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(Forest) Products of Our Times

It’s a truism that we’re products of our times. We make this observation about prominent thinkers and activists of the past, observing how their passions and intellectual preoccupations were shaped by the world they experienced around them. We also make it about loved ones with whom we can’t see eye to eye, subtly slighting them as less evolved than we are while also creating space to connect across differences in our understandings of the world at a time when such connections are increasingly tenuous if not entirely broken. And we use it to explain the quirks of our elders: the Depression-era relative who still kept cash under the mattress or in the freezer, the adult children of the Cold War (like me) who still panic when relations between the US and Russia begin to fray. But how often do we apply this logic to those we’re closest to, or even to ourselves? How often do we consider that not only someone’s interests and habits but also their categorization by others depend on the times in which they find themselves – or which find them? As the deep forests and soaring high-elevation meadows where my heart has lived since childhood are progressively incinerated, and even the few forests closest to me here in Southern California have been reduced to sooty barrenness, likely never to recover in these days of rapid climate change, I can’t help but think of my dad and of the differences between how his ideas were received in his time and how they might be understood today.

My dad was a forest products pathologist, which means in essence that he studied wood decay in the built environment. Trained as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley in the latter half of the 1950s, he studied all aspects of forestry and forest management as well as what happened to the trees after they were cut down for human use. In his doctoral work at UW Madison, he further developed his specialization in microscopic studies of the fungi that cause a fair amount of the wood deterioration found in structures. He graduated one year before the first commercial scanning electron microscope became available, and my childhood is woven through with SEM images and memories of standing on stools to see into his microscope.

After earning his PhD, my dad returned to Berkeley to teach (such was the academic job market for white men in the 1960s), and he and my mom – finishing her own bachelor’s degree at the time, on her way to her PhD from Berkeley – landed right in the middle of intense political and social upheaval. Ardently loyal to his alma mater and to its chancellor, and a fierce defender of free speech, my dad only told us very late in life that he had been among the faculty members who defended the campus from the riot police during the free speech movement. Yet in the areas that directly impacted his career, what counted as progressive rapidly shifted far from where my dad stood.

As a forester trained in the late 1950s, my dad thought of forests as precious resources to be carefully tended. He loved California’s Sierra Nevada mountains deeply, had spent time there since his own childhood, and cared intensely for their well-being and that of all of the plants and animals they sheltered and sustained. He also knew personally, from his time as a student at Cal’s long-running Forestry Field Camp and then his many years as a professor at the camp, some of the people who made their living harvesting trees from those forests. But by the mid-1960s, especially in a place like Berkeley, the environmental movement and back-to-the-land white folks (often the same people) had reconceptualized the forest as a place of unchanging Edenic purity. “Leave no trace,” a sound principle to keep people from dropping their trash along the trails or – my pet peeve in Southern California – spray painting commentary on the rocks along trails in the wilderness, was becoming the driving principle for the management of all public lands. People defending ancient trees – in itself an important goal in my opinion and, I think, in my dad’s – turned to endangering rural laborers who had no other way to avoid severe poverty and whose employers didn’t really care about putting the safety of their labor force on the line when activists began spiking the trees.

My dad watched all of these developments with horror and disgust. These forests, he pointed out, need tending and they need to burn; fire is a part of their ecosystem. Left untouched, with fires immediately extinguished, over time they would build up disastrous fuel loads and become dangerously dense. Some species would be limited in their ability to germinate seeds, and the diversity of the forest would drop because of the density of the duff layer and the lack of open canopy spaces offering sunlight to seedlings that need it. Today, non-Native people are far more aware of the fact that the Native nations whose stolen lands are now designated as US national forests, wilderness, and national parks have carefully and actively managed these forests for millennia – until the US forced them to stop – but in my dad’s time, racism and settler colonialism meant that academia dismissed such traditional knowledge and favored what non-Native, largely white academics and activists perceived as more “evolved” approaches to nature. My dad’s advocacy of active forest management, and his intense opposition to tree spiking and eventually, as a consequence, to most environmental activism was widely shared and commonplace in the 1950s and even the early 1960s when he was a student; by the time he was a professor it was considered retrograde.

