Some Call It Art

Vincent van Gogh of the Netherlands and Susan Jeiven of Brooklyn have something in common. They are artists. Where van Gogh worked in oils, however, Susan’s medium is dead mice.

In ads for her work, Ms. Jeiven is described as an anthropomorphic taxidermist, a tattoo artist and an educator. The “educator” label derives from a class she teaches at the Observatory Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. The course, called “Anthropomorphic Mouse Taxidermy,” teaches students to “create and display taxidermied animals as if they were engaged in human activities.”

For a $45 fee, students are provided with all that is needed to create their artwork, including dead, disease free mice. But if you’re thinking of bringing your own art supplies to class, don’t bother. The gallery warns budding anthropomorphic artists, “Please do not bring any dead animals with you to class.”

Ms. Jeiven, a petite blond easily mistaken for a librarian, is serious about her art: “I don’t like rogue taxidermy,” she insists. “I want them to look classy.”

In New York City, her class was sold out in four hours.

If anthropomorphic taxidermy and dead mice do not evoke in you a sense of artistic beauty perhaps elephant droppings and porn will.

The Turner Award is annually awarded to a British artist under fifty who had the best exhibition or presentation during the previous twelve months. The 1998 award was given to Chris Ofili.  Mr. Ofili’s technique combines bright colors, geometric patterns and elephant dung. He is best known for his New York City showing of a work titled “The Holy Virgin Mary,” a depiction of Christ’s mother surrounded by pornography and elephant dung.

If you think combining pornography, elephant dong and a religious image is stretching the definition of art – borrowing a riff from Jeff Foxworthy – you may be a philistine. Professor of Art, Michael Davis, of Mount Holyoke College, responded to criticism offered by Mayor Rudolf Giuliani to Ofili’s New York City’s showing:

Chris Ofili’s collage is “shocking,” in that it is deliberately provocative and intends to jolt viewers into an expanded frame of reference, and perhaps even toward illumination. In this sense, it relates to the medieval aesthetic of ugliness in which visual dissonance and distortion were used in art to urge the viewer to move beyond the superficial material plane to a higher level of spiritual contemplation.

Mount Holyoke’s website describes Prof. Davis as specializing in “French Gothic architecture of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries; the history of modern architecture; the arts of Islam.” His expertise in elephant dung and pornography is left unaddressed by the college.

If, so far, your frame of reference wasn’t expanded, and you weren’t moved beyond the superficial material plane to a higher level of spiritual contemplation, shame on you. Some of us have it, some of us don’t. But those of us who do look forward Mr. Ofili’s next venture into the artistic denigration of another faith in the name of creative diversity. Perhaps he’ll choose to apply his talents to the religious art for which Prof. Davis boasts a specialization. The good professor is invited to be shocked and jolted by the exhibit.

Moving on. If dead mice and dung don’t evoke awe, we now turn to dog biscuits.


In 2007, a Costa Rican artist named Guillermo Vargas presented his masterpiece at the Codice Gallery in Nicaragua. Its title, “You Are What You Read,” was written in dog biscuits above an emaciated dog tied to the wall of the gallery. The dog, named Natividad, was given neither food nor water and is reported to have died, although the gallery’s director claims it escaped — an apt description, if true.  No reviews are available, but we can reasonable conclude that any visitor to the Codice Gallery who did not feed the starving animal already resides in an alternate plane far removed from the rest of us.

We are left to ask if art can elevate cruelty to another plane, what other depredations might be sanctioned under its banner.

In his book “Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom, a Professor at Cornell and a philosopher, classicist and academic, had this to say about art.

What defines man is no longer his reason, which is but a tool for his preservation, but his art, for in art man can be said to be creative. There he brings order to chaos. The greatest men are not the knowers but the artists, the Homers, Dantes, Raphaels and Beethovens.

To be fair, Mr. Bloom died in 1992 and didn’t have the opportunity to attend any of the above showings. But his statement, whether or not we agree with his premise, contains a hint of how art may have arrived at its current state: “The greatest men are . . . the artists.” With this in mind we can ask the question, What if artists are no longer great men and women? What if our great men and women no longer use their gifts for artistic endeavors? What if societal change through relativism and cultural drift has numbed our appreciation of artistic creativity, leaving us attracted, instead, to what appeals to our base drives?

