broken walls and narratives

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Archive for the tag “Heather Bradford”

Depression and the Lost Dark Years

Depression and the Lost Dark Years

H. Bradford

8/14/17

When I was about 20 years old, I stopped existing.  By some dark magic, I pulled off an astonishing vanishing act.  I disappeared behind a cloud for six to eight years.  While in this cloud, time stopped.  Yet, the world kept moving without me.  When the cloud cleared, I could finally see clearly my life all around me.  It spread out forever like a bombed city.   I was tasked with rebuilding it.  This is my story of depression and moving out of it.

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I don’t like to admit that I have struggled with mental health.  In fact, it seems like an odd thing to say.  I don’t like to see it as a part of me.  Instead, I like to see it as some external force that happened to inhabit me for a long while.  It began in about the the 4th grade.  That is when I began experience panic attacks.  Though, at the time, I didn’t know what they were.  They were just some terrifying curse that fell upon me randomly- like a demonic possession, which would tighten might chest and put me into a state of fear.  I found it hard to breathe and swallow.  They often happened at night, around 3 am.  Sometimes they happened at lunch or on the school bus.   I would sleep with a glass of water (and I still sleep with a beverage) to help me swallow if I woke up in a panic.  Panic attacks were inconvenient, especially when they happened at a sleep over or with groups of people.   My father would call them “spells.”  Heather is having one of her “spells.”  I suppose it gave it a supernatural quality.   I had these “spells” for years.  I didn’t know their name.  They were just some strange quirk about me that I never talked to anyone about.  I was ashamed of them and could not imagine that other people in the world experienced the same thing.  Thus, I had been dealing with anxiety to some degree since childhood. Image result for witch and cauldron vintage

(Oh no, this witch is conjuring up a “spell”  ….a.k.a causing children to have panic attacks. The cat seems particularly into this endeavor. )


I mostly coexisted with my “spells” as they were an irregular visitor in my life.  But, once I graduated high school, I was visited by a much darker and stronger force.  It began with a deepened sense of social anxiety, (but I have a hard time differentiating when anxiety ends and depression begins).  Basically, I came to believe that I was a failure and the world was judging me.  Because of this, I became so fearful that I could not leave the house to get the mail or put gas in my car.  I feared that someone would see me….Heather…that failure…that terrible failure.  I didn’t want to be seen in public.  I struggled to stay in college.  While I was in college, I maintained perfect grades but I couldn’t face being in school.  I dropped out several times.  While I felt anxiety over seeing people and being judged as a failure, I also experienced depression.  I didn’t have any friends.  I didn’t feel that I had the capacity to make friends.  I basically worked the night shift and otherwise hid from the world.   I lived at home with family members.  The only bright spot was that I did try to travel from time to time.  It was the only thing that made me feel that I was doing something with my life and that perhaps I was not a failure after all.


I was in an out of college for several years.  I did attempt to go to counseling a few times, as it was provided for free through St. Scholastica.  This helped a little.  At least it provided me a name for what I was going through: anxiety and depression.  Really, it opened up the door to the idea that what I had experienced was not some strange, magical force unique to my own bizarre, miserable existence.  It was a treatable medical condition.  It was suggested that I try medications, but I only took a few doses before giving up on that.  I am stubborn and like to be in control.  So, the idea of medication never sat well with me.  Still, I think that going to counseling helped me to think differently.  I was given weekly goals.  Even though I am not sure that I did that well at the goals, it created some momentum in my life.  But, as a general rule, between the age of 20 and 26, I wavered between complete, wickedly immobilizing depression and barely climbing out of depression.  During the time I was caught in wickedly immobilizing depression, I really didn’t live.  I didn’t pay my bills.  I didn’t think of the future.  I avoided my phone.  I didn’t feel suicidal, but I hoped that death would magically come to me and save me from living.  And, since I had social anxiety and felt that the world doomed me a failure, the depression didn’t help…as it made me a failure!  I hadn’t finished college.  The bills were piling up.  I was doing very little with my life. Image result for st. scholastica college

(Ah, my citadel of misery.  Yet, I miss those dark towers)


I am not sure exactly what happened to change things.  Depression naturally receded, much like the glaciers at the end of the ice age.  This happened sometime around the age of 26 or 27.  Something just…changed.  It went away.  It wasn’t anything I did or the result of any treatment.  The only problem was that my life was a mess.  For one, I hadn’t paid my bills for over a year.  I simply didn’t care enough about living to bother.  For another, I owed over $10,000 to St. Scholastica (the only reason that I owed this much money to the college was because I had too much social anxiety to visit the financial aid office and take out a student loan…and the time period to take out a loan had elapsed).  This put my transcript on hold and prevented me from finishing my education.  My life was in shambles.  So, even though my mood had improved, I had a big mess to clean up.  That mess took a lot of hard work and several long years.

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(The ice age might have ended, but I was left with the carcasses of some mammoth messes to clean up.)


Once depression had passed, I had a lot more energy for living.  This was useful, as I needed this energy to work.  I completed two service years as an Americorps member, as the program paid over $4000 in an education award at the time.  This helped me pay off the bill with St. Scholastica.  In turn, this helped me to finally finish off my bachelor’s degree there.  During this time period, I filed for bankruptcy, which discharged all of my other debt (aside from student loans).   Because Americorps paid a stipend of less than $900 a month after taxes at the time, I also worked the night shift at a hotel.  At other times, I worked as many as four jobs.  I was a bit of a workaholic at the time, with periods where I worked 80 hours a week.  However, I was trying to eke a modicum of pleasure from my bleak life.  I probably didn’t need to work as much as I did, but I wanted to save money for travel and for hobbies.  And, between all of the jobs I really didn’t make that much money.   Another boon for my financial situation was when I donated eggs, which helped to pay off my car and the rest of the St. Scholastica bill.  It took me about three to four years to re-assemble my life.  All the while, I felt that I was looking over my shoulder, waiting for depression to return.  After all, it had visited me so often in my early to mid twenties.  I feared that it would return and sabotage everything.  Certainly, there were some very dark and terrible moments in my workaholic years.  But….depression did not return.


It has been over a decade since I emerged from depression.  Depression and anxiety have not returned in the same way.  While they dominated my 20s, they have not and they will not return.  I have a lot of mixed feelings about the situation.  For one, while I used to fear that depression would return, I no longer fear that.  I have far more tools now, emotionally, mentally, and intellectually than I did in my early 20s.  While I continue to experience melancholy and sadness more than the average person, I feel that I have some control over this and can change negative thought patterns before they spiral out of control.  I also have a sense of what depression looks like in my self.  If I stop caring about life, stop paying bills, find myself unable to keep up with obligations, isolate myself, give up hobbies, or generally feel less motivated- I become concerned and seek to remedy the situation.   While I was living in Mankato, I felt those familiar feelings, so I sought counseling right away.  I only went to one session, but it was enough to get me back on track in life and throw my thought patterns into a healthier framework.   As for anxiety, I very rarely have panic attacks.  I have anxiety from time to time, but I recognize it for what it is and know it will pass.  I think medication would really help with anxiety, since it is not a fun experience.  However, I know I can generally power through it.  I fully believe that there will be a time in my life that I do not have anxiety.  I don’t think I have had a panic attack in almost a year.  As I grow and experience more life, I feel that I become better at living and better at thinking.  I am optimistic that I am fully capable of living in a healthy mental state.


I realize that my framing of mental illness is not really very helpful for most people.  For one, I shunned medication.  I don’t think this is the answer for others.  I don’t even think it is the answer for myself.  I suffered longer than I needed to.  Seeing how depression ate up years of my life, I am not against taking medication.  Time is the most precious thing we have.  It is finite.  Our time on this earth is woefully short.  Anything that shortens and diminishes our short lives should be fought furiously.  That is why I am a socialist.  I want people to have the resources they need to live full lives.   If I became as depressed again, I would not be as stubborn in the future.  Also, I don’t really frame depression as something that will always be a part of me or something that is built into my genes.  While it most likely was built into my genetics, I don’t care for that sort of determinism.  I think that it very well could have been the outcome of my life conditions.  That any human being in the same conditions may have also become depressed.  Really, I was lost!  I didn’t have friends!  I struggled to figure out meaning in this world and find my place!  I struggled with poverty and isolation.   This world itself is pretty depressing.  It is astonishing that more people aren’t depressed.   So, in a way, I don’t really OWN being depressed.  Worse, I sometimes feel resentful, uncomfortable, and impatient with others who experience mental health issues.   I should see myself and my struggles in them, but instead, I want to avoid it.   It makes me feel disgusted with myself for being weak and for failing.  Yes, I have internalized some narratives of mental health as a weakness.  Intellectually, I know better, but emotionally, I have negative reactions that I keep on the inside.  I want people to think I am strong, capable, and in control.  I certainly don’t feel happy about the ordeal.   It is embarrassing.  It shows that I am very flawed.  And, even if I wasn’t defective, the disease stole several years of my life.  Those are years that I won’t get back.  My life is less full because of the years that depression took from me.  It makes me angry.  It makes me sad.  When I see young college students having fun and enjoying their youth, I feel that I missed out.  I didn’t have friends, bonfires, camping trips, parties, road trips, spring break…etc.  I had soul crushing isolation.


Because of these feelings of loss, I am compelled to live very well.  I can’t change the past.  My 20s sucked.  That’s how it goes.  But, I made it through it.  I don’t have perfect narratives about the whole ordeal, but I have a lot of determination not to go through that again.  My 30s have been better.  While I struggled to finish one degree in my 20s, I finished three in my 30s!  I travel.  I am engaged in many hobbies.  I am active as an activist.  I keep a very tight schedule.  I have wonderful friends.  I read.  I learn.  I share.  I am living the life I wish I had been living in my 20s.  I live each day very fully.  I am hungry for living.   I often feel stressed because I wonder how I will fit so much into a single day.  I want to paint! Play violin!  Run!  Hike! Read! Write.  Write blog posts.  Write stories!  Write papers!  Write poems!  I want to enjoy the sunshine and trees!  I want to ride my bicycle.  I want to study languages!  I want to plant my garden!  Try a new hobby!  I want to be a better feminist, socialist, environmentalist, etc…  Ah…I want everything!    I have to forgive myself for my terrible 20s as it built a foundation for my 30s.  I am pretty sure I won’t be blindsided by depression later in life, as I went through it, know it, and am more capable of handling it.  I did travel in my 20s and I don’t regret my years of Americorps service.  I had some good friendships in my 20s as well.  So, while my 20s were not as fun and free as I would have liked, I have my whole life to make up for lost time.  To the best of my ability, that is what I will do.  Is it healthy?  If my 20s is the story of my long bleak winter the rest of my life feels a little like the rite of spring, a ceremonial frenzy to dance myself to death.  But that is another story.  The story of my fundamental existential crisis.  Perhaps depression really was just the first act.

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(an image from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring)

Fungi and Feminism

Fungi and Feminism

H. Bradford

8/12/17

 

Once a month, the Feminist Justice League hosts a feminist frolic.  This month, the goal was to go on a hike to learn more about fungi, edible and otherwise.  We asked Ariel, one of our members, if she would be willing to tell us a little about edible fungi, as she forages for fungi and sells them to a local grocery store.  As for myself, I undertook the task of trying to connect fungi with feminism for a short presentation on that topic.  Connections between these two topics are not commonly made, but almost anything can be connected to feminism.  Indeed, fungi can be connected to feminism through an exploration of women’s roles as foragers and food preparers, the connection between fungi and witchcraft, and the contributions women have made to mycology, the science of fungi.


An Introduction to Fungi:

To begin, it is useful to outline some basic information about fungi.  Fungi are a diverse group of organisms that consist of everything from yeast in bread and beer, infections like athlete’s foot or ringworm, mushrooms and toadstools, and mold on bread.  Most people are probably most familiar with fungi in the form of mushrooms, the fruiting bodies of some fungi.  However, this is just a small portion of the diversity of this kingdom.  Taxonomy is always changing, but fungi are often considered to be one of five or six kingdoms of organisms, including plants, animals, protists, archaebacteria, fungi, and bacteria.  For most of history, fungi was lumped into the plant kingdom and it was not until the 1960s that they were separated into their own category of lifeforms.  It might be easy to confuse fungi with plants, due the fact that both grow in soil and tend to be stationary.  In actuality, fungi was more closely related to animals and 1.1 billion years ago they shared a common evolutionary ancestor with the animal kingdom (Staughton, 2002).  Fungi are similar to animals in that they cannot produce their own food, as plants do through photosynthesis.  Rather, they feed on dead and living organisms, breaking them down by excreting enzymes and absorbing nutrients through their cell wall (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  This means that they differ from animals in that they do not ingest their food, rather they absorb it.  Another similarity between animals and fungi is that both of them use oxygen in cellular respiration to convert nutrients into energy.  That is, both use oxygen and release carbon dioxide as waste, as opposed to plants which use carbon dioxide and release oxygen (Bone, 2011).  Yet, fungi are similar to plants in that both have cell walls, although the cell wall of plants is made of cellulose and the cell wall of fungi is made of chitin.  Chitin is the same substance that the beaks of squids and the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects is made of.

