Hardly anyone seems to be paying much attention, but these are re-markable times in Humboldt County. For at least the last 17 years - maybe more like 40 years - there's been one single overarching theme in our small, isolated, island-like society, and that's been the fact that the hippies and the rednecks have always seen just about everything completely differently. They never got along. They couldn't get along. They came from different worlds, and by and large they stayed in different worlds.
They segregated themselves by town, assuring themselves and each other that they'd never have to cross paths in day-to-day life. About 30 years ago, Arcata was ceded to the students and the back-to-the-landers. (Liberators? Occupiers?) The old guard retrenched in the Eel River Valley. And there each of them lived, separate but equal, lobbing rockets at one another from a distance whenever tensions ran high.Vietnam. Roadside spraying. The marijuana industry. And, off and on the Timber Wars. Forest policy is still the single greatest social fault line in the county, and its painfully unsettled nature manifests itself in all kinds of ways, from Redwood Summer to Paul Gallegos.
That's a thumbnail sketch. It's always been a bit more complicated than that, but not much more. Yes, Darryl Cherney could write hollerin' paeans to the Fortuna Rodeo, or set down a funny and true sketch of an unemployed logger who takes up marijuana farming, and mean every word. Yes, the hippies and the rednecks have achieved a sort of truce in Southern Humboldt. But the cultural divide in Humboldt County has been very real ever since the first day-glo VW bus pulled into town, and ever since it has been the master narrative of the place, the big story from which all the smaller stories derive.
As I said, though, these are remarkable times. Suddenly, a startling new feature has entered the political landscape: Just about everyone in Humboldt County - old guard and new - despises, detests or is just plain fed up with Maxxam, the Houston-based financial conglomerate that took control of the Pacific Lumber Company in 1986. This is a big, big change.
For the last couple of months, I've been occasionally talking with a former Pacific Lumber employee. This guy was one of the 90 people the company laid off in December, one of the people who had been promised a generous severance package to help him get back on his feet. I gave him a call earlier this week, after the Times-Standard reported that those 90 severance packages had been suspended following Pacific Lumber's declaration of bankruptcy.
The man, who asked that his name not yet be used "out of respect to the people still there," was more than pissed. He was livid - outraged. He'd been at Pacific Lumber for over 10 years. Now he was hiring an attorney, and thinking about taking his fight public and encouraging his colleagues to do the same.
Last week, he said, he was called to an exit interview at PL headquarters in Scotia, where he was given the expected news. From here on, he was on his own. There would be no severance package. All the good press last month, all the commendations that the company had received for taking care of its people - it was all bullshit from the beginning, he figured, and they must have known it was bullshit at the time.
"Those fuckers knew," he said to me. "They knew. Maybe not the rank-and-file workers, but people like Mr. O'Brien [Pacific Lumber's president]. And if he didn't know, he's not any good at his job."
This fellow said he wasn't sure what he was going to do next, job-wise. But he knew exactly what he was going to do next as regards his former employer. He was going to talk to his lawyer, and he was going to try to get himself and his colleagues a seat at the Pacific Lumber bankruptcy proceedings currently underway in Corpus Christi, Texas. And then he said something that astonished me.
"A week or two after I talk with my lawyer, I wouldn't mind speaking to Mark Lovelace," he said. "I don't know how to raise hell."
Lovelace is the president of the Humboldt Watershed Council, and probably the most effective activist on forestry issues in Humboldt County. Over the last few years, he has made presentation after presentation to the state agencies charged with regulating water quality in the state's rivers and streams. He pushed strongly for additional limitations on Pacific Lumber logging in the Freshwater and Elk River areas, and the regulators agreed with him, instituting watershed-wide limits on the amount of harvesting. The company ended up getting about half the cut that it wanted.
Many Pacific Lumber employees attended those same meetings, among them the fellow who was now toying with the idea of soliciting Lovelace's advice. The guy had a strange take on his then-adversary. One of the things that Lovelace spoke of at these events was Pacific Lumber's financial situation. The company was arguing that it needed the additional logging to survive; Lovelace argued that the company's dire financial situation was purely the making of its parent corporation. In his soul of souls, the laid-off worker told me, he knew all along that Lovelace was right.
"When we were with our peer group - when the bosses weren't around - there was no denying it," he said. "We knew the books. I wanted to wring his neck sometimes, but you know what they say: The Devil speaks the truth."
The remarkable thing, I suppose, is that now this fellow is nearly ready to say it publicly: The hippies, in this instance, were right all along. The thing is so taboo that it's still holding him back a bit. But he said it to a reporter, knowing that it was going in the paper, and it's my belief that he and others won't hold their tongues for much longer. And when they do, it's going to change the landscape.
It's a moment of immense opportunity, but in my own mind there is a very important corollary. If millworkers are going to humble themselves, then the left must conduct its own bit of soul-searching. It's true that if you go way back in the books, back to the early '70s, that it was the old guard who drew first blood in the coming culture wars. They were intolerant and bull-headed. At times, they tried to shoo off the newcomers by force. Some of them are still hostile toward people not like themselves, and, when cornered, will resort to deploying what in any other context would properly be called hate speech.
Shamefully, though, the Left, in its long ascent to power, has shown itself to be every bit as capable of dehumanizing the people it has come to consider its enemies. In too many corners of bourgeois bohemia, the extant image of the timber worker resembles a cross between a Neanderthal and the boogie man. Something to be avoided at all costs, in any case. We all know people like this - people sheltered in their little Arcata bubbles, people hugely worked up about their redneck neighbors despite never having talked with a single one of them.
If we're going to move on, both sides are going to have to lead with their heads and their hearts - not, as has sometimes been the case, with their guts and bowels. Reached Monday, Lovelace was more than ready for the challenge. The time had come, he said, for the county to figure out a long-term strategy in which environment and economy go hand-in-hand.
"I recognize that in the process of trying to lay out the problems here - the financial problems with the company and its impact on the watersheds - we have been focusing on that core issue, and we have not done an adequate job of trying to reach out to the workers," he said. "The situation itself has been so antagonistic over time that it's been difficult to do that. But if the only message environmentalists have now is 'See, we told you so' ... we should pack up and go home."