As a consequence of these changing perspectives, conceptualizations of my dad’s field by other academics and administrators shifted from “academic” to “applied,” not worthy of the academic heights to which Cal aspired. He tried to move institutions more than once, but his was a small field and the problem was the same across the country. Passionate about the importance of his work, he took a sabbatical to co-author with a colleague at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa a textbook for architects on how to build with wood in ways that would maximize the life and health of the wood – an effort that got him denied a promotion at a school that, like most research universities, denigrates teaching as an insufficiently intellectual enterprise. He retired bitter and angry; the lab where he thrived in his early career, where I sat on stools to look into his electron microscope and breathed the intoxicating scent of wood dust when we visited the shop, was closed a few years later. Ironically, I don’t believe anyone knows whether the gorgeous reclaimed old-growth redwood with which the lab was built was ever re-reclaimed. So much for environmental principles.

Today, as fires rampage unimaginably across the entire breadth of the Sierras, wiping out thousands upon thousands of acres of forest, countless wildlife, towns, people, pets, and livestock, attention has returned to managing the forests in the way my dad knew how to do. Now the Edenic approach that castigated him as backwards and old-fashioned before he even hit thirty is itself perceived as backwards and even dangerous. He lived to see bark beetles destroying the pines and firs in the Sierras, and I heard the sadness, loss, and worry in his voice every time he saw browned stands of trees. He lived to see Sudden Oak Death among the majestic old oaks in the foothills, and certainly there have been out-of-control fires for decades that made him shake his head in anger, frustration, and sorrow.

Dad died before the Camp Fire became national news, before the El Dorado Fire, which I watched from my dining room window for weeks, turned entire forests into bare rock and ash, without even blackened timbers left either standing or fallen. He didn’t see the Dixie Fire, second largest in the state’s history, narrowly miss the Forestry Field Camp just southwest of Quincy and, in a bitter irony, destroy most of the forests where he taught students about forest management and took them to felling sites and sawmills to learn about the timber industry. He didn’t see the Caldor Fire tearing through the forest south of Highway 50 and threatening the Desolation Wilderness where we backpacked so many times as a family – although, depending on what you believe, he might be watching and shaking his head from the area around Lake Winnemucca, where he took his final backpacking trips with his sciatica, hip replacement, pacemaker, and granddaughter, and where we scattered some of his ashes last year when the forests finally reopened at the beginning of winter. As my mom reminded me and my brother the other day, my dad would have been right there saying, “I told you so.” I think he would also have been grieving, and today I carry the grief of both of our souls at the destruction that could have, should have, been avoided.

We are a product of our times not only in our own interests but in how the world reacts to us and how those reactions in turn form us. Had my dad been born sooner, he would have been part of a mass chorus of voices on forest management. Had he been born later, the same would have been true. Instead, he was caught in a time that imagined that human beings are not part of nature and don’t belong there except as tiptoeing trespassers, and he was left contributing his resonant, classically trained baritone to a small chamber choir of voices shouting, as it were, in the wilderness.

Today I outrank my dad – I got the promotion he didn’t, in part because he taught me to be cynical, suspicious, and strategic about the motives of academic institutions, at the same time as he taught me to passionately love teaching (and textbook writing). Although our lives led us to opposite ends of the political spectrum and to no small number of blow-ups because of that, he also taught me to speak out loudly and insistently when things are wrong, no matter how unpopular your message may be or what consequences your speech may have. This blog is even an homage to him, in a way, though I’m not sure whether the title would have made him laugh or get that nonplussed look on his face: his professional organization was the Forest Products Research Society – FPRS, one letter off from the blog’s title.

