Who I am, and What this Newsletter Is.
I don’t consider myself an authority on many things, for many complicated reasons. This is a strength of mine, although having worked in male-dominated professions I have learned that some conviction in one’s ideas is necessary to be heard. I have found that I learn more when I am open to listening to what others have to say.
When it comes to discourse surrounding fire, public lands, climate change, ecology, and the conceptions of wilderness, I am always learning and evolving. I’ll get things wrong sometimes, and when I do get things wrong I’m always happy to admit it because being wrong is an opportunity for growth and learning. Unfortunately we live in a culture and a news cycle that punishes people for being wrong (though there is more openness to the admission of wrongness and redemption than most realize).
This newsletter exists as a contribution to an ongoing conversation rather than a tome of definitive conclusions. The basis of science and learning is evolution. I don’t expect my newsletter or my writing to be the end of any discussion, nor do I have the “answer” to any given problem.
That’s the thing: right now, no one has the answers to the incredibly complicated problems facing us right now. There is a cultural misconception that one person is the source of an answer and that there’s one answer, period. In order to begin to address the issues of public lands, reintroduction of fire, and helping to change the public’s perception of wildfire and prescribed fire, we need to be working together and helping one another rather than behaving in the toxic authoritative manner that got us here in the first place.
In the realm of science there are many specialists. Some scientists study dendrology (the study of trees), ornithology (birds), mycology (fungi), entomology (insects), soil sciences such as edaphology and sedimentology, ecology, agrobiology, climatology…you get it. There are a lot of specialists out there. And we need specialists.
I am not a specialist. I am a writer who has been passionate about environmental science, Indigenous history, and “conservation” since I was a young child. I was under 12 when I first read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. I fell in love with Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest Williams, and Gary Snyder when I was a a teenager. I’ve been reading ecological texts and nature writing for over three decades.
Although I was a voracious reader and very curious person, I didn’t have access to good education. I was raised by a single mother, in an abusive household. We moved often. I ran away when I was twelve, and spent some of my adolescence homeless. That I graduated high-school at all was only because of a very lucky convergence of events in my life, and neither of my parents had been so lucky. No one in my family has gone to college, ever. Except me.
Before I was eighteen I gained access to community college classes through a Washington State program that allowed high-schoolers to take college courses for free. I took classes in environmental science and biology and psychology, and I excelled as a student, but eventually I dropped out and became a wildland firefighter. It wasn’t until I was 32 that I went back to school in earnest. I graduated summa cum laude from Syracuse University at 35 years-old, while working 30 hours a week as a server, nanny, and tutor. Before that, I’d worked as a hotel housekeeper, a stripper, a nanny, a firefighter, a brake press operator, a general laborer, a McDonald’s cashier, a bartender…you get it. I have also been awarded a Fulbright, won writing awards, and am on fellowship in my PhD program.
As far as the context of this newsletter, I will not always write things that you, my reader, agree with. Some of you are specialists in your field, and I am grateful to have you and your insight here. That said, I research, a lot. I read all the academic papers you write and review. I have notebooks full of notes. I have read more books than I can count about wildland fire, fire ecology, ecology, conceptions of wilderness, eco-criticism, the anthropocene, fire history, Indigenous history in the United States, colonization of the United States, and niche sciences. I am an academic and a researcher working in the academy.
I welcome all feedback when it comes to this newsletter and my writing in general, especially from scientists and those working in the fields I write about but also from generalists and laypeople, because I want to know how my writing is received and want to know if I’ve gotten something wrong or if I should investigate something more deeply.
That said, if you decide that you are angry because I have written something you don’t like, and you don’t read my writing carefully or generously, and you decide that you are smarter than me and become unreasonable, you will be blocked from this newsletter. I have spent years of my life tolerating people, especially men, who needed to prove their superiority to me, and I will not waste another second doing that.
If you have feedback, be respectful. That’s all I ask. I will treat you with respect in return.
I did get some helpful feedback from a couple people
on my last post regarding zombie forests, and I wanted to take a moment to parse out something I barely touched on in my post, which is that trees are important. That we are seeing extensive tree death throughout the west (and east). These deaths have been connected to the warming planet. As I said in that piece, there have been proposals of reseeding forests with similar species of trees (specifically and often pine species) that are more drought and heat dominant, but this is, as far as I know, only a proposal and not something that’s happening (correct me if I am wrong).
I had some pushback from folks regarding the term “zombie forests,” and I must say that as someone who studies media and rhetoric, I have not been swayed from my thoughts about this term. Pithy terms like this can have a huge impact on public perception and flatten narratives. The word “zombie” implies something dead but not dead. Something possessed. Something evil and dangerous. When I imagine myself as someone who has very little knowledge of ecology or forests, the images that arise are striking and terrifying. The term leaves no room for hope or solutions. If it’s a zombie forest, why not just harvest the whole thing and let it be taken over by brush? What does it matter? This is what I imagine a layperson may think when confronted with this term. And this is why, when I see media outlets report in ways that refuse nuance, I respond.
And that’s not the case. I refuse to be hopeless when it comes to our planet. Not when I know how many Indigenous groups and nonprofits are fighting to bring fire back. Not when I can clearly see the possibilities for confronting this issue and finding solutions. Plural.
One thing I’ve learned about coming from a non-traditional background is that specialists sometimes have a difficult time imagining beyond the context of their knowledge and training. But that kind of imagination is vital to considering and solving these issues, which is why collaboration is key.
I’m going to leave you with this wonderful short film, Bringing Back the Light. Before watching, please consider becoming a paying subscriber to this newsletter. Your paid support helps fund my research and writing. Thank you so much for reading, and I truly appreciate you!