By Johnny Stowe
Riding in a parade through Hayfork, California blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” as part of a women-centered wildland fire training workshop was not something I could ever have imagined when I was a barefoot boy being sent to the house to get my shoes on before they would let me string fire to “knock back the brush and ticks, green-up the grass, and help the huckleberries” a half-a-century ago.
And just a decade ago, the idea that I would be dragging a torch clear across the continent at a gathering I was invited to mainly to teach morning yoga would have seemed a pipe dream.
But I felt totally at home. The love of firelighting that I shared with the other folks I met was part of this. The rugged and rural NorCal countryside and its people reminded me much of my mountain longleaf firelands along the Georgia and Alabama line. So there was that.
But, there was more to it. Something deeper. Agreeing to pen this piece has led me to examine my life in a new way, and this has turned into a new lens to help me see the ever-changing face of land protection, natural resource management (not just fire), social justice, and ecological philosophy. Here’s the deal.
I write this while looking at a picture of my Mama, a strong, loving woman who brought me into the world when she was 46-years-old, well before the days of ultrasound and other modern medicine were available to help protect women and babies. I think of her often when I write, for from her I got my love of the written word – of books and essays, of poems and passionate advocacy, of critical thinking and of self-expression.
Mama was born five years before women got the right to vote. From my Mama and other Southern ladies, many of whom were schoolteachers, I learned manners. They taught me from the get-go how to be a “gentleman.” One of my main teachers was my great Aunt Lizzie Dear, an iconoclastic force who earned her PhD in women’s studies from Columbia University. Except there was no such thing as women’s studies back then. That came a half a century later. But women’s studies it surely was. Dr. Elizabeth Barber Young published her dissertation, “A Study of the Curricula of Seven Selected Women’s Colleges of the Southern States,” in 1932. From these free-thinking, educated women, who were at the same time refined and traditional ladies, I learned a certain sacrosanct way that women were to be treated. It was part of being “raised right” in the Southland. I learned to open doors; stand at the table until all the ladies were seated and stand every time one of them rose from the table; walk on the street side of the sidewalk; and in general to be helpful, polite and courteous in actions and words. I cannot imagine saying “yes” or “no” to my Mama or certain other women. “Ma’am” was not a rule; it was simply a way of life. So was “Sir,” but it was never a question of which gender deserved greater respect. All this is my culture, and I will always, in certain situations, act in the way I was raised. But, of course, along the way I’ve learned when certain “courtly” manners are not appropriate, that sometimes it is even flat-out wrong to do some of these things. And the work environment is one of them.
In between childhood and college I lived in the woods, but the love of learning that the women of my childhood instilled in me never waned, and so when my daughter Molly Brooke was born I decided it was about time to “make something of myself,” and I entered Floyd College in my late twenties. Being a community college, there were a good many older, working students, and I took classes alongside, and made friends with many women. One thing I recall distinctively was being struck how some of them worked full time, were raising children, sometimes without a partner, and tended to make better grades than I did.
THEN ANOTHER PHENOMENAL WOMAN came into my life and changed my path in a big way. When I lived in the woods I maybe signed my name once or twice a year, and wrote nothing. But here’s the thing, I never stopped reading and that seems to have helped me to write. Dr. Kristie Kemper taught me freshman English, and she was also the Editor of the Six Mile Post, the student newspaper. For extra credit in her class I wrote a letter to the editor of the Post that led to a guest editorial and then I became Chief Editorialist working under my fellow student, Editor Susan Jordan. A long-smoldering polemic blazed up at Floyd, and I discovered the profound power of the pen and the press as under Dr. Kemper’s tutelage I wrote two years of strong editorials and had the satisfaction of seeing a major policy change. I was only one part of the movement, but through Dr. Kemper, the movement changed my life. Although it is not nearly as fun to wield, my pen has ever since been more productive than my drip torch.
