Photo exhibit tells the true stories of loggers today

MIDDLEBURY — Lawrence “Tweeter” Felion left school after eighth grade and “began logging at 15 with a crosscut and ax.” Now 78, the Leicester native is still logging alongside his son and brother, who’ve been part of his close-knit crew for decades. Born the oldest of 11 siblings during the Great Depression, Felion says, “I know what hard times are.”
Felion’s logging ethic, “leave the woods better than you found them,” and his love of forests and hard work are chronicled along with the working lives of six other men who are part of Addison County’s logging fraternity in an exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center.
“Portrait of a Forest: Men and Machine” profiles seven men who make their living from the Vermont forest: loggers Barry Burnham, “Tweeter” Felion, Mike Quinn and Steve Weber; Jim Lathrop, who combines logging with processing logs into around 50,000 tons per year of wood chips for heating; sawmill operator Tom Lathrop; and forester Tom Yager.
Photographer-writer George Bellerose has worked on the project over the past five years, photographing the men during a hard day’s work, conducting interviews, reading up on logging in trade magazines like “Northern Logger” and “Northern Woodlands,” even hanging out with forest and forestry policymakers and spokespersons.
“I always start with photographs in the field,” says Bellerose, of his working process. Over the years, the Weybridge resident has chronicled the working lives of Vermont dairy farmers, Nova Scotia fishermen, Yellowstone rangers and now Vermont loggers. He’s planning his next project on Vermont’s quarry workers.
For Bellerose, “Portrait of a Forest: Men and Machine” grew out of many things: his own great pleasure in being in the woods, his desire to reconnect the viewer to occupations once central to Vermont’s landscape but now increasingly marginalized, and his desire to tell the men’s own stories through words and images.
“My job is the people, not the view from 30,000 feet,” said Bellerose, whose striking images take you directly to his subjects’ obvious love of what the exhibit characterizes as the “grittiness of the contemporary logger’s life, albeit a life conducted amidst the magnificent setting of the forest.”
The exhibit largely presents the men in their own words, accompanied by Bellerose’s photography. It is in many ways a kind of hymn to the integrity of work, physical labor, a job well done, and an often generations-old tradition of hard-earned expertise and deep camaraderie. Bellerose intentionally chose to highlight a range of approaches and differing economies of scale, as applied to logging and making one’s living from the woods. More than 500 photos were winnowed down to 70 for the exhibit.
The first room of the exhibit in the VFC’s Main Street headquarters in Middlebury is devoted to smaller crews, like Felion’s own three-man crew or solo-logger Mike Quinn, that approach the forest with a chain saw, a bull dozer and a skidder, a lot of chains and cables — and a lot of perseverance and ingenuity.
LOCAL LOGGER MIKE Quinn is one subject of Weybridge photographer George Bellerose’s new exhibit at the Vermont Folklife Center.
Photo by George Bellerose
The second room looks at larger operations, like Jim Lathrop’s logging and chipping outfit, now being taken over by sons Justin and Jason. The Bristol business employs a variable crew of about seven guys and uses far larger and more expensive machinery like the 7-ton chipping wheel that effortlessly crunches an entire trunk into wood chips, a feller buncher (an enormous machine that literally grabs a tree and severs it from the stump in seconds) and grapple skidders, whose giant claws grab the felled logs and speed up and simplify the job of dragging them out of the forest and right to the chipping machine. This last apparatus works onsite to reduce a giant tree to fuel and spit the chips directly into a massive truck.
“It’s like this industrial ballet,” said Bellerose, as he describes the way a feller buncher rotates in place, cut tree in hand, and “pirouettes.”
The difference in productivity between the big crews and the small ones is remarkable. A feller buncher can cut a 1,000 trees a day, a chain sawyer can cut 100, according to Bellerose.
The second room of the exhibit also profiles Jim’s brother Tom Lathrop’s saw mill, which produces what the exhibit describes as “gold standard” hardwood flooring. In the Bristol plant the trees progress from debarking, to being expertly sawn into different lengths and dimensions, through the drying process and into towering stacks of prime lumber and flooring.
A smaller assortment of photos details the work of cutting roads and replanting trees and shows the glory of the trees themselves. A handful of historical photos show what logging looked like in Addison County circa 1875 and into the early 1930s.
Bellerose characterizes the loggers he’s profiled as problem-solvers.
“The forest largely calls the shots and they adapt with a Plan B, Plan C,” he said. “This flexibility and acceptance of man and machine’s limits are a must and separate the good stewards from the irresponsible ones.”
He also called loggers tree lovers and said they see themselves as stewards of the land and want to leave the woodlot better than they found it.
“Every tree has its own characteristics,” said Bellerose. “And it’s having the experience to know, ‘This is what I have to do so it won’t get hung up somewhere,’ ‘This is what it will take to make it more convenient for the person in the skidder.’ They’re problem solvers and they’ll talk about ‘Remember the tree over in such and such corner’ — it could have been 20 years ago, because some of them have gone back to the same woodlot a generation later. They have great stories, and they have this memory of trees.”
He notes how many of the men profiled come from farming or logging families and how great a role family heritage plays in Vermont’s working landscape. Vermont’s forests are 80 percent privately owned, mostly by families, said Bellerose. Loggers work for small companies or for themselves and carry on traditions that often go back for generations. Bellerose contrasts the difference in scale and type of ownership to the Maine forests, which have been mostly owned by large corporations. That difference in scale and sense of heritage, said Bellerose, is part of why the working forest has been and will continue to be such an important part of the Vermont landscape.
Bellerose hopes that those who come to the exhibit will gain a greater understanding and appreciation for their neighbors who still work the land.
“It’s hard, it’s dangerous, but they see the result of what they do, they really enjoy what they do,” said Bellerose, “It’s a way of life and a hard way to make a living.”
The Folklife Center will host a panel discussion on working forests next Thursday, Nov. 19, from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Panelists will include Vermont Commissioner of Forests, Parks and Recreation Michael Snyder and A. Johnson head forester Tom Yager, along with spokespersons from the Vermont Council on Rural Development, the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Vermont Family Forests. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, call 388-4964 or go to vermontfolklifecenter.org
As with Bellerose’s earlier “Forty-Six Years of Pretty Straight Going: The Life of a Family Dairy Farm,” the plan is for the exhibit to eventually be made into a book published by the Folklife Center. Bellerose is hard at work, continuing with interviews and research, on that longer version of “Portrait of a Forest.”
“Portrait of a Forest: Men and Machine” runs through Jan. 9; gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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