Through my grief at the fires I think I’m learning another lesson from my dad, and I wonder how the reception of my own work is the product of the times in which I have found myself. I know nearly for a certainty that had I been born a few years earlier my work would not have been possible within an academic position. Had I been born later, perhaps my work would have been different, but if I’d been born later and done the same work I would have had a much larger circle of fellow scholars to welcome me. Unlike my dad, though, I think I landed in the sweet spot. I wish he had done the same, but I also know that he had a profound impact on the lives of many of his students regardless of how his field and his research were perceived by others. And I know that he’s still there, happily hiking behind me, every time I’m in the forests that haven’t yet burned.

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Mad

I wrote this in 2015, and never put it anywhere but on my hard drive. I ran across it again today, combing through my files to make sure my CV was updated before a personnel review. I think it’s time for it to come out in the open.

I’m one of those technical writers with an untrained, unskilled, but passionate artist hovering behind my words – a writer who writes the words of others, a musician who sings what others compose. I used to do more; like most of us, it was scorned out of me in college, but in my case by fellow queer folk who thought my work wasn’t queer enough. Putting it out here now isn’t so much courage as exhaustion, and the thought that perhaps someone else – even one person – might need to see or hear this.

Warning: This one is raw.

Content notice: Abuse, mental health, sexual assault/abuse, child loss

Mad

I am mad.

Or so they say.

Those people who have the power to define, to diagnose, to name, to label, to medicate into oblivion,

to incarcerate.

Yes, incarcerate, another kind of prison

With better beds and better food. Or so I understand.

My whiteness and my class privilege have protected me from the other form of incarceration.

And the fact that I never laid a finger on my abuser in self-defense.

I am mad, they said,

but they never could decide what that meant.

I was illegible, the victim of abuse by a woman, the victim of emotional abuse,

my only visible scars self-inflicted.

Abuse, I said. ABUSE. They soothed, shushed,

Flushed the poisons out of my gut.

Was it the child sexual assault, they asked,

as they handed another bottle of pills to my abuser because they didn’t trust me with them.

Maybe it’s depression. Anxiety. Low self-esteem? Maybe bipolar! Anyway, it’s congenital.

There must be someone mad in the family, somewhere. Like there must be someone gay.

That would explain everything.

After all, the assault wasn’t penetrative – she can’t have any trauma from it.

And the optometrist? He just had to lean close to see her eyes. She’s imagining things.

And the doctor in the ER needed to see all her wounds. That’s why it was okay

for him to strip her clothes off, alone and scared in a room by herself.

She must be mad.

Up the dosage.

I am mad.

And I treasure that madness.

It’s my brain, trained under fire, trying desperately to save my life, my sanity, my safety.

Scold me in the kitchen and I turn instantly compliant.

The next second the rage begins to grow. And the next second I remember I’m safe with you.

I thank my brain for trying to keep me safe, and tell it to stand down.

Touch me in the wrong place, without warning, and I turn into a snail,

pulled tightly inside my shell and hoping you can’t get to me.

My brain protects me before it takes the time to think about who you are. Because maybe, just maybe, I’m under attack again.

This protection, this safety mechanism, they tried to medicate away.

Thinking they were saving my life, they very nearly caused my death. No protection, no safety.

I am mad.

I am queerly mad. If I’d been born a few decades earlier I’d have a police record despite being white, despite never fighting back physically against the abuse or the assaults. If I’d been born a few decades earlier the diagnosis would have been different, the medications too.

Or shock therapy.

Or lobotomy.

Or “curative” rape (or was that what all those sexual assaults were?)

I am mad for all of my forebears who didn’t make it.

I am mad for all of my contemporaries who’ve been crushed.

I am mad for those coming up behind me and things are no better.

Am mad because some things don’t get better.

I am mad because they can’t figure out who I am.

