Books: Brush Cat

On trees, the wood economy, and the most dangerous job in America.

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Dead trees go into everything from your toilet paper to your McDonald’s milk shake (thickened with wood flour!). As Jack McEnany writes in Brush Cat, it all starts “with some guy trudging into the woods with a chainsaw.” That guy has an increasingly tough job: Climate change has shortened the New England timber season from six months to four, the housing crash has caused the price of lumber to plummet, and logging is America’s deadliest occupation, more dangerous than even deep-sea fishing.

Set in the northern woods of New Hampshire, where McEnany has lived for 20 years, Brush Cat is a sympathetic look at the challenges facing this dying American industry. The book is “mainly about people”: loggers, mill owners, waitresses at breakfast joints, and a host of others who enable us to use wood and paper, well, like they grow on trees. McEnany’s respect for his subjects is reflected in his amusing prose (“Bob used his saw with the authority of a Benihana chef”) and his earnest attempt to follow a logger who agrees to have a “yutz like me with him in the woods” only “for as long as we can stand each other.”

Loggers’ skills are less in demand now than ever. Not that we’re cutting down fewer trees; it’s just that fewer Americans are wielding the saws. Machines are doing more of the harvesting, and much of our wood now comes from Siberia and Southeast Asia. In the US, what was once big business is now a novelty. McEnany asks the owner of a mill town turned theme park in Berlin, New Hampshire, about logging’s transformation from the state’s No. 1 industry to a tourist attraction. “The mill is gone,” he says wistfully, but “the memory isn’t.”

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