SheWolves: A memoir about professional trail crew women and gender

SheWolves: A memoir about professional trail crew women and gender

I stood on a slab of slate, my toes dipping into the edge of an isolated lake. I wore only a bra and underwear. Slanted rays of the setting sun glistened off the still water, broken only by four bobbing heads. I wanted to join them, but the moment I submerged myself… my feet went numb—my lungs constricted. I scrambled out. A chilly breeze nibbled the water droplets from my bare skin; I shivered but remained exposed on the edge for a moment longer.

The week of Babe Crew ended in tears.

I was third to arrive at the trail junction where we let off our loads, cracked a beer, and stretched before the last mile back to the cabin. My load was lighter than usual, but I was still surprised to not be the last one.

After a while, Tits* came stomping up the trail, staggering under her towering pack-frame. Her gear hung off loosely, throwing her off balance. Her eyes were dark, her jaw set in a snarl, her shirt ripped to tatters as if she’d fought a bear. She marched past us and threw down her pack before disappearing behind a few trees where we could only hear her distress.

Candy* wasn’t too far behind, but her face was already streaked with tears. She had torn her shirt in half; the shreds now lay over her shoulders. Their packs were heavy, easily over 100 pounds with the rock-working tools. I had nearly thrown up on the pack-in while carrying the 50-yard, steel cable for the grip hoist which must weigh 50 pounds in itself. I was glad to be carrying the empty lunch bag and buckets—the lightest of our gear—over the steep, rocky five miles back to the cabin.

Apparently, I was the only one in the group who took the actual trail, which is at least a half-mile longer than the shortcut across the river. With the water-levels high and their packs so heavy, each of them had a terrifying story to tell. But they weren’t crying because of fear or pain, they cried for the same reason I cried for the first few weeks of the season: they were ashamed that they weren’t stronger. These women who never complained, who laughed when it stormed, who happily threw an ax into a tree for hours… These women who were the strongest women both physically and in spirit that I had ever met still didn’t think they were good enough.

We finished our hike out together, dropped our packs, and submerged ourselves in the lake, muddy boots and all. Then, we paraded back to the trail cabin with our modified WOMEN WORKING sign as our banner leaving evaporating footprints in our wake. But the boy’s crew hadn’t returned yet, so they did not get to see our spectacular display of tattered and grimy clothes and rats’ nests of hair or our smiles at returning home after a successful week of work.

I’ve never considered myself a feminist, though I’m proud to be female and don’t let it stop me from doing anything. The women I got to work with inspired me in many ways, but their ambitions to be strong seemed a bit misplaced. Rather than praising their own improvements, they continuously compared themselves to the men. They weren’t trying to be strong women—they already were—rather, they were being overcome by the same power play dynamics as the men. This type of feminist isn’t trying to make a place for herself in this world, she’s trying to take The Man’s place. We don’t need women in the roles of men; we need a complete reform of society.

At the end of the season, we took a crew picture. It was tradition to yell at the camera: to raise your ax, flex, and scrunch your face into an fierce, wild snarl—the look of a professional trail worker. We stood on railroad tracks, the mountains rising behind us. We were all teeth and tanned skin taunt with muscle. The men threw their shirts to the side, as did the women boasting their black bras with pride. Before the camera took the last shot, Candy threw off her bra and positioned her double-bit ax before her bare breasts.

From the other side of the lens, you can’t even see Candy’s bare breasts behind her ax.

 

*Note the trail names used here are not their real trail names, but reflect a similar style, and by no means intend offense. From my experience, there are lots of offensive things said in loving ways between close-knit people. In case you’re curious, over the years I have been called: Ifets, Cloud Whisper, Silent Death, Recycling Guru, Phantom, and Lotto.

 

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Blame Nature; Blame the Can

Blame Nature; Blame the Can

The road ended in a blockade of trees. A layer of dried leaves paved the ground, leaving only the occasional green flare of pine needles among the dark trunks. The forest smelled pungent like old jack-o-lanterns with smiles collapsed into snarls.

Fern parked the car.

Murphy opened the door and looked around, “Where’s the cabin? You said we’d be staying at a cabin.”

“Don’t freak out. It’s just a short walk.” Fern tossed Murphy a backpack from the trunk.

