A Legend Returns: Paul Bunyan Speaks Out

T.A. Barnhart

I followed the directions I had been given and it still took me two days of tough but not unpleasant hiking to find his place deep in the woods. "Remote" does not begin to describe the location; "lost" might be a better word. Lost to the world, however, but not to him; that's how he wants it, and I understand much better now than before I met him. Before, I was curious and thrilled.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue OxPaul Bunyan had a been a childhood hero of mine. I loved the stories of Paul and Babe the Blue Ox, how they lived and logged in the great North Woods. My favorite story was about making pancakes, the boys with slabs of pork fat tied to their feet as they skated across the huge griddle made by Ole the Blacksmith. Like most Americans, I think, I just loved how large and alive Paul was. I never thought about his actual work, the consequences of what he did for a living.

Apparently, neither did he. After years of harvesting vast tracts of timber — so effective was he at removing every tree that he is at times credited with transforming the Sahara Forest to the Sahara Desert — he simply disappeared. When Paul and Babe were no longer to be found in the logging camps of the North or the West, people began to assume they had never existed, that they were myths.

This was one of the first things I asked Paul about when I finally found his cabin — or when he found me wandering aimlessly near his cabin, just about to make myself permanently lost. He had a great long laugh at the idea of himself as a myth; laughter did not seem to be something he indulged in very often.

"Myth? Jehosaphat, man, look at me! I'm the most real creature you're ever going to me, and Babe, well, if she ain't real than the whole turning world ain't nothing but a dream in need of waking up right quick."

Babe was resting as any ox would, chewing her cud, placid but with a look in her eyes of intelligence that shocked me to recognize. Paul sat in a rocking chair just outside his cabin — if you could call anything of that size a cabin. It was compact in comparison to Paul, but from my perspective, it and everything else I saw was huge. (Save the chair I sat in, which was "normal" sized and recently built, obviously for my visit. Thoughtfulness was a trait in this legend I had not anticipated but welcomed.)

"Yah, I knew even back then they were telling stories, but we loggers, well, there ain't all that much to do in the woods, is there? At night, during the worst days of winter, you tell stories. Tales. And the men's favorites became the crazy stories about me. Kind of made me blush, to tell you the truth, but it made the men happy. Got 'em through the tough times, laughing and believing they was with someone important. That made them feel they was doing something important themselves. People need that, to feel big in their own lives."

I told him he was important, that his story had meant so much to Americans for years. But rather than looking pleased, or even humbled, he looked sad.

"They was just stories. That's all. When they became Tall Tales, well, yah I know, lots of people had fun with them. Disney made that ridiculous movie...."

I was astonished. Amazing as it was that he had sent for me, to give his first interview in nearly a century, to realize he knew about the Disney cartoon was almost unbelievable. He saw the look on my face and grinned. He jerked a thumb up over his shoulder, to the roof of his cabin, and if I hadn't been sitting down, I probably would have fallen down. A dish on the roof. A satellite dish!

He got up from his chair; it seemed to take him forever to stand, he had so far to go. He nodded his head towards the door; "Come on in, let me show you a few things."

The cabin was a single room, albeit the size of a gymnasium. In one corner, a kitchen, simple and stocked with massive amounts of supplies. The bed in one corner would have slept a small town; the quilt was clearly handmade of dozens of "normal-sized" blankets. (I would find myself repeatedly comparing what I saw there to my perception of normal. By the time I left, however, "normal" was a word I had lost my previous grip on.)

But the largest amount of space was what you'd call his living room, or perhaps his den. You would also have to call it his media center, because, mythic legend of American folklore or no, Paul Bunyan had it all: plasma tv, computer, cd — everything. I stood there gawping, and he had another good laugh.

"Yah, ol' Paul's not so out of touch, is he?"

I examined his equipment, the keyboard and remote controls, all specially constructed to Paul's size. I hadn't even known such items could be made; you've not seem a gadget til you've tried to use a three-foot long remote control. In response to my rather inarticulate questions, he explained.