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Despite the clear differences between plants and fungi, historically, fungi have been lumped together with plants and even today, mycology tends to be lumped within botany departments rather than zoology.  While fungi have had a sort of identity crisis over history, they do indeed have a very close relationship to plants.  Over 90% of all plants have a mycorrhizal fungal partner.  In other words, plants often have fungi that live on or in their roots for the purpose of helping them extract more nutrients from the soil.  In exchange, the fungi obtain sugar, which the plant produces.  This is why a person often sees mushrooms at the base of trees.  Some unusual plants, such as monotropes (more commonly known as Indian Pipe or Ghost Plant), do not produce chlorophyll and depend upon fungi to obtain energy from nearby trees.  Almost every plant has fungi living between their cells.  In addition, 85% of all plant disease are caused by fungi.  In fact, chili peppers evolved their hotness as a defense against fungi (Bone, 2011).  Therefore, it is no wonder that plants and fungi are associated with one another.

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One of the most interesting thing about fungi is how diverse that kingdom is.  While the animal kingdom contains a wide array of organisms including lifeforms as different as horseflies, sea horses,  horseshoe crabs, and horses fungi vary even more greatly.  Fungi include organisms that reproduce sexually, asexually, and both.  This makes them extremely interesting from a sexual standpoint.  Unlike animals, they can be one celled or made up of many cells.  Subsequently, fungi include such diverse phylums as club fungi, which include mushrooms, toadstools, puffballs, and shelf fungi.  This is the phylum that most people are probably familiar with.  These fungi often have club shaped structures with gills containing spores.  Another phylum of fungi are called sac fungi, or fungi which produce spores in tiny sacks.  This group includes yeast, truffles, molds, and morels.  Another phylla is called zygomycota, which feature sexual and asexual reproduction and include black mold.  Finally, there are imperfect fungi, which have unknown methods of reproduction and include penicillium and aspergillus.  There are about 1.5 million species of fungi, but only one tenth of these are known to science.  Interestingly, the mass of the world’s fungi is far greater than the mass of all of the world’s animals, amounting to about ¼ of the world’s entire biomass (Fungi-an introduction, 2009).  Fungi also outnumber plants six to one.  Finally, the largest organism on the planet is actually a honey fungus in Oregon which is over 2,400 years old and larger than 1,666 football fields (Bone, 2011).   Truly, fungi among the most fascinating forms of life on the planet.

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Mushrooms, Women, and Foraging:

 

For most of history, fungi were not given much attention as a unique group of organisms.  Thus, most early humans would have understood fungi mostly through the sexual phase or the fruiting body of a mushroom (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Humanity’s earliest encounters with fungi would have been with mushrooms and shelf fungi.  Humans lived as hunters and gatherers, in small communities that foraged for their food, for 190,000 of our 200,000 years as modern humans.  Some human societies continue to live this way.  For most of human history, humans foraged for fungi, for food, medicine, ritual, dyes, etc.  However, mushroom foraging is confounded by the fact that mushrooms may appear only at certain times of the year or under certain conditions.  They may not appear in the same place each year, making them harder to forage than plants.  Mushroom foraging is also made difficult by the fact that some mushrooms are extremely toxic, which means that misidentification or experimentation could result in illness or death.  Around 2,800 species of mushrooms are used today by humans.  Much of the mushroom foraging in the world is done by women  (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).   This comes a little surprise, as in a study of 175 modern hunter-gatherer societies, women provided four fifths of the food.   According to Crane’s research (2000) the food that was typically gathered by men was further away and harder to obtain.   Today, in Mexico, Bahrain, Guatemala, Guyana, Nigeria, Zaire, Southeast Asia, Australia, and Russia, mushroom foraging is largely women’s work.  However, in Poland and Switzerland, is is more often done by men.  In some tropical areas, women collect mushrooms closest to their homes whereas men collect mushrooms that are deeper in the forest (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, & Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  This is not unlike the gender dynamics of collecting honey and may reflect the importance of women in society for their reproductive capacity (Crane, 2000).   In Guyana, men pick up mushrooms that they find incidentally on hunting trips, whereas women engage in active, premeditated mushroom collecting.  Beyond this, there are gendered ways in which mushrooms are collected, with men tending to be solitary foragers who search out more valuable and hard to find mushrooms and women collecting them together and in more energy efficient locations.  Mushrooms that are collected for ritual purposes are often done by both genders.  Mazatec healers in Mexico can be women or men and Maria Sabina was an important informant of mushroom rituals to ethnographers (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez (2012).

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While it seems that among many hunting and gathering cultural groups women play an important role in obtaining mushrooms, this is not the experience in industrial United States.  Bone (2011) found that many of the people she encountered while foraging for mushrooms were men.  Professional mushroom foragers, who often travelled the country in search of various mushrooms, were often men.  In particular, men from Mexico and Southeast Asia made a living by foraging and selling mushrooms.  At the same time, even amateur or more casual mushroom foragers were men.  When she sought to learn more about foraging mushrooms, it was always men who shared their expertise.  She also noticed a certain machismo among mushroom foragers, as some took risks by eating mushrooms that were known to be toxic or have negative health effects.  Bone (2011) was focused on developing her knowledge of mycology and experiencing fungi from the perspective of a foodie.  Her book, Mycophilia, does not examine the gender dynamics of mushroom foraging at any length.  However, it does very clearly support the idea that in the United States, mushroom science, foraging, commercial production, and preparation are all largely dominated by men.  This begs the question of why mushrooms exist so differently from the women centered foraging that is prevalent elsewhere in the world and presumably elsewhere in history.


There may be a few explanations for their phenomenon.  For instance, until the 1600s in France, mushroom foraging was women’s work.  However, with the scientific revolution, mushrooming became a men’s activity as men began to monopolize the science of mycology (Dugan, 2008).  The shift from mushroom foraging as women’s work to men’s work represents a shift of the power of behind which knowledge is given privilege in society.  As men took control of institutions of learning, medicine, publishing, science, etc. and systematized scientific knowledge, the folk knowledge of women, but also poor people, indigenous people, criminals, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups was denigrated, ignored, or suppressed.  This might explain why according to Dugan (2008) mushroom collecting was mainly conducted by women in the United States until the 19th century.  In was during the 19th century in the United States that women’s knowledge of childbirth, medicine, and the natural world in general was suppressed by emergent medical and professional institutions.  As this knowledge was professionalized and monopolized, the knowledge of men was empowered and given social value at the expense of women.  Long before the advent of science, many groups of people developed the a body of knowledge about mushrooms that scientists would only later rediscover.  For instance, Russian peasants had a deep knowledge of mushrooms and some of the common names for these mushrooms were associated with the tree that the mushrooms grew near.  Europeans were latecomers to mushroom identification and even Darwin was indifferent to fungi when writing about evolution.  However, the Mayans developed their own system of classifying mushrooms, as did the Chinese.  Chen Jen-yu’s Mycoflora, written in 1245, proposed 12 types of mushrooms (Dugan, 2008).  In all, this should illustrate that humans have had thousands of years of interactions with fungi and through use and observation developed a body of knowledge.  Some of this knowledge was dismissed or overlooked on racist, sexist, and classist grounds.

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Mushroom hunting- a painting by Bernardina Midderigh Bokhorst

The ability of women to forage for mushrooms is also challenged by capitalism.  Capitalism negatively impacts women more than men, because women are oppressed as workers and on account of their gender in capitalism.  The oppression of women include the being paid less than men, doing more unpaid labor in the home, experiencing sexual harassment and sexual assault, having limited reproductive freedom, enjoying less political representation, having less social legitimacy, and a myriad of other expressions of oppression.  Thus, at least on the amateur end of mushroom collecting, women may not be as involved because of the ways in which capitalism and patriarchy shape women’s relationship to nature.  Within the United States, time in nature is usually associated with leisure, which women have less of due to spending more time with care work and household work.  Women are often also economically dependent upon men and make less money than them, which may mean that taking up hobbies and traveling around to pursue them is a greater economic burden.  Within the context of societies which are less developed and women continue to forage for mushrooms, women have a harder time obtaining wage labor, surviving on lower wages, and supporting their families.  In some areas of the world, foraging and selling mushrooms to middle men is an important way that widows and single mothers generate income for themselves.  Historically, women sold vegetables and mushrooms in markets in Europe.  This tradition conditions in Eastern European countries like Latvia, Russia, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic, where women are often the source of mushrooms in markets (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012). Therefore, mushroom foraging is an important source of income to women.  Because it is work that is outside of the formal economy, they are more vulnerable to difficult labor conditions.  And, because of the environmental problems wrought by more developed countries in the context of capitalism, women are vulnerable as the environment they depend upon for livelihood is threatened.  For instance, women in Puebla Mexico must obtain permits to go into the forest and collect mushrooms.  In other places, such as Burundi, logging has diminished the abundance of mushrooms.  Another challenge is other ecological issues, such as acid rain and soil nitrification in Europe.  Mushroom collectors are often independent workers, so they are not afforded health or safety benefits (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  Indeed, mushroom yields around the world have decreased over the years, perhaps as a result of climate change.


Women and Food:

Closely related to foraging, women are engaged in cooking and eating fungi.  The preparation of mushrooms, including cooking and storing, is mostly done by women around the world (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez,2012).  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in an average day, American women spend about twice as much time as men preparing food and drinks.  In an average day, 70% of women reported preparing food compared to 43% of men.  This means that women not only do more food preparation than men, more women are engaged in this activity than men (Charts by Topic: Household activities, 2016).  This should come as little surprise to feminists, who have long articulated that women do more unpaid household labor than men.   This work is often devalued, taken advantage of, and taken for granted as part of the normal gender roles and relationship between men and women.  Although women do more unpaid cooking, men dominate professional cooking.  Women and men attend culinary school in equal proportions, but most celebrity chefs and paid culinary professionals are men.  Men also outnumber women 7 to 3 at more prestigious culinary schools and when women do go into culinary arts, they are disproportionately represented upon baking and pastry programs (Jones, 2009).  For instance, at B.A program in pastries at the American Culinary Institute is made up of 86% women (Tanner 2010).   Both of these trends represent how “women’s work” is undervalued in society.  At culinary schools, pastry sections are called the “pink ghetto” or “pink section” because they are dominated by women.  Food and work are both gendered in society.  Baking and desserts are associated with femininity (Brones, 2015).    This relationship to cooking also creates a special relationship to fungi, even if this relationship is not immediately obvious.

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The first relationship to fungi is the relationship between women and yeast.  To begin, bread of some kind or another has been eaten by humans for at least 30,000 years.  But, early breads were unleavened flat breads which were made from ingredients other than grains.  The first recorded discovery of yeast is from Ancient Egypt, where yeast was used to leaven bread and make beer 6000 years ago.   No one knows how yeast was discovered.  It may have been floating in the air and landed in some bread, resulting in lighter, fluffier bread.  Or, it is possible that yeast entered bread by adding ale to it instead of water.  In any event, the discovery of yeast necessarily coincided with several other developments in human history.  First of all, it arose out of settled societies which domesticated and grew grains.  Grains were domesticated by ancient farming civilizations about 8000 years ago.  But, for most of human history, people foraged for their food.  Settled agriculture allowed for population growth, the birth of cities, the invention of written languages, private property, and social stratification.  It also is considered to be the beginning of patriarchy, as with the invention of private property, monogamy and the associated control of women was ensured the transmission of property through sons.   Settled agricultural societies were possible because of a surplus of food.  This surplus of food also allowed for the creation of professions, thus, in Egypt, there were professional bakers, herders, teachers, doctors, scribes, etc.  Egyptian art depicts both men and women engaged in bread making.  However, it is more likely that men were involved in the actual profession of bread making or baking, while women made bread in the home or as supporters.  This gendered dynamic continued through time.  For instance, in Medieval Europe, women prepared food for their families or homes, whereas men were professional breadmakers in guilds.  In both examples, the work of women was essential the same, but not given the same social value.  So, although women are more likely to work with yeast or for that matter cook with any other fungi, it is not seen as work that matters in the same way professional culinary work matters.

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While women have a close relationship to food and by extension, fungi as a food, due to their role as a cook for their families, this often goes unnoticed or unheralded.  Despite gender inequalities, women managed to influence society through cuisine.  For instance, countries can roughly be divided into mycophobic and mycophilliac depending upon their relationship to mushrooms.  France is viewed as a mycophiliac culture, with many recipes calling for mushrooms and a history of foraging for mushrooms.  It was largely through women that this French passion for mushrooms spread to other countries.  For instance, Hannah Glasse wrote an  English cookbook in 1747 which drew from French cuisine and included 110 mushroom recipes called the Art of Cookery Made Easy.  Eliza Action’s cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845) and Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) also included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Cookbooks focused on the historical cuisine of the British isles tended to have few mushroom recipes.  The first American cookbook, by Amelia Simmons in 1796, does not feature any mushroom recipes.  But, by the 1800s, various cookbooks featured mushroom dishes.  Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup, introduced in 1934, popularized mushrooms as part of American casserole cuisine.  And, one of the most popular American cookbooks of the 20th century, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) included dozens of mushroom recipes.  Irma Rambauer’s book The Joy of Cooking included 30 recipes with mushrooms (Bertelsen, 2013 ). In each of these examples, women were able to influence culture by working within the traditional social space offered to women.  The household has traditionally been viewed as the sphere of influence of women.  Books about cooking, by women for women, is a way that women exerted power within the confines of tradition.  In doing so, in a small way, these cultures were changed.  Today, mushrooms consumption has exploded.  The global export value of mushrooms was almost 1.75 billion dollars in 2010, compared to 250 million dollars in 1990 and negligible in 1970.

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Another way in which women relate to fungi is through the ways that food is gendered in society.  Because mushrooms are a viewed as a vegetable and something healthy, one might assume that women eat more mushrooms than men.  After all, women are told to watch their weight, monitor their food intake, and make healthy food choices.  At the same time, masculinity is connected to meat eating.  Eating mushrooms seems to be something lowly and feminine.  There is even a racial and ethnic component to eating mushrooms, as they are associated with mycophilliac cultures such as India, China, Japan, and Russia.  Surprisingly, men and women in the United States actually eat roughly the same amount of mushrooms each year.  According to the USDA, women consume about 8% more fresh mushrooms then men, but men are more likely to eat processed mushrooms.  As a whole, men ate about 49% of all mushrooms produced in the United States, whereas women ate about 51% (Lucier, Allhouse, and Lin, 2003).  Yet, this isn’t to argue that gender does not shape mushroom consumption.  In Mycophilia, Eugenia Bone, a food writer from New York, expressed disdain when she attended a Midwest mushroom foraging event and the men in attendance planned on battering their mushrooms or putting them on steaks  (Bone, 2011).  In this example, gender, geography, and class intersected to generate a different sense of taste from the Midwestern men with less social capital.  In another example, the white truffle is the most expensive food in the world, at $3000 per pound (Bone, 2011).  However, men with power are more likely to obtain and ingest truffles.  For instance, a 3.3 pound truffle was auctioned for $330,000 to a billionaire named Stanley Ho, a Macau casino owner.  The truffle itself was discovered by an Italian truffle hunter and his father, along with their dog.  Gordon Wu, a property tycoon from Hong Kong purchased two truffles at an auction for 125,000 euros.  An anonymous Chinese writer purchased a truffle for $120,000 at an auction.  Globally, women and children are more likely to be among the world’s poor and less represented among the super wealthy.  The truffle’s value is because it is hard to successfully commercially cultivate, rare, and labor intensive.  At the same time, some its value is more symbolic than material, as truffles are abundant in China, where labor is cheap enough (i.e exploited) that they are raked from the earth by humans rather than trained dogs and pigs.  But, these black truffles are viewed as inferior to European black truffles.  In this sense, when food is associated with power and privilege, women are less likely to partake in this indulgence.  So, while men and women may eat equal amounts of mushrooms, how they are eaten may differ.  I would hypothesize that men eat them more often on pizza, battered, on burgers, or on steaks and women in salads and as a meat substitute.  Class certainly shapes mushroom consumption as well, not only in access to elite foods like truffles, but in consumption of mushrooms in general.  Bone (2011) noted that the biggest consumers of mushrooms were those who were 350% above the poverty line.

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(image stolen from National Geographic…)

Mushrooms, Women, and Witchcraft

Another way in which mushrooms have been associated with women is through medicine and witchcraft.  In Europe, mushrooms have often been associated with mushiness and evil.  French words for mushrooms translate to eggs of the devil, devil’s paintbrush, and toad bread.  Toadstool and toad hat are names derived from Danish mushrooms.  In Estonia, Fulgio septica, a large yellow slime mold is called “Shit of a Witch (Dugan, 2008).”  An edible yellow fungus commonly found on dead branches is called “Witches butter.”  Western Europe and the British Isles in particular associated mushrooms with witchcraft (Bertelsen, 2013).   In Russia, Baba Yaga is associated with magical tree mushrooms.  In one story she spares the life of a hedgehog that is eating a mushroom, under the understanding that the hedgehog will become a boy and serve her.  She is also accompanied by spirits that live under mushrooms.  In Italy, there is a story of a witch who disguised herself as a mushroom to figure out who is stealing her cabbages.   Mushrooms have been associated with fairies and in 1599, the word fairy ring described, which is a ring of mushroom left behind by dancing fairies.  In Germany, fairy rings were known as Hexen rings, where witches would dance in a circle on Walpurgis night or the night before May Day (Dugan, 2008).  Plant diseases caused by fungi were sometimes believed to be caused by witches, as exemplified by a decree by Pope Innocent the VIII who noted that witches cause crop failure.  Witches were also blamed for the poisoning of cattle, which itself was often the cause of grain fungi.   Witches were believed to use fungi in herbalism, and that least Inquisition documents indicate the beliefs that witches used puffballs in potions in Basque country, Amanita Muscaria is known as “Witches mushroom” in Austria, and witches in Portugal used a hallucinogenic mushroom called  Panaeolus papilionaceus.  There is also a Finnish belief that if someone is bothered by a kobald like creature, a certain species of mushroom was fried in tar, salt, and sulfur, then beaten, and the woman who controls the kobald would appear to release the creature.  In the Balkans, dried mushrooms were used to ward of witches by placing them in the windowsill (Dugan, 2008).   It seems that mushrooms have been associated with witches, mischief, powerful women, and misfortune.  Though, there are some exceptions.  For example, in China, the lingzhi mushroom or mushroom of immortality, was associated with Kuan Yin, the goddess of healing and mercy (Bertelsen, 2013).

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(Witches Butter Fungus- Image from Birds and Blooms)


There may be some actual connections between witchcraft and fungi.  For instance, there is a connection between ergotism and witch trials.  Ergotism is caused by the grain fungi, Claviceps purpurea.  The fungus colonizes cereal crops, producing nectar like droplets containing spores.  The disease is called ergot, the French word for spur, due to the rooster spur like shape of the fungus on the infected plant.  In medieval times, up to 30% of the harvested grain was actually fungus, due to wet weather conditions.  When humans or animals ingest the fungus many symptoms can arise.  The infected can feel intense heat over their body and lose blood flow to their extremities, causing the limbs to rot and fall off.  This condition was called St. Anthony’s Fire due to these symptoms.  The alkaloids produced by the fungus can also cause vomiting, diarrhea, the sensation of ants on the body, twitching, hallucinations, seizures, and distortions of the limbs.  Ergotism outbreaks occurred through the 1800s.  Peasants were vulnerable as they had to eat lower quality grain or could not waste the diseased grain.  Children were particularly vulnerable with 56% mortality in some outbreaks.   Historians such as Mary Matossian have hypothesized that witch trials and bewitching may have actually been the result of ergotism.  She argued that most witch trials happened in river valleys in southwest Germany and south east France, where cool and wet conditions would have promoted fungal growth.  Both places grew rye and peasants in the area would have consumed up to three and a half pounds of bread a day.  There was only one witch trials in Ireland, where grain was not grown as much.  Trials for witches often happened in the fall or winter following wet years.  Even the Salem Witch Trial followed this pattern as it occurred after a cool spring.  The symptoms reported in the witch trials were similar to ergotism and the fact that children reported these symptoms is also consistent with the fact that children are more vulnerable to the effects of ergotism.  It is interesting to note that in studying ergot grain fungi, Albert Hofman developed LSD (Hudler, 2000).  In any event, it is possible that outbreaks of ergotism were blamed on witches and a catalyst for witch hunts.

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(A vintage Halloween postcard featuring a costumed witch with fungi)

Beyond this association with witch trials, it is useful to dissect what a witch is.  A witch is symbolic for a women with power and knowledge.  For thousands of years, humans obtained an immense amount of knowledge from the natural world in terms of edible foods, useful medicines, dyes, animal movements, etc.  Because women had an important role in gathering foods, they had special knowledge.  Further, prior to the invention of patriarchy, women likely had important roles as religious or spiritual leaders, healers, and religions with goddesses.  Over time, with changes in social structures and the introduction of Christianity, the role of women was diminished and their knowledge was viewed as threatening and connected to paganism.  In this way, the idea of a witch is a way to diminish and persecute the traditional knowledge and roles of women.  Witches may be associated with mushrooms because of how mushrooms were used in healing and rituals.  Indeed, some fungi have healing properties.   Mushrooms are valued in Chinese cuisine, culture, and medicine.  Chinese medicine includes 100 species of mushrooms, including the wood ear mushroom which was eaten for its perceived improvement to circulation and breathing.  The health effects of mushrooms are only recently being discovered in the West.  Mushrooms contain polysaccharides, which boost the immune system and can be a source of protein, potassium, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin D, copper, and selenium.  Chanterelle mushrooms are 11 to 24% protein.  In contrast, the average potato contains 3.9% protein.  Mushrooms also secrete antibiotics (Bertelsen, 2013).  The most famous fungal cure is penicllin, but fungi are used in many modern medicines.  Beano is made with the fungi Aspergillis niger, which digests methane and in turn relieves flatulence.  Lovastatin and Pravastatin are both derived from fungi and used to treat high cholesterol.  Cyclosporin comes from a fungus and is used to suppresses the immune system for organ transplants.  Shiitake mushrooms may have cancer fighting properties (Hudler, 2000).  Gypsy mushroom may be effective against herpes, the steroids used in birth control come from fungi, turkey tail mushroom may be a treatment against hepatitis C, and fomitopsis officinalis has been used to treat tuberculosis and e-coli.  Midwives in Germany and Italy used ergot, the deadly grain fungus, to induce labor (Bone, 2011).  Mold was used by Chinese, Ancient Egyptians, and French to treat wounds (Hudler, 2000).  Of course, the benefits of fungi should not be overstated.  They may be hard to digest due to their chitin cell wall.  Some fungi are deadly.  Designating fungi as a superfood is a marketing ploy to sell more mushrooms.  However, the healing properties of many mushrooms may mean that witches were associated with mushrooms because healers traditionally used mushrooms as medicine.   By associating healing with evil and witchcraft, women’s knowledge, experience, and power was de-legitimized.  At the same time, through witch hunts and trial, women themselves were terrorized with violence and the threat of violence as a form of social control.

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Women and Mycology

It should be clear that one of the themes related to women and fungi relates to the value of the knowledge and work of women in society.  It is suiting then that the final point is how women have contributed to the science of mycology.  In this feminist narrative of history, women have probably been closely connected to fungi for most of human history as foragers for food and as healers.  With the end of hunting and gathering societies in many parts of the world, women took on new, but subservient roles in society.  Still, women continued to be connected to fungi through their preparation of food and role as caregivers, even if this labor was not given social importance.  This final segment of history is about women struggling to assert themselves in male dominated science.  Outside of the realm of formal science, women are often responsible for passing down knowledge of mushrooms to their children.  Even the science of mycology depending upon the knowledge of women.   For instance, Carolus Clusius and Franciscus van Sterbeeck, who lived in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, respectively were two of the the first pioneers in mycology.  These men relied upon the knowledge of wise women, known as herb wives, to obtain information about mushrooms (Garibay-Orijel, Ramírez-Terrazo, and Ordaz-Velázquez, 2012).  It is tragically ironic that when men were developing science based upon the knowledge of women, these very same women were persecuted as witches for their knowledge of nature.


Later in history, Mary Elizabeth Banning was a pioneer in mycology who sought to identify mushrooms in the 1800s (Bertelsen, 2013).  She identified 23 new species of fungi and completed one of the first guides to mushrooms of the New World.  She worked as a teacher to support her mother and sisters after her father died, but found time to pursue mycology, then associated with botany.  Men dominated professional botany, but women were sometimes amateur botanists.  For 20 years, she studied the mushrooms of her home state of Maryland at a time when there was only one book on American fungi.  She never earned money or recognition and was often viewed as a lunatic by those outside of the scientific community.  She did however correspond by mail with various scientists (Pugliosi, 2016).  Her life represents several barriers for women who wish to pursue science.  For one, she was burdened with care work for her family.  Her mushrooming adventures were limited by the constraints of caring for her family.  At the same time, her work was stymied by the fact that she also had to be a wage laborer as a teacher.  Her “hobby” as a scientist was an unpaid third shift.  While she produced useful information, she never published it out of lack of confidence and her outsider status to scientific institutions.

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(An illustration by Mary Elizabeth Banning)

In a similar but less tragic example, Beatrix Potter was interested in mycology and painted hundreds of scientifically accurate portraits of fungi.  She studied fungi under a microscope and presented a paper on fungal spores at the Linnean Society of London.  She began creating watercolor paintings of mushrooms at the age of 20 and sent her paintings to the naturalist, Charles McIntosh.  In turn, McIntosh gave her scientific advice and sent her specimens to paint.  Beatrix Potter also began studying lichens, which she wrongly believed were fungi rather than a symbiotic relationship between fungi, algae, and bacteria.  The mycologist, George Murray, rebuffed her, both for the position on lichen and her earlier work on spore germination, which he said had already been studied in Germany decades earlier.  Her paper was never published and she was told to make revisions.  Female students were not accepted into the society until 1905 and she was unable to present the research herself.   Her biggest contribution to mycology was her illustrations, which were used for fungi identification (Flemming, 2016).  Potter went on to achieve fame as a children’s book author and illustrator, but her scientific endeavors largely went unnoticed in history.  Again, she was shut out of a world controlled by men and men mediated her access and legitimacy within science.

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(Mushroom watercolor painting by Beatrix Potter)


With successes of the early women’s rights movement and other social movements, the social space within science slowly expanded for women.  In 1950, Elizabeth Hazen and Rachel Fuller Brown discovered Nystatin while trying to isolate antibiotics from Strepomyces noursei  (Hudler, 2000).  Nystatin was one of the first anti-fungal drugs and is used to treat various Candida infections such as diaper rash, yeast infections, and thrush.  Both scientists worked together for the New York Department of Health  and went on to develop two antibiotics.  Developing anti-fungal drugs is particularly challenging because, as it was noted earlier, fungi are closely related to animals.  This makes fungal infections harder to fight than bacterial infections.  Bacteria are simpler organisms, with a cell wall but not the complex cellular structures of animals and fungi.  This makes it easier to destroy bacteria.  Drugs developed to fight fungal infections may attack healthy human cells, as they are more similar (Staughton, 2002).

