Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Eirik Johnson's Sawdust Mountain Photo Project

Came across this lovely piece of work on NPR's website this morning. It struck a cord - as being both beautiful and sad - so I thought I pass along the link. Here's Eirik Johnson's website with the entire collections of photos.

You can't have grown up in Seattle in the 80's and 90's and not have had some relationship with logging. It was a huge (though already dwindling) part of the Northwest economy, especially out on the Olympic Peninsula. If you spent much time in the woods, or mountains in general, you were aware that timber harvests were going on, because clear-cutting leaves such a visible impression on the landscape. Anyone who's driven I-90 east out of Seattle (and that covers almost everyone who lives there) through the Cascades is familiar with the patchwork-quilt style forest left behind by a hundred years of intensive timber harvest.

Things changed drastically with the listing of the Northern Spotted Owl as a threatened species on the Endangered Species Act in 1990. I remember having the conversation with my dad in the car one day - he didn't understand why a little bird could be more important than thousands of jobs. I on the other hand, just entering the work force as a 15 year old, couldn't grasp why these loggers couldn't simply find some other means to support themselves.

As I grew older and spent more time on the Olympic Peninsula I learned how much more complex the issue was than our conversation. I saw that the those little Spotted Owls were more a symbol of the health of the forest in general than a single species. They were the canary in the coal mine, one of the indicator species that the old-growth forests ecosystem was disappearing at an alarming rate. In fact, by 1990 the old-growth forests in our country had been almost entirely chopped down.

On the way to backpacking trips in Olympic National Park, my friends and I would pass through the small towns supported by the timber industry. It was painfully obvious how impoverished these communities were. Places like Forks, Hoquiam, Queets, and Aberdeen. People on the peninsula were just getting by, even in the best of times. There's a reason why Kurt Cobain's music was so depressing. There's no Microsoft, no Boeing, no gravy train out there on the rainy, overcast western edge of the state. Logging was all they had.

Since 1990 the world has moved on. Domestic logging has all but disappeared. Most lumber comes from oversees. Seattle has exploded and become one of the most desirable cities to live in the country. Many, many more jobs have been created in Washington than were ever lost in the logging industry. But it isn't the loggers who got those jobs. If you visit those small Olympic Peninsula towns, you'll see a familiar story that you'll find all across the American West. The rural communities are disappearing. Young people are moving to the cities, and they aren't coming back.

I think Eirik Johnson's photos do a wonderful job of telling that story. It's worth taking 15 minutes to look through them and think about the transition our country is going through. If you live in Seattle, check out his show at the Henry Art Gallery, it'll be there October 24th, January 31st. Time marches on, and I'm happy we're not cutting down our biggest and best forests, but that doesn't mean it's not a painful experience for lots of folks.