When he retired in the late 1960s, pioneering Montana forester John B. Taylor recorded a memoir on tapes. Taylor’s engaging narrative was transcribed by journalist and editor John C. Frohlicher, a contemporary of Taylor’s who claimed that his hardest task was overcoming Taylor’s “incredible modesty.” The result is “A Job with Room & Board,” recently published by Mountain Press. Another well-known Montanan, John N. Maclean, provides a foreword.
The memoir consists of usually short essays, arranged both chronologically and thematically, with groups of chapters devoted to subjects such as animal encounters, firefighting, and interactions with local interests. Period black-and-white photographs, many showing Taylor in the field, augment the text, though the “front loading” of the illustrations creates the impression that the images ran out before the book was completed.
In 1907, before his first semester as a University of Montana freshman, Taylor followed his father’s advice and signed on as one of the newly organized Forest Service’s “practical men,” recruited as seasonal hires from local ranches and towns. Their role was to provide muscle and woodcraft knowhow to complement the training of forestry school graduates. Taylor continued to work summers for the Forest Service while completing his undergraduate studies. He ultimately decided not to pursue a career teaching classical Greek and Latin, since “for me, live trees beat dead languages” (12).
Taylor completed the University of Michigan’s forestry program and took on additional responsibilities as Supervisor of Deer Lodge National Forest. He eventually moved on to other USFS positions, mostly in the Midwest. Readers may find the few chapters detailing his later career in personnel development less compelling than those concerning his days as a young wilderness ranger. Taylor would probably have agreed with this assessment, but, in addition to rounding out his own life story, he uses his more bureaucratic assignments to provide an insider view of how the Forest Service pitched in during the Great Depression and World War II (Taylor himself was a World War I veteran).
Readers familiar with Susan Marsh’s “A Hunger for High Places” will find that Taylor’s narrative confirms Marsh’s portrayal of the decidedly male-oriented culture that dominated the Forest Service during much of the 20th century. In “Women of Courage,” he praises the rangers’ wives, but, even though he served until the late 1960s, he never hints at awareness that women themselves might be rangers. On the other hand, Taylor shows a progressive attitude concerning race. He laments that Depression-era CCC camps were segregated, as one of the benefits of the New Deal make-work program was the participants’ exposure to Americans with different backgrounds. And, even as he invokes the regional stereotypes of citified Easterners and Western rubes, Taylor maintains that such differences can be overcome. Loyal to western traditions — he considers himself a “rugged individualist” — he nevertheless grows to respect the conservation ethic emanating from the forestry schools. “A Job with Room & Board” demonstrates that the line separating federal employees from local ranchers and loggers is not so rigid and absolute as we are sometimes led to believe.