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Another contribution to mycology was the discovery of the cause of Dutch Elm Disease, a fungus that destroyed elm trees in Europe and the U.S..  The cause of this disease was discovered by a team of five female Dutch scientists (Hudler, 2000).  The source of the devastating tree disease was uncovered in 1921 by a team, lead by Johanna Westerdjik.  Westerdjik was a plant pathologist and the first female professor in the Netherlands.  She wrote over 70 papers on mycology and plant diseases and supervised over 55 Phd students, half of whom were women.  It was her student, Marie Beatriz Schwartz who isolated the fungus infecting elms and another student, Christine Johanna Buisman who developed Dutch Elm Disease resistant elms.  The project that she started continued until the 1990s.

 


“Moldy Mary” was another contributor to mycology.  Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin after observing mold attacking bacteria in a petri dish.  He hired a woman nicknamed “Moldy Mary” to collect moldy produce so the mold could be studied.  Her real name was Mary Hunt and she was a young lab assistant.  The molds that Hunt found were tested to determine if they were penicillin.  Some of the cantaloupes she collected indeed contained a culture of Penicillium chrysogenum and many modern strains used in modern penicillin come from her moldy melon (Hudler, 2000).  Another contributor to knowledge about fungi was Valentina Wasson.  Unfortunately, her husband, R. Gordon Wasson is more famous than she is for his research into the cultural relationship between people and mushrooms.  However, he was struck by the cultural difference between them when on their honeymoon, Valentina, a Russian, began collecting mushrooms.  He was terrified that they were toxic, a reaction that highlighted a difference between his American upbringing and her Russian upbringing and how that shaped their relationship to mushrooms.  The incident inspired the couple to research these cultural differences together and they authored Mushrooms, Russia and History in 1957.  They went on to travel to Mexico where they studied the relationship to mushrooms among indigenous people and went on to introduce psychoactive mushrooms to a mass American audience through Life magazine (Hudler, 2000).  Unfortunately, this attracted droves of Western visitors to the Mazatec community and especially to Maria Sabina, who was interviewed in their book.  Maria was investigated by the Mexican police for selling drugs to foreigners and had her house burned down.  Thus, while they examined cultural differences in the relationship between cultures and mushrooms, their work had a negative impact on indigenous people of Mexico.  Finally, as one last tidbit of mycological history, all button mushrooms, the mushrooms commonly used in pizza, salads, canned mushrooms, and cream of mushroom soup all come from a spore discovered by the Dutch scientist Gerda Fritsche in 1980 (Bone, 2011).

Mary Robeson aka Moldy Mary

A depiction of “Moldy Mary”

While women have made contributions to mycology over time, gender inequality in mycology persists today.   There are two times as many male members of the American Mycological Society as there are females.  Only 13% of the presidents of the MSA (founded in 1932) have been female, starting with Marie Farr in 1980.  MSA secretaries have been consecutively female since 1991, but treasurers have historically been men.  Various MSA awards have also gone disproportionately to men, although female students have won travel grants in greater proportion to their male counterparts.  The majority of published articles in Mycologia are written by men (Branco and Vellinga, 2015).  Mycology is not unique among the sciences.  The gender inequality within mycology is pretty comparable to similar sciences such as botany, ecology, and lichenology.  It begs the question of why women do not enter the sciences or when they do, they are not as active in leadership roles.


Oddly enough, I wanted to be a botanist when I was a kid.  I even went through a period of time in the 5th grade when I wanted to be a mycologist.  I attended science camp and continued to be interested in science through high school.  However, I think a deterrent for me and science was a lack of confidence and a fear of math.  Low self-esteem is pretty common among girl.  There are varying statistics on the occurrence of low self esteem, but if one believes the statistics put forth by Dove’s Self Esteem fund, as many as seven in ten girls believe they are somehow deficient.  If girls indeed believe they are not smart enough or capable enough, they may be deterred from science.  And, if they do enter the sciences, they still must contend with the social expectations of women, such as having a family, doing research, doing unpaid labor at home, etc.  This cuts into time spent for research or going to conferences and limits the ability to become leaders in their field.  They may also face sexism and sexual harassment in their work environment, like many women do.  Finally, as it has already been outlined, scientific institutions have not been welcoming to women in the past and have suppressed the knowledge of women.  Rationality itself is associated with masculinity, whereas femininity associated with emotions.  But, rather than viewing one as inferior or that reason and feeling are opposed to each other, they are instead, interconnected.  The drive to study the natural world, interest in research, dedication to a subject, and passion for science all come from an emotional place.


Conclusion:  

I am certainly not a scientist, but I hope that the presentation and accompanying hike provided a few insights about fungi.  Personally, I find fungi pretty fascinating and hope to learn more about them in the future.  That is the goal of feminist frolics, to get together, share knowledge, and hopefully open the door to future learning.  For thousands of years, the knowledge and experiences of women have not been valued.  I think that learning together and sharing builds confidence, community, and self-efficacy.  It is also a way to find a place in nature, science, and history.  Hopefully you will join the Feminist Justice League in future feminist frolics.  I think you will find we are a bunch of fun gals and fungi!

Mushroom Mother - feminist art poster hand finished in gold

A feminist poster called “Mother Mushroom”

Sources:

 

Bertelsen, C. D. (2013). Mushroom: a global history. London: Reaktion Books.

 

Bone, E. (2011). Mycophilia: revelations from the weird world of mushrooms. New York: Rodale.

 

Branco, S., & Vellinga, E. (2015). Gender Balance in Mycology (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://msafungi.org/wp-content/uploads/Inoculum/66(5)%20preprint%20gender.pdf

 

Brones, A. (2015, May 17). Cupcake Feminism: Is What We Bake a Matter of Gender? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.thekitchn

 

Charts by Topic: Household activities. (2016, December 22). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.bls.gov/tus/charts/household.htm

 

Crane, E. (2000). The world history of beekeeping and honey hunting. London: Duckworth.

Dugan, F. (2008) Fungi, Folkways and Fairy Tales: Mushrooms & Mildews in Stories, Remedies & Rituals, from Oberon to the Internet. North American Fungi, [S.l.], v. 3, p. 23-72, ISSN 1937-786X. Available at: <http://www.pnwfungi.org/index.php/pnwfungi/article/view/1062>. Date accessed: 11 Aug. 2017. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.2509/naf2008.003.0074.

 

Fleming, N. (2016, February 15). Earth – Beatrix Potter: Pioneering scientist or passionate amateur? Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20160215-beatrix-potter-pioneering-scientist-or-passionate-amateur

 

Fungi – an introduction. (2009, October 27). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.biooekonomie-bw.de/en/articles/dossiers/fungi-an-introduction/

 

Garibay-Orijel, R., Ramírez-Terrazo, A., & Ordaz-Velázquez, M. (2012). Women care about local knowledge, experiences from ethnomycology. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 8, 25. http://doi.org/10.1186/1746-4269-8-25

 

Hudler, G. W. (2000). Magical mushrooms, mischievous molds. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

 

Jones, G. (2009, November 19). Male to Female Ratios in Culinary School. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.reluctantgourmet.com/male-female-ratios-culinary-school/#context/api/listings/prefilter

 

Lucier, G., Allhouse, J., & Lin, B. (2003, March). Factors Affecting U.S. Mushroom Consumption (Rep.). Retrieved August 12, 2017, from USDA website: https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/39489/30836_vgs29501_002.pdf?v=41414

 

Puglionesi, A. (2016, November 08). The Lost Mushroom Masterpiece Unearthed in a Dusty Drawer. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-lost-mushroom-masterpiece-unearthed-in-a-dusty-drawer

 

Staughton, J. (2016, November 18). How Are Mushrooms More Similar to Humans than Plants? » Science ABC. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://www.scienceabc.com/nature/how-are-mushrooms-more-similar-to-humans-than-plants.html

 

Tanner, P. (2015, February 20). A Debate About The Role Gender Plays in The World of Pastries-www.njmonthly.com. Retrieved August 12, 2017, from https://njmonthly.com/articles/eat-drink/does-dessert-have-a-gender/

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

My Adventures as an Egg Donor

H. Bradford

8/1/17

I remember when I was a student teacher, I taught a lesson on the social construction of gender.  A seventeen year old smarty pants wanted to argue that gender was not socially constructed.  After all, a woman can’t get another woman pregnant!  With a smile, I told him that I had, in fact, impregnated three women.  He was taken aback by this and retreated from the argument (which to him was really was more about biology than the social construction of gender).   The story of egg donation came up again tonight at Socialism and a Slice, a monthly meeting of local activists.  The topic was again the social construction of gender, but also the promise that reproductive technologies can usurp some aspects of biological determinism in reproduction.  Of course, reproductive technologies exist in a social context and I am not for the blind worship of science and technology.  Yet, at the same time, I like to think that someday technology can be used to grant genders/biological arrangements access to parenthood.


In 2007 and 2008 I was really struggling.  I had a large bill with St. Scholastica, was making less than minimum wage as an Americorps volunteer, worked two to four jobs, and was just beginning to pull myself out of the black hole that is depression.  My long experience with depression is another story.  But, to make that long story short, I spent a good portion of my 20s as a non-existent person.  I hid from the world, didn’t pay my bills, and waited patiently for death.  Needless to say, I had a lot of financial things to deal with once the clouds began to clear.  One solution to this problem was working myself in a demoralizing frenzy of drudgery to climb out of the hole.  Another solution, in addition to that one, was to donate eggs.  I began to look into this option.  The closest place to donate eggs was a hospital in Minneapolis.  But, it paid around $3000 if successful.  I filled out a long application.  I believe it was over 25 pages long.  The application was accepted and I was invited to the hospital to continue the process- which would include a mental health examination, health exam, and interview.


I believed that at any part of the process, I would be weeded out.   But, I am generally a pretty healthy person.  I have never smoked, drank alcohol, had a surgery, had a major illness, been hospitalized, tried an illegal drug, etc.  On paper, I seemed like a good candidate, as I have many hobbies, was a healthy weight at the time (they had weight restrictions), intelligent, driven, etc.  I even passed the mental health evaluation.  So, despite some struggles with anxiety and depression in my early 20s (which I can talk about later), they were not red flags.  I passed each barrier, which was great as I invested my meager resources at the time in traveling to Minneapolis for evaluations.  Finally, they took my photo and told me that I would be put on the roster of possible egg donors.  With a few weeks, I was told that I had been chosen to donate.   It should be noted that it was an anonymous donation, so I would never know the recipient of the eggs nor would that person know me.  I was simply donor number 306.

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The donation process was involved.  It first involved a visit to the hospital to go onto birth control pills so that my menstrual cycle would align with the recipient.  I was told to begin them on a certain date.  After which time, I would begin a series of injections.  I was given a large amount of hormones, as the goal was to make my body produce a dozen or more mature eggs.  I injected myself with Gonal-F once or twice a day, depending upon the stage in the process.  Towards the end, it was more and in all, I spent about three weeks taking hormones.   In addition to the Gonal-F injections, I also took injections of a medication that suppressed ovulation, simulating menopause (Lupron).   Beyond this strict schedule of injections, the process also involved early morning drives to Minneapolis, as my blood was tested for its estrogen level and I was given ultrasounds to check on the progress in my ovaries.  It was an intense time, as I would rush to the cities then drive back for work.  At the same time, towards the end, my ovaries felt like bags of marbles.  I felt heavy.  I am sure it was imagined, but I felt droopy and weighed down.  The first time that I donated was in November and I remember making a large Thanksgiving meal for my family.  I remember them attributing this to my mega dose of estrogen.  As if they believed that somehow I was magically domesticated by the hormones.  I was deeply offended.  Despite being pumped full of estrogen and in a fake state of menopause, I was not weepy, crabby, plagued by hot flashes, or somehow more feminine.  Really, I just like cooking things from time to time…hormones or no hormones.   I felt entirely like my self, just weighed down and worn out from the driving.  In any event, after daily trips to the cities for a week…the time finally came to donate.  I was given a dagger sized syringe and a date.  I was told to impale myself on my butt then show up the following morning for the extraction.  No eating.  No drinking.  The final injection was some sort of magic potion that would mature the follicles and release the eggs (HCG).

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I made several dishes for Thanksgiving this past year.  Not one of them was the outcome of my hormone level.


The extraction itself was uneventful.  I was put to sleep, a needled was inserted into my vagina, and eggs were somehow sucked out from my ovaries (I believe?).  The extraction process took less than an hour, but I was moved to another room to rest for an additional hour.  In all, around 15 or 16 eggs were removed.  Though, I believe that my second time donating, it may have been as many as 23.  These eggs would go on to be fertilized.  The most promising would then be implanted in the recipient.  The failures and duds would be destroyed with the option of freezing some eggs for later use.  Thus, I am responsible not only for three pregnancies (since I donated three times and each time resulted in a pregnancy), I am responsible for some abortions (depending upon how one defines such a thing).  Because of the large number, I was told that I was a good donor.  I also did not experience much pain or any complications after the first donation.  Again, I handled it pretty well!  I was given a check for my efforts as well as parting gifts from my recipient.  The first time, the gift included a card and some gift cards.  In all, it was pretty cool.  I used the money earned from three donations to pay off my car loan, put money towards my St. Scholastica bill, and a little money towards a trip to Cuba.


