Photography by Sirli Raitma

Woman in the Woods

A study of resilience in does
and other female creatures

1. I wanted to be a woman in the woods. I ended up in jail.

2. This is a story with no obvious beginning. Like a river of disputed origin. Let’s start in a hospital bed where a young woman has been watching blood clots work their way down a catheter tube. Which snakes between her own two legs. Let’s have her smoking a cigarette, which locates us in time. A time when you could smoke in hospitals. Let’s make it look awkward because she just started smoking today! The diagnosis is cancer, so, really, why not?

She has turned her head to look out the window—as much to get the smoke out of her eyes as to stop watching the downstream flow of blood clots.

Beyond this window: a football team in the park practices wind sprints. On the table between the bed and the window: a vertebrate anatomy textbook, a yellow highlighter. It’s fall, she’s a biology major, college has started without her.

Let’s remember the walls and the blanket as white. Let’s have the red clots and the yellow highlighter really pop. Let’s have the color scheme in the opening scene scream emergency.

Let’s narrate this story with the immediacy of the present tense to show that, whatever happens next, some part of her life is forever taxidermied inside this emergency. Use third-person point of view because the only way for the narrator to recall this scene is with dissociation, as if she were a visitor in a natural history museum of her own life. Now bring her in.

3. Cancer Patient, Toxic Industrial Midwestern Town, circa 1979 

So many things to notice. The cigarette. The bloody catheter bag. The highlighter, a symbol of memory. Also trauma. Highlighters select what to remember. Also trauma.

Paint some smokestacks on the horizon, behind the park. Add an ethanol distillery and an aluminum smelter. Lay down some train tracks. Put in a lot of steeples. Put some coal cars on the tracks. Remind her, the narrator with the visitor badge, to be kind. This is the beginning of the story.

4. Inside the natural history museum diorama, four deer stand in a clearing as an autumn morning eternally dawns. At center stage: a large male with a fourpoint rack of antlers faces proudly forward. The buck’s eyes meet the viewer’s Stage left: an adult female poses in profile, head turned toward the painted forest behind her. Her face not visible. Somehow, in an artful trick of taxidermy, the doe seems to quiver. Beside her, and between them both, an oblivious fawn gazes downward. Stage right: an interloper! A smaller male with a two-point rack, head lowered, gazes up at the large buck in the middle of the box, feet positioned to indicate that he is moving toward our little family.

The plaque on the wall explains: The large buck is in charge of the doe and yearling male fawn. The two-point buck approaches cautiously now; in another month he may challenge the older buck for the female’s attention. [Emphasis provided by the yellow highlighter.]

5. Everything about the diorama is a lie. Everything about it functions to magnify gender distortions already built into the language of field biology. Even Valerius Geist—the legendary animal behavioralist whom feminist scholars have taken to task for anthropomorphizing male aggression among the ungulates and using phrases like tended females—even that guy acknowledges that pair-bonding is atypical among deer. Moreover, it’s the adult females who behave aggressively during the fall. Toward their yearling sons. Actively chasing them off.

The visual and verbal implication is that the large buck in this tableau is the father of the yearling, who would have been conceived during a previous mating season. That’s almost certainly incorrect, as is the depiction of an unconflicted relationship between doe and yearling in autumn. It is a scene outside the culture of deer. And yet, showcasing rivalry among male ungulates and posing specimens in father-protector family units are recurring narratives of American landscape painting and museum dioramas—and reflect their long entanglement with trophy hunting, nation building, and the glorification of patriarchy. In any case, it’s not biology. Says the girl with the highlighter and the cigarette.

6. This is the way the diorama should look (she thinks):

It’s dawn. On one side of a meadow, a group of male deer of mixed ages mingles. Some clash their antlers. Some mount each other. It’s like an erotic dance party. On the other side: females and fawns. Animals of both sexes meet the eye of the viewer. The accompanying plaque would explain that, except while mating, male and female deer segregate by sex. Fathers do not form social groups with their offspring, but mothers do, and the mothers decide when the young disperse. Beyond this, representation is tricky. What should the females be doing on their side of the glass? How do they spend their days? Here’s where the research record gets spotty. The definitive monograph on deer behavior that was available in 1981 devotes more pages to antler formation than to all of female behavior and ecology. Quoth Valerius: “interactions among female . . . deer are known only generally—not specifically.”