“Thank you, Sir,” says the nattily-dressed elderly man in the post office. I smile wordlessly, hiding my soprano voice in the hope of retaining this rare moment of human connection.

He senses something, double-takes, and stares. I walk out alone.

“You’re in the wrong one,” says the little girl.

“That’s the women’s!” screams the theater-going matron from across the lobby

crowded with my students and co-workers.

I am mad. Too mad for a teachable moment. Too mad to be patient. Too mad to set a good example.

I am mad.

I am raging mad, screaming mad, howling fury-bansidhe-thunderstorm-volcano-tornado-destruction mad.

Monstrous mad.

Ignored about abuse equals

Diagnosed with congenital madness equals

Inappropriate parent equals

Signing papers that legally bind you never to be alone with your son

who you are protecting from your abuser.

Equals

Restraining order without evidence (because you can do that in Washington State divorce law) equals

never see your son again equals

no chance to say goodbye equals

no one grieving or even sympathetic because you never lost a child.

You walked away.

Walked away because she was hurting me in front of him.

Walked away because that hurt him and I couldn’t bear for him to suffer.

Walked away because I thought – stupidly – that having one abusive parent would be better for him than having no parents.

I never walked away from him. I walked away from her. Not for me. Never for me. I was too destroyed to care about me.

I walked away for him. And I lost him. And I am mad.

I am mad.

I am spitting, clawing, fighting, burning mad.

Diagnosed with congential madness means

no pregnancy for you

until someone believes you when you scream that you’re not mad, that the doctors are.

Doctors, you will learn, are never mad.

Even when the neurologist says that because you said you had PTSD and were frightened of surgery you need to see a psychiatrist before he will fix the spine injury that is beginning to paralyze your hands.

Because knowing about spinal cords makes you an expert on sexual assault and abuse and defense mechanisms.

As though the psychiatrist knows any more than that.

Ignoring abuse equals

diagnosing madness equals

refusing to see the strength and agility of survivors equals

refusing the see the strength encoded in complex PTSD equals

No kids for you. And no grandkids for your parents.

And more and more failures piled on top of each other

until you expect nothing of yourself except failure

and you don’t think anyone else expects anything better

and the failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I am mad.

Shouting into the wind mad,

alone in an open field mad,

in an empty room mad,

no one listening mad,

no one hearing mad,

no one caring mad,

silenced mad,

writing this anonymously out of fear for my career mad,

shunned out of my workplace mad,

seeing other survivors not make it mad,

back against the wall mad,

ground into the dirt mad,

injustice mad,

grieving mad,

isolated mad,

mama mad,

crip mad,

queer mad,

Just.

Fucking.

Mad.

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Coalition, Not Lateral Violence

I’ve always felt like the kid who missed the revolution. Born in Berkeley in the early 1970s to parents with deep and generations-long ties to Cal, I came to consciousness as the powerful protests and activist groups of the 1960s and 1970s were disappearing. Maybe that’s why I’m so drawn to the research I do: I get to interview the people who were there, those whose stories haven’t always been told as widely as they should be.

One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned from that time is that internal divisions and the rupturing of coalitions were among the root causes of the crumbling of these powerful activist movements. There were other causes, of course, most notably intense state violence and political resistance, burnout, and in the case of gay liberation a devastating pandemic. But what seems like the most preventable of these turned out not to be. Divide and conquer is a time-honored strategy for defeating an enemy, and activist movements appear to be particularly good at doing it to themselves.

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, then, to see it happening again. Especially this spring, I have experienced, witnessed, or heard about a rapidly growing number of incidents of lateral violence: attacks, including verbal ones, that spark across a plane of power rather than reaching down or up the hierarchy. Lateral violence typically takes place between people who belong to the same group, although they may differ in other ways, like when a cisgender queer person attacks a non-binary queer person. It can also happen between members of different groups at similar levels of power, such as attacks between people of color with different racial or ethnic backgrounds. Lateral violence turns our resistance to oppression inward; rather than directing the intensity of our anger toward the sources of the oppression, we attack each other. Lateral violence destroys coalition; it destroys activist movements. Let’s not do this again.