As I said, I donated three times.  The first two times were uneventful and largely successful.  But, I was kept on a pretty tight schedule.  Not long after I had donated the first time, I was asked to donate again.  And, once I had donated the second time, I was asked to donate a third time.  This is a pretty intense process.  It was a lot of driving.  It was a lot of early mornings in addition to working over 60 hours a week.  It was a lot of hormones.   It was a lot of sedation.  Plus, I was saving up for an expensive trip to Cuba.  In order to afford the trip to Cuba, I worked from March to June without a day off.  I have never worked that long of a stretch in my life.  I hope to never do that again.   Even with money from the donation process (which I mostly put to bills) I still had to save several thousand dollars for the Cuba trip.  And, my third donation actually happened shortly after this trip, so I was taking hormone injections while on vacation.  My third donation did not go as well.


When I awoke from sedation, I began having odd body spasms.  My arms and legs shook.  I felt nauseous.  The nurse and doctor asked if I had taken any drugs, but I had not done anything unusual.  Eventually this uncontrolled trembling stopped, though for the next week, whenever I was resting, I would spasm a little.  Because of this reaction, I was told that I could no longer donate.  I have no idea why this happened, but I felt angry at myself.  I felt angry at my body for betraying me.  Had I been a trooper…the kind of person who could soldier on through exhaustion and hormones…without complaint or complication, I could have donated my way out of debt.  I felt so upset with myself.   So, so, so upset!  But, three times was an accomplishment.  Perhaps it was hard on me.  Perhaps I was overly tired.  Maybe I was anxious.  Maybe I hadn’t been taking care of myself.  Why did the third time go awry?  I will never know.  But, that was the end of my short lived career as an egg donor.


Having gone through that experience, I have mixed feelings.  On one hand, I feel great.  It helped me pay off some debt and go on a trip to Cuba.  I also feel like I cheated evolution, gender, and biology.   In terms of evolution, success is passing on your genes.  I am not sure if the three recipients had successful pregnancies, but supposing that they did, this means that I may have three offspring in the world.  I may have more because of the high incidence of twins from IVF and the possibility that some eggs may have been frozen.  I cheated biology, since as a person who was born female, reproduction requires a lot of effort.  Raising a child requires a huge amount of resources and labor.  Thus, I feel that I am the equivalent of a brood parasite, such as a catbird.  I laid my eggs in some other bird’s nest and got to fly away, without effort or consequence.  Egg donation is a bit of biological trickery on my part.  Finally, I have suffered some gender dysphoria in the past.  It is not something I am particularly open about nor is it immediately obvious because of my feminine gender presentation.  In this regard, I feel that I transcended some of the limits of my gender and biology.  I was able to express both my gender and biology in a non-conventional way.   I’ve impregnated multiple women who I don’t even know.   I kind of felt like a stud.


On the other hand, there is a darker side to all of this.  Egg donation was hard on my body.  After the third donation, I actually developed wrinkles around my eyes.  The skin on my face became like crepe paper…very fragile and wrinkled.  It was an odd reaction that went away over the months following the donation (thus I know it was correlated with egg donation rather than with natural aging).   I also woke up convulsing on a hospital bed.  Then, I felt that I was blamed for this reaction (as I was barred from donating again and accused of taking drugs).   The reason why I donated was because I was in debt.  I was overworking myself.  My debt was related to my depression and the high cost of education.  In the context of capitalism, those who donate will always mostly be lower income women.   The cost of IVF is extremely expensive.  Thus, the recipients will always be women with access to money.  Of course, both women in the situation are oppressed.  Why do women feel that they must spend tens of thousands of dollars on reproductive technologies?  Why not adopt?  Why is going through the process of pregnancy so important?  I don’t blame the women for their choices nor do I look down upon these choices.  However, choice exists in social context and our society does tell women that motherhood and pregnancy give value and meaning to life.  Women who choose not to have children are seen as deviant, selfish, or of lesser character.  To make matters more complex, there are plenty of women with infertility issues who can’t afford IVF or adoption (which itself costs tens of thousands of dollars).  For instance, now that I am older and my fertility is waning, I know that would never be able to afford to have children through adoption or IVF.  It is plainly too expensive.  Additionally, why was I considered a “good donor?”  Partially because of supply and demand.  The demand is for young, educated, talented WHITE women, as most recipients are professional white women.  So, while I support reproductive technologies, in the context of capitalism and patriarchy, there is inherent exploitation involved.  I was so miserably poor I really didn’t care if there were medical complications.  I wanted a better life.  I became upset when my own body became a barrier to a better life.


Despite the negatives, I mostly draw a positive balance sheet from the experience.  I needed to pay off a bill with St. Scholastica so that I could further my education.  I have…furthered my education a bit too much…but it certainly opened a door for me.  I feel proud of my unique gender experience.  I feel smug about my place in evolutionary history.  I traveled to Cuba, which was a wonderful and educational experience.   I paid of my car early, improving my credit score and freeing up more spending money.   In all, I have little to complain about.  As for the exploitative nature of the situation, that could be mitigated by free higher education, living wages, universal medical care, etc.  It was certainly odd that I used money from the donation process to travel to Cuba, where education and health care are free, despite a much smaller GDP to work with and embargo.   As for the recipients, I am thankful that I was selected and hope that they have a happy family.  I hope that their children turned out to be smart, talented, well-behaved, thoughtful, independent, creative, angelic little creatures.  I hope that donor 306 was a blessing in their life and a mystery to puzzle, rather than an accursed brood parasite.

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Anna Akhmatova Was Here

Anna Akhmatova was Here

H. Bradford

7/27/17

(Anna Akhmatova was a celebrated Russian poet who was censored during Soviet times.  She was an aristocrat who did not flee the country after the Russian revolution.  While I am from a political tradition on the other side of history, I like her poetry and reflected upon her a little while visiting Tashkent, where she lived during WWII.  Some of the poem’s images come from Bishkek though…)

Anna Akhmatova was here.

She wrote of tractors while beating down tears the for friends and lovers

ploughed under the earth.

Sentimentality is subversive,

so it is best to forget the things that colored the gray cities.

By the time the snow falls, memories will become monuments

to hide in the overgrown wilds of city parks

or to tuck behind the shuttered museum.

These statues must be stored safely out of sight and out of mind,

lest they become unorthodox idols to a high class poetess or the feminine divine.

Anna Akhmotova was here.

Tashkent was a stop in a long migration of mourning

and a hermitage for the heart that would not leave.

As for me, I am just a traveler and only ghosts stay behind.

So, city is empty of tourists and souls in transit.

I am also a little emptier.

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Gray July Days

Gray July Days

H. Bradford

7/27/17

These gray July days,

They feel more like October or November,

when even the birds have somewhere better to be.

These days are thick with quiet, sorrowed anticipation of the cold

and creeping anxiety for stomach flu and Christmas.

Why today must the clouds hang so heavy and gray?

If it as if they are made of tungsten or tin,

and leaden with snow and rain.

Here, winter is always coming.

Midsummer wind and wet is winter’s promise and portent.

 

 

My International Bog Day Bonanza

My International Bog Day Bonanza

H. Bradford

7/25/17

Last week at work I had a several stressful situations arise.  When I am stressed, I like to fantasize about my time off.  So, I determined that I was going to really enjoy my time off by celebrating International Bog Day.   International Bog Day was first celebrated in Scotland in 1991 in honor of a pretty unique ecosystem.  In the United States, it was first celebrated in 2008 at the Volo Bog State Nature Area in IL.  There are not a lot of bog related celebrations in Minnesota, even though Minnesota actually has more bogs (10% of the state or 6 million acres) than any other continental state.  The biggest celebration for International Bog Day in Minnesota appears to be at Big Bog State Park.  However, I didn’t feel like driving three hours to attend festivities such as the “bog jog.”  Maybe next year.  In any  event, I can’t say that I know a lot about bogs, but they are dear to my heart.  I grew up near a bog and have many great bog memories.   I can confidently say that bogs are my favorite ecosystem.  Thus, I relished the idea of celebrating International Bog Day!

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I like to invent holidays or holiday celebrations.  Some take off, such as Marxmas (which I did not invent, but have passionately planned a well-attended party for each year).  Others, such as Radon Awareness Month- don’t really pan out.   I felt that International Bog Day had a lot of potential.  I began to dream about visiting bogs.  Where would I go?  What would I do?  Oh, then there are the other details such as…what should I wear?  Each holiday needs special apparel.  So yes, I bought myself a “bog shirt.”  Yes, yes, shame on me for consumerism, but details matter.  And, it was hard to find a bog shirt!  I found a pretty cool shirt with a woman wearing a pitcher plant on her head.  Aside from this, I wanted a “bog cake” but this turned out to be too much work.  Then, there were the activities!  I decided that I would visit three bogs.  My first adventure would be a visit to the Sax Zim Bog in Minnesota to do some birding.  This would happen on “International Bog’s Day Eve” or Saturday.  Then, the following day I would drag my comrades Adam and Lucas on an adventure to Cable WI, to visit the Forest Lodge Trail.  I read online that the trail was the best interpretive bog trail in Wisconsin.   Then, on the day after International Bog Day, I would revisit Savanna Portage State Park for some camping…and you guessed it…a visit to a bog.   Three days.  Three bogs.  No one can com”peat” with this bog day bonanza. DSCF6115 (2)


Day One: Bog’s Day Eve

Located about an hour and fifteen minutes north of Duluth, the Sax Zim Bog is one of the best birding spots in Minnesota.  It happened that the Sax Zim Bog was hosting a Bio-blitz this past Saturday.  The goal of the event was to take visitors on various field trips to count the biodiversity of the wetland.  Field trips throughout the day logged such things as dragonflies, butterflies, spiders, wildflowers, birds, fish, etc.   I decided that attending the birding field trip would be a great kick off for Bog Day and a way to add more birds to my birding list.  So, I awoke very early.  In fact, I hardly slept at all.  I dragged myself out of bed at 3:30 am and headed out the door at 4:15 am.  The morning was foggy and cool.  I wanted to stop for coffee or a snack, but waited until I was out of Duluth to make a stop.  Unfortunately, I waited too long to stop and the gas stations near Cotton, MN were still closed.   I was the first to arrive for the 6 am birding field trip and felt a little groggy and thirsty.   I nibbled on graham crackers from a previous camping trip and found a single lime La Croix in my backseat.  Still, I felt that I was graduating into a more serious birder, as no normal person would wake up at 3:30 am for something they weren’t passionate about.

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The early bird catches….the bird.  (gray jay)


Our field trip began with a journey to where a Great gray owl was thought to be nesting.  The Great gray owl is the world’s largest owl by length, though it is mostly a mass of fluffy gray feathers.  Sure enough, we saw a family of Great gray owls.  The mother took flight, moving a little deeper into the woods.  It was astonishing to see an owl that looked to be the size of an eagle.  It was my first time seeing a Great gray owl.  We stayed there a while, also spotting a Black backed woodpecker.  That was also a first for me.  After observing two woodpeckers dart from tree to tree, we moved on to watch birds elsewhere.  Three hours of birding yielded quite a few birds, including Sandhill cranes, a sedge wren, a swamp sparrow, a group of curious gray jays,  a few alder flycatchers, black billed magpie, and others.  I learned that the Sax Zim Bog is the eastern most range of the black billed magpie.  I added seven birds to my life list.  Also, I was again amazed at the other birders.  They can easily spot and identify birds.  I feel pretty dumb sometimes, but hope that with effort and time I will someday be as proficient.

Not the best photos, but offers a visual of what I saw…Image may contain: plant, outdoor and nature

 

Sedge wren

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Black backed woodpecker–can you tell?  Nope.  I couldn’t.  But the other birders could…


Aside from the birds, I saw some pretty neat wildflowers.  These included purple fringed orchids and a purple fringed +ragged fringed orchid hybrid.  Another unusual flower was called Marsh grass of Parnassus.  It is not actually a grass but a fen dwelling flower that is threatened in WI and declining in MN.  I also learned that a lily that I had been calling Turk’s cap lily is actually called Michigan Lily (the former is found further south).  We saw some Michigan lilies as well as a black-eyed susan with a goldenrod crab spider perched on a petal.  I would have liked to have gone on the wild flower walk, but after birding for three hours on two hours of sleep (I could not sleep!) I decided to head home.  I had some other social obligations on Saturday as well.  Nevertheless, I hope that next year I can participate in the Bio blitz again- hopefully partaking in other field trips.

Marsh grass of Parnassus

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Purple fringed orchid

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Day Two: Forest Lodge Trail

On International Bog Day itself I set off with Lucas and Adam for Cable WI.  I had read online that there is a bog north of Cable, WI that is supposed to be the best interpretative bog trail in Wisconsin.  This is a tall order, but I had high hopes for an exciting bog adventure with my comrades.  Unfortunately, I started the day off in a crabby mood.  It was another early morning and I felt stressed out.  My cellphone does not get very good reception in rural WI or rural anywhere.  I had some printed maps, but I was the driver and no one was keen on navigating.  I could have forced the issue, but ended up doing 98% of the navigating myself.  Oh well, I should be proud of usurping gender roles as both the driver AND navigator.  AND photographer.  AND planner.  Okay, so I became a bit of a Swamp Diva as the day progressed, as in the moment I could not find the joy in being so empowered.  Sorry guys.

A comrade

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There were some snags in our adventure.  For one, we hiked the trail, but did not see a bog board walk…as I had seen online.  The bog itself seemed pretty ho-hum.  It was a long drive for a bog and board walk that didn’t seem to exist and certainly not to the degree that I would call it the best in Wisconsin.   However, the trail itself was nice.  There was a variety of terrain and only one other pack of hikers.  As we tried to find the trail, we stopped by the Gormusch Resort- a bizarre German themed petite-bourgeoisie lake resort.  But, for all of our trials finding the trail and traveling the trail itself, we saw little more than a blanket of moss punctuated with swampy puddles.  (I later learned that there is an extended trail…and the bog walk must be off of that.  I also learned that the Natural History museum has trail booklets as the trail does not have posted information on signs).