Murphy threw the bag over one shoulder and her mustard scarf over the other. Wind jostled her hair, knotting the bleached threads into snarls. She tried to fix her hair in the reflection of the car window.

“Come on, Murphy,” Fern called moving towards the trail head.

Murphy followed swatting mosquitoes. “Did you bring bug spray?”

“They’re not bothering me. Maybe you’re jinxed because of that can you threw out the window on the way here.”

“Oh, shut up.”

After they had walked for a few minutes, they could hear the trickle of a stream and river flies reinforced the mosquitoes. Murphy smashed a fly, flicked the carcass off her palm, and grabbed the hand-sanitizer hanging off her backpack covering up the smudge with the scent of fresh linen. “How far away is this cabin?” Murphy said.

“Just a little farther,” Fern said. “It’ll be cozy and relaxing, I promise. Just what we need after those killer mid-terms.”

Murphy sighed, “Don’t remind me. I don’t even want to know my scores for chemistry and biology.”

“I’m sure you did fine. I helped you study,” Fern winked and ambled ahead.

The clouds darkened and several droplets hit the ground. “Of course, it’s going to rain,” Murphy said.

“It’s just a little drizzle,” Fern said. But seconds later, the rain pelted them in sheets mingled with tiny bits of ice. They covered their heads and ran dripping into the cabin as the wind tore after them.

Murphy threw down her backpack and went to the bathroom while Fern started up the fireplace. Cobwebs strung every inch of the bathroom, and when a spider skittered across the floor, Murphy stomped on it with so much force the floorboard cracked.

“Are you alright in there?” Fern called from the kitchen.

Murphy came out drying her hair with a towel and slumped into the chair closest the fire. “I only came because you like this sort of thing.”

Fern poured two cups of tea from the screaming kettle as wind rattled the windows and thunder rumbled overhead. The electric lights flickered and went out. Fern smirked and threw another log on the fire.

Murphy stared at the writhing flames, her knees drawn up to her chest, a scratchy wool blanket clutched around her. She rung a twig from the wood pile with her fingers scraping off the bark and leaving gashes in the grain. Fern handed her the tea, and Murphy set aside the mutilated twig.

“Have your parents found a new house yet?” Fern asked.

Murphy kept an eye on the writhing flames. “No. They’re still in an apartment. They’re thinking of moving to a different town since Kendelville was completely wiped out by the fire.”

Fern sipped her tea.

“It’s not fair. I’d lived there my whole life, and I didn’t even get the chance to say goodbye to the house. And all of my stuff—besides what I had in the dorm—it’s all gone.” Murphy put her feet down, and a mouse scampered out from under her chair sending her screaming out of the chair. “I swear nature has it out for me.”

Fern laughed, “It’s just a mouse. Think of it like a little brother teasing you. My brother’s always trying to annoy me.”

Murphy sat in a different chair. “It’s not just the mouse. It’s that fire, the flooding, the earthquakes. It’s like James Henry who took a gun to school in St. Bern and shot everyone for no good reason.”

Tea spilled over the edge of Fern’s cup as she set it down. “That’s too far.”

They locked eyes, and then Murphy looked down into her cup, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” A leak in the roof dripped onto Murphy’s head, and she stood to move seats yet again.

Fern patted the couch, and Murphy sat beside her. The cabin groaned. Fern glanced at water streaming over the panes and wrapped an arm around Murphy’s shoulders, “You really shouldn’t have thrown that can out the window.” They sat together as trees thrashed against the walls and cracks of lightning threatened the roof over their heads.

Cover Image by Imaginings


Choose: People, Place, or Occupation

Choose: People, Place, or Occupation

People. Place. Occupation.

That’s what makes up a life. It’s what molds our decisions. As a single, recent college graduate, people say I’m lucky to be able to go wherever I want. But a lot of people that have the same freedom as me usually end up choosing a job close to home or where they went to school. They put people highest on their priorities. They want to be close to friends and family. Or, with a career-first train of thought, they buy a one-way ticket in whatever direction that may be, but more often than not, it’s close to where they studied, where they had a work-study or an internship, where they are already known and recommended. And then there are the few gypsies, like me.

I’ve always loved to travel. Staying in one spot for more than three years gives me angst. I love learning about new places and seeing what others have taken pictures of with my own eyes. There’s something about feeling the aura of a place and being present in it that feels like being a part of something much bigger than me. That’s probably why I’m a geography major and why I chose place as my priority after graduating. I couldn’t see myself anywhere else except in a cabin in the Appalachian Mountains so that’s where I went.

I had enjoyed doing volunteer trail work there in the past, and what better thing to do to get yourself out and intimate with a place than to live in the dirt and breathe the rain? But when I got there, I quickly learned that I was not prepared for the work. It was hard admitting that I was weak and inexperienced and would have to try a lot harder to get better. I’m not a quitter, though, so I pushed onward, imagining how much I’d grow if I didn’t end up dying from the treacherous conditions.

But when I had accepted the job, I hadn’t thought much about the people. They were hard to forget once I got there. There was rarely peace and quiet in the cabin with music blasting out the windows, stomp dancing shaking the floor, and beer cans spraying around the room. During the week, you worked side-by-side all day, then slept nearly on top of each other in a hot, damp tent all night. And while they were nice people in general, we never really became friends.

When I had told people I was going to do trail work for the summer, they’d say, “Going to be with your people!” But, these were not my people. I was quite different from them—not into drink or partying or smoking, preferring card games to yard sports, and, to my dismay—nearly hating our work and living in the woods which they thrived on.

The mountains were beautiful and full of life, but I couldn’t take my time to enjoy it because we had to power through miles of trails. I’ve always hated being wet, and it rained almost every day. And even though I’d hear an occasional bird call or wander upon a bright orange newt, the giant boulders of granite that we moved and the miles of hovel bush vines we pulled out were the things I became most intimate with. I thought I had chosen the Appalachians because of place, but I kept getting caught up with my dissatisfaction of the people and the occupation. I couldn’t say that I was happy except for in fleeting moments of standing alone on a mountain peak under a cloudless sky with a view that took my breath away.

I’d always felt drawn to the mountains, and I still do. But the back country, I learned, is not for me.

I enjoyed the volunteer work I had done before because I had been with my people, people who enjoyed and cared about nature but who may or may not pursue it in such a direct, full-time occupation. Maybe what I was seeking wasn’t so much the place as it was my memory of the community and connections I had made with the people there. The volunteers had been a diverse group of people that may not have even met otherwise, and who didn’t bond enough to stay connected after our one, close week.

The people I long to be with are scattered. Sparks from the same campfire dancing off into the night.

My people have always been small lights shining among different friend groups, with different ambitions and passions, staying by my side for just a short few steps before we went separate ways. I don’t feel like there’s a place where all of my people are, so I’ll keep traveling and hoping that I run into another drifting ember. If we dance together for even just a moment, it will be enough to rekindle my flame and keep me going, knowing that I’m not alone.

Water Walk – walk alongside your water

Water Walk – walk alongside your water

You can learn all about hydrology and ecosystems, you can weed out invasive plants and establish anti-erosion structures along banks, but the most important thing is to know your water, know your stream, your river, your lake, and what better way to bond with your water than to walk along side it and listen to it. The idea of a water walk is more about meditation and observation than action.

The following is a photo journal of my solo bike ride along Plaster Creek to the Grand River in Grand Rapids, MI. Some of the way was paved trail, some dirt, some roads.

Plaster Creek is considered one of the most polluted streams in Michigan, and I have been involved in many trash clean ups and invasive plant removals and rain garden projects in service to the health of the stream. But I had never taken the time to meditate in the sound of its brooks or walk beside it through tangles of invasive oriental bittersweet or admire the array of wild flowers and bird calls or lament of the concrete restraining walls and massive erosion or rejoice in the beauty of the parks it runs through or see it as a whole system not on a map or diagram. Today, I became the creek and the river. I cut through over-grown terrain and navigated through concrete cityscapes. I listened to the sounds of industry and cars blending with bird calls and the soft melody of the creek. Instead of working at one location or enjoying a specific park, I journeyed with the creek. I let it lead me through good and bad. I let it show me how it lives.

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Is Media making us Loose Touch with Reality?

