This diary represents a departure from my usual writings. Some topics are not cheerful to write about. Far be it from me to discourage readers, but if you are not in the mood to be depressed today, perhaps you should come back later. You have been duly warned.
My forestry career began long ago in Louisiana. Living there was a mixed bag. I acquired a great deal of experience at a young age, because I was “temporarily” sent to fill a vacancy, and ended up managing a large block of company timberland for two years. Although I did not have the title, I was given responsibilities that were usually withheld until a forester had about five years of experience. I oversaw timber harvests and the subsequent replanting of pine seedlings. And I was able to set the woods on fire, legally, while conducting controlled burns.
But all the while, I was a stranger in a strange land. This was the 1970s, and the racial tensions of the previous decade were fresh on residents’ minds. People from 50 miles away were not to be trusted. A kid with a fresh degree from a school in the far, far north (Missouri) was viewed with great suspicion by nearly everyone. I might as well have been from Mars.
While I am loath to paint an entire state with a broad brush, there were characteristics shared by many Louisianans of that era that made me uncomfortable. Among them:
• Some of the worst drivers in the country called Louisiana home. They’d approach a stop sign on a side road, pause briefly, and pull out directly in front of you. Then they’d drive half the speed limit and make a left turn without signaling. After all, why do cars have brakes, if not to slow down for those who own the road?
• Car owners would not replace a headlight or taillight until so many lights were gone that they could no longer see the road. One night I stood in front of a house in a small town as six cars passed. In total, there were six working headlights. One car had two that functioned. That left another car with none!
• Louisiana roads were among the nation’s worst. Many country roads had been patched so many times that they consisted of little more than patching material of varying ages.
• Some of the people I worked with bragged openly about violating game laws. Shooting deer at night (deer were quite scarce back then) and slaughtering ducks as they roosted were simply part of the backwoods culture. If you wanted meat, you had to poach the animals before your neighbor did.
• And then there was the dumping. At any wide spot in a rural road, you’d find piles of trash. Access roads maintained by timber companies were lined with tons of household garbage, punctuated by the occasional rotting farm animal.
I sometimes worked with a guy who had a bizarre daily ritual. Rather than bringing lunch from home, he would stop at a grocery store or convenience store on the way to the woods. He would buy a loaf of bread, a small jar of mayonnaise, and a can or package of lunch meat. Come lunch time, he’d sit on the tool box of the company pickup truck and spread all the ingredients beside him. After he had eaten all he wanted, he flung everything into the woods: the uneaten bread, the mayo, the leftover meat, the drink container, the plastic knife and fork, and the paper plate. All done with a grand flourish. The next day, he’d do it all over again.
Fast forward to 2013. After all these years, my work took me back to Louisiana. Would it be the same, or has the newest generation turned its back on the old habits? There was some good news. Louisiana drivers seem to be no worse than any others. Headlights last forever these days, and there were only a few “one-eyed monsters” plying the highways at night.
Now the bad news, and the reason I am writing this diary. The major highways seemed to be in decent shape. But the back roads are just like the good old days. The asphalt road leading into my work area consisted of patches on top of patches. The road bed had settled so badly that motion sickness was a very real possibility. One stretch had reverted to gravel, and was actually smoother than the paved sections.
This sofa, expelled from somebody's living room, now decorates the pine forest: