There was no definitive moment when I decided that I wanted to work in the field. I just did my best to follow my intuition and find what made me happy. I’m sure the fact that I spent most of my time as a kid outdoors had an effect on me. We lived in a semi-rural area surrounded by woods and not many people. It was a great place to grow up.
There aren’t a lot of women in forestry yet, and on top of that, I am a very small woman. Loggers often give me that look when they first meet me- it’s dubious, uncertain, or in the worst cases, patronizing. I’ve received some of the same reactions from my own colleagues and even my supervisors. It actually doesn’t bother me, provided they allow my work to speak for itself, and are able to change their perception of me. It does bother me if they continue to treat me as “less than” my male coworkers. I have to be suspicious of decisions made, when a male coworker is chosen for a task over me, or given greater responsibility. I have to ask myself if the decision made sense, if it was logical, or if it was biased. This is partly because a lot of men have these sexist concepts and standards entrenched into their psyche to the point that they aren’t aware of the source of their decision-making (in some cases at least, I don’t think so). I once challenged my supervisor over a series of decisions that gave a younger, less experienced male coworker more responsibility and visibility than myself, and he looked stunned. He had no real explanation, though he tried to come up with one. Fortunately, things did change after that.
Though I am a tiny woman- or maybe because of it- I am tough. I don’t think I was ever a weak person, but doing this job has made me much stronger. When people find out about my job, they immediately picture a sunlit forest or panoramic mountain views, and they are envious. It’s true, those are the perks of my job. However, there is a lot they don’t see: the weeks of trudging on snowshoes in subzero temperatures, from sunup to sundown, in the boreal forests of northern New England; soaking through my clothes in triple digits and 100% humidity in the loblolly pine plantations of Louisiana, and the way my arms would bleed after having to push through the ubiquitous briars there; spending the entire day hiking across rocky, steep mountainsides, stepping around the bone piles left by the cougars you know are eyeing you from somewhere. Some people think I hike on trails, and I just laugh.
I remember a pivotal moment in my first forestry job. It was a seasonal job in northern Maine, moose country, working for a large industrial timber company. A few weeks in, the black flies hatched. The mosquitoes did too, and the horse flies, and the deer ticks. Suddenly, I found myself being eaten alive every second of every day. I was so tormented by the insects, so covered in bites and rashes, that one day, sitting in my truck, I broke down. The insects were swarming and audibly pinging against the window of my truck, trying to get inside. I watched them in horror, knowing I had to get out and submit myself to them. I just started crying, and questioning whether I was actually cut out for this work. I seriously considered quitting, and thought that maybe this was a job meant for bigger, stronger men. For women, the sexism exists inside of our minds, too. We were taught those same false lessons about ourselves, and we have to fight it, too.
But I no longer have those regrets or doubts. Not when I’m digging the ticks out of my skin. Not when I’m getting pelted by freezing rain. Not when I get home at the end of the day, bruised, cut up, and exhausted. Working outside makes me feel like a strong and wild woman. It’s where I’m supposed to be. And the work I do is very much the legacy I want to leave behind- not just to conserve and protect our forests, but also to help make it easier for all the strong women coming into this field after me. I’m going to love every moment of this work while I can, and take the hard-earned experience with me, wherever my career takes me next.