Perhaps his intentions were otherwise, but Mr. Dana Gioia, former National Endowment of the Arts chairman, has opined, “The Right viewed us as purveyors of smut and filth, while the Left saw us as inept, but loveable, purveyors of smut and filth.” Mr. Theodore Dalrymple, writing in the City Journal, agrees in his own colorful way: “There is no such thing as bad publicity, however; indeed, in an age of perversity: bad publicity isn’t bad—it’s the best.”

While we may speculate on what brought art to its present state, we should be mindful of Occum’s Razor, the principle of looking to the simplest cause. The shock, awe and disgust art of today may exist because it is easy to produce. The artistic challenge today may be finding new ways to accomplish it; elephant manure, after all, has already been used.

In truth, rather than expanding boundaries, genitalia and manure painted on iconic images are clear markers for an artist who has wondered beyond the limit of his talent. His work suggests a subconscious cry for help: “Stop me before I create again.”


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The Extinction Dilemma

A sign showing the different marking of the Pileated and Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers. It stands near where the disputed 2005 Ivory-Billed sighting took place.

If a bird sits in the woods and no one sees it, does it exist?

According to a group of academics, if the bird is the Ivory-billed Woodpecker the answer is no. And the “no” comes with the probability of being wrong at 0.0064%.

I came across this study in a paper titled Specimen-Based Modeling, Stopping Rules, and the Extinction of the Ivory Billed Woodpecker.[i] Using a statistical tool called the Poisson distribution to analyze specimen counts and “other reliable occurrence records,” the group declared the Ivory-billed extinct. However, unlike the ornithological Indiana Joneses who do their research by striding, fedora clad, into the mud and mosquito infested swamp, these academics pulled this off without the inconvenience of leaving their desks, iPads or lattes.

Of course their qualifier  — other reliable occurrence records — should be underscored, since “reliable” is a squishy term used by those wishing to squish, and it is always helpful to do research where troublesome data can be defined as unreliable, pushed aside and ignored. Why, after all, allow muddy footprints and bird droppings to taint an otherwise tidy piece of research, especially when the grunt work had already been done.

To extinction deniers and agnostics the latest extinction announcement merely induces a shrug. The ivory-billed’s departure is proclaimed with regularity between sighting reports from amateur birders or scientists who stray from their ornithological nest box.

Another of a number of signed in the Cache River Refuge area advising visitors of the famous and possibly extinct resident and what to do if it’s sighted.

Academic announcements of this kind may satisfy those disposed to accept them, but there are those considered too scientifically challenged or romantically obtuse to agree with the conclusions. We pack our deet, binoculars and optimism and venture into the wilderness.

And to the unacquainted, a visit to this environment is to understand why some in academia would eschew fieldwork for a comfortable desk and a computer model, where a Poisson distribution may be applied in lieu of insect repellant, and where an iconic megafauna may be represented as a featherless algorithm.

To me, this conclusion was readily apparent during a recent visit to the 57,000-acre, Choctawhatchee River WMA of the Florida panhandle. The area is an almost impenetrable amalgam of bottomland forest, sloughs and swamps. Exploring it is a frustrating experience, requiring several types of conveyance, few of which can be found nearby. Moreover, the tree canopy is so dense that birding there is reminiscent of WW2 plane spotters who identified aircraft by their silhouettes in the clouds. Yet it is Ivory-billed habitat, or as close to it as exists today. It is also where Geoff Hill’s research team claimed to have found the ivory-billed in 2006[ii], a disputed discovery dismissed by the afore-mentioned study.

Meanwhile, outside academia, unaware of the recent announcement of the bird’s extinction, a motel clerk told me a birder claimed to have spotted an ivory-billed in the Bruce Creek area earlier in 2011. Bruce Creek, you should know, is a tributary to the Choctawhatchee and was identified by Hill as an ivory-billed hotspot, if “hotspot” is an acceptable term for a place where an extinct animal has been observed more than once, subsequent searches not withstanding.