7. A new figure has appeared. He wears a white coat and a stethoscope. He smiles.

 

She could be a woman in the woods. Not in a museum.

 

The young woman looks up and meets his gaze, her eyes beseeching. The doctor is young and handsome and has a kind of feathery haircut not typical of the adult males in Toxic Industrial Midwestern Town, circa 1979. From this, we understand that he has just finished his medical residency at Memorial Sloane Kettering and is employed at this particular hospital only because he married a nurse who wanted to live closer to her family.

The girl in the bed knows she is lucky.

The viewer can easily see how this scene is going to unfold. The doctor will enfold his patient’s hand between both of his. He will exude empathy in ways that are atypical and outside the culture of urology. Before he reviews the pathology findings, he will mention that the average age of bladder cancer is seventy. That the typical patient is male, and less is known about bladder cancer progression in females. That almost nothing is known about progression in young females. But that, whatever comes, he will take care of her. Also, bladder cancer is an environmental cancer. Has she ever vulcanized tires? Worked in an aluminum smelter? Any exposure to aniline dyes? What about chlorinated degreasing agents? He’s quoting from studies all conducted on men. Men of industry. Workingmen who built this nation and were poisoned by bladder carcinogens for their service.

(The doctor is so new he does not know the hospital itself is downwind from a smelter.)

He tells her that bladder cancer likes to recur. That she will be returning for screenings every three months for at least five years and then annually for life. He smiles and says, Sandra, let’s grow old together.

8. Pretty sure that’s what he said. Probably a nurse was there too. Probably the doctor provided some histological details about the tumor, but she hardly noticed. Because she is young and he is young, and his hair is sophisticated and he is still holding her hand. He will protect her. Maybe they could fall in love.

9. Now he asks to check the catheter He pulls down the white blanket.

10. She parts her legs.

11. The highlighter misses this moment, which is lost to the amnesia of trauma and shame.

12. The conflation of disease and desire will be damaging. For example, she won’t figure out she’s gay for three more decades.

13. After he leaves, she writes in her notebook, I am unsexed. 

14. Lake Itasca is the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Situated at the confluence of three great biomes—the grassland prairie to the west, the coniferous forest of the north, and deciduous forest to the south—this small lake in northern Minnesota pours forth a stream of water that begins a 2,552-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico. So says the flyer tacked to the bulletin board outside the office of the young, new ecology professor. The one with the bong and the motorcycle and the pet snakes. Newly released from the hospital, she hasn’t worked up the courage to talk with him yet, but she pockets the flyer and studies it back in her dorm room.

The photo shows a blue lake flowing over a line of boulders into a rippling stream that is the infant Mississippi. In the foreground, a whitetail doe and fawn stand in a clearing, as if taking in the view. Lake Itasca is located in the oldest state park in Minnesota and contains within its borders some of the most extensive stands of unlogged, old-growth red and white pine forests remaining in the Great Lakes area. Set aside and saved from ruin in 1891. At the height of logging era. Against all odds. The aim of forest management in the park has remained the same ever since and is mandated by an act of the state legislature: “to preserve intact the primeval pine forest now growing.”

Lake Itasca means “true head.”

Lake Itasca is home to a biological station that offers summer field courses and here, here, here are the course offerings. This was the beginning of a plan. If her cancer doesn’t return, if she got a scholarship, she could study field biology at the lake, far from smelters and white blankets and pathology labs. In a place set aside. She could be a woman in the woods. Not in a museum. In a primeval woods. A woman who studies deer. Who studies does, and creates a knowledge of them specifically.

 

 

15. Lake Itasca is maybe not the headwaters of the Mississippi. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft asserted in 1832 that it was, when he led a thirty-member party through clouds of mosquitoes to its shores and mashed together two Latin words—veritas and caput—to come up with the pseudo-Indian name Itasca. Or more to the point, Schoolcraft was led to this place by an Ojibwe warrior, Ozaawindib, who could have become the non-pseudo-Indian namesake for the lake but, of course, he did not.

