Lessons From Sawdust

As a fourth grader, my first job was as a "step & fetch it" with my dad, a small town carpenter -- meaning for a dollar a day, I ran to and from the pickup to get the precise tool needed while he had his hands full. For a little guy, the sights and sounds of those first job sites were cool: piles of lumber, ladders up the roof, the scream of circular saws making cuts. But one thing stood out among them all: the smell of sawdust from those cuts. To a carpenter, it takes on the smell of ambrosia. Anytime you smell it, it means you've got work. It means things are good.

Strangely, across my decade of summers on job sites, not once did I consider a single tract of forest that produced that lumber. I simply lived in a world that never asked that question. As it is with most natural resources that are rendered into the economy, the end user does not contemplate these things. Our economy has persisted with open-ended accounting, despite being inside a biosphere that represents the ultimate closed-loop. As populations have moved further away from the land, the feedback loops of action-consequence have been removed.

Last year, in a bid to live closer to the land, our family moved just north of Portland, Oregon, on a homestead in the tiny Rock Creek drainage. Not three months after we got there, we were awakened in the pre-dawn hours by chainsaws felling 100-foot Douglas firs that crashed down across the slopes facing our property.

It shook our windows and it shook our kids.

The girls, aged 11 and nine, took it especially tough. They felt they were watching Dr. Seuss's Truffula Trees coming down. From the end of our driveway, waiting for the morning school bus, they watched and cried silently. They looked up at their dad, head of a conservation group, wondering how he could stop it for them. The cut was legal and done on private land -- nothing could be done.

It was tough, but it exposed to me a fault line that runs all the way back to one of the biggest catalysts for environmental action in the modern era: the motivated NIMBY (acronym for Not in My Back Yard). The intent is good, but it too, fails to close the loop. NIMBYs often stop the perceived injury nearby, but they continue to use the products -- the act merely happens elsewhere. Though the action is unseen by the NIMBY, the consequence still largely occurs. Were the Kennedys prepared to decrease Hyannis Port energy use when they opposed the offshore windmills? The economy continues as normal.

In that moment at the top of our hill with my girls, I realized that their seeing this was a hard thing, but a blessing nonetheless. For them, it closed with great force the accounting loop for a resource we use all the time. From the garden boxes which we'd planted in the spring to the very bus shelter in which they stood, we used those products. Those trees were cut because of us (and you, dear reader). And in the end, it's important to understand that our decisions have consequences that should be considered before, during and after the action is taken.

Silently, that 22-acre clear-cut across the way serves as reminder to live a considered life inside a responsible economy. Those trees will grow back. What will also grow in my kids is the understanding that a responsible economy means environmental debits and credits are properly considered and tracked -- known by all who consume. As humans began to bump up against the limits of the planet, we will be well-served that every action has a consequence, and that in the end, it all happens in our collective back yard. And that's okay... as long as we manage it intentionally.