by Guest Columnist, Alan Gauvin
HOULTON, ME—(Weekly Hubris)—1/3/11—In his youth, along with many of his schoolmates, Dad was often late for class during the spring log drives down the Kennebec River. As he told the story, on his way to school he had to cross a railroad trestle that spanned a rocky gorge. There was a pedestrian walkway alongside the tracks, with a wooden railing just high enough to serve as a resting place for his chin and forearms while he watched the drivers scurrying over the log jams below. They were in and out of the water like otters, running across twisting, rolling logs with incredible balance, agility, and daring. They never seemed to rest. They ate on their feet, bolted down steaming mugs of tea (laced with rum, some said), and went running back to the endless labor of keeping the long logs flowing down river to the waiting saw mills. They began work at first light and didn’t quit until dark.
It was romantic and exciting to the youngsters who watched from the bridge and river banks, but it was serious and dangerous work for the men themselves. There was no time to waste. Millions of board feet of timber had to be pushed through while spring’s high water lasted. A jam at a critical point could mean costly delays, so the logs had to be freed almost as fast as they tangled.
Sometimes, the drivers were able to keep ahead of the pile-ups, but often the mass of jumbled logs would threaten to choke the entire river. This meant searching out the “key” log which, when freed, would release the straining, groaning, thumping mass like a wooden avalanche. Often the jam had to be picked apart log by log until the key was found. It could then be chopped with hand axes while the drivers stood poised to run for their lives at the first tremor of movement in the logs under their calked boots.
They’d push a log here, lift a log there, cut this, pull that and, with a crash, a thousand logs would give way followed by a mad dash toward shore. One false step, hesitation, or waiver of nerve could hasten a fall into the tumbling mass moving ten miles an hour or more, resulting in being crushed or drowned in the icy water beneath the dense blanket of timber. The drivers escaped by jumping to free-floating logs at the outside of the mass, using their long poles to steer the log toward shore where they could catch an overhanging branch or be grabbed and pulled ashore by their companions.
By the time I got my first glimpse of this phenomenon, the huge drives involving 12- to 20-foot logs were mostly a thing of the past due to a transition to supplying the pulp paper industry rather than the saw mill trade, most logs being no more than 6 feet long. This meant fewer jams, fewer drivers needed, and far less daring do but, to my young eyes, it was still plenty exciting! The routine use of dynamite charges with timed fuses to break up what jams there were added to that excitement while giving the drivers time to reach shore safely before the jams let go.
My great grandfather Paradis, “an inexhaustible gnome of a man,” as my father described him, worked in partnership with a neighbor whose energy and appetite for work matched his own. Every year they scouted likely areas of stumpage left after a season of timber clearing, negotiated terms with the landowners and, in September and October, gathered up all able bodied family members, evenings and weekends, and took off for the woods.
The clan’s jobs included lopping limbs off what was left of the downed trees, dragging the carcasses to the saw horses set up nearby, sawing them into 4-foot lengths, piling the logs into 4-by-8-foot measured stacks, then into the horse drawn wagons for transport home. Another neighbor, possessor of a homemade, gasoline-powered saw, hauled it over to their farm and, for a share of the wood, sawed the family’s logs into stove lengths for Dad to split.
During a power outage in New York last winter, before my move to Maine, I found myself shivering and mourning the passing of those good old days. Now that I am here in the wood stove capital of the northeast and preparing to build a house in the forest, I find I am preoccupied with the need to gather blown down limbs and save every usable scrap of wood resulting from the tree clearing process to stockpile for the long cold winters ahead.
My growing wood pile of split and dried stove-length pieces represents an abundance of stored energy for cooking and comfort through winter and spring. In these times of modern oil furnaces that cannot be operated without electricity to ignite the oil and drive the pumps and fans, the thought of going to the wood box for renewable fuel that can be burned with the help of a simple match seems remarkably practical.