Schoolcraft’s pronouncement overturned a rival claim by Michigan Territory governor Lewis Cass, who, in 1820, put his own name on another lake fifty miles away and declared Cass Lake the true Mississippi headwaters. Schoolcraft was himself a member of that earlier expedition, during which he overheard Native people insisting that Cass was wrong. Twelve years later, he challenged Cass’s claim and prevailed. But then, in the 1870s, a couple of surveyors noticed that nearby Elk Lake actually flows into Lake Itasca. So now it appeared as if Elk was the true father of the waters.

Before this question could be resolved, the explorer Willard Glazier launched a showy expedition, beginning on the Fourth of July, in which he sent an Ojibwe guide farther beyond Lake Itasca to another lake that he claimed was the actual true source of the Mississippi. On (vicariously) discovering the lake, Glazier named it for himself, sailed to the Gulf of Mexico, and published an account of his adventures. But his plagiarism and fraud were exposed. An investigation found that the newly christened Glazier Lake was actually just Elk Lake. The Minnesota State Legislature had enough and passed a resolution valorizing the claim of Itasca as the source of the Mississippi, “so that its earliest explorers not be robbed of their just laurels and to remove temptations to adventurers in future to gain notoriety by attaching their names to said lakes.”

16. In the 1930s, a Civilian Conservation Corps crew bulldozed the Lake Itasca headwaters, redirected the stream, drained the surrounding wetlands, and added the boulders to make a more pleasant vista for tourists.

17. Many waiting rooms later.

18. Many cystoscopes and renal ultrasounds later.

19. Many lab results later.

20. Many seventy-year-old men in waiting rooms who tell her about their lab results later.

21. They compare notes and wish one another luck. She is a young woman with an old man’s cancer. They are her band of brothers. They’re survivors. Unsexed, she’s one of them. Sometimes, in the waiting rooms, they tell her about deer hunting.

22. She’s a PhD student now at the University of Michigan. In a stroke of serendipity, the feathery-haired urologist relocates his practice to Minnesota at about the same time she needs to choose a dissertation topic and a study site. The choice makes itself. If she expands her earlier undergraduate work at the Lake Itasca Biological Station, she can forsake the cold, arrogant urologists at the university hospital and see him again. Collect data. Get a cystoscope.

23. She chooses a big research question: how does the foraging behavior of whitetail deer, browsing on twigs and nibbling on buds, alter the morphology of various species of saplings in the forest understory, as they compete for sunlight and nutrients, and so determine the species composition of the forest overstory generations from now? Of particular interest: how do female whitetail deer, browsing and nibbling on certain kinds of understory twigs while pregnant, shape the forest?

24. Hypothesis: female deer have specific nutritional requirements before they give birth, and, accordingly, their food preferences diverge from their male counterparts during the winter months. Groups of pregnant does, all drawn to the same foods, help one another break trails in the snow. They also conserve calories by choosing densely covered areas of the forest that break the wind. So, when these groups of females and their offspring bed down in largish congregations year after year, what happens to the surrounding growth? How might female-specific pruning patterns shape the forest?

25. She finds in the woods a fully intact 5-acre deer exclosure constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in 1937. There are sapling and understory pine trees growing inside the fence. In the biological station library, she finds a cache of old species inventories that researchers and students conducted within and around the exclosure, with data going back over several decades. She learns the techniques of dendrochronology and reconstructs the history of the forest through tree ring analysis. The oldest red and white pine trees in the park date to one of five major fires that swept through the area between the years 1712 and 1820. Native peoples probably set these fires as a means of improving browse for wild game. She learns to cross-country ski so that she can follow deer trails in the snow.

26. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft invented the word Itasca. Except that maybe he didn’t. Later in his life, he gave conflicting accounts about the origin of this word. It’s also possible that Itasca was a Dakota name.

27. Lauded for his discovery of the Mississippi River headwaters, Schoolcraft was appointed in 1837 to the first Board of Regents at the University of Michigan. His voluminous ethnographic writings went on to serve as the basis for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha.

28, To recap: Schoolcraft was shown the headwaters of the Mississippi by an Ojibwe His name was Ozaawindib.

Correct. But wrong pronoun.

