Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Theology of a Quaker Logger

Below is a message delivered by ESR student Martin Melville at Williamsburg Friends on Sunday, April 14, 2013:

On several occasions, F/friends have expressed surprise when I told them I am a logger and that I find logging to be deeply spiritual work. How, they ask, can it possibly be spiritual when you’re out there raping and pillaging Creation? The question itself belies a limited understanding of resource management.  The fact that they can ask such a question earnestly has led to introspection on my part to try to understand specifically what it is about this work that is so deeply spiritual, and how I might try to explain. Perhaps equally important is the fact that the decisions of landowners, the public, and my peers in the forest products industry can all have either positive or negative influences on the environment. Our current social fabric encourages us to pick a position based on whatever information we have gleaned from sources we deem credible. For whatever reason, we tend not to seek opinions or positions or people that don’t agree with what we have established as our worldview. One result is that many well intentioned positions actually degrade the environment. Ignorance is no excuse. For example, opposition to clearcuts (gasp!) results in subtle (or not so subtle) changes in the species of trees that grow in the forest, which affects the animals that can live there (no food or shelter, no animals). Oops.

This work is stewardship. A steward is one who cares for and is responsible someone or something. Practiced correctly, and I must emphasize correctly, logging is the implementation of forestry, essentially where the rubber meets the road in stewardship of God’s creation. It is a weighty commission. Forestry is driven by silviculture, analogous to agriculture for farming, but more complex because of the many amenity values forests provide compared to crop fields. Its essence, though, is to mimic what occurs naturally in nature. Water stays clean. Animals have food and shelter. Carbon is sequestered and oxygen is produced. Trees die and let light in to the forest floor. Sometimes storms blow down large swaths of forest. Seeds germinate and grow into trees. Through management it is possible to more or less double the amount of merchantable wood on a plot of ground over a given amount of time. Out of all of this, it is possible to garner, to harvest, some amount of both timber and non-timber products which we as a society need and use in increasing quantities every day.

File:Brother Lawrence in the kitchen.jpg

Work is a great way to experience the Presence. Consider Brother Lawrence, a 7th century monk who found it easiest to be aware of the presence of God while performing “menial” tasks. Among his favorite places was the monastery kitchen, doing the dishes. Brother Lawrence’s experience lacked the intense physical exertion which can be a great framework for deep meditation. Anything that requires concentration can serve to bring us into awareness of God near us: kayaking, mountain biking, working out at the gym, running…logging. One could refer to it as intensely physical meditation. 

Any kind of work where the product of your work can be seen at the end of the day gives a sense of accomplishment, gratitude and thanks. The typical logging job is large enough that it won’t be completed in a day, or even a week. You come to understand that those trees will still be there in the morning, waiting for you. Forestry works on an even longer time frame: often what you do today will not be yours to complete. Trees grow, but a tree planted today may take 80 years to be harvestable, I’ll not be around to see it.
It becomes apparent that what is important is the outcome, not so much how it was arrived at. I often say that if I learned nothing else from Geometry in school, I learned that there is more than one way to prove a theorem. The same is true for work. As long as safety and care for the environment are observed, I allow employees (almost) complete freedom in how they perform a task. In general, it is also helpful if each person tries to make the work the next will perform, a little easier. For example, there is usually a range of about ninety degrees in the direction a tree can be felled. The feller should choose the direction that will facilitate taking the tree to where it can be picked up by the truck, while minimizing damage to trees that will remain. Job descriptions are fluid. Ultimately they all boil down to the same one: in Pennsylvania-speak “if it needs done, do it.” To extrapolate to life, a range of solutions is usually available for any given problem. In most cases, we can be intentional in making our actions so that they make the life of those who follow, a little easier. If you see a place you can help, part of being faithful is acting instead of just watching.

A third, multifaceted, way logging is spiritual is the direct experience, the immanence of God. I believe, and experience that God is everywhere. I take the perhaps old fashioned approach that we are to worship the Creator, not the creation, (Romans) though I have come to understand that this is perhaps a narrower interpretation of the Presence than other religions, for example most eastern wisdom traditions and many aboriginal ones as well. One aspect of this approach is that God is accessible at all times. You could call it God wifi. Answers are just a prayer away. If we choose to be aware of it, we are constantly bathed in grace.
I became aware of that omnipresent grace at least in part because of the inherently hazardous nature of the work. Even a piece of branch 2 feet long and 2-3 inches in diameter has enough force to kill a person when it falls from a sufficient height. Every day, every action, every night you get to go home, all of life becomes a gift. Life in the woods is dangerous. I once provided some OSHA inspectors with felling instruction. They commented that all the branches and vines and other tripping hazards wouldn’t be tolerated on a factory floor, but out here they’re part of the job. You can get clobbered by a springpole,  a small tree bent into a tight arc packs a tremendous amount of energy. If you cut it off and you’re in the wrong place, it’s boom boom. Out go the lights. Trees can roll. They can sling debris back toward the stump as they brush past other trees on their way to the ground. If you can imagine it, it can probably happen. 