Another witness was a local fisherman who freely claimed to occasionally see the ivory-billed along the river. When I challenged him, suggesting that he had really seen a pileated woodpecker, he stood firm: “No, I know a pileated. This one is bigger and has a white bill.” Then as if to insure his name would never be listed in any ornithological research paper, he added, “There’re still a few hanging on.”

These and other reported ivory-billed sightings, such as those in the Pearl River area of Louisiana and elsewhere, compete with the continuing efforts of scientists and ornithological heavyweights to dismiss them. Neither side of the dispute is willing to surrender ground. “I know what I saw,” says one side. “No you don’t,” says the other.

Some attribute the refusal to accept the bird’s demise to our troubled conscience — guilt traceable to human greed and arrogance, sins that brought about the wanton destruction of its habitat. Others attribute denial to idealism and a simple conviction that the bird is still alive. What birder, after all, can look at an old, gnarled bottomland cypress in a southern swamp and not think of the woodpecker.

The ivory-Billed Woodpecker

What to believe? Take your choice.

But I’m conflicted. The evidence that the woodpecker did not survive its habitat destruction is formidable. Yet I want it to be wrong. My inner Don Quixote overrules my inner Mr. Spock, and like the majority of birders, I root for the woodpecker. Nothing would please me more than forcing extinctionists and skeptical statisticians to plug a new and reliable ivory-billed sighting into their Poisson Distribution and watch their algorithm melt into a gooey puddle.

In the meantime, those of us not yet ready to accept the loss will continue to explore the southeastern bottomland forests, listening for kent calls and double knocks.  We will view every woodpecker hole and old cypress as the possible denouement of our efforts. If a bird sits in the woods we want to find it and prove it’s there.


[i] GOTELLI, N. J., CHAO, A., COLWELL, R. K., HWANG, W.-H. and GRAVES, G. R. (2012), Specimen-Based Modeling, Stopping Rules, and the Extinction of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Conservation Biology, 26: 47–56. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2011.01715.x


[ii] HILL, Geoffrey E. (2007) Ivory Billed Hunters: The Search for Proof in a Flooded Wilderness. New York. Oxford University Press.

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Trinidad Recollections: Feathers and Mayhem

Mountains and Rainforest of Trinidad

In Trinidad all illusions of a tropical paradise disappear. The first inkling of this occurred as I left Piarco International Airport on my way to a lodge in the northern mountains. Outside the baggage claim, juggling a suitcase and camera bag, I forded my way through stampeding throngs of Trinidadians and tourists, seemingly bent on escaping and invading the island, using all necessary force. The cacophony of West Indian voices, hovering between urgency and rage, competed with the roar of passing aircraft. Compared to this, the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle portrayed in ads inviting tourists to sunny, palm lined beaches was a marketing fantasy invented by bored admen with over-active imaginations.

A taxi rescued me. Its driver alternating the brake, throttle and horn, until only the heavy, pounding bass of his reggae music filled the cab.

Narrow road through mountain rainforest, Trinidad

When we reached the mountains, the flat asphalt roadway gave way to one cracked and pitted with erosion. On one side of us the mountain fell to the valley, on the other, water spilled from a wall of dense vegetation. In places the dirt beneath the road had washed away leaving the crumbling asphalt projecting out over the valley in wet mountain air. The driver told me of a woman who once lived in a shipping crate on the roadside. One day a heavy rain came and washed her down the mountain. We passed a small, wooden hovel at the edge of a Columbus fruit plantation. According to the driver, it was the home of a watchman. At another point the driver pointed out a house that had been burglarized for the owner’s firearms.

The purpose of my visit to the island was to photograph birds, but it was the island’s mores that I remember. I learned the beauty of its avifauna fades into the darkness of the island’s brutality. The nation of Trinidad and Tobago is the homicide capital of the Caribbean. The homicide rate is 55 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Eleven times that of the United State. Its overall crime rate is one of the highest in the world. At the lodge, others repeated stories of crimes: kidnappings, machete murders and robberies.