From the account of Alexander Henry of the Red River Brigade, who encountered Ozaawindib in 1801: “This person is a curious compound between a man and a woman. He is a man both as to members and courage but pretends to be womanish and dresses as such. His walk and mode of sitting, his manner, occupations, and language are those of a woman.”

From the 1830 autobiography of John Tanner, a white man adopted into the Ojibwe community: “This man was one of those who make themselves women and are called women by the Indians.”

Indigenous scholars understand Ozaawindib as an Ojibwe Two-Spirit. An agokwe. A gender-diverse person assigned male at birth but who lived as a woman within society. Also, she had several husbands.

29. Omashkoozo-Zaaga’igan is the Ojibwe name of the lake from which the Mississippi River originates.

30. The young biology student’s research catches the attention of the park naturalist and various forest managers who work for the state. She is invited to their meetings, sometimes. She is always the only woman present. The men have a problem. Charged by the state legislature “to preserve intact the primeval pine forest now growing,” they are failing in their role as custodians. Of the three species of pine trees in Itasca State Park, none are successfully reproducing. There is no evidence of successful pine seedling establishment in the understory of any of these forest communities. In fact, no new stands of pine forest have been established since the park was formed in 1891. None. And the old stands are beginning to break up through disease and windfall.

Over the past eighty years, multiple rival hypotheses have been put forth, each championed by an author of many publications, to explain the mysterious absence of pine reproduction in Lake Itasca.

Here’s one: In the 1920s, park officials participated in aggressive wolf trapping as part of a predator bounty program. The program was justified as upholding Itasca’s status as a preserve for wild game, but it was also true that bounty hunting provided income for those same officials. Within ten years, all timber wolves had been extirpated from the region, and, with its primary predator removed, the deer population exploded. Excessive browsing from the next generation of deer was seen, for a time, as the culprit for the lack of pine reproduction. Research papers were published to support this idea. Drastic measures were called for, including a campaign to cull deer herds in the park. Which actually happened. And also generated revenue.

And still the pines did not reproduce.

A few years later came the hazel hypothesis. “Thousands of acres of old growth and also young pine have been invaded by a sea of hazel,” warned a 1957 University of Minnesota School of Forestry report, which cast an innocuous native shrub, the beaked hazelnut (Corylus cornuta), as a veritable red menace, stealthily sprouting from an underground network of lateral roots and rhizomes. A hidden network that was said to siphon water away from white pine roots and send forth legions of aboveground ramets that, allegedly, shade out pine saplings.

There were other theories. There was the exotic fungal disease hypothesis, the popularity of which coincided with a government-subsidized blister rust control program that provided funding and opportunities for local employment. There was the fire suppression hypothesis that advocated for periodic, controlled burning. But no matter what the prevailing school of thought, the various commissioners and forest managers sparring about it, decade after decade, fell into one of two camps: those who advocated active measures to spur pine reproduction (up to and including logging), and those who advocated that nature take its course. Each believed they had a mandate to “preserve intact the primeval pine forest,” and each thought their opponent a fool.

She was sitting in the back of the room during one of these debates, which was unfolding like a Civil War reenactment. Then someone asked, “What about global warming?” and the men fell silent. This was sometime during Ronald Reagan’s second term.

 

 

31. The young biologist stands by a pup tent. Plumes of goldenrod tell us that it’s August. She’s been living out here all summer to save money. She’s wearing army surplus. At her feet: a hat covered with mosquito netting. She’s just come back from the field. Piled next to her tent is a stack of cardboard boxes. They can’t stay here long because dark clouds are filling the sky behind her. On the horizon, rain is already falling on the far shore of Lake Itasca. The lid is off one of the boxes. It’s full of manila file folders. She holds one of these folders open in her hands and gazes down at what looks to be an old typewritten memorandum. A communiqué of some kind between park personnel and a state agency.

Off to the right, a truck with an official state license plate drives away down a rutted lane. It seems that the park naturalist, cleaning out his office at the end of the season, unearthed some correspondence from years past and thought the grad student from Michigan might find something of interest, so he threw the boxes in the back of the pickup and drove them over to her campsite.

