By Ellen OShea
Southern Oregon in the summer of 2002, lightning set
off a forest fire that stretched across the heart of
the Siskiyou Wild Rivers area. This was the largest
fire in North America that year. Forest Service scientists
dubbed it the Biscuit fire. These same scientists
quickly pointed out that the Biscuit fire performed
needed biological functions, including reduction of
fuels on the ground.
Within months the Bush administration, led by Mark Rey,
began planning the largest logging project in Forest
Service history. The Biscuit logging operations (deceptively
titled the Biscuit Fire Recovery Project) encompasses
about 20,000 acres (31.25 square miles) and a proposed
cut of 372 million board feetequivalent to 74,400
logging trucks. This includes about 9,000 acres (14
square miles) of protected old-growth reserves.
The Project would leave just 1.5 legacy trees (snags)
per acrea virtual clearcut. Many of the trees
tagged to be cut are not dead, rather their outer bark
is scorched. Many are part of late-successional old
growth stands. The soil is so fragile and unique for
the area and climate that clearcutting will guarantee
the demise of thousands of rare plants and animals.
It would also mean the destruction of fragile rivers
still supporting salmon. Court motions to stop the massive
logging operation have been in vain.
On March 7, 2005 logging of an old growth reserve began
in an area called the Fiddler Timber Sale. People from
Southern Oregon blocked logging trucks from crossing
a bridge. On the morning of March 14, 2005 a group of
women dressed in black blocked the bridge to the Biscuit,
one of the most botantically diverse national forests
on the North American continent. The women were determined
to be the voices for the trees. Among the 20 arrested
that day was Joan Norman, a 75-year-old women who has
been an activist for over 40 years. I interviewed her
at the Siskiyou Forest Defenders camp near Selma, Oregon.
Where did you start as an activist?
NORMAN: I went with the freedom riders to the South.
I went to Alabama to stop the lynchings and to let the
people be free. I went to Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham.
I started out with members of a church. We took a bus
from California to the South. I walked with Martin Luther
King, Jr. The thing we wanted to stand up to then was
the destruction of the diversity of people in this nation.
So here you are in Selma, Oregon instead of Selma,
Alabama, another place to fight for diversity. You are
on an interesting journey.
Yes, it has been a very interesting journey. You know
I once was very rich. I married a man who became very
powerful. He helped to invent the microchip. I had a
big house where many fancy parties were held for other
rich corporate industrialists. I did my wifely duties
so that we could keep our money. I came from a Republican
lineage. I was born in an oil town in Oklahoma into
a culture that trashed and enslaved the earth to extract
One day the fire grew in my belly. The fire is the work
we came to do in this life. When we are domesticated,
the fire is diminished and sometimes put out. We forget
our soul urge.
I knew that the way we lived was wrong. The people around
me were mean. I had dreams. I began to pay attention.
John Kennedy was running for president then. I was so
inspired by what he said to us, to all the people. I
stopped being a Republican and joined JFKs election
campaign. I brought Democrats, working people, into
my big house. I put on fundraising events to get JFK
elected. After he was assassinated I tried to help get
Bobby Kennedy elected. I met Bobby Kennedy. I was inspired
by his words and actions. And then they assassinated
All this brought much turmoil to my world. I sold everything
after I left my husband and the corporate world. I lived
small and I joined in to defend the earth and its people
against the war, against the people, and the natural
I have been arrested over 100 times standing against
injustice. After the civil rights struggle in the South,
I joined the protests against the Vietnam War. I was
at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. I went to Washington,
DC to stop the G8 and the WTO takeover of the world.
I have been in the streets with the best of them. I
have lived for 30 years in a community of freedom riders.
I lived in a motor home for 12 years and traveled to
where I was needed. I had my own kitchen, my own first
aid station, my books, and my passion for freedom and
I was at the Nevada test site protests. I stood beside
the true heroes of this country. I stood by them at
Fort Benning to protest the School of the Americas.
Arent you afraid to go to jail?
No, I am not afraid. The food is gray, the walls are
gray. The jailers are not as mean as the cops who arrest
you are. Once you get in the jail, there are rules,
but the jailers usually are just doing their jobs the
best they can. I look at it like some crazy comedy.
They are doing what they think is necessary and I am
doing what I think is necessary. We just dont
agree on what is necessary. The people in the jails
are mostly working poor struggling to survive. They
are in jail for all sorts of crazy thingssome
big things, but mostly small things. These people are
kept so distant from the rest of America, they dont
even know we care. When I am in jail, I educate. I listen
to the stories and I pass these stories onto people
No, I am not afraid. I am 75 years-old. Do you know
what this culture has in store for me, an old woman?
They will wait for me to be sick at the end of my life
and then strap me to feeding tubes, pump drugs into
me, put me on a machine to make my lungs go up and down,
and wait for me to die. I am not bound to go out that
way. I would rather go out in a blaze, defending the
world I love. I will be on the front lines someday and
my soul will know the time to go and I will just leave.