Jogie Ramlal of the Asa Wright Nature Center, Trinidad

The stories were hearsay, of course, but our guide, Jogie Ramlal, an Indo-Trinidadian, remained silent and didn’t dispute them. Yet his silence was as clear as the sadness in his demeanor. Ramlal’s ancestors had been brought to the island from India as servants by the British. When the Brits left, they remained. Many, like Ramlal, longed to return to the land of the family. Their once orderly island had become the home of steel drums, gangs and mayhem.

Fortunately, nature photography is not an urban activity and kept me well away from Port of Spain and other notorious environs. The exception would be the search for a bird called the Great Potoo.

Ramlal arranged a trip to Waller Field to find the potoo. And despite it being an area of known drug activity and the scene of a recent murder, Ramlal assured me he had everything under control. I discovered what Ramlal had in mind when two armed guards arrived to escort us.

Waller Field is an isolated and abandoned WWII bomber base. Its long runway is cracked and strewn with derelict cars and trash. Tropical vegetation is winning its battle with concrete, and the taxiways are a flooded marsh. A hundred years from now it will again be jungle. A thousand years from now archaeologists will puzzle over its collection of wine bottles and drug wrappers. Logs placed to block access after the murder were easily pushed aside. Whatever memories or utility Waller Field has are of no interest to Trinidad.

The field is also unlighted. It is the perfect habitat for a nocturnal predator such as the Great Potoo. It has also proven to be an ideal habitat for the bird’s human counterpart.

A night hunting Pooto perched on a reed at Waller Field, an abandoned WW2 Airbase. The base was also the scene of a brutal homicide.

Although the trip was successful – a cooperative potoo had perched on a tree stump — I confess to being relieved when we prepared for the drive back to the lodge.

It was late evening when we left Waller Field and rolled the logs back into place. As we reached the mountains, the night sky hid behind a layer of low clouds. The light from the car’s headlights skipped off the wet roadway and was lost in the jungle around us. Our conversation was upbeat. Ramlal lost some of his reticence, telling me of his desire to one day visit India, the home of his ancestors. However, there was sadness in his voice, and I sensed this was a wish that had little chance of being fulfilled.

It was about that time when we found our road totally blocked by bamboo and mud that had slid down the mountain.

The darkness was lit only by the car’s lights. The blockage was huge. I attempted to pull a log off the road, but it stayed firm. We had no chance of removing it. I asked Ramlal if there was an alternate road to the lodge and he said there was not. I stood helplessly as he went forward with a flashlight for a closer look at our situation.

While Ramlal inspected the mound of trees and dirt, a sound from behind me caught my attention. I turned and in the red glow of the car’s taillights saw six men walking toward me. As they got closer I could see that each carried a machete.

The approaching men said nothing. Instinctively I walked to the front of the car. This put me in the headlights, but it also put the car between me and the machetes. I lost sight of Ramlal. He didn’t answer my calls. Ramlal, I thought, had seen the men and decided to hide in the mud and bamboo.

I circled the car and was prepared to dive into the jungle, but the men ignored me. They walk to the fallen vegetation and using their machetes began clearing the roadway. After several minutes, the road was clear enough for us to pass through.

Later as we drove to the lodge, Ramlal explained the men were members of his family who came looking for him. They saw us pass their homes and became worried when he didn’t arrive at the lodge.

Evidence of Indian Culture: Hindu Prayer Flags, Manzanilla Beach, Trinidad

Several years have passed since my visit to Trinidad. As for that night on the mountain road, I’m as embarrassed today as I was then. But the news from the island tells me nothing has changed. A tourist couple was recently murdered in their rented villa. The weapon was a machete. Because of crime, many cruise ships avoid its harbor. The US State Department and others caution tourists to remain indoors at night.

Jogie Ramlal is still a guide. His dream of visiting India is still a dream.


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The Plight of Maine Loggers in the North Woods


The Gateway to Maine’s North Woods

In the early morning hours of a Monday in October, 1998, a group of Maine woodsmen and environmentalists put a plan into operation. Climbing into vans and pickup trucks, they began the more than two hour drive from Allagash, Maine along an unpaved logging road to the Canadian border crossing near St. Pamphile, Canada. They had spent the previous two nights at a hunting lodge in Allagash, keeping a low profile so as not to alert the authorities or wood mill owners of their presence. In sparsely populated Aroostook, groups get noticed. For their plan to succeed, they needed an element of surprise.