In my years at the University of Georgia I fully immersed myself in the university experience, and much of that was learning about different cultures and ideas. In my Masters work on Aldo Leopold’s land ethic I ran upon a remarkable, iconoclastic woman—Dr. Fran Hamerstrom. The first woman wildlife biologist, she got her Masters under Aldo Leopold in 1940. Her strength was of a different sort than the Southern ladies who raised me. Her raptor-research adventures, and her grit and toughness are legendary. It’s been said that one of her methods for dealing with male chauvinism was to “physically out-man the men.” She never really retired. In her late eighties, she traveled to the Amazon to live and hunt with indigenous people for yet another book she was writing. She would grab a toothbrush and change of clothes and go out the door on these journeys, with less concern for comfort than most of us plan for a day hike. We spoke on the phone several times, swapped letters, and I stayed in her house when I was traveling through Wisconsin, but when I was at her place in Baraboo she was in the Peruvian rainforest hunting with the locals and learning their ways. I never met her, but she too, changed my life.
My Southern homeland is in many ways a battered and bloodied land; we are often not the first to progress socially, and certainly there remains much need for improvement in social and environmental justice down here. But one thing that came back to me time and time again at the WTREX was the thought of the women leaders I have worked with and under in the Southland – my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss is a woman, and a woman is manager of my favorite national wildlife refuge, which has the best burn program I know of. Women serve in leadership roles in our fire councils and other professional conservation organizations. Last fall while I was at the WTREX, my ultimate boss, the Governor of South Carolina, was a woman. I am pretty sure that along the way to these positions of authority these women often had to overcome challenges that white males would never face. And I don’t doubt that even when they reached leadership positions that some folks resented the “new paradigm of diversity.” But I know the broad respect that many women leaders in the Southland have earned, and that makes me proud.
BUT AT THE WTREX I MET WOMEN who had endured inequities ranging from rudeness to discrimination to the vilest form of criminal abuse. Some of this was talked about in open sessions, but the worst things I heard were told to me one-on-one by women I got to know. As a middle-aged, rural white southern male, I figured I might have been at first viewed suspiciously; for after all, I fit the demographic of the dominant paradigm that has had to be overcome by women leaders. I think my Sahyinidra yoga, centered scientifically on the Gaia hypothesis, helped break the ice. Knowing Amanda Stamper and Jennifer Fawcett helped, no doubt. They were why I was there. I knew Jenn through firelighting, but the reason I was in Hayfork was because I had connected with her through yoga that I taught in Portland at the IAWF conference in spring 2015. And my teaching yoga in Portland was solely because of yet another innovative woman leader, Mikel Robinson, Executive Director of IAWF.
Amanda has covered what this first WTREX was about in her article, i.e., telling how the idea sprang up at a TREX in the Carolinas, of all the planning and funding and implementation, and about plans for the future. So as a rural-raised, southern white male who thinks very critically about the natural world, including human ecology – what did I get out of WTREX? Well, I have struggled with this analogy; it’s not tight, but I keep coming back to it in my mind so let me see if I can do it justice.
To me, much of the allure, much of the essence of truly wild country lies in the fact that there are things out there much more powerful than me. When I walk alone and unarmed in the backcountry of national parks like Denali or Glacier, I feel not just wonder and vitality, but also a vulnerability and humility, that I don’t feel elsewhere. The fact that a grizzly, or a moose with a young calf, might attack me is not something I deal with in my everyday life. I feel this because I am a human. I have always thought that it is good for me, this feeling of smallness, that as a member of a species that at this point in time dominates the globe we should all feel such humility now and then. I feel the same way swimming in the murky Atlantic. More people can probably relate to that.
Now I envision some chuckling as someone misinterprets my analogy and imagery. I am certainly not saying that I felt like I was walking into a room of aggressive mama grizzlies when I was at WTREX. Not at all; I have never been better treated. What I am getting at is that although I don’t identify as a member of a dominant group—as a middle-aged white man on this continent, that is what I am, stereotypically and literally. I don’t consider myself to have privileges, but then again, I have probably enjoyed them without wanting or even knowing about them. Just like I doubt most humans ever think about being the dominant life form in their everyday environment. I think the world would be a better place if more humans walked humbly in wild country, and if more white men took part in gatherings like WTREX.
And you notice that I mention my race. As a southerner, I have lived around a lot of black folks all my life; the social injustice that they face often parallels gender issues. Black women face both kinds. It would have been nice to have had some black folks at the WTREX. It was very strange for me to not to see a black face for two weeks.
EACH NIGHT AT WTREX WE had a presentation, and when we got spare time each of us got to give a flash presentation. These were mostly personal stories, but sometimes they centered on an idea, or a call for action. One of the best was Lacey England’s talk on “words matter.” I encouraged her to make it a TED talk; it would make a good one. Her point was that some seemingly-innocuous, common terms are “gendered” even though we may not even notice, that we should pay attention to what we say, and that some terms are flat-out inappropriate. These range from terms like “man hours,” to belittling and insulting words and phrases. She had many examples. Please join me in asking Lacey to publish her talk! As one of the few folks out there who is exclusively a firelighter, having never been nor ever intending to be a firefighter, I found it interesting and ironic to see women catch themselves when I caught their eye as they referred to our group as “firefighters” after I regularly, good-naturedly reminded them that that was an incorrect and non-inclusive term, that it failed to include me. Entrenched terms are indeed hard to change, especially when they are printed right there on your red card! It’s a process, with some words needing immediate attention, while others will change more slowly, as our language evolves. But it is not as likely to evolve in a good way if we do not bring energy and attention to bear. Sure, it is awkward to say “her/his” or “his/her,” and such as that, but over time we will smooth things out. Heck, someday, we might even read of today’s wildland fire world in our “herstory” books.
Another thing that resonated with me at WTREX was how supportive the women were to each other, in an open way men don’t often show. Some very emotional stories were shared, and tears were shed, mine among them, but there seemed to be no hesitancy to share feelings. This is one of the most powerful ways to quickly form social bonds, and I think most, if not all of us, left with a strong, pulsing awareness of new friendships among our new colleagues. In the year since WTREX, this web of support has burgeoned, blossomed and bore fruit, as evidenced in our Facebook group.
THE IMPACT THAT RACHEL CARSON had on society and the land are well-known, but what is less known is that when she was working on Silent Spring, she was battling cancer and also withstanding a vicious, well-financed, personal attack from the chemical industry. Many of the abundant bird species we enjoy watching today, whose songs lift our spirits in our backyards as well as the backcountry—including our national bird, the bald eagle—were nearly extinct before she changed the world, while the other benefits of banning DDT and such biocides are incalculable. Time will only increase her stature as a strong woman, standing practically alone in the face of a massive foe, standing for what was right, no matter the odds, and winning. I met women very much like her at WTREX. History will pay homage to these modern-day Sacajaweas.
One of my favorite philosophers is John Dewey, and I end my story with a call to embrace his idea of reflective morality. In conventional morality, we do what we have always done; we do what our ancestors did. We conform to the ways of society. There is much good in this. There is much we need to hold onto, for healthy customs are the resilient fabric of our heritage, the traditions that define our character. But not all traditions and heritage are healthy, fair and worthy. Who among us longs for the traditional times when women could not vote? For slavery? How odd, and sad it seems in retrospect, to look back at what had to happen to change these inequitable and often cruel traditions.
In reflective morality, we now-and-then examine our customs, asking ourselves why we do things a certain way. Often, we will discover very good reasons; the wisdom of the elders will be revealed, and the customs can become better understood and thus more appreciated, more widely-accepted and thus stronger. But now and then, we will see that our customs—even cherished traditions—are wrong, and that they must be changed if we are to live up to who we believe and say we are.
In these times of accelerating social and environmental change, when we have so much to lose, and such unique opportunities to bring about monumental change, we need wisdom more than ever. And we need to do the right thing. We live in a time when shared reflection of our customs, of the old ways, is not just helpful, but vital. May we reflect well on the future of wildland fire, and may the reflections from the fire illuminate our common path and guide us into a future of social justice, and safe and healthy landscapes.
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BIO: Johnny Stowe, firelighter, is Heritage Preserve Manager in South Carolina and a member of the SCRxd Fire Council.