One of the early safety workshops I participated in used an analogy to drive home the point of risk and grace. “I have a bottle of 300 pills. Thirty of them will make you sick. Would you take one?” The instructor asked. The guys hemmed and hawed. “Yeah, maybe,” someone ventured. “OK” said the instructor. “I have the same bottle of 300 pills, only one of them will kill you. Do you still want one?” He asked the fellow who had volunteered earlier. “No way!” was the response. The 300 represent the number of close calls where there is no injury. The thirty represent the chances that the close call will result in an injury (1:10). And the one represents the chances that the close call will be your last. God tries to get our attention. He tries to get us to change our ways. If close calls don’t do it, sometimes an accident will wake us up. We are given many opportunities to see what is in front of us. If we’re faithful, attentive, (some would call it lucky), we recognize that tap on the shoulder and have an ah-ha moment.

Another place I became aware of grace is in recognizing just how frail, how ephemeral our earthly bodies are. As mentioned above, we can be killed by a small piece of falling branch. If you’re hit, you just crumple onto the ground in a heap, like the wicked witch of the west when Dorothy throws water on her. Then there is the dawning of the knowledge of how physically weak we are. That is the extent of the earthly power we possess.  I can maybe lift 150-200 pounds. In the power of the Lord, I can move mountains. All things are possible in the presence of God’s grace. 

If you spend time in nature, you know that it is easy to see God at work in the order of things and all around you, the essence of transcendence. It ranges from the intricate beauty of a Queen Anne’s lace plant to bird songs to…anything you see, smell, hear, touch, the presence is all around you. It is revealing to me to observe the difference between human notions of order and God’s order, the way nature looks before we’ve interfered. The woods is neat. So is the thicket. Every twig has its place. On the one hand, God is immanent: present at this very moment. On the other hand, God is transcendent, over-arching, one might say detached.
In his book The Company of Strangers, Parker Palmer states “Faith is a venture into the unknown, into the realms of mystery, away from the safe and comfortable and secure.”  That is the basis of this way of life. In this business model you don’t know what a load of logs is worth until the check comes in the mail. We pay for the trees before we know if they are solid or rotten. We live in a world where work can be suspended for as much as several weeks while the frost comes out of the ground. Equipment is cranky. Employees and managers are human. We are, even as the children of God, flawed individuals. All we can do is our best. Sometimes things don’t work out the way we had planned. We pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, get our bearings and go for plan “B.” Uncertainty and change are the only things you can count on. You learn the risks and hazards. Part of life with this bottle of pills is learning to recognize which ones will make you sick (injured) and what to do about it. What is the antidote? You very actively and intentionally problem solve, and if you’re smart (faithful), you invite God into the process. If you’re lucky, you survive unscathed to practice on your own another day. You learn to live on faith that way will open, that you’ll come home at the end of the day, that the bills will be paid, that there’ll be a roof over your head and food on the table. 

Surprises are rarely good in this business, or at least what we usually call good. You learn to listen to that still, small voice. Take the best shot. The outcome isn’t good or bad, it just is. Now, what’s your next move? I’ve said it’s like being parachuted onto a desert isle, or into the jungle. You are here. You have 2 matches and a piece of rope….how will you adapt? How will you use what is present to accomplish your ends? Can you see parallels with the Kingdom? How will you use your life and work for the glory of God? As with ministry, it often takes time to be able to see the real effects. Thirty few years ago I was hit by a tree. I got a cracked cheekbone and a dislocated hip out of the deal. The same day, another fellow cutting firewood (I was logging, which is different) was killed, not too far down the same mountain I was working on. It was a very similar accident. The hip is becoming arthritic. I could wish I hadn’t had the accident, but it had a huge effect on who I became and the direction of my career. To say it was bad, I think would be wrong. It was interactive, like reality. Which of us was lucky and which was unlucky is not ours to judge. Every choice we make opens new ones and eliminates others. In the end we must learn patience and forbearance. As a friend told me, “In retrospect, life is a series of serendipitous events. When we are in the thick of it, we lack perspective.” In the end we will see clearly.

