topsoil. Look at the raging forest fires due to improper timber management.
I don’t know how many of my readers have visited a commercial logging operation, so here’s a brief overview of what it’s like. First, you drive through forest that looks relatively pristine along a swath of thick road, pounded solid with the heavy logging trucks rushing too and fro. In the winter, the road is soggy and difficult to traverse without the right kind of equipment. Then the forest starts to get more sparse–and then you hear it. And see it. Clouds of dust swirl in the air, so thick it makes you cough and thank god you’re in the cab of a logging truck, not out on the forest floor like the peons. The heavy machinery is grinding, crashing, chugging. The trees are thundering to the forest floor, crashing through the canopy, and the chokersetters are swinging heavy rounds of chain around–stay clear of the choker setters. Everyone’s moving at hyper-speed to get the most out of the timber, and what you see is total devastation. The earth is stripped. Brush piles smolder everywhere while non-native plant species creep along the destabilized earth. If you’re close to a river, you can see that the banks are collapsing, bleeding topsoil into the water.
You wait for the truck to get loaded, and you speed back to the mill to unload so you can get back out to the woods. Georgia Pacific used to have the longest green chain for processing raw timber in the world. It was utter chaos as timber was sorted, cut, and prepared for shipping all over the world. Wood chips littered the earth until they were shovelled into the incinerator which ran the mill’s power plant. (Which, incidentally, provided electricity to large portions of the town during power outages.) I walked through the former sorting facility only the other day, what’s left of it–a rusting hulk with giant holes in it, open to the sky, piles of wood chips resting at intervals. Everything is super scaled for the one mammoth logging operation that ran there.
My sympathies with the timber industries were mocked by my Mendocino friends–my hesitation to throw myself behind Big Timber was derided by my Fort Bragg friends. I was caught in a divide–a divide a lot of us were caught in. How could I protest and lobby for the shut-down of a company that my friend’s dad worked for? How could I not protest a company that avoided paying disability to one of their employees due to a technicality? How could I stand by and let a corporation rape the environment and foul the earth?
The irony is that many G-P employees loved the forest and loved the woods. They went to school, got degrees in forestry, and started cutting down forests when they couldn’t get jobs as rangers. It’s what I wanted to do when I was a kid, after all.
I went away during the crucial period in the mill’s history when they began to phase down production. We could all read the writing on the wall, though. Before I left, the logging trucks were already starting to cut down the number of loads they hauled, and they would be piled high with splindly match sticks the mill never would have wasted time on before. They paid by the hour by then. By the time I returned, the mill had cut their workforce down to a skeleton, and those same friends I had in Fort Bragg were losing their homes. The mill totally fucked their workers over. In an instant the largest employer in town released hundreds of employees to fend for themselves. Many of them had injuries which made alternate work difficult. Everyone fought fiercely for the remaining timber industry positions. The rest applied for welfare or found themselves working in customer service. We discovered despair.
In one moment, Fort Bragg went from being a town where skilled labour (and say what you will about timber work, but it is skilled, hard labour) made up the majority of the work force to being a service economy. Most of the people living here now, including me, work in some aspect of the service inustry. Most of us are deeply unhappy about the positions we have found ourselves in, that in order to live in our home town, we must lick the ass of the very people who are beating us down. Many people working here now, including me, would have places in the timber industry if it still existed, raping the earth just our parents did. Instead, there are a handful of privately held companies struggling to eke some sort of bitter harvest from what Georgia Pacific left behind. Most of those companies, I am pleased to say, promote and practice sustainable logging.
I still remember the last day of the noon whistle. I was working in some crappy service economy job and as it got closer to noon we all looked around at each other, wondering who would say something first. All of us were children of the timber industry. At around 11:57, we couldn’t take it anymore and we all trouped outside, to what end we weren’t really sure. All around us, people were emerging from houses and office buildings to listen to the last three employees blow the noon whistle for the last time. An eerie silence crept over the town before it rang out finally, defiantly. Forgive me my sense of bathos here, but it was a powerful moment for those of us who have our roots here, because we knew it signaled, finally, the end of an era, even if it was an era we disagreed with, sometimes violently. It was the last moment we felt united as a town, cars slowing in the streets and people nodding at each other before we slipped behind the veil.
To this day, I know I’m not the only one who tenses up around noon waiting for the whistle, who has lost all sense of time because my frame of reference is gone.
So what happens now? Flying over Fort Bragg reveals that the mill property is equal in area to the rest of the town. So what in the flying fuck are we going to do with it?
I would like to see it left as it is, to subside back into the earth, opened for walking. I want people to wander the industrial wasteland and ponder what happened, to the town, the environment, the people. I want that open space to be preserved as the buildings fall and are scavanged. I want to remember the past, not pave it over, to embrace it and look it in the eye, not skirt it.
We all know I have an abandoned industrial park fetish, but it’s not just about that. It’s about the fact that Fort Bragg is being eaten by vapid developments which have sprung up in the last ten years, nibbling at our edges. Fort Bragg is not a city, and never will be, because this county could never sustain that kind of growth. Instead, it’s a sad decaying sack of yuppie infested shit. There’s no life, no vibrancy, no culture. The artists have fled in the face of development, the yuppies are only here a few weekends out of the year, and the rest of us have our necks in the yoke for the tourists. We struggle to retain what dignity we can, but it’s slipping and we’re not fooling anyone.