I will make that decision. Knowing this, I am not afraid.
I am more afraid that my grandchildren will think I
did not try hard enough to leave them a legacy of peace
and a world worth living in. I dont want them
to know the beauty of trees by looking at a book. I
want them to be able to walk among 800-year-old trees
and know that is our destiny.
It sounds like jail is another important part of
the journey you are on.
Some of the most important people of my life I met in
jail. I met my teachers, my inspirers in jail. I met
the greatest people I ever knew in jail.
Who did you meet?
I was in jail with Philip Berrigan, the radical priest
who poured blood on draft records, pounded on missile
silos, and took a stand at the School of the Americas
at Fort Benning. I was in jail with Corbin Harney, an
elder of the Western Shoshone tribe. We went up to the
sacred lands at Four Corners, New Mexico and tried to
stop the mining of uranium on this sovereign native
I can imagine the teachings that happened in jail.
Ronny Gilbert, a musician, has a song about being in
jail that describes our experience. It is called We
all sang Bread and Roses. That song describes
my experience exactly. We sat down together in the cells
and sang songs of resistance and tried to educate the
other prisoners. We used non-confrontational communication
to show others how to live in this world. It did not
matter if it was another prisoner, or a jailer, we tried
to teach peaceful resistance. I am still doing this
What goes through your mind when you know you
may be arrested.
I just know when we are supposed to stand up, you know,
have a backbone. We cant let these people who
have no social consciousness rule the world. If we let
them take our peace, our air, our water, the sky, the
trees, the plants, we will be lost.
When it comes time to resist, I just do it. I sit down
and I dont move. I dont talk. I sit down
and I hold my own sovereign space.
When they removed me from the bridge I was blocking
by carrying me in my chair to the sheriffs vehicle,
they put me down there and thought I would stay put.
The officers went off to arrest someone else. I got
up and moved my chair back to my space. An officer yelled,
Hey, you are not supposed to do that. Get back
over where I put you. I just laughed. People have
been trying to get me to be where they put me all my
life. I have a right to stand up against evil and I
I am not afraid to say my truth. Once I was up in a
tree sit and a logger came and yelled up at us, Why
dont you get a job? I yelled down to him,
I do have a job, defending the forest is my job.
Then I said to him, What kind of job do you have?
Cutting down the forests? I like my job better than
yours. And the logger just walked away.
How do you know whats the good fight?
Well, the good fight is different for each person. My
good fight has been about resisting injustice wherever
I find it. Early on the good fight for me included fighting
for the right for women to control their own bodies,
their own fertility. The state needs to stay out of
womens bodies. That is part of the good fight
for me. Right now, the good fight is making sure the
natural world is not destroyed by greed. This fight
came to me through my grandson. My grandson lived on
the edge of a forest. He spent from early in the morning
to nightfall exploring the forests. I was concerned
about this. I thought he was there to get away from
his family. I talked to him. I said I was afraid he
would get lost, but instead he was found.
He said, Grandma, its so beautiful and amazing
in the forest, you have to come with me so I can show
you. So, I went with him. It was hard for my old
bones and joints. I had to try to go up these steep
paths and over logs on the trail, but I did. What he
showed me was just so amazing. I saw it the first time
through the eyes of a child. You cannot read about nature
and wild places, you have to go there. And, once you
do, no threat of jail will keep you from preserving
it. The wild places are the last place on earth that
we have to remember our heritage and show us our legacy.
This is why, at this time of my life, after all I have
tried to defend, I am a forest defender.
Can you explain the concept of personal sovereignty?
We are sovereign people. We are self-contained. There
is a light in you that came into you when you were born.
When we stand up against unjust laws and rules and regulations
we need to make sure that we are letting that pure light
shine. We are not cogs in a corporate machine. If we
connect with that light, we will know the right way
to live on this great planet.
When I was in jail with young people, I tried to teach
this concept. I tried to teach the difference between
individuation, where people run around and act selfishly
and destroy everything, and learning to know the reason
you came to this life and letting your internal light,
your sovereign light shine on the work you came to do
in this life.
What will you do now, here in the Siskiyous?
We are here for the duration. There are many local women
here and dedicated men who love the earth and love the
peace. We are just a few now, but we are growing and
we will not sit by as paradise is turned to stumps.
We need people to come here and help us defend this
place. They are cutting the big trees just beyond this
camp. Every day, seven days a week they are cutting
down the trees. They dont care that we had a legal
injunction to stop the cutting. We cant just sit
here and let it happen. Tell the people, where you are
from, its time to get some backbone and some fire.
Where was that fire?
Fire in our bellies.
Tell them to get some fire in their bellies and come
to this gate to paradise and help us defend it. Tell
them to come. I will be here.
OShea is a Portland, Oregon area social worker and
activist. She is a contributor to www.portlandwriters.com
and the Portland Indymedia project.