Typed across the top margin of one paper are the words FOR YOUR EYES ONLY. She is holding in her hands documentation about a discreet herbicide spraying program in the park throughout the 1950s. It was conducted by helicopter in the off-season. The target: hazel. The purpose: to selectively defoliate broadleaved shrubs and so free pine trees from understory competition, enhancing their reproductive  success. And, as an added benefit, to provide tourists driving through the park “pleasant vistas,” including improved views of the Mississippi River headwaters. The herbicides used: 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T.

Agent Orange is the military name for 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. She knows that. Agent Orange contains dioxin, one of the most deadly chemicals ever created. She knows that, too. Agent Orange. Sprayed all over her study site. For years. And for four field seasons, she had presumed she was decoding an accumulation of natural historical forces that were sculpting the present forest understory and foretelling its future overstory.

There is more. Inside the boxes are other documents revealing that some of the younger white pine trees that she had been inventorying inside the deer exclosure had actually been planted there by those who believed strongly that deer were the enemy of the forest primeval. And had set out to prove it.

32. New Ulm, Minnesota, is charming in a Bavarian kind of way. Depending on whom you ask, it is either most famous for serving as the target of a great battle in the Dakota War of 1862, when Sioux warriors—starving and cheated out of promised annuity payments—burned much of the town, or for the thirty-foot statue of the chieftain Arminius, hero of Germania, that commemorates the defeat of the Romans in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year of our Lord 9. Helmeted Arminius, sword raised, is mounted on a seventy-foot pedestal on top of a hill. He’s hard to miss.

During World War II, German prisoners of war were quartered here.

33. She never thinks to ask why he moved his urology practice to New Ulm. Besides, he has so many questions for her. He wants to know everything—how her field season went, what she’s learned about the deer, when she will defend her dissertation. He asks these questions even as he slides the cystoscope inside her, and he’s looking, looking all around in there, periodically commenting on inflamed areas, scar tissue, a possibly irregular spot to keep our eye on. He seems to possess flawless recall of her field work progress and offers thoughtful follow-up queries.

She knows that he is distracting and soothing her—as he holds her over the cliff—and she wants to be distracted and soothed. And she knows that he knows that, too. It’s always this tango of words between them, checkup after checkup. Their semiannual ecology seminar. But this time, she keeps her secret. She doesn’t want to tell him about the new discovery. How she knows the woods were doused with poison, how everything is ruined now, the whole project. Because what if he also has a new discovery, something that will ruin everything?

He is finishing up. Everything is fine. He wants to know if she has ever researched juniper berries. There is evidence to suggest they might prevent urinary tract infections. So drink gin, Sandra, he says, laughing.

34. Back at the university, she shares the document cache with her dissertation committee. It’s clear that one set of her data is completely ruined by these revelations. To compensate, her adviser suggests that she write a historical chapter that explains how a chemical weapon of war, originally developed to destroy the Japanese rice crop and later used to destroy Vietnam’s rainforests, ended up being sprayed all over the woods at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. She can do that. As for the exclosure study, all is not lost. The tree planters left detailed maps. It should be possible to locate and exclude their handiwork. But she’ll have to reanalyze the data, and maybe make another trip, which will take time, and her fellowship money is running out. She needs a job.

35. From her dissertation:

AGENT ORANGE COMES HOME:
THE MILITARY ROOTS AND
SILVICULTURAL DEPLOYMENT
OF 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T

Operation Hades

Both 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T were developed as chemical weapons by the U.S. Department of Defense during World War II. Their original function was to serve as anticrop agents in rural areas where enemy forces were suspected of receiving civilian support. The rapid end to the war in the Pacific, brought about by the dropping of atomic bombs, probably prevented phenoxy herbicides from being deployed at the time. The only large-scale military use of phenoxy herbicides was by the United States between 1961 and 1971 in the Second Indochina War.

Through a clandestine program code-named Operation Hades (later renamed Operation Ranch Hand), the U.S. Air Force sprayed mixtures of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T over Vietnam. A one-to-one mixture, coded as Agent Orange, was considered most effective. The original purpose of Operation Hades was to clear the sides of the roads to prevent ambush. By 1962, the operation had expanded to include the deliberate spraying of food crops and still later came to include deliberate widespread contamination (“area denial”) to create internal displacement and relocation of civilians. In this regard, herbicide use became part of the larger program of rural pacification. Agent Orange was also used to defoliate forested areas suspected of harboring guerrilla groups. In all, over a quarter of Vietnam’s upland forests were sprayed.

