Class, Despair and ‘The Maple Cutter’


Fellow KPers — get thee to YouTube and watch “The Maple Cutter,” a 2023 documentary by Daniel Hoffman and Lynn M. Thomas.

The 45-minute film tells the story of Justin Wilke, whom the feds charged with causing the August 2018 Maple Fire. The disaster charred over 3,000 acres of the Olympic National Forest in the vicinity of Hood Canal. In July 2021, after a trial, Wilke was found innocent of starting the fire, but guilty of public theft and illegal timber trafficking. He served over 20 months in all.

But Wilke’s journey is just the surface of what this riveting film explores. Gazing deeper, we find a tragic portrait of inequality, drug addiction, and ecological destruction in an economically distressed region practically at the KP’s doorstep.

Thomas, a history professor who specializes in Eastern and Southern Africa, and Hoffman, an anthropologist who directs the Jackson School of International Studies, are my colleagues at UW Seattle. I sat down with them for a chat about the film.

Hoffman told me that when they contacted Wilke, “He really wanted to talk.” While The New York Times and other major news outlets had covered the wildfire, no one interviewed him. With his bald pate, bright blue eyes and rather antic demeanor, the 40-year-old Wilke comes across as someone eager to get out his side of the story — even if that story has some Olympic-sized holes in it. That said, he is certainly intelligent, even magnetic, handsome. He looks in good shape. Physically, anyway.

“He’s very charismatic, but it is a kind of high-energy charisma,” said Hoffman.

As Wilke tells it, he and two accomplices were poaching maple trees in the middle of the night. “Someone” lit up a wasp or hornet’snest using an accelerant, likely gasoline; the fire got out of control and became the Maple Fire. Drugs and alcohol were probably involved. But Wilke expresses outrage that anyone would think that he — who claims a long lineage of responsible loggers in the region — would have ever started that fire. “That’s my home!” he says of the forest.

Maybe because I’m teaching Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” this fall, but to me Wilke gives off a strong Raskolnikov vibe. At times he seems outright manic (in most scenes he is smoking or drinking a sugary beverage), and you get the sense that in addi- tion to deflecting blame, he’s telling these fancy university professors what he thinks they want to hear. It’s a fascinating onscreen cat-and-mouse game.

“That’s part of what we were trying to get across: Is he a reliable narrator?” Hoffman said. “Every time we left after spending a day with him that was the conversation we were having. How much of this does he believe, how much of it should we believe?”

And what about the drugs? About two-thirds of the way in, we arrive at a climactic moment. It happened during their third shooting session, out in the woods. The filmmakers wanted Wilke to address his meth use more directly; up until then, he’d mostly avoided it.

From offscreen Thomas asks him what he thinks “meth maple” means. (“Lots of people use that phrase,” she explained to me.) Wilke gazes uncertainly at the camera, for once at a loss for words. After a few seconds, he mutters something about how maybe it means to feel “sketchy” in the woods.

“To us, that’s the most complicated, unnerving moment in the film,” Thomas told me. “I think he took so much pride in himself as someone who was knowledgeable about cutting maple that he never wanted what he understood as a craft reduced to a meth addiction.”

But perhaps the best thing about “The Maple Cutter” is that it moves past the vexed issue of Justin Wilke’s trustworthiness to address the socioeconomic reality that leads people like him to do what they do. For one thing: why maple? Most consider that a low-value timber; at one point Wilke even calls it “the weed of the forest.”

True, but some specimens of maple have “figure,” a rare wood pattern prized especially by guitar-makers. As discussed in the film, Carlos Santana’s performance at the 2000 Grammy Awards led to a surge in demand for figured maple. People in rural areas thathave gone through hard times can make quick money meeting that demand by poaching in the national forests.

The film quotes Anne Minden, a retired Forest Service special agent, saying that these are crimes of opportunity and desperation. “If they lived in the city,” she says, “these are the same people who would probably be stealing catalytic converters.”

At his trial, everyone agreed that Wilke is a hard worker who knows the forest intimately. To hear him tell it, he had to cut those trees to make it through a rough patch. “I bought a truck” with the money, he explains, which led to a full-time job and other benefits. “I got rid of those people out of my life that were dragging me down,” he adds. “Then one day,” he says, grimly, “I get a knock on the door.”

I believe Wilke. He was hurting. That poignant moment also made me wonder what a micro-loan program — or just a better safety net in general — could have done for him.

Thomas and Hoffman explained that Wilke never rose to critique the complex systemic factors that lead to tragedies like this, though he did think that the federal prosecutors had their priorities reversed. Why were they going after the lowest folks in the food chain, the poachers, instead of the mill owners who bought the illegal product or the guitar compa- nies profiting at the end of the supply chain?

The co-directors also told me that they were attracted to Wilke’s story because matters related to resource extraction and inequality are often discussed in the media only about developing countries (like the African nations where they’ve done fieldwork) — but they’re not often brought up in a U.S. context, and never by urban middle-class folks. Or as Thomas put it, by “people who like to go hiking in the woods.”

Yet the dynamics are virtually identical. I was most moved when Wilke, as he often does, expresses awe in the presence of the woods; he clearly loves the forest. Then, in the same breath, he’ll joke about a tree he stole. Usually, in our mediascape, you’re either a “leave it alone” tree hugger or a “cut it all down and sell it” capitalist; it’s not often you see those two mindsets co-existing in the same person at the same time. And yet such attitudes are common worldwide: the entanglement of the aesthetic,evenspiritual,experienceof theforest with its monetary, extractive value — as raw material to be chain-sawed and dragged off.

“Those were not distinguishable in (Wilke’s) mind,” Hoffman said.

“The Maple Cutter” is a sobering, even-handed examination of how economic blight fuels both human suffering and the ecological crisis. It does similar work to Lyndsie Bourgon’s book “Tree Thieves: Crime and Survival in North America’s Woods,” bringing the story very close to home. Thomas and Hoffman told me they’d be happy to arrange a screening of the film on the KP, with community Q&A afterward. I hope it happens.

José Alaniz is a professor in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and the Department of Cinema and Media Studies (adjunct) at U.W. He lives blissfully with his wife and many animals in Longbranch.