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Despite a disappointing bog, our spirits were lifted by a visit to Cable.  Adam bought us brownies, which he called “bog cake” (even though he never knew I had wanted to bake a bog themed cake!).  I found two geocaches and endured some teasing for my dorky, pointless hobby.  Lucas went as far as to call it a petite bourgeois past time.   The Natural History museum was closed, but we vowed to return and see it.  Otherwise, we also paid a short visit to a community farm, where we were impressed by the resources that the community had put into developing a farm wherein the produce was donated to local food shelves.   We decided to return to Cable again and set off to find the legendary Delta Diner.  This is where my Swamp Diva nature climaxed.  I was not paying close enough attention and had to back track twice.  I cursed and grumbled about my inability to find the Delta Diner, which seemed to be the Brigadoon of restaurants.  We eventually found it.  Had I been more patient and attentive this would not have been an issue.  As for the diner, it was a hipster oasis on rural WI.   Interestingly, the diner has a no-tip policy as the prices are inflated 20% to make certain that the staff make a living wage.  Despite my tantrum about getting turned around, I did enjoy the experience of eating there AND I did see a family of trumpeter swans along the way. Image may contain: outdoor, water and nature


Finally, we set off back towards Superior.  I was in better spirits.  We stopped by the old King’s? school and a marsh off of HWY 13.  We went for another short hike.  I did some more birding while Adam and Lucas hid in the bushes, pretending to ambush me or something.  I think they were planning military strategies.  In order to get Lucas more engaged in the birding I told him it would be useful for “the revolution.”  After all, it would improve his skills as spotting something unusual in the landscape, such as a bomb, mine, or sniper.  I have zero sense of what is a useful “revolutionary skill”, but it seemed to work.  Finally, we stopped by the Davidson windmill where I finally found my geocache (that I could not find before).  Adam and Lucas wearily rested in the grass while I searched around the windmill.   I also tried to convince Lucas that geocaching is a useful revolutionary skill, as it can help us become better at hiding and finding messages or packages.  However, it seems there is a limit to how well I can pitch my hobbies as “useful to the revolution” before my manipulations become obvious.   All and all, I had a fun day.  I exhausted my poor comrades though.

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Day Three: Savanna Portage and Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge-

Although my first two days of International Bog Day celebrations were rather exhausting, I didn’t feel that I had my fill of bogs.  After all, I had yet to see a carnivorous plant and the Cable bog was a little lackluster.  I mustered my strength for one final bog slog.  However, I decided that camping was too much effort.  So, I went on a day trip to Savanna Portage State park and the Rice Lake Wildlife Refuge.  I nixed the camping, since packing, setting up a tent, and sleeping outside seemed overly ambitious.

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I visited Savanna Portage State Park back in March, so I knew it had a decent bog walk.  I was eager to see it in the summer, so I set off for a hiking and birding adventure.  This turned out to be worth the drive, as once again, the park was pretty empty.  It is nice to go somewhere and feel alone.  I only met one other person on the trails, though a few people were there for canoeing and fishing.  The first order of business was checking out the bog walk.  This time, it was alive with vegetation.  I saw what I thought was an unusual orchid, but it turned out that it was actually the flower of the pitcher plant.  I never new that pitcher plants had flowers!  I always thought that the pitcher plant was simply a pitcher shaped trap for insects.  I was enamored with the elegant, nodding green and purple flower on a slender stem.   The usual suspects, like cotton sedge, sphagnum moss, and Labrador tea also blanketed the bog in green. Image may contain: flower, plant, nature and outdoor

Pitcher perfect!


After enjoying the bog, I walked around Lake Shumway.  It seemed daunting to walk the perimeter of the lake, but it turned out to be a relatively short hike.  Along the way, I saw what I thought was a hairy woodpecker.  Upon closer inspection, I saw that it was actually a yellow bellied sapsucker.   I think it was worth taking a second look simply because it will help me to pay closer attention to details and become a better birder.  After finishing the trek around the lake, I went on another short hike alone the Continental Divide Trail.  Water to the west of the trail flows into the Mississippi River, whereas water to the east flows into Lake Superior.  Again, it was nice to have the trail to myself.  I definitely want to return to this state park in the fall and do some camping as it is quickly becoming one of my favorite state parks.  It has nice trails, a quiet atmosphere, an awesome bog, and patchwork of lakes.

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As a grand finale of the day, I went birding at Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  I had planned on visiting my mother in the evening, but ended up staying at the refuge until sunset.  The refuge contains lakes, forests…and bogs.  It also is also a historically and culturally important area to Native Americans, who have inhabited the area since at least 1000 BC.  Rice Lake, as the name suggests, is a source of wild rice, which is still harvested from the lake by local Ojibwe.  On a previous visit last spring, there were Native Americans harvesting maple syrup at the refuge.   I saw quite a few birds on my visit, including common loons, Great blue herons, trumpeter swans, bald eagles, unidentified fly catchers, eastern kingbird, belted kingfishers, common yellow throats, etc.  Once again, I was the only person in the entire nature area.  It was liberating to explore the refuge in the joy and solitude of my own company.   The park closes at sunset, so I reluctantly left it behind and began the drive home. Image may contain: bird, sky, outdoor and nature

Eastern kingbird

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I had a fun, if not exhausting, three days.  Oddly enough, I spent today birding and hiking as well.  Tomorrow, I will return to work (though, I won’t get bogged down by the stress should it arise).  But, I feel that I have spent almost all of my time off in the outdoors.  Summer is precious and short, so I don’t regret this marathon of bogs and hikes.  As for bogs, I think they are worth celebrating.  For one, bogs have really unique plants!  As a child, I wanted to become a botanist- so bogs naturally interested me because they were home to carnivorous plants and orchids.  Tamarack trees are also common in bogs!  What’s not to love about a  deciduous conifer tree or a tree that sheds its needles and grows them back! Heather is a type of bog plant, so, even my name has a bog connection.  Although bogs are rich in peat, or layers upon layers of dead, slowly decomposed vegetation, they are acidic and oxygen poor-resulting in interesting adaptations for the plants that live there (such as carnivorous plants or stunted growth).   Bogs are important carbon sinks (though as frozen bogs thaw or peat is burned, the carbon is released) and soak up water, thereby preventing floods.  Culturally, bogs have been important as a source of fuel (peat) but also used to store food and a treasure trove of archaeological information (i.e. bog bodies).  While I certainly have a lot more to learn about bogs, I think that they are a fragile and unique ecosystem that deserve appreciation.

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Not a Happy Camper

Not a Happy Camper

H. Bradford

7/15/17

Back in May, I went on a short camping trip at Wild River State Park to enjoy International Migratory Bird Day.  I enjoyed this little adventure, as it gave me the opportunity to do some birding and hiking.  Well, I thought that it would be a good idea to do another little camping trip.  I have some post-travel blahs and this would be a way to enjoy nature.  To combat these blahs and take advantage of my time off, decided that I would head to Mille Lacs Kathio State Park for a little camping adventure.  As it turns out, it was a miserable time!

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The Plague of Traffic:

Mille Lacs Kathio State Park is about two hours from Duluth and located in an area steeped with Native American history.   The earliest signs of human settlement in Minnesota are found in the Mille Lacs area.  As for the lake itself, it is the second largest inland lake in Minnesota.   Like many state parks, I haven’t visited it, so it was another incentive to visit the area.  Thus, I set off for a short adventure.  It was raining when I left Superior, but the forecast indicated that the rain would stop.  It didn’t.  Most of my drive involved driving in the rain.  I took my time since there was no point arriving in the rain.  The rain did eventually stop, but I did not predict the enormous traffic jam by Mille Lacs Lake (which seems odd to say Lacs Lake, since it is “lake lake”).  It has probably been over a decade and a half since I was out by Mille Lacs and even then, it was never for anything tourist related.  The towns dotting the giant lake only have a few hundred people, yet, I was stuck in traffic for an hour as trucks with boats tried to merge into one lane.  I watched time pass by.  I watched the lake.  I felt annoyed by the mass of fishermen and women who were scrambling to return to the Twin Cities.  I also felt annoyed with myself for choosing to camp on a Sunday (when everyone else is returning home from the weekend).  Considering the throngs of traffic, it is no surprise that the lake is empty of walleye (well, that and climate change warming the lakes). DSCF7140DSCF7152DSCF7183DSCF7186


The Plague of Flies:

After suffering through the traffic, I set up my tent.  Despite the crowded herd of slow moving trucks, the park itself was nearly deserted.  There were very few campers in the park that night.  This was encouraging.  I decided that I would spend several hours hiking, so I went to the trail center and picked a trail that looped around one of the lakes in the park.  I immediately found that the trail was rather muddy and infested with swarms of flies.  The flies surrounded my head, buzzing loudly and getting tangled in my hair.  I picked out pieces of dead flies from my hair, swatting the others who seemed equally determined to meet their death in the snarls of my black and blue tresses.  It occured to me that perhaps I could use my super duper DEET 100 to deter them.  So, I doused myself in DEET.  The DEET was so concentrated that it took the nail polish off my nails.  I suppose this provides makeshift beauty advice.  While camping, DEET can be used to take the varnish off your nails.  While it removed my nail polish, it did not remove the flies.  The flies seemed completely indifferent to the chemical stench wafting from my body.  I even sprayed a handkerchief with DEET and wore it on my head.  The flies did not care in the least.  This cut my hike short.

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Not pictured: a plague of flies.

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(What could possibly go wrong?)

 


Instead of hiking, I made a detour to climb a fire tower.  I figured that if I couldn’t hike, I could at least climb up the tower.  This was a good challenge for me, since I really hate heights.  And, I actually had to tell myself out loud to keep going up after I was above the tree tops.  I focused on looking up and made it to the top without incident.  Though, on the way up I imagined getting stuck up there…too afraid to go back down.  Since I was all alone, it would begin my new life.  My new life on top of the fire tower.  It was completely fine.  The view from the top allowed me to see Mille Lacs Lake and several of the lakes in the park.   I felt a little accomplished. DSCF7119 DSCF7115 DSCF7122


After clambering down the fire tower, I thought I would take a short hike on the Interpretive Trail.  The flies continued to harass me, but at least I was distracted by the various signs about the history of the park.  It was interesting to learn that many of the campsites in the state park were places were Native American villages or camping sites were also located.  The park also contains burial or ceremonial mounds that date back to 3000 BC.  The park is filled with archeological sites, including the remnants of settler homesteads.   It was also interesting to learn about the ecological history of the park.  From about 300 BC to the late 1800s, the area was dominated by white pine.   The white pine forests were ended in less than 50 years with the arrival of white settlers and logging companies.  Deeper in history, the park was Oak Savanna, Aspen, and other variations of forests.   The park was at the edge of the glaciers of the last ice age, which carved out the lakes of the area.   Another highlight of the trail was seeing a catbird.  I heard a strange, crying noise from the bushes and spotted the catbird tucked into the foliage.

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  The Rain:

Since my hikes were thwarted by flies, I decided that I would venture out of the park back to the town of Garrison.  It would offer me the opportunity to take some photos of Mille Lacs Lake and explore some landmarks.  This went wonderfully.  I enjoyed the evening taking photos of the lake and watching some purple martins catch insects by a boat landing.  I even saw an immature eagle in a dead tree.  I watched the birds and lake until near sunset. Little did I know, that back in the park, it had rained.  The glossy pavement as I approached the park was a sign of the isolated shower.  I wasn’t worried, as my tent…should be water proof.  This would have been the case but part of the flysheet on the backside of the tent was not pulled down far enough.  Somehow this tiny slit had let a deluge of water into my tent.  I was astonished by the lake that had formed in my tent, soaking my sleeping bag and forming puddles on one side.  Thankfully, I had two emergency blankets in my car.  I was also thankful that I had a spare towel in my car as well.  I sopped up the soggy mess, but was not happy. DSCF7189DSCF7188DSCF7179


I went on to make a fire, where I sat and journaled.  I also spent some time reading various articles on a Marxist critique of Intersectionality.  I will try to write up my thoughts on these articles on a future blog.  Writing and reading restored by sense of peace.  I decided that I would devote several hours to hiking the next day and studied the map to see which trail I would chose.  There was something peaceful and restorative about taking time to delve into those articles.  I stayed up late, took a shower, admired the nearly full moon, then headed into my moist tent.  Yes, it wasn’t perfectly dry.  Sopping up the water had made it moist at best.

 

 


Then I sat there, tossing and turning, bumping elbows with something wet.  I pushed my soggy sleeping bag into the corner.  I stared up at the ceiling of the tent.  It rained again.  Even when it didn’t rain, the forest sounded like 1,000 leaky faucets.  I felt that somehow the moisture outside had penetrated by bones, making me feel chilled and uneasy.  The raindrops continued to pound the tent, drop by slow, torturous drop.  When it became clear that I wasn’t going to sleep, I took a Tylenol PM.  I hate taking these because they have been connected to dementia.  But, they work very well.  I dozed off and slept.  The next morning I continued sleeping.  I slept and slept…and slept some more…missing the opportunity to hike.


