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No. 309:

Today, we watch hunter-gatherers turn into farmers. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I was 16 in Roseburg, Oregon -- a town recently swollen from 2000 to 5000 people by the wartime logging boom. I wore tough leather boots and coiled a 100-foot surveyor's chain across my chest. I carried a brush axe and a machete. We staked out logging roads through the virgin Douglas fir. Now and then axemen in the valley behind us felled one of those 500-year-old trees, and the crash thundered up the draw. We picked our way on rotting logs, house-high, over rivulets and humus. We laid a trail for bulldozers where no human had ever been.

Roseburg was a raw town. Our high school provided most of its cultural life -- a band, plays, football games. We all drove cars. The real high-school hero was the guy who could get an old model-A Ford, reshape its body, tune its engine, and remove its muffler. Riding in the rodeo was next-best on the social scale.

Now I'm back in Roseburg, 42 years later. I search the eyes of old friends, trying to locate in the adult the child I knew. Usually he's there, surprisingly undamaged by a full lifetime.

But a profound change has touched the town. Now it has its own museum and a community college. It has shopping malls and good restaurants. One cheerleader became a concert pianist -- another, an author. Child brides have grown into productive and fulfilled grandmothers. Cancer has claimed more lives than it should have. We're left to wonder which of our environmental offenses did that to so many people.

Some logging fortunes blew away like summer smoke. Others made the town into a civilized community. Logs for the lumber mills are now trucked in from forests a hundred miles away. The people talk about replanting, and about the 20 to 50-year growth cycles of trees. The town was built on lumber, and its future is still in lumber. We tore up the wilderness as children; but today the adults of Roseburg are husbandmen of trees.

The same sort of transformation ran through the whole dawn of human history, and here it happened in one lifetime. I can still see the careless child in these adults. The good humor remains; but they've stopped thinking like children and become citizens. They were only hewers of trees, but their grandchildren will be settled lumber farmers.

I'm privileged to have known those primeval woods -- the smell and texture of untouched forests. I'm equally privileged to have seen my teenage friends play out the great technological drama of our species.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


(Photo by James Lienhard)
A typical lumber mill just south of Roseburg in 1946