My hands were damp and clammy inside their heavy orange work gloves and a sheen of sweat soaked my grey shirt. The cloud of sweet-smelling sawdust we’d kicked up stuck to my arms, my neck, my face. It wormed its way into every crease and crevasse of my clothing until I resembled a pine scented sugar cookie. In Team Rubicon, we call this dust “tree glitter.” It sticks to everything and it itches.
I raised the saw to my hip, it’s weight familiar and reassuring. It is a tool used to get shit done and we had a lot of shit to do. We were just outside of my hometown in Florida’s panhandle. I was there as a volunteer; part of Operation Amberjack helping to clean up after the catastrophic impact of Hurricane Michael. To me, the damage that Michael caused looked less like other hurricanes I’d witnessed, and more like a 50-mile-wide tornado had swept through Panama City and up into Marianna. The trees in Michael’s path had snapped like toothpicks.
In my “real life” I’m an astrophysicist who works in the defense and national security industries. Everyday I’m surrounded by men. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been early to a meeting, only to be mistaken for an administrative assistant and asked to make the coffee. It’s inevitably awkward for all of us when I tell the men in the room that I’m the person they are there to brief. Like many professional women in male-dominated industries, it’s something I have to put up with, but it’s something I will never get used to.
Not so as a sawyer and swamper with Team Rubicon. Although the number of women volunteers isn’t large, it’s growing, and I believe that’s in part because, as women, we aren’t treated any differently from the men on our strike teams. No one assumes that we’re eye candy first; no one assumes we’re there to make the coffee; and no one assumes we can’t handle the sledgehammer or the saw. As Greyshirts (what we call ourselves as members of Team Rubicon) we’re fully integrated with the men on our teams. We sleep in the same quarters (unless you snore), we use the same tools, and we do the same jobs. This sense of equality is a rarity in my life, and because it is so rare, I often wrestle with a need for perfection. As a scientist, I check and recheck my work ad nauseum, because any small mistake I make is inevitably translated as, “Women suck at math.” Because I am the rare woman in my profession, I carry the burden of my entire gender. This expectation isn’t easy to let go of in other parts of my life, even when I know my fellow Greyshirts don’t view me through a gendered lens. In my day job it’s my reality, but at Team Rubicon I believe it’s self-imposed.
With sticky, glove swathed hands, I pulled the cord on the 261 and it rumbled to life. As the blade bit into the wood in front of me, I reminded myself to respect the saw and to respect the tree. Although uprooted, the tree had been a living thing, and it contained all the quirks and unexpected bursts of character that all living things do. It was important to be in the moment. To listen to both the saw and the tree. To make sure my cuts were clean and to not pinch my bar in the process. If my bar got pinched, I’d have to wait for another member of my strike team to cut me out. Although it happens to everyone – even the professionals – for me as a woman, pinching the bar is particularly embarrassing. I never want to be that girl. The lessons I have learned in my professional life have stuck with me.
As I bucked and limbed the tree, creating evermore tree glitter, a swamper hauled the pieces out onto the road. I got lost in the work. My mind emptied of everything but the saw and the tree and the other members of my team. We were in constant motion, a moving meditation, only stopping for mandatory water breaks in the oppressive, 80-degree humidity. This work isn’t always easy for a 35-year-old, slightly built woman who works a desk-job for a living, but it is tremendously satisfying.
So, imagine my surprise that steamy day in Florida, to find myself surrounded by women. I hadn’t noticed until someone finally mentioned the unprecedented number of women in our group – including our team leads. Once acknowledged, we couldn’t help but feel like badasses. We shared moments of pride and quiet smiles (or loud whooping high fives) as we completed tricky technical cuts, finished bucking and limbing, and felled trees. We loved it, but we also bonded over the fact that Team Rubicon was one place that, as women, we didn’t need strength in numbers. That although enjoyable, our sisterhood of saws was almost completely unnecessary. And the most uplifting part, was the realization that none of us had had to break through a glass ceiling at Team Rubicon to get there. We all commented on this rare alignment of stars, but other than that, it was a saw team like any other.