MUCH OF Jack McEnany’s Brush Cat feels like a eulogy for a passing age, when small towns in the north woods of New Hampshire could depend on woodlots and lumber mills for steady work and community cohesion. As McEnany points out, it still holds true that the commercial life of every wooden or paper product we use begins when someone with a chainsaw tramps out into the woods. But thanks to big tree farms in the western U.S. and shifts in forests and snow pack due to climate change, it no longer works for that someone with a chainsaw to be an independent logger, keeping the tradition of his father and grandfather alive. McEnany does not romanticize the lives or work of these loggers, but he does reveal the ecological, cultural, and historical consequences of losing New England logging entirely, of letting forests grow — and die — unmanaged while the men that used to know them intimately look for work elsewhere for the first time in generations.
In entertaining prose, McEnany takes us to remote woodlots, describes the rugged landscape and harsh conditions that independent loggers face every day, and breaks down the details of chainsaw safety and ways to fell a tree. We see the diners where these loggers eat breakfast, learn about their families and heritage, and hear their struggles as small-time logging in the Northern Forest gives way. McEnany follows a few loggers through their daily work, marveling at their competency in the woods and often contrasting these skills to his own attempts. He uses these personal connections and experiences to springboard into discussions of climate change, environmentalism, the history of logging in New Hampshire, the geography and culture of the north woods, logging in popular culture, and the wood economy (our toilet paper, books, houses, hockey sticks) that keeps it all in motion. Or has kept it all in motion until now.
Ultimately, Brush Cat shows that loggers, at least those that live, hike, ski, hunt, and raise their kids in the same forests that they harvest, are much closer to the middle of the resource-extraction versus resource-conservation argument than many of us might imagine. And, as McEnany drives home, we need to care about the details of this wood economy, for it is something in which we all, like it or not, play a role.