Forgotten Forest

Photographic plates discovered in a dusty shed offer an astonishing look at life in the American woods more than a century ago

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The evidence from Clarke’s photographs and his few surviving words suggests a man profoundly ambivalent about his subject. His portrayals of the camps convey reverence for the loggers’ skills and hard work. “Everybody who works in the woods has a story about him of some kind, all worth recording,” he once said. “The average lumberman is an original.” But he also depicts a bleak, if epic, transformation of the countryside. There is a bitter sadness to what he has seen. In a letter written in the early 1900s, Clarke laments: “The hill forests are about gone and this is the last of it...the fastest mill ever run in this country is now eating up the trees at a rate of 275,000 to 300,000 [board feet] per 24 hours. Why? When the hemlock can not last there more than 7 or 8 years at most....”

Recently, we went to Pennsylvania and visited some of the places that Clarke photographed. We found a measure of hope; the once denuded hillsides, nurtured by state and federal authorities with an outlook toward sustainability, have regenerated into a luxuriant mix of timber. Little physical evidence remains of the lumber industry’s “hateful blackened fire-swept wastes,” as Shoemaker called them. Indeed, only through Clarke’s eyes do we gain access to that era.

“I will never forget my days in the lumber camps of the Black Forest,” Clarke recalled to Shoemaker in 1923, “especially the long summer evening, when I sat by my cabin door, listening to some husky lad at the camp across the creek, playing ‘The Little Log Cabin in the Lane’ on his melodeon, and watching the girls walk up and down the boardwalk arm in arm. These mental pictures will never grow less, no matter how often the fires sweep over the slashings.”


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