RD Editorial December 2017

Bring me fir logs hither

    I couldn’t resist going down to the former Oak Hill sawmill site for the pre-auction preview, the day before the mill’s remaining assets were to be sold off. It was late October – one of those balmy days we had this fall. The mill, just outside Bridgewater on Nova Scotia’s South Shore, was once one of the province’s largest lumber producers, and employed 150 people. When Resolute Forest Products left town five years ago, those workers hoped a buyer could be found, but most of the infrastructure at Oak Hill was levelled, and the useable equipment was moved to the company’s new lumber mill in Atikokan, Ontario.
    “They stripped it,” remarked one of my fellow tire-kickers. 
    “No one’s gonna use any of this crap,” remarked another, as we browsed among pallets jumbled with machinery components. “Gonna take it straight to the scrap metal place down the road.”
    Only a certain kind of person needs a heavy-duty reduction gearbox. But think of the engineering expertise, the precision manufacturing, the “embodied energy” bound up in that greasy steel. Seems a shame to melt it down. 
    Though the sawmill was long gone, whole sections of the planer line were intact and up for grabs. I wondered if any of it would be repurposed, or if it was all destined for recycling. Along with the obscure and the unidentifiable, there was some stuff that looked useful, though it was lumped together in random auction lots, like grab-bags of candy – take the good with the bad. There were various hand tools, gigantic bolt cutters, log calipers and scaling sticks, mesh bags full of hardhats. There were some well-made plate-steel tool chests, and many trays of nuts and washers. 
    Then there was the office equipment – the anachronistic fax machines and filing cabinets. There were a couple of framed aerial photos of the 90-acre mill site – a nice souvenir for some former employee. And there was a map of southwest Nova Scotia showing the half-million-acre Bowater Mersey woodlands, which the province ended up buying from Resolute. (Partly due to public outrage over the management of this recently acquired Crown land, and needing to forestall any serious discussion of the topic during the 2017 election campaign, the McNeil Liberals commissioned an independent review of forestry practices and policies, which Dr. William Lahey is supposed to complete by the end of February, 2018.) There was even a white-board marked up with mill safety stats, indicating that 127 days had passed without a recordable accident on the planer line. 

    I got kind of fixated on an impressive-looking AFM metal lathe, whose nameplate indicated it was manufactured in Warsaw in 1981. That was the year Poland proclaimed martial law, in an effort to stamp out Solidarity, the trade union that would eventually bring some semblance of democracy to the country. In this instance, organized labour received considerable help from the CIA. (It was kind of a reprise of Ronnie Reagan’s star role rooting the commies out of the Screen Actors Guild.) 
    When I was in Poland in the ’90s I visited the Baltic port city of Gdansk, where the movement started, and in the spirit of free-market economics I bought a Solidarity (Solidarność) T-shirt. I spent that Christmas in Krakow, and watched people lining up to buy live carp from an icy fountain in the square. I interloped on morning mass at Wawel Cathedral, which featured thundering organ music, Latin incantations, and clouds of incense. The 14th-century church is dedicated to St. Stanislaus, the city’s patron saint, and also to St. Wenceslaus, the 10th-century Bohemian royal reputed to have rustled up some flesh and wine for a shivering peasant on the Feast of Stephen (or as we call it, Boxing Day).

