From the rugged state of Montana comes Camas, a unique literary journal that focuses on environmental and cultural issues in the American West. Their winter 2012 issue features essays, fiction, and poetry revolving around work, but they’re not talking about white collar jobs here, folks. This issue is dedicated to the men and women who perform manual labor found in the rural parts of the United States. It celebrates, questions, and examines all aspects of this form of work, whether good or bad, legal or illegal.
Sean Prentiss shows how rough manual labor can be in his poem “Hands & Fingers.” Written in couplets, this poem shows a day in the life of a lumberjack. Starting with a breakfast of “brown-sugar-sweet oatmeal to chapped & hungry lips,” you grab your Pulaski and feel “the echo of the steel head bite into bark & cork & sapwood.” At the end of the work day, your chainsaw bites your index finger. You stick the finger in your mouth and “Taste the hot iron of blood—of this woods life—on your tongue.” Prentiss loads his poem with great imagery and draws the reader into this world of hard labor; one can almost smell the sawdust, sweat, and blood dripping off the page.
The truck stop holds a near mythical place in the imagination of the West: an oasis for truckers and other travelers weary from riding long and lonesome highways. Jeffrey C. Alfier captures the essence of the truck stop in his poem “Heaven on the Point System at the Petro Truck Stop.” Our speaker tells of the “warm mercy” found in a stoneware cup that “could be the very one / you held in tired fists on any coast behind you.” There is Kat, our waitress, who brings plates of breakfast “no matter / the hour, because truckers who sleepwalk / from counters to washrooms and back / mean it’s dawn somewhere in the world.” Alfier paints a wonderful portrait in this poem, giving this average truck stop a Zen-like quality.
“Rootedness” by Laura Farmer is a powerful work of short fiction about fifteen-year-old Hoyt Freeman learning how to live and love after his parents abandon him with his Uncle Phil. Phil assures Freeman that his parents are good people, but “they aren’t thinking clearly.” Over time, Freeman accepts the fact that his parents are never coming back and helps his uncle with work around the house. Freeman and his uncle fill the loneliness in their lives by creating a familial bond between each other through their work. Freeman then meets a girl at a bar, and Uncle Phil instructs him on the finer points of writing love letters. By the end of the story, Freeman realizes that his childhood is over and he is transforming into an adult. It is a solid coming-of-age story that avoids sentimentality.
“Twisted Music” by Julia Corbett is a short essay that questions the value of progress and its impact on the environment and human health. Corbett flies over Wyoming and looks out her window, taking note of the number of new natural gas wells dotting the landscape only a few miles away from her cabin. Her county produces the most gas in the state, but Corbett is not convinced the consequences are worth the price:
The handful of Pinedale citizens who speak up about the serious air pollution from the massive gas fields just outside of town not only face the usual regulatory obstacles, but also ostracism from fellow residents . . . The mantra of jobs-jobs-jobs is so strong, so powerful, that it’s easier to charge that activists are “against progress” than to admit that the pollution is causing widespread respiratory ailments and three-day nose-bleeds.
Corbett also talks about the “fracking” process to extract more oil from the earth and how most people don’t think about where their energy is coming from or how much of it is wasted. Corbett ends her essay on an ambiguous note. This essay does not provide answers to the question of energy consumption in this country, but it does open the question for further discussion.
Richard Manning’s “Come or Bleed” is an excerpt from his upcoming book, which shows his childhood and teenage years living with his family in rural Michigan. This piece is rich with detail and stories about Manning’s family. His father, for example, hunted deer illegally and sidestepped the “crooked lawyers” and IRS by selling flowers and doing menial labor without leaving a trail. As a boy, Manning helped his father at a cement factory but almost burned to death while they tried to find a shortcut to complete a particular job. Manning admits that his upbringing would be considered horrible by today’s standards, but he claims that the people who raised him come from a different breed and lived by a different set of codes:
When I was a child, “work” meant something more than minimum wage at a 7-Eleven, bundling sub-prime mortgages, or punching keys. Both Marxist academics and editorial writers for the Wall Street Journal fail to grasp this deeper significance of work and the people who did it.
These “heroic” people Manning lived with had a kind of battle cry they would say during their work, whether it was splitting wood or mixing cement. It was a battle cry that instilled strength and pride while acting as a kind of prayer against losing a finger or an arm by the end of the work day. That battle cry was: “Come, motherfucker. Come or bleed.”
This is a short journal with only forty pages, but the quality found in each page is phenomenal. Juxtaposed with gorgeous black-and-white photographs of the desolate landscapes of the American West, this offering of writing can be enjoyed by anyone who works hard at their job, no matter the color of their collar.