Now tired, with little sleep, the group made their way through a dark Maine night and a late autumn snowfall. Large snowflakes tumbled from a black sky, appearing as a thousand points of light rushing at them in the van’s headlights. The drivers adjusted their speed to the night. Their eyes focused on the winding road as the dark forest raced by. The passengers were lost in their thoughts.

The spirit of comradery was high; loggers and environmentalist joining forces in the same cause was uncommon in the Maine woods. One group’s purpose was to preserve a forest; the other’s was to preserve their jobs. The two causes have different trajectories but crossed on this particular night.

Maine’s loggers have had a four decade long grievance with the state and federal governments concerning their claim that Canadian woodsmen were taking their jobs. They alleged that government officials were failing to enforce immigration laws dealing with foreign work visas. This, and the current exchange rate, allowed Canadians to enter Maine, work for a lower wage, and take jobs away from Mainers.

The group reached the border crossing at 4:45 AM, fifteen minutes before the border patrol opened its gate. The caravan had made it in time. Canadian woodsmen were already lined up on the other side, ready to enter Maine on their way to a logging job site.

At five minutes after the hour, the Mainers and environmentalists were in place. Their trucks had been strategically parked across the road on the U.S. side of the border. The group approached the gate and announced to the Border Guards and Canadians waiting to cross, they were blockading the border. No logging trucks or loggers would be allowed to cross. The border was shutdown.

Border Crossing into St. Pamphile, Canada

Border Crossing into St. Pamphile, Canada. Note the Canadian lumber mill and the U.S. Border crossing complete with building, personnel and security equipment. What is the cost to the U.S. tax payer to supply Maine lumber, logged by Canadian woodsmen, to a Canadian mill?

The local press covered the event, but not the national media. At the time, the nation was hungry for stories of President Clinton’s impeachment and the Monica Lewinsky affair. Today, news records of the event are as scarce as they are lacking in detail.

The Blanchet-Maibec Road is long, unpaved and a proven destroyer of tires. It’s also a toll road.

Later that month, a meeting to discuss the logger’s complaints was held in Presque Isle, Maine. It was attended by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Representative John Baldacci (later elected Governor) and other state officials. No solutions came from the meeting, only a promise to investigate the claims. Rep. Baldacci promised to look into the allegation that Mainers were being discriminated against by the mills and landowners: “We will try to find out if aggressive means were used to find Americans to work in the Maine woods before the Department of Labor turned to approving bonds for Canadians.”  It was less than demanded, and less than hoped for, but it was enough to end the blockade. In the end, however, nothing changed.

Thirteen years later, I sat with a Maine woodsman who I’ll call John Miller. We were in a tavern in northwestern Maine, 30 miles from the Canadian border. The tavern was adorned with New England Patriots and Red Sox memorabilia. Lobster Ale was on tap. A small group of patrons sat at the bar, talking quietly, ignoring the television tuned to a basketball game. They were dressed in working men’s clothes, no doubt on their way home after a day on the job. Hunting season was over, and the weekend snowmobilers hadn’t yet arrived. During the week, between sports seasons, this was a workingman’s bar.

There can be little doubt of John’s occupation. He’s a big man, barrel chested, sporting an untrimmed, month old beard, a plaid woolen shirt and Cardhartt pants. He had just come from work, an almost two hour trip out of the woods. He sipped an oatmeal stout, dark and bitter, a drink that fit his mood.

Border Crossing Building and gate. This gate is closed on Sundays and obviously is not a major crossing. The gate employee declined to speak to me.

John’s workday is long. He rises every workday at 2:30 in the morning and drives twenty-five miles to be at a pickup point at 3:30 AM. He’s then transported two hours into the woods to the logging site. The going can be slow when the dirt roads get covered with deep fresh snow, as they had the night before. At the end of the workday, he retraces his two-hour ride back to the pickup site. John’s wages include only one of the two-hour rides. He usually makes it back to his home at 4:00 PM.

