My Biltmore My Pickup and Me


My Biltmore, My Pickup and Me


It happens at least once a month whenever I stroll through the sawmill. Some mill worker wishes he could trade places and have my job--just driving around in the forest every day, looking at trees, and having a picnic. I listen politely, keeping my hands deep in my pockets where they won’t rip the tongue out of the speaker’s mouth. Usually, I control myself and walk away, kicking sawdust instead of millwrights.

I am a professional forester and my job requires a wide range of duties and knowledge. Forget all images of tan uniforms, Smokey-the-Bear hats and fire towers, however. I don’t talk to trees, at least not that I would admit in print. I do cruise timber, buy logs for the sawmill, supervise loggers and road builders, serve as purchaser representative and substitute for an accountant. On occasion I even visit the woods when I am not giving a speech or planting trees.

Take timber cruising. It is a peculiar trade trying to figure out how many square boards can be cut from round trees. I must walk (climb, run, jump, crawl, fall) through a piece of forested terrain--landscape that often resembles the Himalaya Mountains--and count trees. From my brief inspection, I must estimate the quantity and quality of the lumber that the sawmill might produce from the large plants. Usually, this inspection takes place in a blizzard that would discourage a polar bear or in a monsoon that makes Noah’s forty-day deluge look like a light drizzle. During these forest forays, I often carry a Biltmore stick with me. The wooden device is similar to a yardstick and used to measure the heights and diameters of trees. It also functions as walking stick, machete, probe and depth gauge. While I gaze skyward at a particularly interesting tree, I sometimes use the Biltmore stick as a crude flyswatter, since I often find myself standing atop a yellowjacket nest and the insects are eager to say hello in a most intimate fashion.

Nursing many contact points of my close encounter of the worst kind, I return to the office. I carefully entrust my cruise notes (which now look like the Dead Sea Scrolls) to my faithful secretary. In less than an hour she has deciphered my illegible scratchings and condensed three days of wilderness trekking into a readable summary of my daring exploits. Three days of sweat, blood and pain reduced to a single scrap of cellulose and ink! I scowl politely and return to my desk.

I gather several mathematical devices around me--calculator, slide rule, Farmer’s Almanac, Ouija board, tea leaves--and attempt to evaluate what I have seen. I estimate what some logger might charge to bring the trees to the mill, even though the poor man has never been within five miles of the sale area. I concoct a road construction cost, although any road builder would sooner build the Golden Gate Bridge with a Gilbert Erector Set. There are taxes to consider, slash costs and road maintenance costs to factor into the equations. I add in enough to buy a bottle of Jack Daniels, and I arrive at “The Logging Cost”. This figure is chiseled into a stone tablet, to be hung in the boss’s office where it is referenced at least daily with the appropriate exclamations.

Next, “The Lumber Value” must be calculated. I make discreet inquiries of the lumber salesmen about recent lumber prices. I always reduce these values by 25%, since salesmen always tell me what they hope to sell the lumber for. I then increase the values by 40% since the trees won’t be harvested for two years, and I know the market will get better by then. This figure is also chiseled into a stone tablet, hung in the boss’s office and referenced daily.

The finale of so many precise calculations arrives when I subtract The Logging Cost from The Lumber Value, only to discover the resulting number is negative, which means someone ought to be paying me to buy the timber sale. After further consultations with Jack Daniels, I dispose of the stone tablets and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the nearest waste receptacle.

Sometimes by accident, I purchase a timber sale for the mill. I then become the “Purchaser’s Representative”.  In theory, I am to represent the mill’s interest under the terms of the contract with the government, while supervising the road building and logging operations. In fact, I catch hell from everyone. The government has concerns about the logging operation because the mud is over the Cat tracks. The mill doesn’t like the logs and wants me to give them back to the government. The road builder decided the plans are all wrong and put the road on the other side of the ridge.  The timber cutters just cut the painted trees instead of leaving them (or visa versa). Two ranger districts are wondering why the monthly payments are twenty days late. And the mill foreman drops a spike on my desk--a spike he discovered with his now toothless nine-foot bandsaw.

As company forester, I am also log buyer. The process usually begins with a phone call when an unfamiliar voice on the telephone says, “I got me some trees out back. How much will you give me for them?” I am always flattered that this total stranger assumes I know precisely which “out back” he is referring to. I still ask a few pertinent questions--where precisely is “out back”? What tree species? How big are the trees? If the caller can answer one out of three questions correctly, I will stop by, because I was heading that direction anyway to check if my cutters felled the painted trees or the unpainted trees.

When I finally discover the timber patch after several hours of driving because the caller said “left” instead of  “right”, I park my truck behind the three other log buyers’ trucks who were also summoned. More often than not, the seventeen trees to be sold are along an old fence row, with remnants of barbed wire and tree forts poking through the bark. I politely thank the proud owner, telling him the trees do not meet my requirements. Perhaps the Mayco Lumber Company would be interested. Half the time it was the Mayco log buyer who referred the owner to me.

I also substitute as accountant. It is my responsibility to approve all payments to loggers, road builders and any private land owners who are naive enough to sell me logs. This must be done at least twice a month and accurate to the nearest penny. To keep things interesting, I either tell the secretary the wrong rates to use, or I let her read my mind by not telling her at all.

I am a company forester, driving 4000 miles every month through the trees; I observe wildlife everyday as it splatters on my windshield. I talk to the trees with shouts and curses whenever I slip and slide down a hillside.  My picnics often times consist of a soggy sandwich eaten hastily in the shelter of some tree during a rainstorm.  Yes, I can understand why the mill worker in his warm, dry sawmill is so envious of my job. But I still won’t trade places with him for even a minute--I am having too much fun!