An Environmental Conscience, Part 1

As I’ve written, while still living in Denver, I spent a year looking for work in Albuquerque.  My efforts yielded two job interviews.  The first occurred at a dealership for heavy equipment―massive dump trucks, bulldozers, scrapers, the kind of machinery that levels mountains and carves valleys.  Had the dealership offered me a job in its data processing department, I would have gladly taken it.  I then learned of the opening at the lumber company.  I interviewed there.  After some dithering, Carlos offered me the position. 

That the job was in the “forest products” business made no difference to me.  My job history included being a cog in a wheel that leveled trees, tore open the earth, and blew up beaver dams in order to expand commercial and residential development in Breckenridge, Colorado; that gutted a mountain and vomited lakes of lifeless mine tailings on Colorado’s Fremont Pass for the capture of molybdenum; and that punched holes in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico for the collection of crude oil.    

“Forest products” was just another industry to me.  I’d never seen a “clear cut”: the felling of every single tree on a vast acreage for lumber, and effectively replacing that acreage not with a forest, but with a biologically-impoverished tree farm.  I thought the forests of the arid southern Rockies were as luxuriant as their cousins in the Pacific Northwest.  And I’d never heard of “old-growth forests”: forests that, according to the Audubon Society publication Western Forests, “have developed over long periods without catastrophic disturbance of either natural or human origin,” with an “untouched, primeval quality”; forests that are “more complex . . . and more beautiful than many young forests.” My goal as I commenced working in New Mexico was financial security and advancement in the data processing field.

Meanwhile, however, my innate curiosity―energized, certainly, by my new love and new life in New Mexico―continued to broaden my view of the world.  As a result, I was, among other things, developing what in retrospect I can only describe as an environmental conscience; or, in conservationist Aldo Leopold’s words, a “land ethic.”  Triggering this moral reckoning were the almost sacred joy I experienced in my hikes and backpacks into the pristine forests and deserts of the Southwest; my broader consideration of the writings of Edward Abbey, beyond his romantic wilderness escapades and into his dry but compelling polemics about America’s destructive lust for natural resources and “growth” simply “for the sake of growth”; and a greater awareness of regional and national environmental issues and activism being addressed on television and in Albuquerque’s daily newspapers.  Such a conscience was making me increasingly uneasy at the lumber company. 

For years while living in Denver, I noticed a little sign in the second-floor window of what I assumed was an office of some kind overlooking Colfax Avenue in the city’s Capitol Hill district.  The sign read “Sierra Club.”  I was intrigued by that name, although I had no idea to what it referred.  Yet I recalled that sign when, now a regular backpacker in the Southwest, I purchased at an Albuquerque bookstore Words for the Wild: The Sierra Club Trailside Reader.  Pocket-sized, the book fit easily into my backpack and kept me occupied in my tent during those hours in the mountains and deserts after sundown or during a rare rainfall.  Published in 1987, the book is an anthology of “nature writing.”  It includes an essay on the Colorado Plateau by Abbey, reacquainted me with the words of Thoreau and Emerson I’d first read at Hobart, and introduced me to such authors as John Muir, Leopold, Ann Ronald, Mary Austin, John Graves, Wallace Stegner, Annie Dillard, and Colin Fletcher.  Its copyright page informed me that the “Sierra Club . . . has devoted itself to the study and protection of the earth’s scenic and ecological resources―mountains, wetlands, woodlands, wild shores and rivers, deserts and plains”―all of which sounded interesting and worthwhile to me.  Not long after, I checked the phone book and discovered that there was a chapter of this “Sierra Club” in Albuquerque.  After attending one meeting at the chapter’s office in a modest storefront, I joined the organization.

At the time I joined, the dominant topic of conversation at the club’s meetings was the effort by a group of Albuquerque conservationists and land managers to transition Petroglyph State Park, at the western edge of the city, to a federally-managed “national monument.”  Linda and I had visited the state park a number of times after re-uniting in New Mexico, and we were both in favor of advocating for the loftier designation for the place and the additional protections that went with it. 

The chapter also discussed cattle grazing on New Mexico’s public lands; that is, lands managed by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.  This coincided with my broader reading of Abbey.  He was fiercely opposed to grazing on public lands at all elevations; grasslands denuded and riparian areas―watercourses that attract thirsty cattle―trampled and fouled with urine and manure were two of his reasons why.  Such opposition was beginning to take shape in me as well.  “CATTLE-FREE IN ‘93” read bumper stickers around Albuquerque.  (Such “freedom,” however, never came even close to happening.)

And then there were a couple topics in the chapter’s regular discussions and in literature available at its office that particularly grabbed my attention.  The first was logging on the federal forests of the Rockies, the Sierras, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.  Not surprisingly, the club was opposed to clear-cutting in these forests; yet it also had issues with selective logging―the felling of a tree here, a tree there―in the same.  The second topic was specific to New Mexico and tied to the first: habitats for two New Mexico wild birds, the Mexican spotted owl and the goshawk.  Before joining the Sierra Club, I was vaguely familiar with these two species as a result of participating in group bird-watching expeditions in New Mexico’s Sandia and San Mateo Mountains.  Logging in New Mexico, the club maintained, was threatening their habitats and thus had to be checked. 

As a result of all this, a measure of guilt crept over me, and I tended to be distant at the chapter meetings, hoping none of my fellow members would inquire about what I did for a living.

Soon, it seemed that issues regarding America’s management of its national forests were multiplying on television and in the print media.  One evening in 1988, I watched a segment on television’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that dealt with the forest fire that had recently charred a third of Yellowstone National Park, parking for weeks a pall of smoke in central New Mexico’s normally crystal-clear skies.  (A commonplace today in the era of climate change.)  The segment questioned the wisdom of America’s nearly century-old and sacred Smokey-the-Bear policy of extinguishing by whatever means all forest fires.  Such fire suppression, more and more people were concluding, was causing a dangerous buildup of fuel―grasses, shrubs, and dead logs―on our forests’ floors, which in turn was causing more massive conflagrations like the one in Yellowstone.

In the New York Times, a representative of the forest products industry weighed in on the Yellowstone fire.  He maintained that still standing, although “dead and dying,” timber had contributed greatly to the conflagration, and thus proposed that the industry now be permitted to remove such still-profitable timber before the possibility of any more fires.  However, this practice would have meant more logging roads carved into the national forests, and thus more erosion and wildlife disturbance, all of which, of course, environmentalists opposed.

On another occasion, I listened to actor Paul Newman narrating a television program entitled Ancient Forests: Rage Over Trees, which dealt with rampant logging in the Pacific Northwest, to which Newman and scientists and environmental activists featured in the program were opposed.  The program opened with a scene of young people blocking a road to a timber sale.  A burly middle-aged man, wild-eyed and frustrated, approached them, furious at the blockade.  Memorably, he had a prosthetic arm, which, to me, lent the scene an inescapably strange mood.  My God, I wondered, was he defending an industry that was responsible for the terrible loss of one of his limbs?  (Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists logging as one of America’s “10 most dangerous jobs”; this was likely true back then as well.)  The man seemed to symbolize the visceral passion and complexity of this issue. 

Not long after, I noticed, lying on the table of the lumber company’s second-floor lunch room, a Xerox copy of an article from a publication I’d never heard of.  The article concerned a Pacific Northwest logger who lost his lower jaw as a result of a bucking chain saw.  The bucking occurred as the logger was driving his saw into a tree that the article alleged had been “spiked.”  “Spiking” is the driving of large nails into a tree to discourage a logger from felling it or a sawyer from milling it, as the spike risks costly damage to the teeth of a saw.  Abbey, in detail, advocated the practice of spiking―while maintaining its harmlessness―in his 1988 collection of essays, One Life at a Time, Please.  I discovered the Xerox copy not long after I had read One Life.  I left the Xerox copy on the table.    

Eventually, I became aware of another environmental organization, this one a regional non-profit based in Santa Fe and thus much smaller than the Sierra Club, that had obviously been laser-focused on the logging-on-public-lands battle.  The organization was challenging in the courts virtually every one of my company’s timber sales in northern New Mexico.  The basis of its challenges was always the protection of the habitats of the spotted owl and goshawk.  The organization’s name was rarely mentioned on the second floor, but when it was, usually on the lips of Carlos or one of the foresters, I merely listened in silence with a blank expression.  


