Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberationby Eli Clare
Eli Clare, a lesbian with cerebral palsy, examines environmentalism, disability and gender, both personally and politically. See more details below
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Eli Clare, a lesbian with cerebral palsy, examines environmentalism, disability and gender, both personally and politically.
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Exile & Pride
Disability, Queerness, and Liberation
By Eli Clare
Duke University PressCopyright © 2009 Eli Clare
All rights reserved.
explaining the distance
1979. EACH DAY AFTER SCHOOL I RUN THE SIX MILES FROM HIGHWAY 101 to my house. The road follows Elk River. I pass the dairy farm, the plywood mill that burned down three years ago, the valley's volunteer fire department station, the boat landing where recreational fishermen put in their boats during salmon season. I have the curves and hills memorized, tick the miles off, skin salty with sweat, lungs working a hard rhythm. I know most of the people who drive by. They wave and swerve into the other lane. The logging trucks honk as they rumble by loaded with 10 or 15 skinny logs. I remember when one or two huge logs made a load. Pushing up the last big hill, my lungs and legs begin to ache. Two curves before my house, I pass a yellow and brown sign. It reads: "United States Forest Service. Entering the Siskiyou National Forest."
* * *
1994. I live now in southeast Michigan on the edge of corn country. Book- browsing I happen upon Clearcut: The Tragedy of Industrial Forestry. The book documents clearcut logging throughout the United States and Canada. I glance at the big, full-color photos of new clearcuts, second growth forests, old growth forests, and tree farms; read the captions and descriptions. The book is divided by state and province. I look for Oregon and suddenly find myself in the Siskiyous, the photograph overwhelmingly familiar. The ground is bare, heaps of branches, stumps, and half logs hanging to the slope. There are no standing trees, only snatches of green, the new sprouts of huckleberry, greasewood, gorse, and tansy ragwort.
I used to cut firewood on clearcuts like this one. Upriver near Butler Basin and Bald Mountain after the last logs were driven away, loggers bulldozed the remains — branches, shattered logs, trees too small to buck into logs, stumps — into one enormous pile. Rather than burn these remains, the US Forest Service issued firewood-cutting permits. My father and I would spend the whole month of October on these clearcuts, gathering our winter's supply of firewood. He'd cut the logs into rounds, silver bar of chainsaw slicing through the wood, spewing sawdust. I'd watch his hands holding the saw steady, knowing its vibrations were climbing his arms, my ears full of the idle and roar.
I turn from the photo to the accompanying text. Photographer Elizabeth Feryl writes:
While in the Port Orford, Oregon area, I'd heard of a slide along Bear Creek, so I decided to investigate. Nothing could have prepared me for the estimated 40,000 tons of mud, rock, and logging debris that had been dumped on the road and littered in the waterway. This "blowout," caused by the headwall of the drainage giving way, had also carved a swath through the hillside thirty feet deep, sixty feet across, and a half mile long taking the drainage down to the bedrock. We followed this carnage about a quarter of a mile to the "belly of the beast," the clearcut pictured here.
* * *
Forty thousand tons of rock, mud, and logging debris to be washed downstream from Disaster Creek to Bear Creek to Bald Mountain Creek to Elk River to the Pacific Ocean. Elk River: river of my poems, real and metaphor; river of my childhood where I swam, skipped rocks, watched heron and salmon, learned to paddle a canoe. I read and reread the place names and the explanation. On steep slopes, trees literally hold the earth in place, and thus, clearcutting can destabilize whole mountainsides, inviting catastrophic slides called blowouts. I know all this but can't stop reading.
* * *
Later, I tell a friend about finding this photo. She has never walked a logging road, listened to the idle and roar of a chainsaw, or counted growth rings on an old growth stump, but we share a sensibility about environmental destruction. I describe the photo, explain blowouts, talk about watershed. What I don't say is how homesick I feel for those place names, plant names, bare slopes, not nostalgic, but lonely for a particular kind of familiarity, a loneliness that reaches deep under my skin, infuses my muscles and tendons. How do I explain the distance, the tension, the disjunction between my politics and my loneliness? She asks, "If you went for a walk along Elk River now, what changes would you notice?" I try to describe the images that have rumbled around my head for days. That winter, the river must have flooded chalky brown over the gravel bars. The next summer, the kids who lived near the river must have found their swimming holes changed, the deep pools shallower, current running faster. I describe spawning season at the confluence of Elk River and Anvil Creek. Salmon flounder into the creek, thrash up the shallows, dig nests in the gravel, flood the water with spawn. They are almost dead, bodies covered with white rot, the gravel bars littered with their carcasses. The following summer the river teems with coho and chinook fingerlings, three inches long, as they head downstream to the ocean. I can barely register that the spawning bed at Anvil Creek might be silted in with rock, mud, and logging debris, might not exist anymore.
