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Tell Them To Come With Fire in Their Bellies
I n Southern Oregon in the summer of 2002, lightning set off a forest fire that stretched across the heart of the Siskiyou Wild Rivers area. This was the largest fire in North America that year. Forest Service scientists dubbed it the “Biscuit fire.” These same scientists quickly pointed out that the Biscuit fire performed needed biological functions, including reduction of fuels on the ground.
Within months the Bush administration, led by Mark Rey, began planning the largest logging project in Forest Service history. The Biscuit logging operations (deceptively titled the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project) encompasses about 20,000 acres (31.25 square miles) and a proposed cut of 372 million board feet—equivalent to 74,400 logging trucks. This includes about 9,000 acres (14 square miles) of “protected” old-growth reserves. The Project would leave just 1.5 legacy trees (“snags”) per acre—a virtual clearcut. Many of the trees tagged to be cut are not dead, rather their outer bark is scorched. Many are part of late-successional old growth stands. The soil is so fragile and unique for the area and climate that clearcutting will guarantee the demise of thousands of rare plants and animals. It would also mean the destruction of fragile rivers still supporting salmon. Court motions to stop the massive logging operation have been in vain.
On March 7, 2005 logging of an old growth reserve began in an area called the Fiddler Timber Sale. People from Southern Oregon blocked logging trucks from crossing a bridge. On the morning of March 14, 2005 a group of women dressed in black blocked the bridge to the Biscuit, one of the most botantically diverse national forests on the North American continent. The women were determined to be the voices for the trees. Among the 20 arrested that day was Joan Norman, a 75-year-old women who has been an activist for over 40 years. I interviewed her at the Siskiyou Forest Defenders camp near Selma, Oregon.
O’SHEA : Where did you start as an activist?
NORMAN: I went with the freedom riders to the South. I went to Alabama to stop the lynchings and to let the people be free. I went to Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham. I started out with members of a church. We took a bus from California to the South. I walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. The thing we wanted to stand up to then was the destruction of the diversity of people in this nation.
So here you are in Selma, Oregon instead of Selma, Alabama, another place to fight for diversity. You are on an interesting journey.
Yes, it has been a very interesting journey. You know I once was very rich. I married a man who became very powerful. He helped to invent the microchip. I had a big house where many fancy parties were held for other rich corporate industrialists. I did my wifely duties so that we could keep our money. I came from a Republican lineage. I was born in an oil town in Oklahoma into a culture that trashed and enslaved the earth to extract wealth.
One day the fire grew in my belly. The fire is the work we came to do in this life. When we are domesticated, the fire is diminished and sometimes put out. We forget our soul urge.
knew that the way we lived was wrong. The people around me were
mean. I had dreams. I began to pay attention. John Kennedy was running
for president then. I was so inspired by what he said to us, to
all the people. I stopped being a Republican and joined JFK’s
election campaign. I brought Democrats, working people, into my
big house. I put on fundraising events to get JFK elected. After
he was assassinated I tried to help get Bobby Kennedy elected. I
met Bobby Kennedy. I was inspired by his words and actions. And
then they assassinated him, too.
All this brought much turmoil to my world. I sold everything after I left my husband and the corporate world. I lived small and I joined in to defend the earth and its people against the war, against the people, and the natural world.
I have been arrested over 100 times standing against injustice. After the civil rights struggle in the South, I joined the protests against the Vietnam War. I was at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. I went to Washington, DC to stop the G8 and the WTO takeover of the world. I have been in the streets with the best of them. I have lived for 30 years in a community of freedom riders. I lived in a motor home for 12 years and traveled to where I was needed. I had my own kitchen, my own first aid station, my books, and my passion for freedom and justice.
I was at the Nevada test site protests. I stood beside the true heroes of this country. I stood by them at Fort Benning to protest the School of the Americas.
Aren’t you afraid to go to jail?
No, I am not afraid. The food is gray, the walls are gray. The jailers are not as mean as the cops who arrest you are. Once you get in the jail, there are rules, but the jailers usually are just doing their jobs the best they can. I look at it like some crazy comedy. They are doing what they think is necessary and I am doing what I think is necessary. We just don’t agree on what is necessary. The people in the jails are mostly working poor struggling to survive. They are in jail for all sorts of crazy things—some big things, but mostly small things. These people are kept so distant from the rest of America, they don’t even know we care. When I am in jail, I educate. I listen to the stories and I pass these stories onto people wherever I-go.