John did not intend to be a logger. He studied forestry for two years. Upon graduation, he set out for the forests of Maine, where he discovered that a two year degree didn’t get you much. So he took up logging. Since that time, he has experienced firsthand the problems other Maine loggers tried unsuccessfully to correct thirteen years ago.

To John, the subject of Canadian loggers working the Maine woods falls like a hot ember on dry brush. He admits to holding bitterness toward a government that, he believes, has abandoned him and other loggers. Yet, it’s apparent his passion has waned. Battle weary or otherwise, the sag in his shoulders belies the glint in his eyes.

He brought with him a folder of news clippings and an op-ed he wrote in a Bangor Daily in the late 1990s. He says the op-ed did not advance his career as a Maine woodsman, where communities are tight and memories are long. He says most loggers don’t complain, fearing it will further reduce the odds of their getting work.  Employers also have memories and tend to shy away from any logger with a history of complaints.

“The Canadians even get unemployment from the state,” he added.

“The paper companies run the state,” he says, in a matter of fact tone that doesn’t invite argument. “You have the bonded workers taking our jobs, and the independent contractors that get 1099s and think they’re rich.” “The bonds,” he calls them, depress the wages because of their willingness to work for less money than Americans.

Although, clear cutting doesn’t appear to be a major problem in the north woods, a forester admitted to me that silviculture, the best practice for maintaining a healthy forest, is not used by the logging industry or landowners.

John worked for a logging company for the 2009/2010 logging season, usually mid-summer to the following March. He was the only American on the site. And although a logger’s occupation is fraught with hazards inherent with heavy equipment, soft ground and falling trees, the language spoken on this job site was French. When the season began to wind down in April of 2010, John was laid off. “They laid me off, but kept the Canadians,” he wryly added.

By bonded workers, Miller meant foreigners issued H2-A visas by the federal government. The visa allows foreigners to enter “the U.S. to perform temporary agriculture labor or services of a temporary or seasonal nature.” In this case, the foreigners are Canadian woodsmen. Federal law also places conditions on the hiring of bonded workers: “. . . the employer must file an application with the Department (of Labor) stating that: (1) there are not sufficient able, willing, and qualified United States (U.S.) workers available to perform the temporary and seasonal . . . . employment; and (2) employment of H2-A workers will not adversely affect the wages and working conditions of similarly employed U.S. workers.”

The issue here is the Maine logger’s claim that the job is never really offered to them, or is offered with unacceptable conditions. The system, Miller says, is set up to favor the Canadian woodsman. The reason, of course, is they cost less to hire. Canada has socialized medicine, so health care isn’t an issue of employment. Moreover, because of the U.S.-Canadian exchange rate, Canadian loggers are willing to work for less money, thus setting the wage scale too low for American loggers to survive on.

Depressed wages spill over into other areas of employment. John described an employer he once worked for who agreed to pay him $500.00 a week ($12.50 an hour). When John was subsequently laid off, he discovered the employer had carried him on the books as being paid $250.00 a week for him and $250.00 for his chainsaw. This saved the employer the higher cost of employment taxes but also cut John’s unemployment benefits. John added, “You can’t support a wife and three kids on $125.00 a week.”

As for the legalization of the independent contractor, John describes it as another way for paper companies and mill owners to save money. In the eyes of the law, an independent contractor is a business man responsible for his own business costs.

John: “A kid with no experience can get hired as an independent contractor. The employer doesn’t have to worry about workmen’s comp or employment taxes. He just gives the kid a 1099[IRS form]. He pays the kid $19.00 an hour, a 1099 form, and the kid thinks he won the lottery. The kid never reports the money as taxable income, and the state never checks.”  The onus and cost of complying with most state and federal employment laws are transferred to the independent contractor. It’s a win for the employer and a loss for the woodsman.