Further evidence of the immanence of God is experienced through experimentation and revelation. In order for them to be effective, openness to new, different, unconsidered or unconventional answers to prayers is necessary. It has been my observation that all prayers are answered, it’s just that sometimes the answer isn’t what we expect or want. The result sometimes is that we miss it completely. Moses questioned God. Jacob wrestled with Him. God is patient. Part of the continuing dialogue with Her is this ever present  “why?” I could think that I am to Her like a 2-year old to a parent. We stray. We try, but frequently don’t succeed on our first try. Sometimes we disobey and get in trouble, but like the prodigal son, we are always allowed to return to the safety of the Parent. Sometimes I think there is an expectation of being questioned, that If I’m not asking why, perhaps something is wrong. Certainly, as mentioned above, I have observed growth resulting from events at least initially judged by me as either good or bad. I’ve learned to suspend judgment. The reaction is more like “well now Lord, that’s not quite what I had in mind, but OK. I can work with that. Ours is to do, to be, not to judge. Leave the judging to God. My job is to live faithfully. That is the essence of righteousness. It is important not to get hung up on form, as the elders at Balby noted in 1656. If the goal is to “git ‘er done” in the words of Ron White, we find that in the Kingdom the shortest way there is the long way around. Shortest can be understood as “best,” but best in the Kingdom is often directly opposed to best as perceived by humankind. Much of life in the Presence is, or appears to be, counterintuitive from the our perspective. To paraphrase, the riches of heaven are different from what is portrayed as earthly riches.

Around 1990, I read Fox’s Journal. In it, he says often “this I knew experimentally.” So I decided to try various aspects of exploring faith experimentally. It is important to understand that whether I am felling (cutting down) a tree or driving a log skidder or forwarding logs out of the woods, there are times when intense attention to the matters immediately at hand is essential. That intensity made it relatively easy to practice living in the moment. What has happened is in the past and is immaterial. What will happen isn’t here yet. It’s all about NOW! However, such times are interspersed with relatively long periods where nothing much is going on: I’m sawing or driving. Lots of noise, not much action. Among the first things I tried was to live Paul’s injunction to pray without ceasing. During those “quiet” times of sawing or driving I could pray. At first I was skeptical, but I kept at it. I found that the idea of centering and worshiping wasn’t limited to Sunday morning, and ministry wasn’t only something spoken from a pulpit. The practice of enlisting God’s help and direction didn’t need to be, and in fact shouldn’t be limited to meeting for business. It was available to me as I lived and worked.  I learned to live integrity. Not only was the business a ministry, the concept expanded to include every area of my life. I came to understand my work and the way I ran my business to be a witness to my faith, and that it bore visible fruit. I came to understand that chainsaws and machines and the petty aggravations of life are outward noise and need not necessarily interfere with the audibility of the inward Teacher. At times the lessons were fleeting. At others they lasted for several months. I sought to learn to listen and be given an understanding of others’ perspectives. That took about six months. I sought patience. I sought the ability to forgive as Jesus instructed we should. I practiced lectio divina on the Lord’s prayer. “Thy will…” I rolled it over and over on my tongue. In my mind. Thy will, not mine, be done. Submit. Acknowledge who’s in charge here. Give praise in ALL things to the creator, for the praise is His. The work my hands do is His work. My strength is finite. His is not. In every one of these cases my prayer, my conversation with God was answered. There were times when the answer was “not now,” or “that is not for you to know.” I knew when to quit pushing; I had faith that if I was to know, it would be revealed.
I do not wish to pretend that this philosophy is the norm for my peers. It is my hope that this short epistle has given you a glimpse into the ways logging can be (and is for me) a deeply spiritual way to care for God’s creation, earn a living, and witness to His glory.

You can learn more about Martin and his work here: www.melforserv.com.


  1. Openness to new ideas. Redirection. There is no God.

  2. Very good ideas -- hanks for sharing! As someone whose family owns a maple sugar business and a number of woodlots, I identify with a lot of what you're saying. We mainly cut selectively, but sometimes clear-cut an area to encourage new growth. Caring for our land this way allows a variety of wildlife to flourish. The modest income from these activities pays our taxes and allows us to keep the land for generations to come.

  3. Hey Martin, Thanks for this blog. Your thoughts brought to light the opportunities we have to 'worship' God beyond the confines of the sanctuary. One point, you may want to amend your definition of stewardship to include, "...one who cares for and is responsible for someone or something on behalf of someone else (generally the owner)" This definition gives us proper alignment with and orientation toward The Creator.

    Thanks for your thoughts.