When I finally forced myself to get motivated, I decided the adventure was done.  My tent was still wet on the outside.  I packed it up, picking off a few slugs.  I felt wet and dirty putting everything away.  I had a feminist meeting later in the day anyway, so I was okay just leaving the park.  I was disappointed, but there were some highlights.  I enjoyed the fire and my time reading and writing.  I enjoyed my encounters with birds.  I can add purple martin to my life list, as I have not seen one since I started birding about two years ago.  I enjoyed climbing the tower.  So, even though I wasn’t a happy camper, I didn’t regret my mini-adventure.

 

A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

A Feminist Wonder Woman Review

H. Bradford

7/14/17

Sometimes it is hard to enjoy movies.  It stems from my political leanings, education in sociology, and life as a social misfit.  So, I really didn’t expect that I would like the new Wonder Woman movie.  Especially when my brother gave me two spoilers: she falls in love and she fights the Germans.   Nevertheless, I do like superhero movies.  And, the movie is important since it features a female superhero.  Thus, I thought I would give it a try.  With that said, here is my review of the movie!  Of course, is it not the review to end all reviews…


 

Feminist Feudalism:

The film begins in Themyscira, the hidden island homeland of the Amazons.  The Amazons have been sequestered on this island for thousands of years following a battle between Zeus and Ares.  The island itself was made invisible by Zeus before he died.  Themyscira is populated entirely by women, which makes it a little reminiscent of Herland, the short novel by Charlotte Perkin’s Gilman.  Unlike Herland, the women of Themyscira do not reproduce (in Herland they did by parthenogenesis).  But, similar to the novel, the women are strong, educated, and beautiful (though in Gilman’s novel, this is the result of eugenics).  In both, the women must deal with the challenge of the arrival of men to their hidden abode.   Gilman’s book was written in 1916 and the Wonder Woman film takes place in 1918.   The similarities end there, as Herland was more imaginative in depicting an all-female society.  Themyscira is pretty dull.  Although the women are thousands of years old, they live in what appears to be sort of feminist feudalism, governed by a queen.  Wonder Woman herself is a princess.  While Wonder Woman later compared Candy, the secretary, to a slave with disdain, there is clearly social hierarchy within Themyscira.   Also, Wonder Woman/Diana is the daughter of the Queen Hippolyta, who is protective of her and refuses to let her sister train her to be a fighter.  This indicates that although there is only one child in the whole island, she is not raised equally by all of the women.  Instead, she belongs to her mother.   Despite the thousands of years of isolated female community, there has been little social experimentation towards more equal social relations.  Further, although there are Black women on the island, the leaders of the Amazons are all Caucasian.  Again, the island does not seem to be very imaginative or utopian, which is disappointing since it would have been an opportunity to explore gender, gender roles, and social inequality more seriously or even draw from utopian fiction from the film’s era. Image result for Herland


World War I:

The film is set in World War One.  I like this as it draws attention to the 100 year anniversary of the war and where the world is today.  War is a major theme in the film, since the main villain is Ares, the god of war.   In the mythos of the film, Ares will return and start a great war.  It is Diana/Wonder Woman’s task to stop him and end World War One.  Now, World War One is not as popular in American history, identity, and memory.  When I was a student teacher, the students groaned about having to learn about this war.  They wanted to move on to WWII, as that was the exciting war. Because World War One is not given the same attention, but certainly reshaped the globe and caused vast and horrific loss and suffering, I liked that it was chosen as the setting.


Within the film, the Amazons have a “just war” philosophy about conflict.  They want to avoid conflict, but feel that they must train and fight when it is necessary.  When Diana is told about the millions that have been killed during World War One, she feels that she must spring into action.  Unfortunately, the film makes many mistakes in how WWI is presented.  Firstly, the Germans are introduced as the villains via Steve Trevor, the American spy who crash landed in Themyscira.  But, there really were no “villains” or World War One or there was a shared villainy between every imperialist country that participated.  While imperialism SHOULD be the villain in the film, it is beyond the scope of a mainstream comic book movie to show war as the outcome of imperial gamesmanship.  Portraying the Germans as villains draws upon Nazi tropes, that there are crude, uniformed German accented villains plotting some horrible thing against the West.  In the film, the Germans are working in collusion with the Ottomans, who in are not really portrayed, other than offering Germans arms and a place to develop their weapons.  Again, I found it unsettling that the villains were conveniently the Germans and Muslims. Image result for germans in wonder woman

Those villainous Germans….


As the film progresses, Diana/Wonder Woman sees that the British are senselessly sacrificing lives and that Ares was never General Ludendorff, but the weasely British cabinet member:   Sir Patrick Morgan.  Diana also learns from “Chief” (eye rolls) about the genocide of Native Americans.  This muddies the water a little as she realizes that many countries act as villains.  She continues to frame this as the cause of Ares, God of War.  There is a brief moment where she must consider that humans cause war, but the movie sabotages this by having Ares die and the conflict end.  However, this is still not a serious consideration of the causes of war.  The film pits the evil of humans vs. the evil of a god as the causes of war.   Again, I am disappointed that the film does not suggest any other cause of war…such as well, economic motives.


Finally, the film is set primarily in Europe and even then, only the Western Front.  The underlying message is that only Western European lives matter.  The fact that for thousands of years the Amazons waited for a “great war” to herald Ares return…and this great war was World War One is extremely Eurocentric.  I wish that “Chief” would have asked Diana why she didn’t intervene during the genocide of Native Americans.  It is hard to know the exact death toll, but the Spanish conquest of Peru may have taken the lives of 8 million people alone.  Mongol invasions, Tamerlane’s invasions, the expansion of the Mughal Empire all cost millions of lives.  It may have been nice if the Amazons would have mobilized during the conquest of Africa.  Wonder Woman might have taken on King Leopold II before he killed 10 million Congolese.   But, Black and Indigenous lives don’t matter even in the fantasy world of comics.  British, French, Belgian and American lives do.   Nevertheless, I liked that WWI was chosen as the setting.  It makes a great backdrop for a film about the horror and pointlessness of war.  Unfortunately, I didn’t like the Eurocentric narrative created around this setting. Image result for king leopold

Why can’t he be the villain?

 

Racial Stereotypes:

There is a character in the film called Chief.  Chief is a stoic, Native American smuggler who finds himself in WWI.  He is one of Diana’s allies, but has very few lines.  The only thing that he adds to the movie is that he informs her that her love interest’s people killed his people.  Again, he is called Chief and not really given any backstory.  The character seems shoehorned into the setting.  If the film maker is going to add a Native American helper character into the mix, he should at least have a little personality and a name.  It might also help if he didn’t make smoke signals… Image result for chief wonder woman


Sameer, the French Moroccan master of disguise is better developed than Chief.  We learn that he is a womanizer, knows many languages, and wanted to be an actor (but could not because of racial barriers).  Still, he is not allowed to be equal to Steve Trevor, the Caucasian American.  He finds Diana to be attractive, but is never taken seriously as a love interest.  He is even nicknamed “Sammy” which Anglo-sizes his name, but also makes him more childish and non-threatening.  When he speaks another language, it is usually French, the language of his colonial master.  Granted, I suppose it is nice that the film included a Muslim character as a “good guy” but in order to be good he must be silly, with clownish masculinity.  Also, why does Sameer want to risk his life fighting for France?

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Dr. Poison:

Many people have written about Dr. Poison, the chemist working with the Germans to create dangerous gases.  She has been widely critiqued because she is a villain with a facial deformity.  This continues the stereotype that people with disabilities or deformities are evil, tragic, and should be pitied.  I found it odd that her real name was Isabel Maru and that she was Spanish.  Spain was actually neutral during World War I, though different sectors of society sided with the Allies and Central Powers.  Dr. Poison is not a well developed character, so who knows what brought her to side with the Germans.   If she sided with them for political reasons, perhaps she was upper class/reactionary/conservative.  On the other hand, perhaps Spain did not offer her many employment opportunities in the field of chemistry.  Perhaps she went to Germany for employment in their chemical industry.  Who knows, maybe she even immigrated there during peaceful times to apply her knowledge to a more benign part of the chemical industry, such as producing dyes.  With the onset of war, maybe her dye making factory was converted to manufacturing gases.  OR, she was just a villain who liked to kill people by making poison gas.  I like to imagine her as a working woman who had to adapt to the demands of the war or face unemployment as a disfigured, immigrant, woman.


Honestly, I found Dr. Poison to be the most relateable character.  I am not gorgeous, fearless, fluent in 195 languages, etc. like Wonder Woman.  There is a scene wherein Dr. Poison is hit on by Steve Trevor.  In a rasping voice she says she doesn’t drink!  I don’t drink!  It is also clear she has zero game.  I have zero game!  If an attractive guy started to chat me up, I would also probably say something weird and off-putting.  That’s why I love Dr. Poison.   Of course, I don’t want to kill people with poisonous gas, but the film does not really develop her motive or the life events that brought her to that point.


As for her passion for poison gas, I felt that this fit in well with the WWI setting.   Popular Mechanics has a really great article about the history of gas warfare in World War One. http://www.popularmechanics.com/culture/movies/a26769/world-war-i-poison-gas-wonder-woman/ Interestingly, the first use of poison gas dropped from an aircraft was actually the British fighting the Bolsheviks in 1919.    This is in contrast to the film, wherein the Germans try to send a plane loaded with gas bombs to London. Another interesting article, discusses the history of women in WWI.  Women actually did work in factories that produced gas masks and there were some prominent female chemists during WWI who later sought to ban chemical warfare.  Information regarding this history can be found here: https://blog.oup.com/2017/07/wonder-woman-and-world-war-i/ Image result for dr. poison

Wonder Woman Herself:

I thought that Wonder Woman/Diana was a likeable character.  Although I could not relate to her, owing to the fact that she was too powerful, beautiful, and intelligent to be realistic, she was not an off-putting super hero.  She spoke her mind.  She wore what she wanted to wear.  She criticized or mocked social norms.  She showed compassion and struggled to understand the world and make things better.  She was generally much easier to like than Bruce Wayne or Superman.


Although she fell in love in the film, this did not make me want to barf in my mouth.  It wasn’t really sappy.  Her love interest died trying to destroy the gas bombs en route to London.   I didn’t think that Steve Trevor was particularly interesting or compelling.  I also find it a bit annoying that Diana ends up falling in love with the first guy she meets, even though she says that the Amazons have concluded that men aren’t necessary for pleasure.  It would be interesting if she was portrayed as a bisexual character.  Instead, the movie plays it safe, making her monogamous and heterosexual.


As for Gal Gadot, she is certainly beautiful as an actress…but politically ugly in her support of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.  She served in the Israeli Defense Force (which adult Israelis must do unless they consciously object) and supported Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 2000 mostly civilian Palestinians.  In protest of her overt pro-Zionism, Wonder Woman has been banned in Lebanon, Tunisia, and Qatar.  The film itself does not explicitly take up the issue of Israel, although the British took control of Palestine after WWI and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Wonder Woman does fight alongside the British against the Ottomans and Germans.  So, in a very subtle way she plays a role in shaping the future of Palestine in the film. Image result for gal gadot israel

Ares:

A final point I will make is on the lesson learned from Ares in the film.  The film leads the audience and Wonder Woman to believe that General Ludendorff is the human guise that Ares has taken.  At the end of the film, he is unceremoniously killed by Wonder Woman.   It turns out that he was just an ordinary guy!  The real Ares is Sir Patrick Morgan, a mustached British man who sought armistice.  This is disappointing.  He is not at all imposing.  He has a silly, ginger colored mustache and the physique of a scarecrow.  Even when he dons a giant, dark suit of armor….he still has that awful mustache.  Perhaps he represents the grotesque power of men in patriarchy.


He is not at all villainous looking.  He looks like he could be Ron Weasley’s father (though he played Remus Lupin).  He is thin…very white…mustached…ginger haired (no offense to redheads) and British.  Nothing about him is imposing or particularly evil looking.  Even when he transforms into Ares in Armor, he looks like a scrawny guy in a giant metal suit.   He floats in the air and shoots lightning from his hands.  All the while he looks ridiculously weak.


In the end, maybe this was a good casting choice.  In order to be Wonder Woman, a woman must speak 195 languages, leave her homeland, train with Amazons, be gorgeous, and the daughter of a God.  In order to be Ares, you can be some pasty, thin British dude.  Most women are not Wonder Woman.  So, they are oppressed.  Only by being so astonishingly exceptional can Wonder Woman defy social norms and overcome the limits that women face.  As for Ares…he just has to be some dude who works his way into the Imperial War Cabinet.  He is far from the most clever, charismatic, attractive, compelling villain.  He’s a forgettable white guy.  Well, he is memorable for his mustache.

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Conclusion:

There you go!  That’s what I thought of Wonder Woman.  Now, I am sure there is more to say or something that I forgot, but I think I hit on the main points.  Despite this critique, I actually did find the movie enjoyable.  It was better than I had anticipated and pretty good for a DC movie.   Obviously the movie could have been improved upon, but if movies were made to suit my taste, Wonder Woman would have fought with the Red Army and fallen in love with a loaf of rye bread that slightly resembles a human face (maybe it could become her sidekick…Wonder Bread).  Her love interest would represent the isolation and misery that are romantic attachments in an indifferent universe full of temporary things.  My brother said that my version of the film would feature a 45 minute pre-movie documentary about the historical locations used in the film and the characters would debate things like cultural appropriation.  So, take what I say with a grain of salt or …a few crumbs of rye bread and feminism.