To gain a better understanding of the H2-A system I spoke to Jorge Acero of the Bureau of Labor Standards, Foreign Labor Certification Unit of the Maine Department of Labor. Mr. Acero explained that when a business expects a need to hire bonded workers for the harvesting season, it will apply for a number of H2-A visas. The applications will be reviewed by his unit and forwarded to the U.S Department of Labor for approval. After this is done, the state of Maine then has no idea who the employer subsequently hires. Moreover, there is no way to track how many Maine woodsmen apply for the job. According to Mr. Acero, most Maine woodsmen do not use email and live in remote areas of the state. If they learn of a job opening they’re likely to apply directly with the employer.

According to Mr. Acero, the State of Maine expects businesses to comply in good faith with state and federal laws stipulating a bonded worker will be hired only after finding there are no U.S. workers available for the job. The state, therefore, expects employers will make a good faith effort to hire Americans for their job openings. However, when asked if any efforts are undertaken by the state to verify employers are in compliance with the law, Mr. Acero explained that due to limited manpower and distances involved, compliance verification is left to the U.S. Department of Labor (USDOL). Indeed, the driving distance from Augusta to Allagash is 288 miles, with a driving time of five hours and forty-five minutes. Then too, there’s the time spent searching the woods for the logging site.

What is left is the question of how does the USDOL follow up on H2-A visa inspections?

A check of Federal offices for the U.S Department of Labor revealed the agency has no office in the State of Maine. In fact, the closest office is in Boston, Massachusetts. I telephoned the USDOL’s Boston office and spoke to Mr. Tim Theberge, a Workforce Specialist. According to Mr. Theberge, H2-A visas are handled by the Foreign Labor Certification Unit. Unfortunately, that unit had moved to Atlanta, Georgia, several years ago. He knew of no USDOL unit currently performing H2-A compliance inspections in the State of Maine. Moreover, in a logging forum that took place in June of 2009, in the northern town of Fort Kent, Maine, Charlene Giles, from the Chicago processing center represented the USDOL.

To gain a better insight into the state’s handling of bonded workers, and at the suggestion of John Miller, I contacted Maine State Senator Troy Jackson. Sen. Jackson is a logger, lives in Allagash and represents Aroostook County in northern Maine. He was also one of the loggers who took part in the 1998 Allagash Blockade.

The senator vouched for much of what John Miller described. However, he added several facts and thoughts of his own.

The exchange rate has “pretty much” evened out and is no longer the primary force driving the hiring of bonded workers from Canada. The senator believes the situation still exists, but the problem has more to do with familiarity than money. Canadian businesses and mills have established a presence in Maine and tend to hire loggers they know, i.e., other Canadians. He cited one instance where a wife opened a business in Maine and brought her husband in as a bonded worker to run it.

The north woods of Maine is also a resource for recreational activities such as hunting, fishing and water sports.

To adjust to the new reality, the Maine legislature passed new laws to protect Maine woodsmen. One of the two eliminates the unemployment benefits for bonded workers. Sen. Jackson explained the situation allowed Canadian loggers to file for unemployment then collect their checks while in Canada, beyond the jurisdiction of Maine to inspect their employment status. The senator spoke of a study that discovered bonded workers collected $600,000.00 in unemployment benefits, while the industry only contributed $200,000.00 to the unemployment insurance fund. Moreover, Maine fell short of due diligence in accepting the applications in the first place. When a person files for unemployment one of the first questions on the application asks if the applicant is ready and able to work. Since the H2-A visa is job specific; a Canadian cannot be ready and able to accept a new job.

The two laws passed are:

An Act To Improve Employment Opportunities for Maine Workers in the Forest Industry: This legislation takes away tax benefits to landowners who use bonded workers to harvest their trees or if they fail to provide required information.

An Act To Protect Maine Workers: This law mandates an employer show proof of ownership for the logging equipment being used. This prevents an employer from leasing logging equipment from a Canadian company to harvest trees in Maine. This makes it difficult for a Canadian to set up a business in Maine and lease his own equipment from Canada. Those opposed to the law point out that also improperly prohibits a Maine employer from leasing the equipment. This puts an unfair burden on employers to purchase expensive equipment. Violations of this law will result in the employer being prohibited from hiring bonded workers for two years.

