Theology of a Quaker Logger

Photo by Justin Coleman.

Friends sometimes express surprise when I tell them that I’m a Quaker 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 fact that my friends can ask such a question earnestly has led to some introspection. What is it about this work that is so deeply spiritual?

When I spend time in nature, I see God at work everywhere – in Queen Anne’s lace, in bird song, in the order of everything around me. 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 narrow interpretation of the Presence.

Logging is where the rubber meets the road in stewardship of God’s creation. It is a weighty commission. My logging is done in the service of silviculture, analogous to agricultural science for farming, but more complex because of the many ecological processes inherent in forests. In many ways, logging mimics what occurs in nature. Sometimes storms blow down large swaths of forest. Seeds germinate in the light that’s let in to the forest floor and grow into trees. We work within this natural model, manipulating forest composition and succession, whether it’s to improve forest health and animal habitat or to harvest a token amount of merchantable timber. Through it all, we strive to keep water clean, to keep the overall forest balanced. Large trees have their own order, so do thickets. Every twig has its place.

Work is a great way to experience the Presence. Consider Brother Lawrence, a seventh-century monk who found it easiest to be aware 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 add to the framework of deep meditation, but anything that requires concentration can serve to bring us into awareness of God.

Work teaches me patience. 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 the job you begin 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.

Work offers lessons in serving your fellow man. In general, each person tries to make the work the next will perform a little easier. For example, there is usually a range in the direction a tree can be felled. The feller should choose the direction that will best 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 “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 choosing actions that 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.

Of course, I tell my friends of the dangers in logging. You can get clobbered by a springpole, trees can roll, even a piece of branch two feet long and two or three inches in diameter has enough force to kill a person if it falls from a sufficient height. Every day, every action, every night you get to go home, all of life becomes a gift.

But the theological lesson here goes beyond the idea that there are no atheists in foxholes. 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 was killed, not too far down the mountain I was working on. It was a very similar accident. My 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, instructive. Which of us was lucky and which was unlucky is not ours to judge. Every choice we make opens new possibilities 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.

In his book, The Company of Strangers, Parker Palmer writes, “Faith is a venture into the unknown, into the realms of mystery, away from the safe and comfortable and secure.” I tell my friends that logging has the same basis. In this business, 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 weeks due to the weather. 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. All we can do is have faith that we’ll come home at the end of the day, that the bills will be paid, that there will somehow be a roof over our heads and food on the table.

Working in the woods has allowed me to practice living in the moment. What has happened is in the past and is immaterial. What will happen isn’t here yet. Much of what I do is simple – felling a tree or driving a skidder or forwarder out of the woods. During these “quiet” times, I 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. 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’ve come to understand that chainsaws and machines and the petty aggravations of life are outward noise and need not interfere with the audibility of the inward Teacher. I practice lectio divina on the Lord’s prayer. “Thy will…” I roll 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 Hers. The work my hands do is Her work. My strength is finite. Hers 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 mean to suggest that this philosophy is the norm for my peers. It is my simple hope that this short epistle will give a glimpse of how logging is, for me, a deeply spiritual way to care for God’s creation, to earn a living, and to witness His glory.

Martin Melville is a logger from Centre Hall, Pennsylvania.

  1. Andrew Page → in New Brunswick, Canada
    Nov 06, 2014

    At the end you refer to the creator as her and the glory his.  Was wondering what you meant.

    Great article!


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