* * *
For years I have wanted to write this story, have tried poems, diatribes, and theories. I've failed mostly because I haven't been able to bridge the chasm between my homesickness for a place thousands of miles away in the middle of logging country and my urban-created politics that have me raging at environmental destruction. I have felt lonely and frustrated. Without the words for this story, I lose part of myself into the chasm.
I am the child who grew up in the Siskiyou National Forest, in second growth woods that won't be logged again for a long time. The hills weren't replanted in the '40s and '50s when they were first clearcut and so grew back in a mix of alder, tan oak, myrtle, and madrone, trees the timber industry considers worthless. I played endlessly in this second growth forest. Followed the stream from our house uphill to the little dam where we siphoned water off to the holding tanks that supplied our house with water year-round. I loved taking the covers off the tanks, listening to the trickle of water, watching the reflection of trees waver in the cool dark surface. I drank big gulps straight from the tanks, my cheeks and chin growing cold and wet. Then continued uphill, kicking through the alder and tan oak leaves, scrambling up slippery shale slides. I pulled the bark off madrone trees in curly red strips, crumpled myrtle leaves to smell their pungent bay leaf odor. I knew where the few remaining old growth firs still stood. Had my favorite climbing trees — white fir, grand fir, myrtle. I'd wrap my hands around their branches, skin against bark, and pull my body up, clambering toward sky, resting in the cradles where branch met trunk. Or I'd stay on the ground, lean back into the unmovable tower of trees. I walked out onto rotten logs that spanned the stream, crouched down to examine moss, liverwort, lichen, shelf mushrooms, tried to name the dozen shades of green, tan, and brown, poked at snails and banana slugs. In the summer the hills were hot and dry, the sun reaching easily through the trees. I scrambled across clearings tangled in berry brambles and gorse, through and around undergrowth, uphill to the rock out of which the stream dripped.
I grew up to the high whine of diesel donkeys and chainsaws, yarders and cats next ridge over, the endless clatter of plywood mill two miles downstream. When the warning whistle squealed through the valley, I knew that logs were being pulled up out of the gullies toward the loading areas where empty logging trucks waited. I grew up to the sweet smell of damp wood chips being hauled north on Highway 101 to the port in Coos Bay or the paper mill in Gardiner. I watched for hours as gigantic blowing machines loaded mountains of wood chips onto freighters bound for Japan. I reveled in plant names: huckleberry, salmonberry, blackberry, salal, grease-wood, manzanita, scotch broom, foxglove, lupine, rhododendron, vine maple, alder, tan oak, red cedar, white cedar, Port Orford cedar. I wanted a name for everything. I still have a topographical map of the Elk River watershed, each quadrant carefully taped to the next.
I am the backpacker whose favorite trails now wind through old growth rain forest, trees standing so tall I can't find their tops, bark deeply grooved, ropy, fire-scarred. The sun barely reaches through the canopy, leaving small pools of light on the forest floor layered inches deep in fir and spruce needles. Everything cascades green, moss upon moss, swordtail ferns sprouting from rotten logs. The trail bends again and again around Sitka spruce, their roots sticking up high above ground, knobby and twisted. There is no undergrowth, only a thousand shades of green. Among these trees, I find a quiet.
I am the activist who has never poured sugar into a cat's gas tank but knows how. The activist who has never spent a night in the top of a Douglas fir slated for felling the next morning but would. The activist who has never blockaded a logging site or a logging executive's office as I have military complexes. I am the socialist with anarchist leanings who believes the big private timber corporations, like Weyerhaeuser and Georgia-Pacific, are corrupt, and the government agencies, like the US Forest Service, that control public land are complicit. I am the adult who still loves the smell of wood chips, the roar of a lumber mill, who knows out-of-work loggers and dying logging towns. Living now on the edge of corn country, I am the writer who wants to make sense.
In the white, Western world view that I learned as a child, trees, fish, and water were renewable resources. Only 50 years prior, they were conceived of as endless resources, a myth white people brought west into the "frontier." Sometimes when I hiked upriver toward Butler Bar and saw ridge after ridge covered with alder and tan oak, mixed with Douglas fir and Sitka spruce, I believed trees were endless. Or when I went to the cannery and saw a day's catch of coho and chinook, I thought fish were endless. Particularly in the middle of winter when rain drenched the valley every day, I knew water was endless.
But in the 1960s and 70s, the powers-that-be in the public schools, government, and industry taught us that trees and fish, rather than being endless, were renewable. If clearcuts were diligently replanted, we would never run out of trees, paper, or lumber. If the salmon runs were carefully maintained by hatcheries, we would never run out of salmon. No one even bothered to explain about water.
Clearcuts, our teachers said, were good. They encouraged the growth of fir and pine, the so-called good — meaning profitable — trees that as seedlings need direct sunlight to grow. The practice of replanting and the superiority of tree farms were placed at the center of these lessons. But our teachers went far beyond trees in their defense of clearcut logging. Clearcuts, my classmates and I were told, provided bountiful browsing for deer and other wildlife. Hunters and their supporters quickly added that because this abundance of food, coupled with the disappearance of predators, led to a cycle of overpopulation, deer hunting was not just a sport, but a necessity. And so our worldview developed, layer upon layer. How did the forest and its wildlife ever survive before clearcutting, replanting, and sport hunting? We didn't ask because we were children taught not to question. We believed the propaganda.
