Shook-up world: What is the value of wilderness?

Like so many people, I am dazed by the events of this week. On Tuesday night I went to bed in tears, shocked and frightened by the outcome of the election. Trump’s campaign always felt like a prank to me, and now it feels like a prank that got out of control and set fire to the house with all of us trapped inside.

My fear stems from the following:

  • We have just sent a message to every secretly bigoted and misogynistic creep on earth that we, as a nation, condone abusive behavior and expressions of prejudice. This, more than anything else, frightens me.
  • I heard yesterday that Mr. Trump has expressed an interest in allying with Russia in Syria. Although I thought I remembered hearing that Russia was no longer backing Assad, I couldn’t find anything in a short online search to confirm that recollection. It is horrifying to think that our country might lend support to a criminal head-of-state who has used chemical weapons against his own people.
  • We have empowered a science-denier to make policy decisions that will have an irreversible impact on the environment.
  • Mr. Trump will have the opportunity to appoint as many as three supreme court justices.
  • Mr Trump will appoint a cabinet. I keep hearing rumors of a Secretary of the Interior with oil interests (Forrest Lucas, Sarah Palin) and an Energy Secretary with financial interests in fracking and in the Dakota Access Pipeline (Harold Hamm). I’m trembling here at the hem of ANWR.
    I understand that our Department of the Interior is responsible for managing federal lands in the best interest of the American people, for industry and recreation as well as conservation, but I am not convinced that the economic and political benefits of developing oil and natural gas are always worth the price we pay.I have not been persuaded that the potential benefits of developing mineral resources in ANWR outweigh the potential cultural and environmental costs. I know that this state runs on oil money and that my job and many, many others depend either directly on the oil industry or on the state budget. I know that it has never been demonstrated that the Porcupine caribou herd would be disrupted by development in the 1002 area. I know that the pipeline needs to maintain a minimum pressure or be permanently dismantled, and that with Prudhoe Bay producing less than in previous years, we need a new source for oil if we want to keep it open. I know that Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski has vowed to open the 1002 area in ANWR for drilling, and there will never be a better opportunity.  I expect the onslaught to be immediate and forceful, and I know that my students and their families are not prepared for it.

I’m trying to channel my anxiety into action. I’m reading endless articles and teaching my class with a renewed passion for civics. I am trying to cultivate a diversity of nuanced opinions among my students, who are usually, to their detriment, of one mind. I told the kids today, as I have been telling them for months, to bring me their voter cards when they turn eighteen and I’ll bake them each a cake to celebrate their power. I want the kids to know how the government works and how to influence it. I want to spend the next four years building up to a huge celebration of the centennial of women’s suffrage. I want to get my students informed about Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline and in contact with native kids, like them, whose environment and heritage may be threatened by oil development. I also want them to understand – really understand – the perspectives of people who don’t share their views, including those who wish to develop oil resources. I have never been so motivated to get my students writing clear, cogent, persuasive essays. We have such a long way to go, though. They are miles behind and not catching up quick.

But, after all, why bother with all of that? What is the value of wilderness?


Wilderness is valuable for its power to make us feel small. We spend so much time in human-built environments, perfectly made to our scale, that we forget how we diminish in the presence of  mountains and tundra, how we disappear in the course of rivers that churn with mud and power. When I am out there, I am no greater than one of seven-billion ice-crystals lying under an unknowably deep and vast sky.

It is valuable for its beauty, if you believe that beauty has value.

It is valuable for subsistence and cultural diversity, if you believe that subsistence and cultural diversity have value.

It is empowering.
How does it feel to stand in a silent, snow-filled valley, hundreds of miles from anywhere?
It feels like hugging the sun.

It is valuable for its complexity. As Carl Sagan reminds us, “The beauty of a living thing is not the atoms that go into it, but the way those atoms are put together” (thank you, Symphony of Science). We have so much yet to learn from the systems that interconnect in wild places. It is not enough to take pictures and samples to fossilize in a lab somewhere: the complexity of nature demands space, time and variables that cannot be simulated or artificially preserved. By eliminating wilderness, we preclude the full expression of these complex systems and curtail our studies and potential scientific knowledge.

The variation – the biodiversity – that powers the miracle of evolution also powers the miracles of medicine and technology: we look to biology and ecology for answers to our most difficult human challenges, and, without wilderness, those answers have no place to live.

