The Highclimber's Performance: Private Labor, Public Spectacle and Occupational Tradition in the Pacific Northwest Timber Industry

By Walls, Robert E. | Western Folklore, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

The Highclimber's Performance: Private Labor, Public Spectacle and Occupational Tradition in the Pacific Northwest Timber Industry


Walls, Robert E., Western Folklore


On a calm, sunny morning shortly before the First World War, a logger carefully climbs to the two-hundred foot level of a Douglas fir, where he uses an axe and handsaw to cut off the remaining fifty feet of spire. After the tree stops shaking from the violent kickback initiated by the fall of the severed crown, he hoists himself up to sit precariously on the eighteen-inch diameter flat top, smokes a cigarette, and enjoys the view. A few minutes later, he stands, gives a yell, and waves his arms at his audience of co-workers far below who have been craning their necks skyward with jaw-gaping looks. He then re-secures his climbing rope around the tree, tosses his hat into the air, and allows himself to descend with terrifying speed. Several days later, the climber returns to the tree top, opens the zipper to his pants and calmly relieves himself, sending a spray of urine off the gently swaying tree onto those standing near its base, bringing a response of curses and catcalls from his coworkers, but only temporarily disrupting their collective effort to prepare the spar for the next stage of their operation.

Some forty years later, a logging foreman for a large timber corporation sits in front of a television camera and chats with the host, Arthur Godfrey, about the skills of the woods worker and the transformed character of the timber industry, one now devoted to the doctrine of sustained-yield forestry. The camera then focuses on another logger who steps up to a nearby tree and climbs several hundred feet where he cuts off the crown, sits on the top, and then rapidly descends to the ground, all in front of a national audience of millions and the effusive praise of a famous media personality.

In 1991, a man dressed in a combination of logging and clown attire repeats a modified version of these performances in front of thousands of timber workers, their families and neighbors, tourists, and members of the local media who have gathered together in a public arena to witness competitions featuring the occupational skills of loggers and to learn about their shared role in the stewardship of modern forestry. After scaling the one-hundred foot spar, the clown unhooks and drops his safely belt, stands up and juggles a few balls, and then carefully squats and stands on his head. The scatological portion of the original performance is politely replaced by some humorous repartee with the arena announcer and a verbal warning to those down below to be wary of a downpour of yellow rain. Instead, something else falls from above with equal symbolic resonance but also to great applause: a stuffed spotted owl-that most infamous of endangered species-playfully shot off the clown's shoulder by a woman on the ground shouldering a rifle loaded with blanks. A few seconds later, the clown, too, is shot, and falls toward the ground only to be saved by a hidden safety line.1

The descriptions of these three distinct events-as work, custom, spectacle/political commentary-provoke a number of questions on the relationship between occupational culture, the labor process, and the relations of production. How does an act of labor become a traditional custom, and why does a seemingly arcane occupational custom enter into the realm of popular culture? How are such traditions manipulated to redefine the labor process and workers' identification with it? Do symbolic representations of work experience that valorize the risky actions of individual laborers in a dangerous profession serve or subvert workers' interests?

These events also raise an issue concerning the constitution of workers' culture in its 20th century contexts. More specifically, they question the reciprocal relationship between work culture and the appropriative, transformative, and homogenizing character of modern mass culture. Are occupational traditions born in the circumscribed relations of the workplace, but radically recontextualized into the realm of popular culture, still a viable resource for worker solidarity, consciousness, and political action? …

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