"Well, back in the day, when I was chopping hell out of the Great North Woods, I made dang sure I got paid well. That didn't take much. What timber boss is going to say no to me? Hah hah! But I was smart, too; my folks was thrifty, New Englanders ya know. Taught me well how to save my money. I had most of it put into a bank, and I got lucky: it was one of the banks that survived the Crash of '29. So thanks to the magic of compound interest, and some decent investments later on, I now have more than enough money for all I need."

Then he winked at me, a huge, slow wink that forced him to smile in that sad way of his I was growing to recognize.

"Enough money to get what I need and still keep hidden."

That brought me back to the interview, and I asked him why he was hidden. Why, in fact, did he disappear as he had?

He sat in his huge easy chair, motioned me to a standard La-Z-Boy that was clearly new; again, purchased just for my visit. He sat silent for a long time, head bowed, hands rest motionless on the arms of his chair. I wanted to look around the vast cabin more, but I kept my eyes on him. I didn't want to miss anything he might do. At last he sighed, and looked up.

"October 8, 1871. That date mean anything to you?"

I shook my head; I'm not much of an historian. So he invited me to take out my MacBook and google the date. (Yes, of course he had wifi. Oh, and for those who need to know: Mac.) I looked up the date and found two things, one familiar and the other something I had never heard of. The Chicago Fire started on that night in Mrs O'Leary's barn ("An actual fact," said Paul, "though the poor woman was not to blame"). But the other: Peshtigo?

"Yah, Peshtigo. I was about two hundred miles away when it started. They got all kinds of theories on how it begun, but the real cause was the mess we'd made of the place with our logging and all. Oh yah, you're surprised to hear me say that? Well, when I went into logging as a young man, it was good work. Honest work. The country was growing after the terrible Civil War, and people needed timber. So we went up into the woods where no one lived, where we thought no one would ever live, and we cut trees. We cut 'em down and floated them down the rivers to the mills, and they sent the boards back east."

He paused a moment, the sad smile on his face as he pushed his thoughts back to his youth.

"We cut as hard and fast as we could, but the forests were huge. Even a man of my size, whatever the stories say, I could only cut so many trees in a day. And if I'd cut more, well, my men still needed to move them to the river. Babe helped a lot, of course, but we didn't seem to be making much of a dent on them woods. We thought they went on forever, all the way to the North Pole perhaps. And by the time we got that far, they'd be all growed back in the south and why, we'd just start over again.

"We thought the trees would last forever.

"We was wrong, of course, and here's what I never expected: the greed of the owners. City men back east, up in their fine offices with no idea how to cut a tree but demanding we cut more more more so they could make more money. They didn't care about the woods, and they sure didn't care about my men. Hard as they worked, making the owners rich, they barely got enough to get by. When they got hurt or killed — something you don't hear about in your so-called Tall Tales, but we lost a man every week or so — there was nothing but a line in the ledger."

His sad look took on a moment's anger and bitterness.

"A damn line on damn Johnny's ledger."

We sat silent for a while. I could see the pain in his face; he could remember, I was sure, the name of every man who died or was hurt while working with him, making money for men who didn't care about them, cared only about the profits their work created. Then his face softened, a kind of resignation. He shrugged.

"I didn't do nothing about it, either, not really. Buried them, shed a tear and then got back to work. It was the only thing I knew. I didn't stop and think about why we was doing it until long time later.

"But. October 8, 1871, the Great Peshtigo Fire. Like I said, I was two hundred miles away. All the area, all around the lakes and rivers, it was a god-awful mess. Too many people, mills, railroads, towns, just a mess. I hated it. They was chopping trees like maniacs, bringing in as many bodies as they could to cut as fast as they could. It was a bad year, too, hot and dry and just right for a tragedy.

"Somehow that night, that Sunday night, fires just broke out all over the place. Round Peshtigo, and over a ways in Michigan, too. Same mess there, same problems, same result. Before people knew what was going on, all these little fires had become one huge inferno. The biggest forest fire in American history and no one knows about it. One thousand five hundred people killed, entire families and towns, and all anyone remembers is Chicago. Three hundred dead there, but it's the big city. The big story. That's what people remember."

I thought he might be bitter or angry, but he just seemed, as ever, sad.