Is Media making us Loose Touch with Reality?

After a busy day and the pressure of a lot of work still to be done, I often find myself taking a short bike ride at dusk. There’s a place where I often end up stopping to watch the sunset. It’s at the top of a slight hill where the view opens up, clear of trees and buildings, and I can watch the panorama of clouds and sky changing as the sun descends.

Yesterday, I found myself in that spot again. My bike parked on the sidewalk, I sat in the grass and let everything slip away except for an immense awareness of the present: the tension in my lungs from the ride, the slight chill to the air, the songs of robins, the pulsing heat of the sun’s light. The sky was all clouds except for a few inches just above the treeline where the sunlight emerged in an intense orange. It seemed to take forever for the sun to descend those few inches, but I waited and watched it with my full attention.

I heard the skid of wheels coming up the path behind me and then a voice called my name. “I thought that was you. I love that you’re just sitting here watching the sunset,” the girl said as she stepped cautiously into the grass with her inline skates.

It struck me that there was a certain nostalgia implied by her comment. To take the time to watch the sunset, one is assumed to be in a state of Zen and total awareness. It’s very Buddhist. It’s very hipster. But for me, I wasn’t conscious of all that; my initial reaction to her comment was Of course, I am. What else would I be doing? I could not even consider that I could be somewhere else doing any multitude of other things because this was where I felt I was supposed to be at that moment.

As we chatted, she made some comment about how unsuspecting that a view of the sunset and such peace could be found squished between a giant parking lot and a busy road. I knew that I was looking over the parking lot at the sun and that there was a road filled with the traffic of the evening commute behind me, but I hadn’t even thought about it. I had been focusing on the colors dancing in the clouds to the accompaniment of a robin’s chorus.

I realized that I wasn’t being fully aware of the present but rather creating a mindset to match that of a different location. The peace and nostalgia I felt watching that sunset was how I feel when I’m in the Appalachian Mountains. In an attempt to escape the city, I had found a connection to another place through the sunset. The sun and moon and stars have the power to teleport your soul to anywhere in the world if you’re open to it because they rise and set and shine everywhere around the world.

I didn’t watch the sunset in order to “feel at peace,” but I think that’s what such experiences have been diluted to in our times. In the psychiatrist’s office, you’ll find framed landscapes of remote lakes and mountains and brilliant sunsets with the clouds placed just right. The patients look at the images and find a sense of peace because that’s what the image was meant to portray. The lens doesn’t capture the days where it’s so cloudy you can’t see the sunset or let you feel the brisk wind or the chill of rain or hear the buzz of gnats, but these are all part of the place of these images.

With our world progressively moving to the internet and other forms of media, we’re presented daily with images. Images of people, images of places, images of items—all depicted in a way to frame the way you see them and induce a reaction. The picture of a perfectly symmetrical plant in the therapist’s office aims to calm you. The homeless children and abused animals look up at the camera as emotional music turns not just your ear but your heart. Images do not represent reality in its entirety. They are created with intentional blinders to create a tone and therefore invoke a specific reaction.

However, with some images becoming so iconic, the media has conditioned us to think we must feel at peace when watching a sunset, to feel moved to help when we see a homeless person, to take in that stray dog. But for most people in the real situation, that’s not how they feel or are moved to act. When you’re stuck in traffic and late for dinner, you don’t even see that stray dog on the side of the road. When you’re a young girl alone in the city, that homeless guy can seem more of a threat than a person in need. When we’re in the present, we put on our own blinders. We pay attention to certain things and ignore others and that process is what creates our mindset and determines how we feel and act.

When I’m in the city, I must consciously shift my focus to see the beauty in the buildings and people because my initial focus is on things that build my anxiety rather than create a sense of awe. Likewise, people in the mountains watching a sunset may be too caught up shivering and swatting mosquitoes to really feel a sense of peace.

Images have made molding our mindsets too easy. Images tell us what to see. Because of that, I wonder if people are just looking at things right in front of them expecting that what they are seeing is what they need to see. I wonder if they’re looking at reality at all.