Forty years ago, activist, singer, and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote that “coalition work is not done in your home.” She didn’t literally mean that we don’t do coalition work in our apartments or houses; she meant, to quote her again, that “it is some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn’t look for comfort” ([1983] 2000: 346). We make progress in activism when we can all come together to support each other’s causes: there is both strength and safety in numbers. But when we all come together, we also disagree. We may share little in common other than our commitment to justice; working through or around the rest is difficult and at times impossible. Coalition is not where you come to feel comfortable or safe; it’s not where you go to recharge your energies or heal your wounds. That space is home, and truly generative activism is not done there.

The past year and a half has knocked most of us back. Some have lost jobs; many of us have feared the loss of jobs. In the academy, and especially for scholars from oppressed groups, a lost job may mean not only financial devastation but also the end of a career. Many people have come under greater threat of violence in the past year; others have had to watch as violence against their communities replays endlessly on the news and in their social media feeds. People have watched loved ones die from violence and from disease, have watched or experienced themselves the devastating effects of long COVID, returning trauma, depression and anxiety and suicide attempts, financial ruin from medical bills and COVID closures. So many of us stretched ourselves to breaking, getting out in the streets to protest, volunteering, teaching, caregiving, and trying to stay afloat and alive. Now, as many people’s worlds begin – unevenly – to open up again and as we face new challenges with kids unvaccinated, mask mandates banned, inequities in access to vaccines, ongoing threats of insurrection, and new spikes in racist, xenophobic, and anti-religious violence and mass shootings, a lot of us just need home.

But for many of us, home isn’t there anymore. The people are gone, the spaces are still closed or have gone out of business, we can’t go out because some of our loved ones are still at risk from the virus, and most of us are intensely sick of the four walls we’ve seen day in and day out for more than fifteen months – if we even have four walls anymore. We’re looking for home in our coalitions instead, and when they fail us we’re exploding them from the inside.

I began to experience violent verbal attacks in early January. At first it was just one person, responding to concerns I’d raised with scarcely-concealed sexist invective that he simply repeated more loudly no matter to whom I went in an ultimately fruitless search for justice. Then, as winter rolled over into spring, a pattern started to form. I’ve been shouted down in meetings, told in no uncertain (but very uninformed) terms how to do my job, attacked for offering a professional perspective I had been invited to give. In only about half of the cases did anyone who witnessed this behavior even say anything to me afterward; almost no one intervened on my behalf in the moment. I’ve witnessed or heard about straight members of oppressed groups relentlessly attacking queer members of the same groups, queer people taking down trans folks, blatant racist attacks on colleagues and scheming behind the scenes for racist purposes. Most, if not all, of these attacks are lateral violence. We’re using each other as punching bags because we can’t punch the bigger problems. We’re trying to make our coalitions home, and attacking other members of them when they fail to feed our hunger for safety and healing. We’re destroying our coalitions, and with them our movement for justice. We need to stop.

It’s so hard to do this work when we’re burned out, scared, injured, backed against the wall. It’s so hard to rebuild our energies, to create a space of home, recharging, healing, when our spaces have been destroyed and our homes may be gone. It’s so hard to take the time away when the work feels more urgent than ever, when we want to stay on the battlefield until the war is won. But we have to find a way to do this. Rather than break our coalitions, we need to take breaks from them, so that we can come back stronger and able to handle the hard, dangerous work that takes us far from home in our struggle to create a more just world. We have to stop the lateral violence before we replay history and shatter the movements we’ve so carefully rebuilt.

Stop the violence. Build the coalitions. Change the world.

Source:

Bernice Johnson Reagon. [1983] 2000. “Coalition Politics: Turning the Century.” In Barbara Smith, ed., Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.