36. The campus newspaper, the Michigan Daily, is hiring. Specifically, it’s looking for a woman to join the editorial board and draft opinion pieces on the issues of the day. The explicit call for women candidates generates backlash, but the paper holds firm, insisting many men are already writing editorials. One of the issues of the day is military research on campus. Things like biological and chemical weapons research. Can she write commentary about that?

37. Also from her dissertation:

In Itasca State Park, deployment of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T was coincidental with, and indeed ushered in, the newfound interest in the ecological role of beaked hazel, the dominant shrub in upland pine forest understories. In 1959, a mix of 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T (Agent Orange) was tested as a means of creating hazel-free vistas for scenic purposes.

Between 1950 and 1965, numerous research projects were conducted in Minnesota on the natural history of hazel—as well as on its responses to phenoxy herbicides. Whatever their value as scientific data, these research projects functioned very clearly to justify ongoing herbicide spraying programs.

 

They cross her arms over her chest. She remembers that part.

 

In October 1969, in the wake of adverse publicity about the use of herbicides as chemical weapons in Vietnam, White House science adviser Lee DuBridge announced a partial domestic ban on 2,4,5-T after lab reports showing its contribution to birth defects were made public. This announcement was followed by congressional hearings.

Policies on hazel management in Itasca changed abruptly. In February 1970, the Minnesota Academy of Science drafted, adopted, and sent to the governor a resolution that would end the use of chemical agents in state parks.

38. The military research taking place at the University of Michigan in the late 1980s was tangled together with several other issues. Notably, a nuclear engineering professor who once conducted laser weapons research for the U.S. Air Force and who, as dean, brought in more than $19 million in Department of Defense funds to the engineering school, was about to become the president of the university. Also, he had been selected through a clandestine process, in apparent violation of the Open Meetings Act. Also, his administration supported policies to restrict political expression, criminalize certain forms of protest, deputize campus security officers, and increase the presence of law enforcement on campus.

39. She works with a team of three guys. It’s a lot to follow. Students are angry. The newspaper files suit. Somebody who works in the mailroom starts leaking them documents.

40. It begins with the beating of a Black man.

41. He is standing next to her, trying to show his press pass to the police working security at the door of the building where the new university president is about to be inaugurated. When Rollie’s hand goes into his pocket, they bring him down to the pavement. There is blood. He is pushed into the back of an unmarked police car. A peaceful demonstration turns into something else.

42. From the Michigan Daily, October 7, 1988:

“Several Ann Arbor police pulled out billy clubs and tried to push back the protesters. Police officer Richard Blake picked up Rackham graduate student and Daily opinion staff writer Sandra Steingraber and threw her to the ground, where she landed headfirst and laid until an emergency unit from the Ann Arbor Fire Department arrived and carried her away in a stretcher.”

43. It’s more peaceful than it looks, lying on the board the paramedics have slid under her. She drifts in and out, as though under sedation before surgery. Someone keeps turning up the volume of the ringing in the back of her head and then turning it back down again. They cross her arms over her chest. She remembers that part.

44. She doesn’t remember the hospital.

45. She remembers hearing there was a warrant out for her arrest. She remembers someone telling someone else that, of the many protesters on the street that day, only four people faced arrest. All were reporters at the Michigan Daily. Specifically, the four who reported and wrote editorials on military research and the deputization and arming of campus security.

46. Between the arraignment and the trial, she finishes her dissertation.

47. Her criminal defense is less successful than her academic defense. The judge refuses to accept, as admissible evidence, her editorials critical of campus policing. A hot dog vendor, testifying for the prosecution, says he saw her punch a cop. Nevertheless, the jury acquits on the charge of assault and battery against a police officer. She receives twelve days in the county jail for disturbing the peace.

