by Emily Graf
Finally, it’s evening in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. We have spent this late spring day sweating. Chris and I worked with our haphazard crew of 8th graders to build walls from splintered, bowing 2x4s. We did our best to stack firewood by the sheet-metal trailer, alongside a rusted bathtub that floats like a capsized lifeboat amidst the yard’s detritus. With only hand tools and flimsy masks, our students demolished a burnt-out house so that the carpenters could get in to rebuild.
Service work on the Pine Ridge Reservation is frustrating, heartbreaking, and uplifting all at once, and by the end of the day, we’re pretty damn tired.
Maybe that’s why, during this particular evening meeting, I’m not able to “keep my cool.” Chris and I sit down with our service partner. Let’s call him Dave. The room is sticky. We perch on cheap polyester chairs and periodically swig from our Nalgenes, while dust and wind trouble the handmade curtains. Dave is a white man from suburban Colorado. He wears a leather cowboy hat, a beard, an austerely deep voice. He knows some Lakota words. He chastises our students for being “rambunctious,” and they find him intimidating. On day three, I have begun to notice in our “team meetings” that Dave mostly addresses Chris, makes eye contact with Chris, and has no trouble interrupting me when I voice an idea. For this reason, I’m not paying close attention to the conversation. But then Dave says, “Tomorrow we’ll be running power tools and chainsaws, so let’s make sure Chris or Adam is there to supervise.”
Rapidly, some realizations hit me. Adam is this man’s fifteen-year-old son. He has not yet graduated from high school, and I’ve seen him run a table saw without eye-protection or gloves, spraying himself in the eyes with sawdust. But by virtue of his maleness alone, Adam is more qualified than I to supervise 8th graders with power tools.
Next: what Dave doesn’t know. What Dave doesn’t know is that I worked for a season as a sawyer on a backcountry chainsaw crew in Southern Colorado. I completed a chainsaw safety certification course, and learned to fell teetering ponderosa pines that shake the ground when they crash-land. My saw weighed 18 lbs when fully fueled, and I carried it for close to 9 hours a day, kneeling, standing, wading through the Colorado River, hiking in the dark through moonlit sagebrush. Each morning I woke with sawdust in my ears, nostrils, and eyelids. I slept every night on the ground under clear desert stars. My hands were always brown and dirty, nails choked with black grease, and after one particular hitch, when we returned to Durango, I won my first arm-wrestling match. My story is winding and messy; it involves overcoming my fear of machines and sharp dangerous tools; sometimes I wanted to quit due to sheer exhaustion and frayed nerves; and you bet I was aware, every day I carried that saw, that I was a woman elbowing my way into a male profession.
But when Dave looks at me, he doesn’t see this story.
Perhaps some readers will think, “He just made a mistake. Cut him some slack. Why are you so upset?” Well, imagine you endure little brush-offs like this every day. Imagine your former boss points out that “as a young woman,” you need to be extra sure to maintain boundaries with your teenage students. Imagine, when you tell a group of Wyoming ranch hands that you guided backpacking trips, they say, “They let girls do that?” Imagine you have worked with male colleagues who call women well into their 30s “girls,” but would never refer to men of the same age as “boys.” Or that your former outdoor instructor, who you think is mentoring you in mountaineering, writes in a Facebook message that he “always thought you were more beautiful” than his other students and he’s “jealous” of your partner, throwing two years of mentorship into question. All of these, in aggregate, are a version of death by 1,000 cuts. Journalist Rebecca Traister calls this “the banality of daily diminution.”
Comments like Dave’s are complex. It’s possible that he thought he was doing me a favor, saving me the embarrassment of admitting my fear or incompetence. To that I say: let me speak for myself. Let me voice my fears, let me voice my strengths, and let that be a choice I get to make. Women are damn good at self-awareness (maybe too good.) Women are capable of saying “No,” although unfortunately at times that “No” isn’t met with respect. Rest assured, I am capable of letting you know if I don’t want to run a chainsaw. I want Dave to ask me, as he might ask his son, “What do you want to do?” then wait for my answer with patience and compassion.
What I said on that South Dakota night was: “Wait a second. I know how to run a chainsaw.”