All that glorious open space is going to be covered by cookie cutter houses, or hotels, or more subsidiaries of the service industry. Our great chance to model sustainable development with parklands and tree planting and small modest houses on large, beautiful lots–it’s going to be wasted. It’s going to deepen the gaping class divide between blue and white collar. It’s going to be boutiques. And City Council is going to roll over and take it like the pussies they are, because they can’t see an alternative. This town has caved to development, and all the things that are beautiful and magical about it, all the things that make Northern California wonderful, are slowly being displaced.
There’s an illusion in the minds of the boosters that doubling the population of the town won’t change our character. That there’s enough water to support all those people, enough infrastructure. That the rich out of town cunts who move here and buy multimillion dollar homes will somehow contribute to the economy in a positive way, that we will claw our way out of the pit we’re in. Development is the answer! Trees are for losers! Valuing open space isn’t practical when you can cover that open space in income generating hideousness! It’s a town that wants desperately for the tourist industry to consume it. It’s a town that can’t face facts, can’t realize that this is one of the poorest counties in California, that our children go to classes in a condemned school, that the streets are rotting and the sewage system is about to explode. It’s a town desperate for money, whoring itself out just like its citizens do.
Sustainable living is the answer. Filling the vacant units in town is the answer. Getting rid of empty lots, repairing existing homes and businesses: that’s the answer. Love and joy and open space are the answer. Gardens. And yet a never ending tide of starry eyed idealists moves here because “it’s so beautiful” and they can’t even begin to comprehend what they are destroying. They don’t understand the resentment they encounter, that they are part of the problem, and they can’t comprehend why they are glared at when they speak up at city council meetings.
Building community is the answer. Banding together and promoting sustainable, healthy development, if there is such a thing. Let’s promote urban density so that we may have open space, let’s vote and say hello to each other in the street and go to city council meetings and raise hell. We can’t sit back and let this happen, those of us who remember this place in a different time.
I grew up in the woods. I remember when Fort Bragg was not a stretch of urban sprawl eating the horizon. I remember the fishing and timber industries, and I don’t have any illusions about them. But I do know that when this was a timber town, the bars were rougher and the yuppie fucks stayed out, and that’s the way I liked it. It was a harder place, but it was also a lot simpler, and you could buy a house if you really wanted one, a house that might be a little funky but you could fix it up. We got by, you know. We got by.
Not all the changes in town have been bad. Like most changes, it has been a mixed bag. Some situations have improved while others have gotten worse, some business people are trying to build sustainable, green companies that support the region economically while making money. Some people are active in the community, lobbying for better lives for all of us. Some people still take the time to speak for those who can’t. I greatly admire the efforts a lot of business owners, like the Laurel Street Merchants Association, Joanna Jensen of Cowlicks, Nicholas Petti and Jaimi Parsons of the Bistro, the folks at Dirt Cheap, and a host of others are making. They are trying to make a living, just like the rest of us, and some of them are actively participating in and promoting the tourist industry–but they also aren’t forgetting their local roots, their customer base, the character of the town. They are trying to keep Fort Bragg a healthy and positive place to live in, for themselves and their children. (Although I suspect our positions on development of the mill land would drastically differ.) And I can respect that. Hey man, everyone has to make a living, even Maxxam, right?
I know that some day soon, the first construction company will arrive on the mill site, and then I’ll probably have to give my notice, rather than watching a sea of houses grow to the ocean. As it is now, there are only a few blocks between myself and open space, water to the horizon. I can walk two blocks and hit the mill property, amble across the deserted land and hope I don’t get caught by security. I can revel in the emptiness so close to civilization. The thought that I could wake up and see that distance doubled, or tripled, is unconscionable. Downtown won’t be downtown anymore when rows of cutesy half million dollar homes march across the mill land. And then I’ll move, somewhere else, and continue the chain by being the out of town asshole that moves somewhere because my home, my place, the town I thought I would spend my entire life in, has been destroyed.
This isn’t just a battle about sustainable development vrs urban sprawl, or coming to terms with changes in the economy: it’s a class battle, about driving the last of the old guard inland, to the valleys, where another last stand will be made in another forty years. Earth First is never going to shut down traffic on highway one again. I’m never going to be able to afford a house in the town I grew up in. The rivers will start to run clear again. And the inexorable march of oversized trophy homes will keep on hungrily devouring what little open space we have left.
The question is: what are we going to do about it?
Trying to articulate my bitterness, I feel like a Palestinian sometimes. I sincerely understand how one might find oneself in a situation where violent revolution is the only answer, when it’s time to eat the rich and bomb their infrastructure, when it’s time to strike terror into our oppressors. The invaders have difficulty understanding because they come from a different cultural background, and have a different set of ideals about entitlement and rights. Everyone needs a home, it’s true. But does it need to be my home?
This is probably one of the longest posts I have ever written, but in actuality it’s only a brief overview of a lot of things which mean a lot to me. Understand that there may be gaps here, and if you want me to expand upon them I’m happy to start a Friday Vitriol post series. Despite the aggressive nature of this post, I really do want to foster a dialogue between opposing forces to see if a middle ground can be found, rather than being at loggerheads constantly. I’m not sure where that middle ground is, or how it can be found. But it’s out there, somewhere.