Sunday, August 18, 2019

Light on the Devils: Coming of Age on the Klamath

Light on the Devils pulled me in and made me want to know more about the people and places it described.

After reading Louise Wagenknecht's book, I searched aerial photos to track her family's moves from Hilt, California, downriver to Happy Camp, and then to Seiad Valley during the 1960s. I wondered where her high school classmates committed suicide, died in vehicles rolling off mountain roads, gave birth between junior and senior years, and dropped out to work in the timber.

Then I searched topographic maps for the Three Devils peaks of the book's title. I traced the path of the Klamath River through the forests of northern California, where Wagenknecht's stepfather laid out clear cuts in old growth timber. I looked for the roads and bridges built to "get out the cut"—infrastructure the cut didn't pay for. I planned a road trip to see how the clear cuts were filling in and search for remaining old growth trees.

Between the crescendos of tragedy—floods, fires, and logger deaths—Wagenknecht records the steady bass beat of disappearing old growth timber and degraded watersheds and wildlife habitat. At the height of the post-World War II timber boom, a neighbor remembers California condors and Wagenknecht's family moves into a house with a large supply of kindling: veneer peeled from old growth pine.

But I didn't need a guide to follow Wagenknecht's journey from science geek kid who loved animals, through her dismay and disbelief when her stepfather tells her women can't be veterinarians and his co-worker tells her women can't fight fires—after she had just fought one, and on to her decision to attend college. She saw the contradictions in growing up female and told the world, and herself, that she wanted to be a science teacher—a nice, acceptable job for a high school valedictorian.

At home, Wagenknecht's stepfather decreed she would spend time doing her hair and nails, plus three agonizing hours a week holding up the walls and reading album covers at high school dances. But she, the oldest child, was also his hunting and fishing companion. She was the one who helped him fell trees for firewood and then split, load, and unload the fuel. She made a good hand and he made a good teacher. Despite their conflicts at home, they reached détente in the woods.

This book describes Wagenknecht's path toward a career with the Forest Service—which included fighting fires—and her détente in the woods with society.

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