"I saw the sky in the east glow orange and awful that night, and I knew something was terrible wrong. Babe and I ran through the woods all night long, the glow in the sky just getting brighter. Ugly, orange flashes that no natural night sky should ever have. I knew it was a fire, and a big one, but I didn't realize how bad until I got there. It was still burning, but I couldn't do anything. It was like hell had been moved to the surface of the earth in Wisconsin, and all I could do was stand and watch from five miles away until it burned out.

"Son, if there is one thing in this life you should ask the good Lord to spare you, it's what I saw when I could at last go into the burned-out area. I was glad for the places where I found nothing, where the bodies had burned to ash. The bodies I did find, well, I ain't going to speak what I saw. Those that survived were suffering so bad, I wanted to snap their necks and end that pain. Thousands of people, women and children, too, not just men, burned and full of smoke and just suffering so much. It hurt me as bad as if I'd been set afire myself. I helped where I could, and when I couldn't help no more, I left.

"And you know what, son? I never cut another tree again, not for the money. I went back to my camp, got my stuff, and just walked away. I'm not telling you nor any other living soul where I went, or what I did. Those are my private days, and they've last until you walked in a few hours ago. I brought you out here for a reason."

And for the first time, Paul Bunyan looked me square in the eyes, and again, if I had not been sitting I would have fallen. He contained a power that was contained but as readily available as one swing of his axe. Or one look from his eyes into mine.

"I was a fool. I never gave a thought about what I was doing, or how I was doing it. Yah, we thought the forests would last forever, but that was sheer foolishness. Nothing lasts forever. I won't, though it appears I'm destined to go a mite longer than most folk. We cut and cut with no thought about how or why, and we killed those woods. We loved the Great North Woods, and we killed them. We didn't know about environmentalism or endangered species, but we could have seen there was no way trees that took hundreds of years to grow could keep up with what we were doing."

But that was another time, long ago; no one was thinking about that then. I knew my words sounded hollow, but I didn't think it right for him to beat himself up for being a man of his times. He gave me a hard look then, a look that made me feel even smaller than I was.

"Thoreau did. John Muir was starting to. And you know what the difference between them and me was, apart from the obvious? You know why they spoke about love and care of the land, of being healed and made whole by the land rather than seeing it as a source of profit? Because they looked. They had their eyes open. Every tree I cut for those bosses, I did with my eyes closed. We was all like that, out in those beautiful precious woods, swinging our axes with every one of our damn fool eyes shut.

"I could have know better. I should have known better."

His head bowed again. His eyes were closed, but I could see tears forming.

"After Peshtigo, I finally did know better. The burned-up bodies I saw floating in the lake: God in heaven, at last I saw."

We sat in silence for some time. I sensed the interview was over, and put away my notebook. The sun was nearly down, and soon Paul got up, lit a couple of lanterns to make supper. We talked about how he spent his time, the necessarily secretive ways he gets his supplies, from beans (which he says he still loves to eat) to the latest electronics. He watches C-Span, is a Twins fan ("KIrby Puckett, I wish I'd been able to meet him once") and blogs almost as fervently as he once cut trees.

By the time he told me that, I was no longer surprised. Paul Bunyan was not only alive and well in the woods, he had found a way to be part of the world from which he had seemingly disappeared over a century before.

"I'm careful, of course, no one would ever believe it's me anyway. Ok, a few nut jobs would, but not the people I'm trying to reach. I have lots of different blogs, lots of nicks. I try to educate. That's hard to do because not many people seemed interested in learning these days. They want to know; knowing something is easier than learning something, so they find out what they believe and then that's what they know."

He votes by absentee ballot. He belongs to the Sierra Club, the ACLU, sends money to all kinds of charities. He wishes he could go to New Orleans and help there, but he knows he can never return to the outside world.

"I've been watching for years, and I know what they'd do to me. I'd be a freak, a goddamn celebrity." He only cursed, I had learned, when he was truly angry. "They'd find things wrong with me, wonder what I was doing all those years and what it was I had to hide. I'd never be able to do anything, so I stay here with Babe and I do what I can this way."