Smartphones have made it easier than ever to capture a moment, a place, a feeling. But there are times when I’m so moved by what I’m experiencing that I know that I can never capture it in any form of art because the reality is too complex, so I don’t even try. I leave my camera lens shut and leave my heart and soul open. When we take a picture, we’re reframing the experience and often diminishing it because it’s difficult to capture so much in an image. Even film that can capture visual and audio senses still has a limited, focused view and lacks the complete feeling of a real experience.

Though images represent parts of reality, they can never fully capture the experience of being in the moment. But even when a person is in the moment, they will frame the experience by focusing on certain elements over others. The ability to be conscious and choose how to frame your view and therefore choose your experience is something that images and other media don’t as easily allow.

I chose to watch the sky and listen to the birds, thereby transporting myself into my former experiences in the mountains and my dreams of being there in the future. When the girl sat down beside me, she also chose to watch the sunset, but she saw it differently than me. She was still conscious of the parking lot and the traffic noise, so she saw a glimpse of natural beauty in the mundane routine of the city.

When the girl decided to leave and continue skating, she thanked me for making her stop and look at the sunset. But it wasn’t me who stopped her or made her see. It’s ultimately up to the individual to decide what they will focus on and therefore how they will react to what is around them.

Are People Apathetic About Sustainability?

Are People Apathetic About Sustainability?

A fellow student contacted me with an interesting question. We go to Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and while our campus advertises being environmentally sustainable in many ways, the more you get into the issues you realize that we could be doing much more. My fellow student was working on a class project related to social and sustainability issues on our campus. She noted that many students are not living in a sustainable manner (even just as simply leaving lights on), and she asked if this may be because students simply don’t care about environmental sustainability.

While I can’t speak for each individual, in general I would say that Calvin College students are not apathetic to sustainability specifically.

I think that a lack of information and understanding is the main problem that ends up looking like apathy, but really people just aren’t aware of the issues. To combat this it is important to inform students and Calvin has a lot of programs in place to attempt to do this–such as Kill-a-Watt and Mad Farmer Food Fest and the Faith and International Development Conference and student leadership Sustainability Coordinator positions in the dorms and apartments. A lot of courses also have a sustainability focus. (Specifically in the Geology, Geography, and Environmental Studies Department and Biology Department. I also know of some economics and engineering courses with a sustainability focus. There’s even an environmental writers English course offered some January terms. There’s usually a handful of January courses having an environmental or sustainable focus, including at least one or more options for the required freshman course: “DCM”.). And there are also several student organizations with sustainability aims from food to political issues. My club, the Environmental Stewardship Coalition, addresses a wide range of environmental issues depending on what our participants are interested in.

However, these programs often have the dilemma of attracting people who are already interested in the issues, and while it may enlighten a few “new-comers” to the sustainability world, it is difficult to attract new people because there are so many other opportunities vying for each individual’s time, and they’re most likely to choose to do something they already have an interest in.

I think the most successful way to inform people is not just through programs that preach sustainability but also by personal conversations and individuals living in a sustainable way sharing their knowledge with people they interact with. I don’t think that there is a lack of these people on campus, almost everyone I know is concerned about the environment and interested in sustainability issues. But, I think that we often stay in our own circles, so sustainability-minded people don’t interact much with people that don’t know much about it.

There’s also a bit of a hesitancy when newly introduced to sustainability issues because it goes against our current systems so much. The very basis of our American (and possibly world) economy is market-driven with the only aim to grow profits without any enforced conditions or concern to protect people or the environment. While there have been laws put into place to try to protect people and the environment, there’s still a lot of cutting corners and illegal action because the media and economy promotes money above all else. And there’s a lot of skepticism encouraged by the media and businesses because they want people to buy more and being sustainable means buying less. There’s so much skepticism in the public eye on Climate Change, not because they haven’t heard the scientific facts, but because the oil industry and many other would be threatened if action against climate change was enforced and they have convinced the public that it is a hoax. The public doesn’t believe science, they believe media. But more than media, they believe family and friends, and that’s where we can get in and start changing people’s perspectives.

