Pine returns to the mill, but its purpose is more humble

By JAYSON JACOBY Baker City Herald March 06, 2009 11:13 am

Strange to see ponderosa logs decked again at the Ellingson mill site.

Strange in a good way.

These trees, it’s true, aren’t destined for quite so noble a purpose as were the pines they used to stack on the property. Some of those logs were as thick through the middle as a bridge abutment.

The comparatively slender trees that trucks deliver to the mill these days, rather than becoming permanent parts of someone’s home will temporarily warm a room on a bitter day.

Which is at least a better use for pine than burning piles of it out in the woods when nobody is around to bask beside the embers except maybe a squirrel.

And squirrels seem to get along without auxiliary heat.

For some years before trucks started bringing their loads of pines, a herd of mule deer had been the most conspicuous occupant of the Ellingson land.

The deer are at least as pretty as the ponderosas.

Both have light-colored patches around their butts.

My house is on 15th Street, just across that street from the mill yard.

I moved there in June 1995. The Ellingsons announced in March 1996 that they were closing the mill.

If you surveyed, say, 100 people I’ll bet at least 80 would say, if given their druthers, that they’d live far from any sort of factory. Industrial operations in many cases deserve their reputation for being lousy neighbors, what with the smoke and the racket going on at all hours and the noxious odors.

But I didn’t mind living right next to the mill. In fact I enjoyed the soft background noise of the spinning saws. It was soothing, sort of like one of those audio recordings of the ocean or a mountain brook that are supposed to put you to sleep.

Sometimes when the wind went round to the east the air was rich with the sharp tang of freshly cut pine.

The closure of the Ellingson mill was hardly an anomaly, of course. It might have been inevitable.

Certainly there is not enough old-growth ponderosa pine around to perpetually supply as many sawmills as were going in Northeastern Oregon in the 1970s and ’80s.

Still, it seems to me a pity that Baker City, which had had a lumber-cutting operation for more than 130 years, has now been without one for 13.

The logging business is in decline but Americans, I’ve noticed, maintain their long-held affinity for wood.

We still demand, most of us, that certain of our possessions be made from it, most notably our homes.

This seems to me a significant fact.

So much else that we buy went over to plastic years ago without any great opposition. Television sets, for instance, used to come encased in a hundred pounds of varnished wood. It took half the neighborhood to haul the thing into your living room, and there it stayed until the tube went out.

I doubt you could find a new TV for sale today that contains even an ounce of wood.

Compared to a house, of course, a TV or any other appliance is disposable.

Yet our houses, where we expect we’ll take our last breath, or at least watch our grandkids open Christmas presents, must have a backbone of solid lumber we can count on.

I was watching the Civil War basketball game on my plastic-intensive TV the other night and the announcer mentioned that McArthur Court, the arena on the University of Oregon campus where the game was played, was constructed mainly of wood.

That was in 1926.

Yet the place still stands, even after enduring eight decades of college students jumping up and down trying to rattle the opposing team’s free-throw shooters.

The two-by-fours in a typical home, by comparison, lead a gentle life.

I glance at the pine decks most every time I drive or walk past the Ellingson mill. I doubt, though, that lumber will ever be produced again in my neighborhood.

But although the cutting of old ponderosas is no longer in fashion, the people who study such things have concluded that in many places the forests would benefit if we felled some of the trees.

Many of these trees aren’t fit for lumber, being either too skinny or too short or too crooked. Some suffer from all three flaws.

I’m intrigued by the budding technology by which we can use this wood — slash, it’s usually called — to make products as varied, and as valuable, as electricity, motor vehicle fuel and stove pellets.

Yet a good number of these surplus trees have sound, straight boles well-suited for sawing into boards.

Workers used to do that here, within sight of my backyard.

It saddens me that now we have to truck those logs dozens or even hundreds of miles, enriching some other city.

The pines at the Ellingson mill are sold as firewood.

That’s a worthwhile use, as anyone knows who has ever lived in a home heated by wood.

But though we may still yearn to dream by the fire, as the saying goes, the real American dream is as it has always been.

To own a home.

And it’s pretty hard to build one with a couple cords of split pine.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.