King of the Pile

Butch Forrest lives off the land. Need a used doughnut fryer?

Butch Forest is 53, on the tall side, gregarious, strong, nondescriptly handsome, with the sort of casually bearish bearing and the sort of textured skin tone and the sort of thatchy blond forearm hair that begs he be described as sandy. Central casting might pitch him as a car salesman or a once-famous athlete.

He's showing off his boat, the one he likes to take out into the Gulf of Mexico, 30, 40, maybe 50 miles offshore -- whatever distance might be necessary on any particular day to put Butch Forest out in the blue water, where he can see the fish hovering beneath his hull, and where, according to Butch, who is every bit as formidable a storyteller as he is a fisherman, he pretty much has his way with a rod and reel.

It's not much, the boat, maybe 27 feet, junked on the inside, with ratty carpet and disintegrating vinyl, but it has a fighting chair, a good loud stereo and a 200-gallon ice chest bolted to the floor. But what Butch is most interested in showing off at the moment are these few decorative strips of oak that he's salvaged from an out-of-business auto detailer's warehouse and screwed to the inside of the hull to hold the ratty carpet up on the side wall.

The thing is, Butch used screws longer than they needed to be. Long enough, actually, to have spiraled all the way through the hull and punctured the outer skin of the boat that Butch likes to take 30, 40, maybe 50 miles offshore into the blue water. Butch is showing this off because he thinks it's funny.

"How much water do you think can come through those little holes?" he asks. "I've got good pumps on this boat anyway."

That the pumps too are salvaged, that the entire boat and everything in it is, in fact, the unwarranted, unpedigreed, who-knows-where-it-has-been product of casual horse-trading, under-the-table barter and slapdash modification bothers Butch Forest not a whit.

While the average Joe trades away hours and days and whole weeks of fantasy life to pay the bills and notes of modern life, Butch figures -- and so far he seems to have been right -- that a little first-hand know-how and a whole lot of third-hand junk is all he'll need to keep himself afloat out there in the deep blue water.

And therein lies the accumulated wisdom of a man who has learned how to live off the land.

Living off the land. The image conjured is one of nut-munching nature lovers searching for epiphanies of simplicity in landscapes unmediated by consumerism. Or outback survivalists stockpiling seeds and digging self-sufficient holes in which to hide from fallout -- Y2K, nuclear strike, pick your apocalypse.

But here at the ass end of a twentieth century in which a subconscious collective need for any sort of meaningful connection to the landscape has led, oddly, to the presence of a four-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle in three out of four paved suburban driveways, Butch Forest actually, truly, lives off the land.

Or, say it this way: Butch trades tractor-trailers full of auctioned kitty litter and rifles through Dumpsters.

He's a junkman. He collects other people's castoffs and leftovers and finds a use for them. In so doing, he's amassed a paid-for house, a paid-for van, a paid-for boat, and aside from junking, which is certainly work, but which Butch convincingly insists he'd do regardless, he doesn't even have a job.

He doesn't have a credit card, either. He figures he's written a total of maybe five checks, maximum, in the past ten years. He swears he never even has any cash, that most all his transactions are trades and barter, but he says this with the sort of vocal wink that makes it clear this is not the whole truth.

"I eat when I want, I sleep when I want, and I work when I want," says Butch, who almost always smiles. "You wouldn't believe what people throw away."

I first met Butch because I needed some firewood and didn't want to pay market price, which runs about $150 a cord. Butch's classified ad in the Chronicle offered same for $20.

I called. Butch said he only had about 15,000 cords left, so I'd better hurry on down to his place in La Porte. And while he had me on the phone, did I need any mulch? There was plenty of mulch, too, hot and steamy, the good stuff, there for the taking. Did I have a trailer? Friends with trucks? You've never heard someone try so hard to throw something away.

Here's the First Secret of living off the land: They Want It Gone.
Seems Butch had a buddy with a tree removal service. For 15 years, the buddy had been been dumping chopped wood on an otherwise empty lot in La Porte. Local authorities finally decided the wooden hill was a hazard and told Mr. Tree Removal to clean it up.

Enter Butch.
"You give that mountain to me," he said, "and I'll make it gone."
So Butch made the deal. The authorities, seeing a regular diminishment of the log mountain, take the heat off Tree Removal Guy, who avoids tens of thousands of dollars in cleanup costs. Butch gets a steady stream of twenty-dollar bills in return for no greater investment than a little classified ad. And I get as much firewood as I can carry for a price so low it may as well be free.

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