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We Called Them Polar Bears- Part 4

Three years after camp, at the mid-point of the Great Recession, I broke. I quit teaching and my consulting job, which I had only managed to keep because I was paid $30,000 a year less than my (less qualified) male counterparts and took on the task of writing an outdoor guide especially for women. I hoped I could provide them with some of the basic skills and straight-talk they needed to overcome the barriers they faced to getting outdoors. It was more than education or a call to wellness, it was an act of resistance and political subversion. Women controlled more than two-thirds of the purchasing power in the United States and, with a slight edge in the total population, constituted the largest voting block. Perhaps in getting them outside they would see the value of the natural world and in assigning value, decide to take action.

Six years later, A Woman’s Guide to the Wild was published. I toured and gave lectures, hoping to recruit women to the environmental movement by encouraging them to step out, go wild, and lose themselves in the outdoors for their own mental and physical health, and the overall health of the planet (and the polar bears). At those events I discovered that there was a greater need too, a need for women to see other women insisting on having a voice and being comfortable as who they were in the world. At my events, that meant a lot of frank talk about fears, stigmas and bodies. I quickly became the Judy Blume of the outdoor world, seemingly the only woman comfortable talking about peeing on shoes, menstruation, and whether or not we might be eaten by bears. The response was visceral and invigorating. It was clear that women were sick of hazing, condescension, and minimization for the sake of machismo. I kept writing with a watchful eye on the end of the hopeful era of the Obama Administration. In spite of early protestations from my fellow liberals, I was sure that Donald Trump would become the next President of the United States. 

One of his first acts as President was to sign an executive order changing the ‘navigable waters of the United States’ rules, rules that specify exactly which waters can be extended Clean Water Act, including wetland status protections. The order was largely overshadowed by his actions to reduce the scope of the Affordable Care Act, and, like the plight of the polar bears, largely ignored or misunderstood by the American public. It marked the beginning of what has proven to be a steady erosion of environmental protections, regulations and wilderness areas.

In January 2017, just days after the Women’s March, I heard of another movement, focused on the new president’s relationship to science, the environment, and truth, the March for Science. Within minutes, I had, without thought or consideration of what it might mean for my life, started organizing the local march in Eugene, Oregon. That Earth Day, we gathered in front of the University of Oregon Library, close to 6000 strong, elected officials, community members, scientists, and students and marched peacefully through the streets in defiance of the City’s terms of use that would have required us to keep to the sidewalks.

It energized me. Since then, I have written a similar guide to the outdoors for girls, providing a new generation with inspiration, skills and basic environmental education in the hopes that it combats the epidemics of inactivity, screens, mental health, low self-esteem, and nature deficit disorder they face. I have used my platform as a vehicle for education, showing people the wilderness, what logging looks like, the size of old growth trees, and sharing with them step they can take to protect natural resources. I call and write elected officials, attend community meetings, town halls, and city council forums, sit on rules committees, and have formed relationships with legislators and advocates to inform, brainstorm, and craft the way forward. I volunteer my time to environmental groups focused on action, including Oregon Wild and Beyond Toxics, young women’s groups like Ophelia’s Place, and food activism, so important to us as a dominant predator species, focusing on making healthy food, procured from local resources available to all people. I vote.

2006 still sits with me, idling at the center of my rage, fueling my resistance and giving me hope. That term, after the final, my students directed my attention to a large cardboard box addressed to me that had appeared on the lectern. It was wrapped in yellow tape with a sign that read CAUTION: CONTENTS MUST REMAIN COOL. I should open it, they urged. I rummaged through a drawer to find a pair of scissors, cut through the tape, and tugged off the lid. Out sprang, jack in the box style, a cascade of white teddy bears. Each one different, close to thirty in all. A simple acknowledgment, we hear you; we must not be lost at sea, but find our footing on the ice.

Today I no longer worry for the polar bears, but not because they are recovering. No, now there is a lake on the north pole and though most people got the climate change message when the big storms started, they still do not go outside, assign value, or take action. And there is an uphill battle against a president that has never had to swim in search of ice. The polar bears are lost, and I have reconciled myself to that. I know that someday I will live in a world where we will tell our children that back when we were kids, there were these great white bears that lived on the ice, and we called them polar bears.

A glacier reaching to the ocean


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