‘I’m a lumberjack
And I’m OK
I sleep all night and I work all day.‘
If this were only true! During my Beuys like reversion to being a forester I still suffered from insomnia, in spite of hard work all day, so I wasn’t quite OK.
‘I cut down trees
I eat my lunch
I go to the lavatry’
I did all of that, eating lunch in a skanky 4×4, axle deep in mud, stinking of sweat and diesel, covered in saw-dust – with an Alsatian breathing down my neck. Further aggrandised with cigarette smoke. Conversations, consisted mainly of expletives punctuated with the odd connective. The one about how ‘tomatoes used to taste of something’ was meaningful, as was the one about ‘Dozy Rosie’ from Devon and her two lovers. A woodsman once opened his lunch-box to find his ‘favourite girl’ had cut his sandwiches into miniatures (ie about 3cm square), just to piss him off. That kind of thing made lunch breaks entertaining.
Going to the lavatry was another matter. It depended on what sort of ballistics you wore. A few of us had the inevitable ‘shit on yer breeches’ incident when going Al Fresco. Long, fluorescent braces designed to hold up heavy protective trousers could get stooled on, changing their jolly appearance; you only knew about it afterwards. My best efforts were when I managed to shit in my holster (really takes some doing) without knowing it. Near turned my mind thinking someone had stolen my output.
John told a story about how he was squatting in some heathland when a little old lady came up a nearby path, walking her dog. She saw him and unaware of his demeanour, began chatting. After a bit of early morning pleasantry, John said ‘Er, scuse me love, but I’m trying to have a shit here’. Needless to say, the old dear was taken aback by his direct and unsubtle approach. But what else could he do?
‘I cut down trees
I skip and jump
I like to press wild flowers
I put on women’s’ clothing and hang around in bars‘
Skipping and jumping? A bit difficult in all that protective gear, but tripping over sticks was a regular event. Watching a fellow woodsman take his revenge on a stick could be amusing. It was quite normal to see a grown man with a chainsaw, slice the offending stick into little pieces, whilst swearing at it gratuitously. The stick would ‘never do that again’, but the next one would!
Pressing wild flowers? I did some Art between all that lumberjacking. I made various woodland constructions and carved trees with my Stihl chainsaw. More macho than Michael Palin’s creative frippery.
By then, I’d quit putting on women’s clothing. Having tried my mother’s apparel when I was a lad (yes Grayson Perry, everyone does it), I concluded ‘this is fucking stupid’ and continued wearing trousers and boots instead of suspendies, a bra and high heels. As for hanging round in bars, we did plenty of that. Just being our normal selves, drinking beer. And I don’t ‘wish I’d been a girly just like my dear papa‘!
One loggers lunch-break encompassed the topic of ‘wimmin’ in the tree trade. There had been sightings of a girly up trees and we were thinking what it would be like to have a woman alongside us, how we’d have to clip our natter. Then Big Fat Mike said: ‘Huh! She’s just fucking posing! You’d never see a woman out on the National Grid, in the pouring rain, up to her knees in mud and cow-shit, cutting forn (Crataegus monogyna) all day, would you?’
It’s true, you wouldn’t. There ain’t no glamour in it, it’s a near thankless task and the pay isn’t worth it. Never mind the loneliness, but it’s healthier than being an office worm. You don’t have a boss on your back and you can let all your anger go, constructively. That’s not in reference to just a day on the grid. It means months of the same arduous toil.
Lumberjacking is heavy duty, requiring great strength and stamina. The way I was tested to join a team occurred when I had to shift timber about manually. 6ft bars of Corsican pine (Pinus nigra, var maritima). The densest and heaviest softwood grown in the UK. Nearly did myself an injury but you have to carry your own weight, literally.
Chain saws require skill and know-how; using them can be pleasurable. You can’t size up a tree by entirely visual means. It is a matter of ‘knowing’ in a haptic, feeling way, like three dimensional snooker. One morning I felled a particularly large specimen (Larix eurolepsis) on the boundary of an estate. I laid it down quietly, using a big Husqvarna with a 36 inch guide bar, making plunge cuts. The tree was about five to six feet in diameter, 75 ft tall and must have weighed about 5 tons. If I’d messed up it would have crushed the boundary fence and rolled down a steep incline – which would have been costly. John and Lil complimented me, asking how could I do such a thing at eight in the morning.
The Pythons ridicule a masculine stereotype of the rugged lumberjack, frontiersman. Probably initiated by Graham Chapman, a gay member of the ensemble back then. At school I was regularly beaten up for ‘being a poof’ (wasn’t interested in football, was good academically). Art school seemed to insist males be sensitive, open to homosexuality. Actually I got fed up being tolerant of being tolerant. It gets a bit boring and I have the right not to be assumed to be gay, even if I am a lumber-jack involved in Art. Former Python John Cleese has joined battle in the War on Woke, I wonder how he’d reflect on the Lumberjack sketch now? given it’s subversive intent.
In his comprehensive analysis of the European landscape, titled ‘Landscape and memory’, Simon Schama discusses forests and our development within and around them. At one point the word forest meant ‘outside’, generally. Sylvan occupations were once revered and more commonplace than they are now; our appetite for the greenwood is understandable. Center Parcs offer a canned natural experience, without having to ‘go to the lavatry’ or deal with lesser evils which persist in the open air. How lovely.
As for ‘I’m a lumberjack and I’m ok’, watch this space because blue collar work requiring true grit, sweat and sawdust is becoming a thing of the past. In Finland, harvesting operations (Forestry) are about to become completely autonomous – no humans involved. So what will Beeb Luvvies of the future use to undermine masculine stereotypes? Or will they also be out of a job? only able to ridicule AI and machinery. Apart from wealthy people who ‘can afford to work’, the rest of us will be on universal credit, bored out of our skulls showing our ‘health passes’ to visit places outside our remit.
Lyrics to the Lumberjack Song by Fred Tomlinson, Michael Palin, Terry Jones
Post card from Ontario circa 1990
Photos by Alan Dedman and Robin King