The Poet of Juniper Mountain
. . . he is an oral poet foremost . . . whose audience
is whoever will listen
by Charles Deemer
"CAN I buy you kids a beer?"
By no means an unusual offer in the Unity Tavern, but this was Memorial Day, 1973, and in a few weeks we were leaving Oregon for what now seems like forever.
Nor, at first glance, did our benefactor appear out of the ordinary. He was a working man, clearly: By the dented hard hat, the sun-toughened leather of his arms and face, the lived-in work clothes.
But later, after the casual conversation that usually follows the gestures of buying and accepting a beer, we were asked a question that took us, for all our English Department degrees, by surprise: "Do you kids like poetry?"
He recited by heart, in a voice that was not ignorant of the dramatic use of pause and rhythm. We didn't know as yet that he was reciting his own work.
"There's an empty seat on the crummy, where used to sit Hooker Jack. In a little bungalow in the suburbs, there's a new widow dressed in black.
"It happened last Thursday afternoon; there was nothing anyone could do. The puncher ran into a hangup and jerked the mainline in two.
"Jack was up on the landing, tying down a yarder sled, when the spar pole broke at the cheek bolts and crushed a hooker dead.
"So old Jack is in logger's heaven, and many stories have been told, about the cold brooks that trickle by the wayside, and the streets are paved with gold.
"There will be no blocks to carry, and no more haywire to pull, for it doesn't snow in the winter, and the coffee jug is always full.
"Alarm clocks haven't been heard of and woolen underwear is a thing of the past. So after thirty years on the mountain, old Jack made it home at last.
"We know when at last we join him, he'll have the layout made, and with his coffee jug beside him he'll be sitting in the shade.
"Then old Jack will arise, this logger big and strong: 'I been through a whole jug of coffee; what took you guys so long?'
"Then we'll all gather at the spar pole and sit on the yarder sled, while Jack tells of the new job that at first we looked to with dread.
"'Up here they only fly one choker and there's four men on the crew. You don't have to wear your hard hats, and your cork boots are shiny and new.
"'You'd never see a man run to get his self out of the bight, and it's a unheard-of thing up here for a logger to have a hangup to fight.
"'The crummies are all air-conditioned; the side rods never come around. The yarders all have mufflers and never make a sound.
"'There's no such thing as Monday and you'll all get paid every day. The cookshack door is always open to feed each and every stray.
"'Sometimes I think it's almost too easy for a high-ball logging man, who gave all those years of his life in pursuit of the silver strands.'"
Fred Ross calls himself the Poet of Juniper Mountain. Although he has published in Loggers World and in a few newspapers, he is an oral poet foremost, whose stage is likely to be whatever tavern he is in, whose audience is whoever will listen. Let us call him a folk poet then, whose poems focus on the work he knows best:
"I followed the logging game for 25 years. I've logged from the redwoods to the Northern Lights."
Fred describes himself as a tramp logger, as opposed to the homeguard boys who work steady jobs with families near at home. But tramps aren't bums: "They'll work but they're like boomers on the railroad: They're never satisfied." A good deal of this restlessness is reflected in Fred's logging poems:
"His hickory shirt was glazed with dirt as he stepped up to the bar. 'Gimme a shot of your rotgut whiskey, and the butt of an old cigar.
"'I'm in from the cold where the vine maples grow and the dogwoods bloom in the spring. I've been in the woods for twenty years and I haven't accomplished a thing.'"
Now in his fifties, Fred came to writing slowly. Although he has taken a few writing correspondence courses and has tried his hand at a couple of novels, his discovery of poetry came later, on a day when he found himself on a crew with much younger men.
"I told the foreman, 'Man, I can't keep up with that buncha racehorses,'" he said. "I mean, I wasn't that broke anyway, I had $500 in the bank. Tramp, pretty independent, you know. I said, 'I'm gonna hang around the crummy all day.' I walked up to the crummy, and I thought, you big punk, they'll be an empty seat on you in the morning. And I stood right there and composed that 'Pursuit of the Silver Strands.'"
With the prolificacy of that other folk poet, Woody Guthrie, Fred has been writing poems ever since. Many are in the meter associated with Robert Service, whom Fred has been accused of copying. Fred replies curtly and accurately, "Robert Service never wrote a logging poem in his life."
Fred is out of the woods now, working on a ranch near Junction City, and I suspect that poems will come from there, too. But I remember Fred Ross best as I first met him, the poet under the hard hat, climbing into his pickup as we waved goodbye, a gesture that for a moment seemed to embrace Oregon itself as we thought of moving East, Fred waving back as he swung the truck in a broad U-turn which for the first time brought a side door into view. On it was painted THE POET OF JUNIPER MOUNTAIN.