The night was cool but pleasant. We sat outside in the dark under the stars. It was the pure night darkness you can only find when you get far enough away from where people live, but even so, we saw satellites and a few jets; "You never really get away," Paul commented, and I knew he didn't mean from civilization.

He thinks he has another twenty or thirty years left. He hopes people begin to learn, because there is so much they need to learn. I asked him what his one message would be, the most important thing he would share after a century-and-a-half of life. He thought for a long time; I knew finding a single thing from all the vital messages he might feel he needed to send was difficult.

"I'm a big man, not as big as the stories say; I'm only fifty-four axe-handles high." Another wink, I'm sure, though I couldn't see it in the dark. "But I could not have done what I did by myself. It took thousands of us to wipe out the forests. Even so, I didn't have to be part of that. If I had stopped, would that have made a difference? Probably not, not just me. But if another man, all on his lonesome, if he had said 'Enough' and put down his axe, and another, and another — each of us, just one solitary man and yet one by one, we each say 'Enough' and stop...."

He's silent, and I imagine along with him hundreds of loggers walking out of the woods, leaving the forest to its own life while they return to wherever they'd come from. Imagining the Great North Woods unscathed and as huge as ever. Imagining.

He sighed.

"Think how many individuals making that decision it would take. But if that doesn't happen one day, and soon, what happened at Peshtigo will happen everywhere. Not a huge fire, but a calamity that kills everyone and everything in its path. I helped destroy those forests, and I helped make Peshtigo possible. And I could have stopped it. I could have stopped it."

We sat in silence under the open sky, and I found I was not thinking about anything at all. Just sitting with a man I hadn't believe was real but who was now, I knew, my friend. Under the stars with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, and maybe the chance to do something to make it all better.

  • Harry (unverified)


    I don't get it.

    What did you say?


  • Phil Jones (unverified)

    Other than the obvious economic catastrophe of a total logging ban, another result would be overgrown, bug infrested forests highly susceptible to huge forest fires. What is needed is selective thinning of forests to eliminate fuel loads while leaving the largest trees that can withstand relatively low temperature ground fires.

    Those who condemn logging need to realize their homes were built with lumber from trees and if the building industry cannot obtain lumber from local sources, it will be imported at a greater cost to home buyers.

    As with anything, a little common sense and compromising goes a long way to solving problems.

  • Matt Picio (unverified)

    "another result would be overgrown, bug infrested forests highly susceptible to huge forest fires."

    Really? How then, do you explain the redwood forests of California, with trees that are up to 2,500 years old? Why are they not bug infested, dead, and burnt down?

    The forests survived thousands of years in the US before the arrival of european man, loggers, the USFS, and modern forestry management practices. They built up large amounts of undergrowth, suffered forest fires, and rebounded. I have no doubt that the forests can manage themselves more successfully on their own than we can for them.

    "if the building industry cannot obtain lumber from local sources, it will be imported at a greater cost to home buyers"

    True. Which is as it should be - if we utilize a resource faster than it can be replenished, then this is inevitable. If we implement any kind of logging ban, it will only make the effects known now, rather than 20, 50, 100 years from now.

    Personally, I'd prefer a blanket ban on all logging in national forests, and allow all the private land to be logged as it has been. The current situation is just not acceptable - in 80 years we've logged 85% of the old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest. If we don't stop the logging of the remainder now, it's going to stop in another 20-30 years regardless. Let's preserve something for future generations to see, rather than merely a handful of National Parks.

  • Gordie (unverified)

    Most forests in the U.S. were regularly burned by Native Americans before the arrival of Europeans. That kept the forests from building up the huge amounts of undergrowth that many of our forests have now--the stuff that fuels enormous fires. In other words for millenia, our forests evolved with man's management, though not what they get now...modern forest mangement with all of its flaws or leaving forests alone and ignorantly pretending that's what used to happen.

  • Phil Jones (unverified)

    There are many more users of our forests than there were 200 years ago. We would not tolerate the kind of random fires that occurred centuries ago. I don't know very many people who would expect our U.S. Forest Service to stand back and allow fires to burn uncontrolled such as the big ones in Central Oregon recently.