And what about this wilderness? The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? What is its value, specifically? I try to be pragmatic, and I think I am. I can see my way all the way around most political issues. I can see what people who want to develop the resources in the 1002 area see. Economic growth is important. Jobs are important. Energy independence is important. But vast, untouched and untouchable wilderness is inherently valuable for its power to command our respect and awe. Arctic beauty is important, more so as it dwindles. Culture and caribou are important. Unique biological and ecological processes and systems are important. And the only difference that really matters between these things and those things is that these things are available nowhere else in the world.

If by cultivating economic growth, jobs, and energy independence we compromise the biodiversity and cultural diversity of the planet, we pay too high a price.

In other news, ahshii. It’s snowing.

At last.


Our earth science textbook tries to explain parallax by showing two diagrams of the stars: the stars as seen in January and the stars as seen in July. One of my kids raised her hand and pointed out, giggling, “Um, you can’t see stars in July. Duh.”

I about busted a rib laughing. To her, that textbook was just some stupid crazy talk.

Today, after half an hour of bickering and needling and intentional provocation on both parts, a male student pretended to punch the aforementioned female student in the face. He didn’t touch her, but he came within centimeters, and she burst into tears and claimed he’d hit her. Later, in a private conversation with me, the male student, with a grin on his face, called the girl “a bitch” for arguing with him and “a pussy” for crying.

I’ve never, ever felt especially one way or another about those words. Sean, actually, has always been more aggressive about attacking sexist language than I have. To me, those words weren’t any more potent than the unisex “jackass”. Suddenly, though, that anger fell into place for me. This kid was using those words to describe this girl explicitly as justification for getting into her personal space, mocking her, and intimidating her. To him, it was okay because she was “a bitch” and “a pussy” and it was so clearly okay that he expected me to forgive his actions on the grounds that she deserved it. I was flabbergasted.

I don’t know where I’m going with this except to say that I’ve learned something. I see how those words shape and reflect the brutal reality that my students come of age in, and I really don’t like it. I’m the most present adult in most of my students’ lives (they see me eight hours a day, every day) and I want to offer them a different paradigm, but sometimes the obvious eludes me, and communication requires rewiring. There are no stars in July, obviously. Obviously it’s okay to hurt her if she’s being a bitch.

We’re having a winter dance in December. The girls came to me yesterday to set a date. It’ll be snow-themed, and instead of a night full of stars (which was the theme of our prom in May, when there were no stars), we’ll hang glittery snowflakes from the ceiling, sip hot cider, and watch the aurora dance.

My favorite thing about the prom was the way planning and carrying it off empowered my girls. This little corner of the earth needs all the girl power it can get, so I’m glad the prom committee is back in action. Look out, world, we’re working on the sequel!

Love Letter to Living Alone

I like living alone.

I have never lived alone before, unless you count my cupboard on Angelique or the tent I camped out in, in high school. I’ve always had a family or a roommate or a live-in boyfriend. Always.

I like having two plates and two cups in the cupboard and keeping them always clean, and waking up in the morning with my mug already on the stove, waiting for tea, right where I left it when I did last night’s dishes.

I like coming and going as I please and bending my plans to please only me.

Is it selfish that I like that nothing is shared? I like the freedom of carrying my own supplies and going places on my own power.

I like that when I’m in social situations, people take me seriously because there’s no one nearby to speak for me. Men don’t perceive me as background scenery, and women don’t perceive me as a part of a larger organism.

It’s shocking and liberating, being suddenly free of those perceptions. I feel like part of me just stepped out of a shadow and shook off a heavy pack that I didn’t know I was wearing, and now I’m featherlight and running. I feel fearsome. Noticed and heard.

I’ve felt this way before when I’ve had a long-distance love. Confident, laughing out loud, spotlit, brazen in full breath, and supported.
Like the man in the phrase “behind every great man there’s a great woman”
Like I’m suddenly standing in front.
Like I’m taking risks and looking really cool and feeling really giddy, and nobody knows I have a secret safety net.

Maybe I like having all the privileges of independence with none of the risks.
If things go wrong, my other life is waiting there in the wings. I could go back to Arkansas and pick it up where I left off and little would have changed, but I don’t want that. I’m too young to be a pseudopod on a family amoeba, and I’m too old to make excuses.

I want this. I want to carry my own independence.

Sean and I made the decision to reevaluate our situation in November because I realized that I wasn’t happy. I was crushed in the commitments and obligations of our partnership, not made greater and freer by its support. I think now that that’s in part due to the way the world perceives and acts on women in relationships.

I wanted my own identity. He wanted me to have it.

We talked about it a lot and decided that we are strong and trusting and honest enough to shuck conventional relationship rules, to live independently, and to tackle challenges as they come up. I have a great person standing, not behind, but beside me, and it’s friggin’ awesome.

