My personal account and perspective on the Timber Industry in Western Australia … a sign of the times!
Two weeks ago saw the closure of the Dean Mill timber mill (located south of Perth near Manjimup). Dean Mill was the last major Jarrah timber mill to bite the saw dust. This particular scenario plays heavily in my own mind as I have been thinking about it quite a bit since hearing the news reports on the radio that I was listening to as I dressed some recycled jarrah timber ready for a new project that I was contracted to build.
I feel that I should write something from my own experience in the South West timber industry.
My own tale begins back in the early 90’s when my soon to be wife and I moved to Pemberton as a young couple looking for a life change and new experience. Rose had (and still has) some major health issues to deal with so we thought that a move to the country would be beneficial to her rehabilitation and we both look forward to the challenges of starting a ‘new life’ together.
Little did I know at the time that the things that I would experience and gain from the time that I lived and worked in Pemberton would become the foundations of not only our strong relationship but also for a good portion of the work that I now find myself doing for my own business.
The Pemberton timber mill was as with most timber towns across Australia, the hub of local employment, housing and of course the immediate local economy.
I was told by friends already living in Pemberton, that if I was to get a mill job that we would be in the running to live in a company subsidised mill cottage, so naturally I called the Mill Manager direct from Perth asking if there were any jobs coming up in the near future.
He indicated that his preference was to meet prospective employees face to face, so I replied that I would be seeing him tomorrow morning. I promptly drove the 320 kilometres from Perth to Pemberton, sleeping overnight in my van at our friends property and arrived at his door first thing the next morning … I think he then realised that I would be a suitable candidate for a position at his timber mill when one became available.
It wasn’t very long that a position came up and after living in our friends shed for almost 6 months we moved into a cute little timber mill workers cottage on the main highway adjacent to the actual mill itself. We both fell in love with Pemberton and soon purchased a 8 acres Jarrah re-growth bush property which was situated just a few minutes drive out-of-town, where we planned to one day build our own home … yes!
I knew absolutely nothing about timber (I actually hated woodwork at school) and started employment in the lower end of the system learning from older mentors and observing the sizes and types of timber cut for special uses.
It was during the heat of summer (yes it does get hot in Pemberton) and I ran around all day dodging falling wood under a corrugated shack helping an experienced worker send timber in 3 different destinations. Lets just say that I had to learn what to do mighty fast because I basically had to traffic manage the entire timber load that was processed in the mill!
I lost 20 kg in two weeks and it wasn’t too long that this ‘quick-learner’ made his way up to a specific location that actually cut and sized the timber. This was good for me as I now was seeing the stuff come from the large band saws (as slabs) and then cut by multi saws (in widths) and then over to us to cut into lengths. My role was to position the lengths so as to maximise the cut ratio out of each piece.
Little did I know that I was being observed by one particular worker ‘Dave’, whom had several issues with fellow workmates on his particular area of expertise. He watched me and noticed that I was extremely economical and exact in making sure little or no waste was generated by the care I was taking, yet I was faster than the other blokes who have been working there for years.
I was then asked if I would like to work with Dave in this important position and so I was to become a qualified Re-Saw Dockerman working on high value structural and appearance grade timbers which would be used locally and internationally for a range of very specific purposes.
We were just two blokes but we were dealing with a third of the entire timber mill’s high value output daily. Dave and I would turn, lift, examine, mark and cut to order over 30 cubic tonnes of select grade Karri timber every single day.
The types of things we supplied were appearance grade blocks of 300mm x 300mm for the veneer industry, mine guides, as well as export sleepers too. It was a very hard, heavy going job with high risks for injuries like ‘frog fingers’ (when a beam splats your finger between a roller) … oh yes, remember that well (that was a ripper) … we did this job together for a number of years.
Eventually my wife and I became parents for the first time. Although Rose had a normal pregnancy, our son’s birth was highly traumatic and he had ongoing health complications that required regular medical treatment in either Bunbury and/or Perth. Rose was still dealing with chronic health issues of her own and with our families all being based in Perth we decided to move back and settle in the ‘burbs’ of Perth.
So where is my head these days?
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss Pemberton and the lifestyle that we would be living but 13 years later, I now find myself as a happily married father of 3, small business owner-operator who finds himself building some unique recycled timber projects.
I have a clear understanding of what I am not and I am definitely not some resentful redneck ex-mill worker nor am I a tree-hugging greenie/environmental activist either.
What I am is a Permaculturist and as a permaculturist I find myself planting trees, using the byproducts of trees and most important of all I respect and greatly value trees. With that said, I am also proud of what I was taught whilst employed as a timber mill worker at the Pemberton mill because it is the skills and knowledge gained from my experience that helps me this very day, years later, when I am working with recycled timber. Also because I have experienced both sides of the ‘timber debate’ I am able to be objective and value both the milling of the timber and the recycling of the milled timber too.
I walked into a strong historical industry full of characters most of whom were making a living for their families.
I walked into an industry as a young novice and left as a qualified and experienced man. A man who had a balanced view and understanding that although this industry was very political and subsidised for far too long, that many local people lived and made their living from such infrastructure directly and indirectly and by doing so a country town survived.
I walked into a small town and showed that I could work hard and contribute to and live peacefully.
But with that said, I consider myself lucky … because I could walk out too! As I did, by mid ’96 back to Perth as a husband, father and now ex-millworker … but a question has always lingered inside me … I wonder ‘what has happened to all the other blokes working at the timber mill and their families’ as some of these men were from generation-generation timber workers.
I find myself asking the same question again today as Dean Mill shuts it’s gates forever.
Have I in my own small way, caused the timber mill to shut by using mostly recycled jarrah in my work and by doing so have I helped to put an end to their market and the mill workers jobs?
Well the answer is quite simply no I have not. I know that I am being just a tad silly contemplating such a question and that I am no doubt feeling a little emotional thinking about what will happen to the timber mill workers and their families, let alone the township of Dean Mill. All industries seem to eventually have a mean girth shift in economies, as steel and plantation pine shifted into structural markets these large volume sites just can’t keep going … as usual economic viability will always win out in the end.
I am not sure if I actually have any answers for these mill workers other than just to say that you may be very surprised in the skills that you do have and maybe, just maybe, that they can be value added just like the timber industry that I find myself working in nowadays.
The time that Rose and I had in Pemberton was just under five years, yet I often find myself saying to people that ‘I got at least ten years out of it’ …. it’s not often that you gain time in life. It was an experience that I personally will never forget … it has helped shaped me into the person that I am today and for that I will be forever grateful.