Shooting Diameters with Danny Hamsley

When I missed the mark in my role as a log buyer and harvest manager in northeast Georgia in the 1990s, Danny Hamsley had a way of setting me straight. It would start with a phone call. 

“Brooks, I’m riding with you in the woods tomorrow.” 

Early the next morning, I would pick Danny up in the parking lot of a restaurant, or wherever he parked his red Jeep Cherokee, for a day of visiting logging jobs, wood suppliers, and customers at mills. When riding down county roads, Danny could look out the window and identify any tree, calling out its Latin and common names in quick succession. Then he’d test me. To that point, I had not taken a formal dendrology class or spent hours studying tree species. My knowledge was limited. Sure, I could name a magnolia or Japanese maple, but hornbeam? Could I pick a scarlet oak from a Shumard? No, I could not.  

At some point, standing near a logging job or reviewing a thinning operation, Danny would directly and succinctly reinforce expectations and help me better understand what really mattered in my work on behalf of the company. For example, in my first year, I was slow to finish paperwork and contracts. This delayed payments to our wood suppliers. While we received regular paychecks, my suppliers depended on this paperwork to get the monies owed them.

In this instance, Danny told me about a call with a supplier. “Look, this guy likes you well enough, but he doesn’t like you enough to not get paid.” Message delivered and understood. He emphasized the business implications to our operations, to my supplier, and to me. To this day at Forisk, I try to pay our vendors and contractors quickly. I want them to view us as reliable, responsive, and appreciative of the value and services they provide to us.

When walking the woods, Danny and I had little competitions like throwing rocks at trees to test our arms, or “shooting DBHs”, a game foresters play to see who could better estimate the diameter at breast height (DBH), to the tenth of an inch, of trees. From 20 feet away, we’d say, “That one is 10.2” or “that’s 9.6 inches.”  Then we’d tape it to see who was right and the loser bought lunch.

Danny’s knowledge ran deep. One time, I travelled with him to Bruce, Mississippi to visit a sawmill that had installed the latest “curve saw” technology, which could cut straight boards out of banana shaped logs. After the tour, we ate lunch with one of the machine operators, who had spent his career in the mill. He asked Danny, “how do trees grow? Why are they crooked?” Danny pulled out a napkin and diagramed the twisting nature of tree growth and how it reaches for the sun and leans away from shade to maximize available resources. The tree corkscrews itself up and away from any hinderance and goes to the light.

Fifteen minutes later, Danny got up to get more sweet tea, and the guy said, “well, that was more than I wanted to know!” and we laughed. Danny, who passed away unexpectedly three weeks ago[1], was a scholar of many things, and his tendency to offer exhaustive explanations to basic forestry questions earned him the nickname “Mr. Big Words” on The Forestry Forum, where he served as a moderator since retiring from a thirty-year career in the forest industry.

Danny and I often discussed the challenge of being human and raising children, long before I ever married or had children of my own.[2] Danny called this the “curse of the big brain.” Kids don’t fall out of the womb ready to program iPhone apps. Human development from babe to self-sufficiency includes a long apprenticeship supervised by parents, and along the way we communicate and reinforce dozens of expectations. Our job includes loosening the reigns as they grow and mature and, ultimately, letting go.

When you do something long enough, like shooting diameters or working with teams or reading widely, you develop a sense for what matters and what does not. William Danny Hamsley, a man who thought deeply about how we live on this planet, taught me many things about forestry and people, and I will miss him.


[1] His obituary is available here: https://www.watsonhunt.com/obituaries/William-Hamsley/#!/Obituary

[2] The relationship Danny and I built extended to his oldest daughter, Amanda, who became my business partner a decade ago.

4 Comments

  1. Brooks—This is a beautifully, lovingly written tribute to your mentor.

  2. Brooks, thank you for writing this about Daddy. He enjoyed your deep conversations very much.

  3. Brooks,
    What a wonderful reflection on a long-term mentorship that you were blessed to be a part of with Danny. Like you, I learned something from Danny every time that I had the opportunity to meet him. He was so smart had so much to share but had a way of engaging that made you want to learn from him. I may not have met a better “servant leader” but I certainly tried to go to school on him after I realized what a treasure that he was for others. He left deep footprints and will be missed but he left a legacy. Great spouse, great parent, great friend. Proud to say he IS a Dawg.

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