Someday, I will live in a world where I can stand beside a man and not disappear. Until then, I’m standing alone in full arctic sun, working on growing strong enough to glow blister-bright in any shadow.

It’s a little scary that there’s not an end-date on this arrangement. Sean doesn’t want to live in Alaska, and I’m not planning to leave until I’m ready to go joyfully into a new adventure of my own choosing. There’s not a clock ticking down to a conventional future for us.


That’s okay. That’s kind of the point. Maybe in about a hundred years I’ll be ready to build the rest of my life with someone, but right now, I just want to live the life I want when I’m not compromising. Sean’s with me, and his support is making me greater and freer.


Sex Ed

“They should be paying you by the mile,” she said, as I flew by the office for the fifteenth time that hour. I had students in the library using the laminator, students in the copy room, students in the computer lab and students in my classroom. Supervision was impossible without superdupervision (which I don’t have). I had to settle for intermittent supervision and superduperspeed (which I can at least try to have).

The boys’ sex-ed class was meeting the library this week, and on one trip to the laminator, I overheard the following from the teacher:

If you know someone who’s having an abortion, you should talk to her. Ask her some of the questions we talked about. If she’s planning to have an abortion, that’s bad. She’ll regret it.

I almost hurled. I hate that I work for a school that allows these contractors to come in and pass off utter crap as information. I now wish that I had stopped and said something to them, even just “I absolutely disagree with the blanket statements that you just made. Reality is far more nuanced.” My kids deserve better, and I should have spoken up just to let them know that I’m comfortable with the topic and that they can come to me.

I’ve found kids reading flyers with the stunning title “Is Virginity What’s Missing in Your Life?” about how you can restore your virginity if you’ve lost it. There are five or six very unsettling things going on there.

At a bake sale this summer, two of my former students opened up to me a little about their sex-ed class. It’s abstinence only, and they don’t feel adequately informed. I asked them if they knew what “consensual sex” is, and  they said “is that when you have your parents’ permission?” We’re really missing the point here, folks, if kids are led to believe that abortion is always bad and that consensual sex is when you have your parents’ permission. I don’t know how much information those two (both were boys) had about birth control.

Some of Sean’s female students seem to have a lot of information about birth control (he overheard them comparing the pill, the patch, the ring etc.), but one of them explained that she doesn’t want to use birth control because she’s afraid she’ll get fat. Sean fields a number of fairly interesting inquiries about sex because he’s a science teacher. His badass feminist self handles them beautifully. A 7th grader once asked him if a baby could have more than one daddy. They were learning about reproduction in class, so the kid drew a picture to illustrate:

two daddies

My students don’t ask me those questions outright. Occasionally, in a quiet moment in the afternoon, they’ll ask me personal questions that relate to sex. It’s not hard to tell the difference between idle curiosity and a desperate need to know something.

The pregnancies that I’ve been closest to as an adult have been teen pregnancies: Girls growing bellies that no longer fit in the chair-desks in my classroom, standing by a bank of lockers holding their wondering friends’ hands flat against their tight-stretched shirts to feel the baby kick, and missing day after day of school for doctor’s appointments. A young mother that I teach bribed me with a cupcake to let the class share her birthday snacks a few weeks ago. She was turning sixteen. Another, a promising math student, dropped out of the tenth grade last year. It’s the same way for Sean. I remember him standing in front of a shelf at the pharmacy, reading labels and selecting prenatal vitamins for a middle schooler.

If I haven’t said something controversial yet, here it is:

Despite the misinformation and lack of information provided at school, I think some girls get pregnant not out of absolute ignorance (this is the age of the internet, and I know they know the basics of where babies come from), but out of emptiness. Accidents happen, but I think that girls are taking greater risks than they do elsewhere (Arkansas has the country’s highest teen birth rate) because they want to feel needed. They want to be of value to someone. It’s a pretty dismal outlook for girls here. They’re second-rate citizens, and they know it. A baby fills the void that should be filled with aspirations and plans and confidence and self-efficacy, all of which have been forced down or stunted by the time girls reach high school. Additionally, when a girl gets pregnant, there’s no great stigma. The hard conversations are for her family: at school, we try to be supportive and loving and excited about the baby. Besides, many of our students’ parents had children in high school. One girl told me that her mother was married at fourteen. Sean teaches a sophomore whose mother is only a few years older than Sean himself.