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Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

Devouring Dictatorship: Reflections on Privilege and Travel in Ashgabat

H. Bradford

7-13-17

I was excited to travel to Turkmenistan.  I had read that there are only 9,000 tourists who visit the country each year.  By comparison, over 100,000 tourists travel to North Korea annually.   Of course, comparisons to North Korea are abundant on travel websites.  The idea of traveling to such a mysterious place filled me with fear and excitement.  I didn’t know what to expect.  Some travel websites warned that tourists had been denied visas upon arrival or faced harassment from the police.  Documentaries about Turkmenistan (from Niyazev’s rule) made it seem like a bizarre country where in women could not wear makeup on television, video games, opera, and the circus were banned, everyone had to get off the streets by 11 pm, and government officials were made to go on grueling marches once a week to ensure their health.  These kinds of stories made me worried that something might go wrong.  I began to feel real anxiety as my trip approached, as I would be spending a few days in Ashgabat alone before joining the group I would be traveling with.   If Ashgabat was truly like Pyongyang, as some websites suggested, it was a worrisome thought.  I was afraid that I might accidentally break a law.  The fear was unfounded.  The visit to Turkmenistan went beautifully.  Still, during my time there, I reflected on my privilege and my desire to see strange places.  Thus, this post is about both my experience in Turkmenistan but also the dark urges and privileges of a tourist.


The unusual nature of Turkmenistan began with my flight.  The flight from Frankfurt to Ashgabat made a stop in Baku.  I had never been on a flight that stopped to let off passengers before.  The plane landed and to my surprise, let off almost all of the passengers on the plane.  When we continued from Baku to Ashgabat, there were probably less than six people on the flight.  All of these six people were foreign tourists.  It was bizarre to be among the few remaining passengers and that all of us were foreign.   Foreign travel is somewhat restricted in Turkmenistan, as in order to travel the country a tourist must have a local guide and a letter of invitation.   However, tourists are able to travel to Ashgabat on their own without a guide.  As for locals, the economy of Turkmenistan is built upon oil and gas.  There is a wide gap between the very few rich and poor, with an unemployment rate of about 60%.   Poverty is almost certainly one of the reasons there was no one from Turkmenistan on my flight.  As for myself, I had a letter of invitation and a local guide accompanied our tour through Turkmenistan.  Thus, I breezed through customs without incident.  However, I arrived late (at midnight) and was one of very few people at the airport.  This meant that my bag was inspected for a long time.  After it was put through the x-ray machine, several workers sifted through my belongings.  They studied each medication, opened them, looked at the contents of each bottle.  They also took special interest in my snacks, making commentary to each other about my belongings.   I suppose they might have been bored.  I think my snacks were probably disappointing.  As for the thorough inspection of my medicine, opiate drugs are banned in the country, even with a prescription so I can only assume they were looking for banned medication.


Once I passed through customs and the baggage inspection, I had a feeling that everything was going to be okay and that I’d worked myself up watching too many documentaries or reading travel horror stories.  I was met by the local tour guide and driven back to the Ak Altyn Hotel.  By then, I was sleepy from my 20+ hours of airports and flights.  So, I barely paid attention to the city.  I dreamily looked back at the airport, a giant white structure shaped like a bird.  I also took note that there were other cars on the road, despite the 11 pm curfew.  I was informed that shops close by 11pm and also warned not to smoke outdoors (as it was illegal…though I don’t smoke anyway), but there were no other immediate signs of dictatorship.


The following day, I decided I would set out by myself and explore the city.  A few other tourists from the group arrived, but I gave them a cold welcome.  I was more interested in my own agenda of seeing the city than getting to know my future travel companions.  So, with a guidebook, map, and to do list, I set out walking.  I decided to walk because the buses seemed confusing (as there was no central map of routes).  It was hot.  I was disoriented at first and spent some time walking the wrong direction.  When I found my bearings, I turned around and set off for the statue of Lenin.  It was located about an hour or so walk from my hotel, provided one does not get turned around.  My walking brought me to a random amusement park with rides, a Japanese garden, and dinosaur statues.  People seemed to be having fun, though each few blocks seemed punctuated by a police officer.   Some meandered through the parks as well.  It seemed that despite the 60% unemployment rate, there was no shortage of police jobs or jobs sweeping or cleaning the many monuments.   Still, the city did not really feel like Pyongyang at all.  The fact that I could travel freely and solo, made it seem very different.  And, after wandering the streets alone for two days, I was only approached once by a police officer.  When it happened, my heart began to race, but…it was only to check the time.


Once I found Lenin, I spent several hours exploring other monuments and parks.  Lenin was only important because of my politics…but also because Turkmenistan has sought to distance itself from its Communist past.  Although Niyazov was a communist leader during the Soviet Union and his party was the reincarnation of the communist party after the Soviet Union collapsed, the iconography of communism as well as remnants of Russian colonization have been dismantled.   The Turkmen script was changed from Cyrillic and statues and images of Marx and Lenin were replaced with the images of Niyazov.  The guiding ideology of the nation was set forth in the Ruknama, a book by Niyazov on the history of the Turkmen people and himself.   Gas revenues were invested into creating a showpiece capital.  Thus, almost all of the buildings in Ashgabat are new and made of Russian and Italian marble.  The city is full of well kept parks and monuments.  It really is unique.  Still, despite the changes, a statue of Lenin remains…not far from the American embassy, in a less visited park.

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I spent the day visiting parks and viewing buildings.  Towards the end of the day, I visited the National Museum of Fine Art.  I was the only tourist in the three story building.  The staff seemed surprised to see me.  This was a common occurrence in Ashgabat.  The museum was filled with interesting Turkmen and Soviet art, such as giant carpets.  There were images of rivers, workers, giant melons, tractors, and happy people with musical instruments.  On the way back to my hotel, I wandered through Inspiration Alley, a park of various statues of Muslim scholars.  They were unfamiliar men, owing to my lack of knowledge of Muslim history.  The history is so foreign to me, it is hard to imagine that Al-Zamakhshari or Abu-Biruni might be household names and that not knowing them would be the same as ignorance of Einstein, Shakespeare, or Newton. Image may contain: sky and outdoor


The following day, I set off to visit the Botanical Garden, as I thought it would provide a nice opportunity to watch birds.  The Botanical Garden was closed.  This is a theme of my life.  When I went to Minsk the garden was closed.  When I went to Bishkek, I also found that the botanical garden was closed.  I feel that I somehow have very bad luck with botanical gardens.  Anyway, I instead visited the Alexander Nevsky Orthodox Cathedral.  It was a very hidden and modest orthodox cathedral.  I didn’t stay long as it was hosting a service.  Later I visited a bazaar and did some more walking, revisiting some sites I had seen the other day.   I was approached by two Russian speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses.  I was actually curious to talk to them (for the first time ever), but our conversation was cut short by two police officers and I was quick to walk away.  Jehovah’s Witnesses are illegal in Turkmenistan.  In all, the city is quite large and spread out, so I found it impossible to see some of the major sites by foot.  These had to wait until my tour actually began, as we were promised a sight seeing tour by bus and a night time tour to see the city lights.


The bus tours offered a wide array of strange sights.  We saw the largest indoor Ferris wheel in the world, the Arch of Neutrality, and the largest fountain in the world.  Once again, it is unsettling that the largest fountain in the world is in a country that is 80% desert!  The Ashgabat fountain is guarded by stern statues of the ancestors of the Turks: Orguz Khan and his sons.  We even passed by the Walk of Health, where government workers were expected to trek the 23 mile path through the Kopet Dag mountains once a year.  Perhaps the grand finale of the eccentric was a visit to the Turkmenbashi Mosque.  The mosque holds the remains of Niyazev and his family (his mother and brothers died in the 1948 earthquake that struck the city).  It also features quotes from the Ruhnama on the walls of the mosque and the eight pointed star.  The eight points represent the eight pillars of Islam.  Niyazev added three more pillars to Islam, including reading his book and visiting local holy sites in Turkmenistan.  These revisions were not welcomed by Saudi Arabia and consequently, Wahhabism is also banned in Turkmenistan.  We revisited the city later in the evening, when every building was lit up and the city looked like Las Vegas. Image may contain: 1 person, outdoor


All of this probably sounds pretty astonishing.  I thought it was astonishing.   Although Niyazev is dead and some of his monuments have been shuffled around, the country is still considered one of the most repressive countries in the world (by Human Rights Watch for instance).   Yet, as a tourist, it was…well, fascinating.  My detached position from it all and speaks to my privilege.   I believe that when we travel, we consume the exotic.   In Turkmenistan, it was the experience of dictatorship and the legacy of Niyazev.  If we consume the odd food or threat of danger, we can take on the qualities of the fearless or the bizarre.  Just as the flamingo becomes pink from eating crustaceans and algae, the traveler consumes experiences to become something more colorful.  As travelers, our privilege allows us to migrant from experiences.  We are not mired in the same realities of oppression.  When a tourist goes to jail or becomes very ill, the reality of the world returns.  This painful reality is framed as shocking.  It is framed as a bad travel experience.  Anything that is too real or too inescapable is not travel…it is a crisis or tragedy!  Hence, the case of Otto Warmbier in North Korea or Bakari Henderson, who was recently killed in Greece after taking a selfie…are not viewed as part of the travel spectrum.  Travel should be cushioned from the world’s harshest realities.

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Perhaps the exotic should be made normal.  In Turkmenistan, it may seem exotic that drivers are fined for having dirty cars.  But, are our own laws any more rational?  The fundamental assumption behind both is that laws exist and breaking them results in state administered punishment.  An alien might find little difference between the marbled fantasy land of Ashgabat and the red carpet of Hollywood or neon glow of Las Vegas.  One was built as a dictator’s legacy, the others built upon a similar fantasy of wealth and beauty.   The weird mosque of Turkmenbashi is only unusual because “legitimate” religion must be at least a few hundred years old.  But, these too were created by individuals and interpreted by other individuals until they were made normal by legitimizing power structures.  The excess seen in Ashgabat…with giant fountains and white marble statue are no more heinous than the same excess that is commonplace in advanced capitalist countries.  What about our giant malls, thousands of Walmarts and McDonald’s, and mountains of garbage?  Turkmenistan is a country smaller than Spain with a GDP that is smaller than Croatia’s, Lithuania’s, Kenya’s, and well….87 other countries and a population of less than five million.  Surely, even with its excess…the country has an ecological foot print far less than much of the world. Image may contain: sky


At the same time, differences do exist.  We are not all perfectly the same.  To glaze over difference by normalizing the strange, fails to recognize the social conditions which brought about a particular set of traits.  It is terrible that so much gas wealth was put into building the show case capital than building schools, hospitals, or housing.  It is also unfortunate that wealth and power in the country is concentrated into the hands of so few.  As for the social conditions that brought about Niyazev’s dictatorship, that is a long complicated story that I don’t have the time or knowledge to answer.   The political/economic development of the country…and the very existence of the country itself as a unique entity with a unified identity is a Soviet construction.  But, even this construction is a dialectical process as it was constructed in a world at odds with the Soviet Union.  Prior to this, its development was shaped by Russian imperialism- and that itself was shaped in reaction to British imperialism.  There are always bigger forces at play.  No dictatorship exists in a vacuum.

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Returning to privilege, to some degree, all travelers must exist in the fantasy land of their own ego.  My ego is hungry for experiences.  This is in part so I can patch together an identity that is not a disappointment to myself.  An identity that siphons as much living out of the world as possible.  The truth is, I am not wealthy and free.  I am oppressed.  I am a worker.  I will live and die like a billion humans whose stories will fade into the blurry memories of a few close friends or family members- before disappearing entirely.  In the grand scheme of things, I am not even here.  I never existed.  My importance is so minuscule, that for all practical purposes I am already dead.  Isn’t this the epitome of privilege?  Exerting what little power and freedom I have for the purpose of living selfishly?  The rest of the world be damned.  This is something all travelers do.  Many loath to return to work.  The most privileged don’t have to.  So, while we are privileged enough to enjoy some ego driven escapism, what are we escaping from?  For me, the gravity of wage slavery will always draw me back home.  Thus, I think my travels are fueled by escapism, ego, and existential crisis.  It is a combination that makes it hard for me to be perfectly mindful of my impact on the world and in this case, the wanton consumption of dictatorship.


So here I am.  Chronos eats its children.  Every human eats its reality when it becomes aware of its existential crisis.  Yet, we don’t all have the power and privilege to be titans.  Every titanic consumer is a blight on the environment, the lives of others, and the world around them.  There are moments when I am a titan.  But, usually I am just a proletarian.  I don’t know how to remedy this contradiction.  I love to travel.  I love a chance to get away.  When I am at home, I work very hard as an activist, worker, and human being.  I try to be engaged and mindful.  Then, when opportunity permits, I escape for a bit and consume piece of the world in the form of leisure and a particular form of selfish living.  I am hungry for the darkest, strangest bits.  Dictatorships, nuclear accidents, and spectacular tragedies.  Maybe there is a little cult of personality in each of us.

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The Lesson of the Landscape

The Lesson of the Landscape

H. Bradford

7-4-17

(This is a poem that I wrote on my last trip.  My poems aren’t that great, but sometimes I feel inspired to write them).

Enchantment evaporates with knowledge,

the cure-all for all sorts of infatuations.

It lifts like a fog, sending droplets of fantasy into the heat of the day.

When only a scorched landscape remains, it becomes clear what was a mirage

and that an oasis only presents itself to certain people at certain times…

with certain emotions and certain minds.

But, when the illusion is gone, one can appreciate the ways a desert shifts-

from dunes, scrub, cacti, and Karroo.

What is real, austere and severe.

That is the lesson of the landscape.

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(A photo I took last year in Namibia)

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