Before Benjamin Franklin, no one controlled the lightning. Today, its force has been tamed, caged, and is metered out at a price by privately owned, government-licensed cartels. Operating at a guaranteed rate of profit and freed from competition by statute—for all practical purposes self regulated—these corporations gather the energy, package it, and deliver it to the user. Sister corporations manufacture the generators for developing the power, the transmission equipment for delivering it to the consumer and, finally, the motors, heaters, toasters, television sets, fans, iPods and cell phones, hair dryers, computers, air conditioners, electric toothbrushes and now electric cars without which no consumer may consume. One way or another, if we want electricity, we buy from them.
Another of their functions is to see to it that we want electricity in ever-increasing amounts. This they accomplish by the untiring development of new equipment requiring electric power and the employment of all available methods of persuasion to convince us of the absolute impossibility of living without these “essential” devices.
The more we buy, the more power we consume and the greater the “demand” for electricity becomes.
In response to this “need,” industry advertisements harangue the people and lobbyists pressure the government to permit the construction of more power plants so that more reactors, generators, and transmission lines can be built to make necessary the development and manufacture of more gadgets to consume the additional power generated. Thus the “growing power needs” of the nation are created by those who supply the power and create the devices that use it. We are caught in a vicious circle wherein the solution to each problem creates a new problem that requires a new solution.
The “cult of the electron” certainly has had its way with me over the course of my lifetime, for aside from looking forward to the potential heat or occasional meal cooked over the wood stove, I am hopelessly hooked on electric gadgets I cannot seem to do without.
Along with a refrigerator to keep my food fresh and microwave and toaster ovens to cook the food, my computer runs a couple of hours a day alternating with the radio, CD/stereo, home recording studio, and the TV and VCR/DVD players, which dispense my considerable collection of films.
Fortunately, living as I do in an outdoor wonderland, I am never at a loss for some activity which keeps my use of the “grid” to a minimum. Rising at the crack of dawn (which in summer tends to be around 4:30 a.m., due to Maine’s most easterly position on the American coastline), I am out the door by 5 or 6 at the latest and busy clearing brush, thinning or pruning trees, cutting fire wood, digging a drainage ditch, off to a favorite fishing spot, or simply wandering about the forest in awe . . . and, of course, next spring and summer will be spent building a house which will leave little time for slothfulness!
The key to breaking the cycle and using less power is plain old fashioned discipline and physical activity; satisfying and healthful! I will come indoors during the hottest part of a day and amuse myself with my electrical contrivances, but only if I am convinced I have been sufficiently productive to justify sinking into “couch potato” mode. Of course, my usage is bound to increase during the severe winter months, much of which will be spent indoors, but I am pleased to note that my power usage this summer at its peak, including some air conditioning, averaged $40. per month; a far cry from my previous rate of usage in NY, where I spent most of my free time indoors with my fat butt glued to a cushy chair.
It’s January now, the snow depth is 20 inches and climbing (from this point forward, it’s not likely to melt between storms), and deep sub-zero temps will be upon me any day now, and can last a week, two, or more, at a time. It was cold in New York last winter, briefly, but nothing like the eye-searing, bone-shattering cold which occurs here. I’m not looking forward to enduring winter in a “tin can” euphemistically referred to as a “motor home.” This thing is best suited to life in semi-tropical Florida, not 30-or-40-below-Maine (“global warming” my ass!). It’s not safe to install a wood stove in it and the built-in propane heating system in this 23-year-old relic has decayed beyond repair, forcing me to rely on electric heat for the next three or four months, which will surely bump my electric bill to $150. and more a month.
In light of these realities, I have divided the motor home’s interior in half, with a heavy curtain and a plastic tarp to cut down the area I must heat, lined the interior with plastic sheeting to kill drafts and further minimize heat loss, placed three-inch-thick Styrofoam sheets all around the bottom outside to keep the wind from blowing under the vehicle, and believe I have things under control as far as survival is concerned. I should be quite comfortable, barring a “power outage” that is! Should things become perilous for me and my cat, I have “dibs” on the couch in front of the wood stove in my neighbor’s living room just over the mountain to the south.
Fortunately for Dopey, Larry’s very large dogs love cats.
To order copies of Alan Gauvin’s books, The Story of Dr. Jazz, a Lurid Tale of Sex, Drugs, Jazz, and the Occasional Trout, or Change of Life: Be careful what you wish for!, from Amazon, click on the book cover below.