Yet, despite the passage of the laws, Sen. Jackson is not optimistic that the grievances of the Maine loggers have been resolved. In 2010, he filed ten related complaints with the Maine Department of Labor. At the time of his interview, March 2011, not one has been addressed by that department. “I’m a senator,” he says. “If I can’t get a complaint addressed, how can the average logger.”

He also cited two employers that had, in 2010, been charged with violating state law concerning bonded workers. As of March of 2011, no date has been set for the hearings. The newly elected administration, he says, claims it’s waiting for a new labor commissioner to be appointed. “Why?” Jackson asks. “It’s a straight forward violation of the law.”

Whether his pessimism is based on bad karma or simple irony, Jackson points to Maine’s new Governor, Paul LePage. It is the LePage administration holding up those hearings. A LePage campaign website boasted about his “broad base of experience and knowledge, starting with an executive position with Arthurette Lumber in Canada.” The governor’s connection with a Canadian lumber company does little to instill confidence that positive change is in the offing.

Senator Jackson speculates that another blockade may be needed. This time political promises may not be enough to end it.

In the mean time John Miller sips his stout and quietly reflects on his situation. Life rarely works out as planned. And there is a time to reconsider your decisions.   Like Troy Jackson, he expects little change. Demographic realities are hard to overcome. Frustration dings the psyche. There are only several hundred loggers in the state, maybe too small a number to gain meaningful political traction. And that number is going down, as young men look for careers elsewhere. Who can blame them? The forces working against the loggers of Maine may be insurmountable.

John Miller shakes his head. “Next year I’m leaving Maine. Don’t know where I’ll be, but I won’t be here.”

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The Bayou De View

An old church on Main Street in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, one of many buildings abandoned and forgotten in the village.

Before reaching the Cache River in Arkansas, Route 17 stretches south through cotton fields and poverty. It passes worn houses with dark, wormed wood peering through tired paint and abandoned shops with windows long ago broken. It rolls through the Village of Cotton Plant and neighborhoods past their prime, places when even in their prime were never a bargain.

At the Cache, a dirt road leads off 17 down to a small clearing on the river’s shore. There is no sign informing a visitor where he stands, but this is the Bayou De View. And there is no sign offering the bayou’s history, because there isn’t much. The exception is the 2004 sighting of a bird thought to be extinct: The Ivory-billed Woodpecker. That the sighting is disputed is unimportant now. It was a brief, promising moment for the area. With the bird came visitors and with visitors came money.

Cypress of of Bayou De View

From the clearing, you can see some of what remains of Arkansas hardwood bottomland. Most of its once 8 million acres was destroyed by our lust for hard wood and cotton. Poverty and progress, after all, need space to expand. What’s seen is not old growth. Old growth is rare. This is bottomland trying to renew itself.

Here the Cache River, like the town of Cotton Plant, is indifferent and bored. It oozes more than it flows. Its cold, dark water passes through a copse of Cypress south of the overpass. It is December and the trees are bare. The seasonal chill softens the odor of the decay. Mosquito larvae await the spring. There are no birds. The only sound is the occasional drone of passing traffic.

An old, faded Ford 150 pickup truck, its engine straining up the grade, turns off the highway and down to the clearing. A country and western song on truck’s radio laments of a broken home and a drunken husband. The driver, wearing a camouflage jacket and pants, steps out and walks to the river’s edge. He walks with the weary uncertainty of age or booze. His beard is gray and full. His clothes are as old and threadbare, the faded and soiled colors blending with the mood of the bayou. A brown hat sags and hints that it was once hunter’s orange. When the song ends a sonorous voice asked listeners to donate toys to needy children for Christmas.

The man stands at the shore for several minutes studying the river, staring south. His view is obstructed by the cypress forest. Yet he stares. After a time, he returns to his truck. Getting up to the highway is a challenge for the old engine. But the man knows his truck and gently coaxes the vehicle up the road. He enters 17 and drives north toward the cotton fields.

Poet Samuel Ullman said “Nobody grows old merely by living a number of years. We grow old by deserting our ideals.” Maybe so, but hopelessness can do the job in a shorter time.

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