    After snapping some pictures of the lathe, I decided to check out the wood kilns and the scale house, which meant walking across the mill yard – a flat, barren expanse which was, not so long ago, a hive of productive activity. A strangely warm wind blew my hat off, and I scampered to grab it among the long grass in the cracked asphalt. Loose sheet metal on one of the few remaining buildings banged and clattered in the breeze. I half expected to see tumbleweeds blowing by. 
    It’s hard to explain my attraction to industrial and post-industrial sites. They seem to me both eerie and majestic, containing the echoes of so much human endeavor and ingenuity. The ground is soaked in sweat, and sometimes in blood – exemplary safety records notwithstanding. 
    When I lived in Peterborough, Ontario, I occasionally took a nighttime stroll around the fenced perimeter of the General Electric plant, which took up a whole block. It was in a residential area, not really an industrial zone, though it was connected to the rail line that ran through the centre of town. While most people were asleep, the factory hummed and clanged mysteriously. The facility included a number of brick buildings that had clearly been there a long time. The plant opened in 1892, when the Edison company merged with Thomson-Houston to form General Electric, launching what would become a vast conglomerate – an agile and versatile player in the military-industrial complex.
    For a brief period at the turn of the century, before the internal combustion engine became our dominant mode of transport, the Peterborough plant produced electric cars. That was just a blip, of course. The plant boomed in the war years, then became a major producer of large motors, diesel locomotives, and turbines, drumming up lots of additional business in the nuclear industry. It employed as many as 6,000 people in the ’60s and early ’70s, according to the Peterborough Examiner. After that period, operations were scaled back. This year GE announced that it plans to cease manufacturing there in 2018, putting about 350 people out of work. 
    I wonder what will become of that site in Peterborough. Most likely the ground is soaked not only in blood and sweat, and now tears, but also in chemical contaminants that represent an environmental liability for the town. There are a number of outstanding compensation claims from former employees who have (or had) good reason to believe they got cancer or other illnesses as a direct result of exposure to the many toxic substances used in the plant. The company had world-class scientific expertise, but failed to measure the true human costs of workplace hazards. In crude economic terms, this was a massive accounting error that resulted in GE reaping profits it did not rightfully earn.

    Funny how we can be willfully blind to the negative aspects of dirty and dangerous work. For the workers themselves, it’s a matter of camaraderie and collective pride. Plenty of former coal miners and military veterans will tell you they miss it. I don’t feel that way about the brief time I spent on the factory floor, though I am probably guilty of romanticizing it a bit. When I was in high school I had a Saturday job in a plant that stamped motor laminations – rotors and stators – from rolls of steel. The pounding of the huge press machines shook your guts, and there was a fiery annealing oven, so it was hot in there. The air was oily and ferruginous. You had to clean a lot of black residue out of your nostrils at the end of your shift. What could be more ennobling?
    Working in the woods with a chainsaw also entails certain risks, but it has its pleasures. Though I wouldn’t want to be paid by the cord, thinning out the junk on our woodlot – at my own pace, and to my own standards – is quite satisfying. It’s something I look forward to in December, before there’s too much snow down. Oak Hill, unlike most mills, used to take loads of pure Balsam fir, which was helpful to those of us whose land is heavy to fir, due to past clearcutting.(A forester friend who walked the property noted the presence of Christmas fern, a clue that the site originally supported a mix of hardwoods.) Now we burn a lot of fir.

    My main Christmas observance involves making a big batch of pâté. (I prefer to appropriate culinary culture from the French, and let the Poles have their Yuletide carp.) It ain’t foie gras, but perhaps it’s close, since we grow our chickens to the point of obesity. The local abattoir bags the livers separately for us. We just have to find that bag at the bottom of the freezer – amid the bags of gizzards, marrow bones, foil-wrapped chunks of “artisanal lard” that my sister gave us, some grated zucchini that may be useful in the end times, and goat colostrum of uncertain vintage. 
    Other than livers, the core ingredients in this delicious offal slurry are caramelized onions and garlic, and butter. Mushrooms and apples are good, but they add a lot of moisture, which may leak out if you pop the pâté out of its container onto a plate. The recipe is different every year, but it always requires quite a lot of brandy. I feel fortunate to be at home in the kitchen, warm and safe. Sweet fragrances, maybe some organ music cranked up on the radio. Excellent working conditions. DL

    The article in Nov. RD about Karen and Brock Davidge (“A life’s work, and still a work in progress,” pg. 36) mistakenly stated that their farm is 3.5 acres. They actually have 11.6 acres, of which 3.5 acres are in seed potatoes.