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Jun 04, 2009

Photographer Eirik Johnson finds beauty in a region caught between its past and future.

By Tara Kyle

In the damp, dramatic forests of the Pacific Northwest, the times truly are a-changin’.
Towns like Aberdeen and Port Angeles, Wash., owe their existence to 19th-century pioneers: rugged outdoorsmen who tamed the mountains and streams while building new lives for their families.
The heroic images of the region’s hard-knock past have given way to even harder realities. Throughout the Pacific Northwest, salmon populations have been decimated and the landscape scarred from years of clear-cutting. Falling timber profits, flawed resource management and the recession have made jobs scarce, with unemployment climbing as high as 13 percent in some areas.
“A lot of communities have just kind of shriveled up, and they’re ghost towns now,” says Cindy Ziobron, a hatchery manager in Nemah, Wash., who has seen a number of friends lose their livelihoods as mill workers.
It’s these places and the people who live in them that make up Sawdust Mountain, a new book of photographs from Eirik Johnson, who took the images over a four-year period in areas of Northern California, Oregon and Washington.
“I was raised there, and after moving away, I still consider myself from the region,” Johnson says. A Seattle native, he spent his childhood picking mushrooms, watching spawning salmon and hiking through the Cascade Mountains. Since, his projects have taken him from the valleys of Peru to the streets of West Oakland, Calif.
He began his work on Sawdust Mountain without a specific goal either to rally environmentalists or to evoke sympathy for misunderstood loggers. Instead, his intent was to simply offer “some open-ended questions left unanswered.”
Using the region’s signature palette of what Johnson calls “monochromatic greys, blues and greens,” the book offers portraits not only of people but also rivers and dams, felled trees and neglected storefronts.
It’s a setting that attracts all sorts. Along with loggers and locals, one subject, Connecticut-born Ziobron, made it her mission to hike all 600 miles of trails in the Olympic National Park.
While the lack of opportunity in the area drives away many young people—Kurt Cobain famously escaped from Aberdeen—it  maintains a grip on many of its native sons, like Carl Chastain, director of the Pacific Coast Salmon Coalition.
“Everything is green. Or if it isn’t green, it’s ocean. So it’s hard not to love it,” says Chastain, who was photographed while showing Johnson around.
It’s also a setting that is undergoing tremendous changes. Some 90 percent of coastal old-growth forests—those cramped, multi-species pockets of vegetation that Johnson praises for their “impenetrable quality” and intense smell of cedar—have been cut down. They’ve been replaced by antiseptic new-growth forests, made up of a single species of tree neatly planted in none-too-dense arrangements.
“The harvest can literally happen overnight,” says Chastain, who remembers that as recently as the 1980s, people—not machines—cutting down most trees. “So for me, having grown up here, it’s really kind of shocking. You go by a section [of forest] one day, and the next, it’s gone.”
But the picture is more complex than a simple vilification of the timber companies, and environmentalism here takes a different form than it does in most places.
Take Chastain, for example. As he drives off to work to restore salmon habitats, a rifle lays on the passenger seat.
For Chastain, and many of his peers, preserving these resources has as much to do with providing children with a place to keep hunting, fishing and hiking as it does with any abstract ideal.
While Johnson’s Seattle upbringing gave him a familiarity with the issues, his reaction to clear-cutting is more visceral and emotional than intellectual.
Today, after traveling through these struggling communities, he empathizes with locals who lament the forestry industry’s downfall. While Johnson does not go so far as to agree with many of the timber giants’ practices, he sees “beauty in some of these devastated places.”
“I hope that people don’t get the idea that we’ve logged the entire—our entire—section of the world out here, and that there’s nothing left,” says Chastain. “We care about where we live. Even in the midst of a timberfell—a falling tree—we really care about the forest.”

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