At homecoming last night, I watched for the boyfriends of the girls in the homecoming court. They followed the girls like devoted puppies, almost sad-eyed. They wouldn’t let the girls swish out of sight in those bright, flowing dresses.



I intercepted a note at summer school, where I taught rising ninth graders, that contained the charmingly sexist phrase “I’m gonna put a baby in her.”
After school one day recently, a boy (now a junior) that I taught in ninth grade came to visit me.
“Ms. O’Connell, you know I’m gonna be a daddy?”
I glared at him, waiting. We’d had a conversation or two about the responsibilities of fatherhood last year.
“Okay. I was just kidding.”
“Good. You dink.”
“I’m gonna be a baby-daddy before I graduate, though.”
“You know I think you’re better than that. I think you’re father material. Don’t be a baby-daddy. Be a Daddy.”
On the flip side, one tenth grader expounded in my classroom during lunch (he had been debating the morality of abortion with a female student)
“If you’re not prepared to be a father, don’t have sex. I accept that risk, but I’d rather wait to have kids. That’s why I use a condom every time I have sex with my girlfriend.” The debate went on, but I stopped listening. I’d heard those two argue over that subject before.

What is there to say here? What conclusion can I draw? This is just one more spoke in the wheel that turns the world here. It’s connected to poverty and health care access and education and racism and environmental injustice and sexism, and you can’t repair one without stopping the wheel and fixing them all.

In the hallway of the schoolhouse at sunset

In the hallway of the schoolhouse at sunset


Running for the wrong reasons

About two weeks ago, Sean and I went to Memphis to pick up a friend’s dog, hit the library, and purchase, among other things, swimsuits for our upcoming trip to the beach. Shopping for clothes, swimsuits in particular, is an unpleasant experience for me. I feel a lot prettier if I never look in mirrors, especially changing-room mirrors. Sean thinks I’m just beautiful, and he tells me so excessively, but that isn’t enough to counteract the predominant cultural messages that I’ve been subject to for a quarter of a century.

On the outside, I look like a feminist: I have comparatively little hair on my head and a comparative lot on my legs and in my armpits*. Most of the time, I can be a feminist on the inside, too. Feeling bad about my body in a changing room, I felt worse about my character. The self-loathing I was experiencing was two-fold:

  1. Heavens, my butt is rather unattractive!
  2. How dare I betray my ideals by hating my fairly healthy and by all accounts perfectly-nice-looking body!

I came out of the changing room more or less whimpering, detesting my insides and my outsides. Because I wasn’t happy with the way I looked, I resolved to start running again. Because I couldn’t stand the idea of basing a decision on hating my body, I retracted my decision. Taking back the decision didn’t address the initial feelings, so I came back to running. I went through this cycle a couple of times, going round and round with myself.

About two weeks ago, I started running again. I ran cross country in high school and liked everything about it except for the, y’know, actual races. I haven’t resolved my feelings about the decision, but I’m embracing the fact that it makes me feel better about myself: I feel good about my resolve, my health, and my strength when I run, not just about my body. We live in the prettiest part of Arkansas, so I always see something strange or cool or wonderful on the road (I saw a wiggly lizard this morning). I’m happy with the decision, but I’m uncomfortable with my motives. I’m exploring those feelings and disclosing them to gain some perspective, and hoping that my motives will eventually shift away from my looks and toward my health and happiness.

If I’m being honest here (I’m really trying!), I want to look good without working at it, and I want to feel like I look good (who doesn’t?). However, putting effort into my appearance based on other people’s ideas of what “looking good” is works against my efforts to make the world a better, more inclusive place. It’s a dilemma. I haven’t resolved it.

A few cleanup thoughts:

  • In certain social situations, I think it’s okay to want to look “normal.” Any event where someone else in particular is supposed to be the center of attention (weddings, funerals) is a good place to put away the funny hats and don a bra.
  • I don’t always disapprove of putting effort into my appearance: I think it can be fun to try to feel like a work of art and to use clothing and accessories to send a message. Most of the time, though, I just want to be dressed comfortably and functionally.
  • This isn’t a pity party: don’t tell me I’m beautiful because I wrote this post. You’d be missing the point.
  • running in the morning (when it’s not 100 degrees) is the bomb because a) then I don’t dread it all day and b) I get to feel great about myself (Yay! I ran today!) all day long. This is the great secret of people who actually exercise.

One of the greatest things that anyone can do to empower women and girls is compliment them on something other than their appearance. Maybe if the world hadn’t emphasized my looks over my health and strength, I’d be running for the right reasons.



*Women with hairless armpits always look a little strange to me.