No one told us about old growth forest. They didn't say, "Understand, a tree farm differs from an old growth forest." We didn't study the cycle of an ecosystem that depends upon rotting logs on the forest floor and a tree canopy hundreds of feet high — a cycle neither static nor altogether predictable, interrupted sometimes by fire, climate changes, or major volcanic activity, but nonetheless a cycle. I knew big, old trees existed. I remember the winter my favorite fir blew down. After we cut it into firewood, I hunkered down by the stump and counted its growth rings, one for every year of its life. It was 400 years old. But I didn't know about thousands of acres of big old trees. Nor did I know about animals, like the northern spotted owl, that live in old growth forests. No one told us, and the logging industry had quite a stake in the silence.
* * *
1979. I am part of the Youth Conservation Corps, a summer work program for teenagers. All summer we have made trails, picked up trash, maintained campgrounds, and built fences in the Siuslaw National Forest. This week we are camped east of Mapleton, near a ten-year-old tree farm, thinning the trees. Each morning we fan out into the woods to cut down all the trees four inches or less in diameter. The remaining trees will grow faster and bigger. In 30 or 40 years the US Forest Service will bid these acres out to some private company to clearcut and then replant. I am learning to swing an ax, to know what angle to start a cut at, when to stop chopping and let gravity do the rest, how to pull a tree all the way down to the ground so it won't lean against neighboring trees and kill them. It's hot, dirty work. A girl on my crew went back to camp early yesterday after she stumbled into a bees' nest and was stung 30 times. Everyone thinks I'm nuts for liking this job. At lunch I sharpen my ax, the file flat against the beveled cutting edge. I like the weight of its wooden handle balanced on my shoulder as I trudge up and down the hills. I like touching the trees as I walk by, hands growing dark with pitch. I like the way my arms feel, aching but loose, at the end of the day. The sun is hot against my hard hat. Sweat collects under its band. I can smell the woods on my skin.
* * *
Along with trees, I studied salmon, fascinated with their three-year life cycle from spawning bed to ocean back to spawning bed. Most of what I knew came from the salmon hatchery two miles upriver of my house. In the winter I stood at the fish ladder waiting for fish to come leaping up the cascading stairs of water, then went to count the big scarred animals in their holding tanks. Sometimes I visited the lab where the biologists held the spawn and incubated the fertilized eggs. In the summer I rode my bike around the holding ponds and watched Glen and Paul feed the fingerlings, their hands dipping into five gallon buckets of feed, sweeping through the air, water coming alive as the fish jumped to catch the pellets. Other times I went across the river to the spawning bed at Anvil Creek. I knew two kinds of salmon existed, hatchery salmon and wild salmon. I thought they were the same, just as I thought a tree farm and an old growth forest were the same.
I didn't know why hatchery salmon needed to be grown in Elk River. I knew dams on the Columbia and urban pollution in the Willamette had nearly destroyed the salmon runs in those rivers, but there were no dams and minimal pollution on Elk River. The propaganda that passed as outdoor education didn't speak of the effects of clearcutting on salmon habitat. No one explained that as spawning beds silt up with logging debris and disappear, fewer and fewer wild salmon can spawn. I never heard that if the trees shading a creek are cut, the direct sunlight warms the water. And if the water temperature rises enough in a watershed, salmon, which require relatively cold water to survive, are put at risk. Nor did the propaganda speak of over-fishing. The commercial salmon fishermen who made their livelihoods fishing the summer salmon runs off the coast of California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska hadn't yet heard of sustainable yield. The salmon runs seemed endless.
The powers-that-be didn't teach us that hatchery salmon differ from wild salmon, that they are genetically more homogeneous, more susceptible to disease, and less hardy once at sea. To raise salmon year after year in a hatchery, biologists use formaldehyde and other chemicals each summer to combat recurring diseases that kill thousands of hatchery fingerlings. The continuous pumping of water from the river into the hatchery's complex of tanks and back to the river washes these chemicals into the ecosystem. And each winter when hatchery salmon don't return to the hatchery in large enough numbers, biologists go to natural spawning beds and net wild salmon, taking them to the hatchery to augment their supply of spawn. Soon wild salmon might not exist. The propaganda neglected these details.
Excerpted from Exile & Pride by Eli Clare. Copyright © 2009 Eli Clare. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Eli Clare is a poet, essayist, activist, and the author of The Marrow's Telling: Words in Motion. He speaks regularly at universities and conferences throughout the United States about disability, queer identities, and social justice, and his writing has appeared in numerous periodicals and anthologies. He can be found on the web at www.eliclare.com.
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