Theology in Montana
Discarded Wood, Family-Owned Sawmills
and the Beauty of Divine Mistakes
by Joanna E.S. Campbell
As I guide the imperfect wood into the press, I wonder if a sawyer at Plum Creek gets close enough to the wood to see the variations, the little universes. I’ve been working at RBM lumber in Columbia Falls, Montana for five days, and I’ve made an amazing discovery. I’m in love with grade 2 and 3 lumber. I am in love with worm holes, embedded bullets, and rot. Each piece of wood is a feast for my eyes and hands. Swirling stages of decay give the value to this lumber. I must resist pausing for too long in my admiration. I keep thinking, “It can’t get any better. Surely I’ve seen it all now.” But, no. Every board is a new painting, a new universe. I am held captive by this beauty.
What would be discarded and burned in a larger, industrial mill becomes the specialty product at RBM Lumber. In the woods, owners Ben and Malcolm see a fir that a larger mill would cut without hesitation. They see this tree growing for another 50 years. The rings multiply. It lives that much longer to support habitat, even old growth, they say. Where one mill sees garbage, another sees opportunity, creativity, and, best of all, beauty. There’s a chance to see the forest and not just board feet for the short-term.
I am overcome with gratitude for working for a family-owned and operated value-added sawmill. Father and sons. Mother and sons. I live with the M part of RBM Lumber. That stands for Roy Ben and Mom. It used to be Roy Ben and Malcolm, but Malcolm unofficially retired in his early 70s. His contribution anymore is spending weeks at a time living and working in the woods, felling trees, and bringing them to the mill. Mom, or Evelyn, is still the head sawyer after all these years. She’s been gracious enough to let me live the basement apartment of her log home. I just have a few suitcases I’m living out of, and it’s enough of a world for the time being.
I tell my friend, Philip, today that it’s a bit different up here. He says, “Well, it’s a small logging town, if that’s what you mean.” That’s not exactly what I mean.
After work, Evelyn invites me up to her living room. She instructs me to bring two beers of my choice. A Red Stripe for her and a Corona for me. She tells me about losing her dad when she was a kid. Her 17-year senior brother died in the war. She and her mom and her other brother moved from Colorado to San Diego, where she worked in a defense plant. She hated it, and when her mom died when she was sixteen, she convinced her brother to buy a chicken ranch in eastern San Diego near the Mexico border. “A lot of desert and heat,” she says. But she loved it. They had two hundred chickens and she often had to squeeze them to get the eggs out, and she milked cows in the morning before going to school. That’s where she met Malcolm, who was in Future Farmers of America. She said it wasn’t love at first sight, but they bonded over their shared interest in agriculture and farming. Married at eighteen, having known each other a year, they started a family two years later, having four kids in five years. After thirty plus years, they decided they were better as friends, and Malcolm decided he was happiest living in a little shack forty yards away.
Seasoned cast iron, root vegetables, and wood smoke – these are the smells in Malcolm’s home. A chair, pots and pans, folding knife and a forest of life’s possessions. Malcolm lives on a sliver of land, surrounded by a carpet of copper needles. Trees, tracks, train, and bluff. A silver dish rack rests in the shade of a larch, and glass jars glisten with morning rain. River, canyon, blinking light, and eagle. This is a wild Thoreau didn’t write about.
Evelyn encourages me to use her hot tub and offers me fresh baked heirloom squash. My sawmill worn body devours it in one breath.
I crawl into bed around 9:00 p.m. and turn out the light. Soon after, I notice orange light flickering behind my window shade. Malcolm has started a fire on the bluff where he often sleeps. As if getting a telephone call, I immediately throw on some warm clothes, grab a blanket, and wander through the garden to his light. He’s brewing hot water in a cast iron tea kettle and offers me a cup. I tell him I once learned when a person is drinking tea with other people, they should never pour their own. Each person should pour for the other. Malcolm tells me about a book he’s reading, Shadow Mountain, about wolves and how much he relates to the message the author relays: wild animals don’t like to constrained.
Malcolm doesn’t want to contribute to the landfill, so what he can’t burn, recycle, compost, or reuse, he sprinkles around the shack he inhabits. Evelyn says she gets to a point when she can’t stand it anymore and cleans up his place. He tells me about Amigo, Evelyn’s dog, who was recently killed by a car. Amigo came to her as a deeply abused animal. He was leery of male people in particular, and never got very close to anyone. Malcolm says he felt like he was a twin to Amigo.
In the morning, I grade 2, 3, Worm Hole, Select, White wood, Vertical, Vertical 2, Circle 2, Circle Select, and Circle 3. As each piece comes through the trimmer, I speak the grade out loud to convince myself of its correct category. Then there are the lengths. Each grade has anywhere between 2 and 10 lengths to consider. At one point, I dance around the stacks like a sandhill crane, shouting the grade and length I am looking for. Perhaps I am in a mating ritual with the lumber; I can’t say for sure in this altered state. Thank goodness Dale and Sarah can’t hear me. Dale eventually comes over, smiles, and says, “You look lost.” His patience is a godsend. I continue in my fight against holding the wood longer than a few seconds. It’s a privilege to work with such beauty. By the end of the shift, I am zingy from the intensity – the dizzying grades I must name, placing them quickly in the stacks, feasting on their wild swirling cracked worm-eaten rotting blue-stained world.
Later in the lumberyard I see Malcolm sorting through discarded wood trimmings. He wears a piece of wood threaded on a strand of yellowed cord. I tell him that I like his necklace and ask him if it has a story. He tells me that he wears it precisely so people will ask him to tell its story. He hands it to me and tells me I know what kind of wood it is. Tight rings, small and round. I ask if it’s a knot. “Yes,” he says, “It’s the strongest part of the tree. At least that’s what I believe.” Durable. Knots are a metaphor for our relationship with the Divine. Quoting the Bible, Malcolm says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” Jesus is the knot holding us together. In lumber, black knots mean the part of the tree that was dead when it was cut. Blonde knots show the living connections. The connection isn’t always clear – the line between life and death isn’t obvious. Death is a symbol of the unknown. The veil is thin.
Light morning rains have dampened the fir branches Malcolm gathers later for another fire. Color still lingers over the western horizon. My contribution to Malcolm’s offer of burger and tea is sauerkraut, avocado, garlic, bread, beer, and poetry. I tell him we must be communicating with someone, somewhere with the smoke we’re sending up. We find dryer wood under a plastic sheet. Evening winds blow the smoke around our bodies. I read Love Poems from God aloud – Hafiz, St. Thomas Aquinas, Catherine of Siena. My light is the blaze of Ponderosa needles. Our table is a slab of wood. We slather our fire-cooked burgers with every condiment available and split my last Fat Tire. It doesn’t take much, we agree, to feel a beer. The smoke has taken its toll, and the quiet of our eating is accented with sniffling and tears spilling down our cheeks. I tell Malcolm I can’t think of a better way to have a meal than to cook it on a bluff overlooking the river with the year’s most beautiful sunset and a mouthful of spice and tears. “Yes,” he says.
In Native American spirituality, a mistake is often intentionally woven into weavings to create an opening for the Spirit to move through. I can’t help but wonder if all of the earth-worn types, the black knots, and these decaying jade and powder blue fungi-swirled, worm-eaten boards are other kinds of divine mistakes brought here as some kind of reminder. I can only hope.
Later in the night, I fall asleep under a pile of blankets and stars, pungent garlic still in my mouth and a swirl of wood-smoked hair around my face.