I Love My Job

And I processed data at the lumber company: inventory, receivables, payables, pay rates, salaries, deductions, taxes, financial statements.  Day after day of sitting at my massive metal desk, staring at glowing green letters and numbers on the screen of my IBM System-38 computer terminal, my feet on the worn carpeting, my imagination wandering around the corner of my cubicle to the big second-story windows that were filled with central New Mexico’s vibrant sky.  The computer programs I wrote from scratch were few and simple; this was wood, after all, not derivatives; mostly, I easily managed and tweaked existing programs. 

At lunchtime, I often sprinted in Little Red to the outskirts of Old Town, where I ordered tasty and abundant Szechwan chicken from a quiet, sad-eyed, middle-aged Chinese man at Liu’s take-out (“GOOD FOOD AT FAIR PRICE” read the restaurant’s sign board along Central Avenue).  From Liu’s I’d drive over to Taco Bell to purchase a Styrofoam bowl of “Nachos bel Grande” for the computer operations assistant, my first of many observations of a Latino’s curious craving for food that columnist Richard Estrada dismissed as “Mexoid.”  

One morning I was startled when Carlos escorted New Mexico’s Democratic representative in the United States Senate into my cubicle, evidence I had not imagined of the lumber company’s apparently not insignificant role in New Mexico’s economy.  The senator and I shook hands and exchanged a few pleasantries.  The man was handsome, groomed to the follicle, and wooden. 

And then there was the summer day I had the pleasure of accompanying one of the company’s foresters as we negotiated in his pickup the rugged logging roads of the Santa Fe National Forest outside of Cuba, New Mexico, where the company had a sawmill.  We drove among the grand and solemn ponderosa pines.  We paused at active logging sites, where I jawed with independently-contracted tree-fellers, strapping young Latinos who lived in the very mountains in which they worked.  They obviously enjoyed this well-paying―for rural New Mexico―physical, highly-skilled, and dangerous work, much as I once enjoyed working in the mine.  After the tree-fellers, I bantered with the equally-contented loaders and logging-truck drivers. 

I attended a company picnic, which was held at a private “retreat” an hour’s drive southeast of Albuquerque at the eastern base of the Manzano Mountains.  The rural setting was lovely, the weather, as nearly always during summer in New Mexico, pleasant.  We ate grilled meats, potato salad, and watermelon.  We drank soft drinks.  We played volleyball. 

And the event introduced me to my first piñata: a large, hollow papier-mâché figure―for this event, a goat―stuffed with individually-wrapped candies, which was hung from a tree limb.  Immediately beneath it, a blindfolded child armed with a long dowel was spun around and then, still blindfolded, invited to attempt to bludgeon the figure open for its goodies―entertainment for the adults, welcomed torment for the children.  Today, the piñata is a popular metaphor in the United States for somebody or something that receives a lot of punishment in the media.  In 1988, however, I―and, surely, much of non-Latino America―had never heard of this amusement, which dates back centuries to Mesoamerica, Spain, and perhaps even China.

The picnic had a warm, richly democratic, uniquely American feeling that touched me, until then rarely enthused about the corporate world.  The dozens of attendees spanned the spectrums of ages, ethnicities, and job responsibilities.  Every employee there, I proudly assumed, was making a living wage with decent benefits.  The event convinced me that the lumber company was nurturing families and building a better New Mexico and better America.  To be there simply made me proud to be an American.  And a New Mexican. 

I liked as well my first two annual meetings of the lumber company, which were reserved for the skirted, pant-suited, and white-collared employees, including the company’s mill managers.  They occurred outside of Albuquerque.  One meeting introduced me to Los Angeles, where the event was held at one of the city’s finer hotels.  At another annual meeting, at a resort in Phoenix, I knew, for the first time in my life, what it felt like to play an essential role in the functioning of a large company:  During a dinner, Carlos, whispering “You’re worth every penny,” slipped me an envelope containing a $100 bonus check.

Most of all, I liked the idea of being a programmer, of having what I regarded as a unique ability to harness these mysterious, remarkable machines called computers; of having a skill with nothing if not a bright future.  Around Albuquerque, I proudly wore a tee-shirt that read “IBM,” a freebie from my sister who worked in administration in a New Hampshire office of the computer company; 10 years earlier, me wearing that shirt would have been unimaginable. 

And I was doing all of this while living in the strangeness and beauty of this place called New Mexico.  

However, within two years, my contentment at the lumber company would be threatened from a couple different directions.