48. The Washtenaw County Jail is designed as a panopticon, a kind of carceral theater in the round with tiers of cells circling a central common area with a television to watch and, on the far wall, a glass box where the correction officers can observe the inmates. During the day, individual women are buzzed in and out of the cells at different times and at seemingly random intervals to eat meals and take turns mingling in the common area. There is a small library cart of paperbacks. Only one book per cell. Except for six hours at night, the television is always on at a volume that prevents conversation between cells. There are rules. Like no sharing food. And there are punishments for breaking them. Like three days of keep-lock or losing days off for good behavior. But she discovers that she can openly, with guards watching her behind their glass, push a carton of milk across the table to a pregnant inmate, and nothing will happen.

49. On the morning of the third day, a rumor: someone has contraband. Specifically, blue makeup. The milling around near the television becomes tense. Someone warns her, out of kindness, to hand over to the corrections officers anything she shouldn’t have. In advance. But what would that even be?

In the afternoon, all the women are abruptly buzzed out of their cells and ordered to stand together in the common area. The steel door to the cellblock bangs open, and two lines of men in formation, wearing black riot gear and blue surgical gloves, run toward the open cells, circling the women in the center. There is ransacking and chaos. All around the women, bedding, books, letters, bars of soap, pencils, toothbrushes fly through the air. Mattresses are overturned and thrown to the floor. Who has it? Who has the blue makeup?

No makeup is ever found. But tucked inside the pages of a library book in the cart, one of the men in blue gloves finds a shard of a mirror. The library cart is removed. No more books. Everybody back to their cells. Clean up the mess.

50. And so it ends here, in a bookless room, where, high on the wall, a small window made of glass brick looks out onto an empty field. The biologist discovers that if she wakes at first light and stands on her bed, she can watch, through the wavy inches of glass, the mist rise from the grass.

She looks for deer. There are no deer. O

 

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Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream and several other books about climate change, ecology, and the links between human health and the environment. She was an Orion columnist for six years. Author photo: Laura Kozlowski.

Comments

  1. Oh my goodness… This was the most beautiful amazing piece ever!!!

  2. wow. What a long and convoluted account of a tragedy. I had hoped she would discover the culprit and revive the pine forests, remove the deer enclosure, stabilize the park’s natural biome, but instead, we are thrown into the grim reality of republican politics and its destructive hand in everything it touches. Very well written, and well researched, but leaves one with the sad fact that progressive thought has no chance against the passion of human ignorance.

  3. Riveting. This environmental writing with a double punch, both personal and public.

  4. Thank you for writing this testimony about your living; each numbered point could no doubt be a document in itself. I’m sorry for your illness. I wish you strength and blessing in perseverance.

  5. Sandra Steingraber’s writing continues to push the envelope of form and idea–she packs so much into this essay in terms of politics, ecology, and even the shifting point of view. I look forward to teaching this to my students to show them what is possible in environmental writing. Keep that pen moving, Sandra!

  6. Bounced between the poison of the white medical world and the moist earth reveal of it’s dousing with Agent Orange, I’m moved to write a blues song for the forest. The end left me wanting more on the current state of the pine growth.

  7. Steingraber has been one of my favorite writers since Living Downstream was published. But this is the best I’ve seen of her work. Her creative and scientific mashup is greatly to be admired.

  8. Hello Sandra Steingraber –I read Living Downstream 20+ years ago and shared it with family and friends. My sister sent me your Orion article today. The photos are stunning, thanks to your photographer. In the ’60s I served in Vietnam. My shipmates and I were repeatedly exposed to AO. Some of my best friends did not make it to age 70. Your story in Orion moved me to share it with dozens of friends and some remaining Vietnam buddies. We all are grateful for what you have exposed — the truth about AO and more.
    My wife and I live in a forested area of Montana and have an abundance of Juniper berries. Holler and we’ll send a bucket full!
    Thanks again and peace. Hope you are well.
    Michael H. Lee
    gvarnga@msn.com
    http://www.awelllitblackhole.com

  9. Remarkable witing. Something for all of us to aspireto.

  10. Something about numbering parts along the left margin instead of above the vignettes and centered just worked. I don’t know why. Inexplicably, much of the story hit me like cinema more than literature. And that Narrator’s Voice: Wow! serious, but with stabs of humor that allow you some laughter when you are on the verge of crying over feeling too much of the wrecking and ruining of the environment (which includes humans as well as flora and fauna).
    This was high art. Thank You!

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