These profit-driven narratives are so present in people’s lives and worldviews that when introduced to sustainability that pursues balance rather than continuous growth, it is a dramatic shift of perspective that they must undergo to understand sustainability issues and practices. And since sustainability is so different than our current systems, it’s a challenge to live in a sustainable way. I honestly believe that it is impossible to live in a completely sustainable way today because there are so many issues (many hidden by the media and market) and all things are intertwined so tightly. Going vegan or vegetarian may protect a few animals that you may have eaten otherwise, but all of the substitutes and high-protein foods you need to consume instead are still surrounded by unsustainable practices.

I think the second biggest problem is a lack of convenience. Especially when people are used to the current systems, they’re unlikely to put in much effort to change. It’s a rare person that would carry an empty can around until they find a recycling bin if there are no recycling bins and a plethora of easy-access trash cans. Even in my apartment, my roommates stopped using the compost when we moved it to the porch, but when it was right beside the trash in the kitchen they would use it all the time (unless it was already full, because they would not walk all the way out to the compost site to empty it–too much effort, apparently). If sustainability was easier to do, more people would do it, no doubt. And especially if there was a reward (especially an economic reward) more people would do it. That’s why sustainable low-energy appliances have grown popular and common, because it saves money.

I would say that Calvin is on the right track to make students more sustainable, but the college has to stick with it and continue pushing the informative programs (especially in all courses and fields to reach all students) and making sustainable systems more efficient and convenient to get students into sustainable habits.

But I think the issue is beyond Calvin–it’s our economy, it’s our whole world. Until we change the basic systems underlying our lives to be sustainability-driven rather than profit-driven, sustainability is always going to be a challenge and a struggle.

Fountains over Fireworks

eFireworks+Smoke-1369

Eeeeeee—BANG! Eeeee—POP! Crackle, crackle, crackle. Momentous firework displays occur annually on the 4th of July all around the United States of America created by artisans of design and explosives. Crowds gather around grills as they chow down on the most Americana food: hotdogs and hamburgers. The sizzling grease and charred lines of the grill add to the authentic taste of beef mingling with a zesty mustard and pickle, blended with the sweet tang of ketchup and tomato, topped off with a creamy cheese and the crunch of iceberg lettuce. Stomachs sloshing with watermelon and beer, fingers picking strings from corn on the cob out from between teeth, people ooo and ahhh at the flashing fireworks until their ears go numb from the explosions. Then, when the last explosive has lit, ascended, and dissipated into smoke, everyone packs up under the sulfuric air and waits in a line of car exhaust as police direct traffic out of parking lots and through four-way stops.

Few people pay attention to the dark clouds that drift away after firework displays when RED, WHITE, and BLUE, PINK, PURPLE, GREEN, ORANGE are lighting up their eyes, and POPS and BANGS numb their ears. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy fireworks as much as any other person, but I cannot block out the amount of pollution they create.

NOAA2015_fireworks-pollution-graph
NOAA 2015

It’s hard to give an exact amount for the pollution created as displays and individual fireworks vary and atmospheric conditions also play a large part in the amount of pollution fireworks create. But, it is not hard to agree with NOAA’s 2015 study that showed 42% more air pollution on July 4th in given locations.

Ideally, someone should invent a firework that can create colors and patterns without releasing fine metals and CO2 into the atmosphere; however, there are real alternatives to firework displays that could be more environmentally friendly.

I remember being blown away the first time I saw a musical fountain lights display. The Grand Haven Music Fountain in Michigan has numerous displays every summer. Colored lights illuminate the sprays of water that dance through the night synchronized to music. Such displays can also be found in locations such as Las Vegas.

visitgrandhavencomBob Peskorse
Grand Haven Fountain by Bob Peskorse @ visitgrandhaven.com 

Now, you may be saying, “Yes, it gets rid of the air pollution, but what about all of that water and the energy for the lights?” Water displacement and pollution is as big an issue as air pollution, so precautions should be taken to make sure that water is not soiled or displaced. The Grand Haven display is built right on the Grand River and pumps water out of the river and back in. The water stays nearby its source and although part of it evaporates in the air, most of the water is returned immediately after the display without pollution. As for energy, as long as production is made with the least energy use possible and that electricity comes from a renewable source, there’s not much more we can ask for anything that involves a lot of lights.

Laser light displays and other types of celebrations and shows are alternative to fireworks, but personally, I think the Musical Fountains are the most magical option.