No, I am not afraid. I am 75 years-old. Do you know what this culture has in store for me, an old woman? They will wait for me to be sick at the end of my life and then strap me to feeding tubes, pump drugs into me, put me on a machine to make my lungs go up and down, and wait for me to die. I am not bound to go out that way. I would rather go out in a blaze, defending the world I love. I will be on the front lines someday and my soul will know the time to go and I will just leave. I will make that decision. Knowing this, I am not afraid. I am more afraid that my grandchildren will think I did not try hard enough to leave them a legacy of peace and a world worth living in. I don’t want them to know the beauty of trees by looking at a book. I want them to be able to walk among 800-year-old trees and know that is our destiny.
It sounds like jail is another important part of the journey you are on.
Some of the most important people of my life I met in jail. I met my teachers, my inspirers in jail. I met the greatest people I ever knew in jail.
Who did you meet?
I was in jail with Philip Berrigan, the radical priest who poured blood on draft records, pounded on missile silos, and took a stand at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. I was in jail with Corbin Harney, an elder of the Western Shoshone tribe. We went up to the sacred lands at Four Corners, New Mexico and tried to stop the mining of uranium on this sovereign native land.
I can imagine the teachings that happened in jail.
Ronny Gilbert, a musician, has a song about being in jail that describes our experience. It is called “We all sang Bread and Roses.” That song describes my experience exactly. We sat down together in the cells and sang songs of resistance and tried to educate the other prisoners. We used non-confrontational communication to show others how to live in this world. It did not matter if it was another prisoner, or a jailer, we tried to teach peaceful resistance. I am still doing this today.
What goes through your mind when you know you may be arrested.
I just know when we are supposed to stand up, you know, have a backbone. We can’t let these people who have no social consciousness rule the world. If we let them take our peace, our air, our water, the sky, the trees, the plants, we will be lost.
When it comes time to resist, I just do it. I sit down and I don’t move. I don’t talk. I sit down and I hold my own sovereign space.
When they removed me from the bridge I was blocking by carrying me in my chair to the sheriff’s vehicle, they put me down there and thought I would stay put. The officers went off to arrest someone else. I got up and moved my chair back to my space. An officer yelled, “Hey, you are not supposed to do that. Get back over where I put you.” I just laughed. People have been trying to get me to be where they put me all my life. I have a right to stand up against evil and I will.
I am not afraid to say my truth. Once I was up in a tree sit and a logger came and yelled up at us, “Why don’t you get a job?” I yelled down to him, “I do have a job, defending the forest is my job.” Then I said to him, “What kind of job do you have? Cutting down the forests? I like my job better than yours.” And the logger just walked away.
How do you know what’s the good fight?
Well, the good fight is different for each person. My good fight has been about resisting injustice wherever I find it. Early on the good fight for me included fighting for the right for women to control their own bodies, their own fertility. The state needs to stay out of women’s bodies. That is part of the good fight for me. Right now, the good fight is making sure the natural world is not destroyed by greed. This fight came to me through my grandson. My grandson lived on the edge of a forest. He spent from early in the morning to nightfall exploring the forests. I was concerned about this. I thought he was there to get away from his family. I talked to him. I said I was afraid he would get lost, but instead he was found.
He said, “Grandma, it’s so beautiful and amazing in the forest, you have to come with me so I can show you.” So, I went with him. It was hard for my old bones and joints. I had to try to go up these steep paths and over logs on the trail, but I did. What he showed me was just so amazing. I saw it the first time through the eyes of a child. You cannot read about nature and wild places, you have to go there. And, once you do, no threat of jail will keep you from preserving it. The wild places are the last place on earth that we have to remember our heritage and show us our legacy. This is why, at this time of my life, after all I have tried to defend, I am a forest defender.
Can you explain the concept of personal sovereignty?
We are sovereign people. We are self-contained. There is a light in you that came into you when you were born. When we stand up against unjust laws and rules and regulations we need to make sure that we are letting that pure light shine. We are not cogs in a corporate machine. If we connect with that light, we will know the right way to live on this great planet.
When I was in jail with young people, I tried to teach this concept. I tried to teach the difference between individuation, where people run around and act selfishly and destroy everything, and learning to know the reason you came to this life and letting your internal light, your sovereign light shine on the work you came to do in this life.
What will you do now, here in the Siskiyous?
We are here for the duration. There are many local women here and dedicated men who love the earth and love the peace. We are just a few now, but we are growing and we will not sit by as paradise is turned to stumps. We need people to come here and help us defend this place. They are cutting the big trees just beyond this camp. Every day, seven days a week they are cutting down the trees. They don’t care that we had a legal injunction to stop the cutting. We can’t just sit here and let it happen. Tell the people, where you are from, it’s time to get some backbone and some fire. Where was that fire?
Fire in our bellies.
them to get some fire in their bellies and come to this gate to
paradise and help us defend it. Tell them to come. I will be here.
Ellen O’Shea is a Portland, Oregon area social worker and activist. She is a contributor to www.portlandwriters.com and the Portland Indymedia project.
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