    I'd much rather see our state and federal forests undergo selective logging with low impact equipment that to see it all go up in smoke and contribute to global warming.

  • ws (unverified)

    Since I first heard of it, the explanation of how native americans managed forestland through deliberate burning has made much sense to me. Many things have changed since those times and lots of factors that didn't come into play then, do now. Today's population and its static proximity to forestland is one big factor.

    Selective logging can probably never truly replace the constructive function of controlled burning in a forest's health. It's probably true that wider use of controlled forest burning would raise great objections today. Ultimately though, the health of forests and consequently, that of the earth and the living things on it is the key priority.

    Regardless of whether a forest is clearcut or selectively cut leaving only the largest trees, I don't believe a strong case has yet been made that tree plantations using either of these techniques equates the healthy contribution of a natural living forest to the earth and the living things on it.

    Too much healthy forestland has been subordinated to the production of crop timber, much of which has been and continues to be flagrantly wasted. Too much paper is unneccessarily produced and not enough is recycled. Same goes for wood used in the construction of houses once they're torn down. Forestland management can do a better job of maintaining forestland health as we take greater care in using its harvest and stop allowing the market to undermine time tested and proven management practices.

  • Jonas (unverified)

    I knew the $400 million a year from the Federal government to Oregon for payment of our forests HAD to be going somewhere!

    Now we know... custom remote controls! And if you thought a super secret navy toilet cost bank...

  • Matt Picio (unverified)

    "or leaving forests alone and ignorantly pretending that's what used to happen."

    Except that is what used to happen, Gordie, at least in many places. The "indigenous" peoples of North America have only been here for the last 12,000 years, and while complex civilizations did exist in Mesoamerica, the southwest and in the east, there is no evidence of a large scale, complex civilization in the Pacific Northwest. While man has certainly managed the forests over the years, population was not dense enough until the last few hundred years or so for all of the forests to have been completely managed.

    "I don't know very many people who would expect our U.S. Forest Service to stand back and allow fires to burn uncontrolled such as the big ones in Central Oregon recently."

    I don't know very many people who understand that fires are necessary for many of these trees to reproduce. I don't necessarily have a problem with controlled burns, I do have a problem with selective logging, especially since there is a long history of timber companies not following through on what they agreed to, and either over-harvesting or taking all of the big trees. As often as not, selective logging removes the trees that provide windblocks that protect the rest of the section or grove.

    "I'd much rather see our state and federal forests undergo selective logging with low impact equipment that to see it all go up in smoke and contribute to global warming."

    I'd rather see our state and federal forests not logged. There is plenty of private land already harvested and managed.

    Global warming is a red herring - fires clear out the ground and sterilize the soil so that new trees have the opportunity to grow. The net carbon effect is zero. Nowadays, so much of the area has been logged, that if we allowed the trees to continue growing, the net carbon effect would be negative.

    My main point is that we've logged 97% of the old growth in the northwest - 80% or more just in the last century alone. We've already wasted most of our endowment, if we continue logging the national forests, then in 50 years all we'll have left of our ancient trees is a handful of overcrowded, overused national parks. I don't believe we know enough about how the forest works to perform selective logging properly. I'll acknowledge that controlled burns might be necessary to reduce fuel loads - but burning of some kind has to happen in order for these trees to reproduce and grow properly. People may not like seeing burnt trees, but if they don't get used to it, they may have to get used to not seeing trees at all.

  • Gordie (unverified)

    Matt, there's plenty of research that shows it didn't take a large-scale, complex civilization for Native Americans to regularly use fire to manage the landscape. Your claim about the population not being dense enough until the last few hundred years...simply not true.

  • (Show?)

    i wasn't actually writing about forest policy; my point was about the need for everyone to do something, anything, to save the planet.

    however, the worst thing done to forests (apart from chopping them to shit) has been fire "control" and suppression. and until Bush appointed logging lawyer Mark Rey head of the Forest Service, the scientists who knew that fire is an important and necessary part of caring for the forests. we can only hope that under a Democratic administration, this wise and natural means of "managing" the forests will be resumed.

    in the mean time, we each need to do our part. something. anything.

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