Tell Them To Come With Fire in Their Bellies


Southern Oregon in the summer of 2002, lightning set off a forest
fire that stretched across the heart of the Siskiyou Wild Rivers
area. This was the largest fire in North America that year. Forest
Service scientists dubbed it the “Biscuit fire.” These
same scientists quickly pointed out that the Biscuit fire performed
needed biological functions, including reduction of fuels on the

months the Bush administration, led by Mark Rey, began planning
the largest logging project in Forest Service history. The Biscuit
logging operations (deceptively titled the Biscuit Fire Recovery
Project) encompasses about 20,000 acres (31.25 square miles) and
a proposed cut of 372 million board feet—equivalent to 74,400
logging trucks. This includes about 9,000 acres (14 square miles)
of “protected” old-growth reserves. The Project would
leave just 1.5 legacy trees (“snags”) per acre—a
virtual clearcut. Many of the trees tagged to be cut are not dead,
rather their outer bark is scorched. Many are part of late-successional
old growth stands. The soil is so fragile and unique for the area
and climate that clearcutting will guarantee the demise of thousands
of rare plants and animals. It would also mean the destruction of
fragile rivers still supporting salmon. Court motions to stop the
massive logging operation have been in vain. 

March 7, 2005 logging of an old growth reserve began in an area
called the Fiddler Timber Sale. People from Southern Oregon blocked
logging trucks from crossing a bridge. On the morning of March 14,
2005 a group of women dressed in black blocked the bridge to the
Biscuit, one of the most botantically diverse national forests on
the North American continent. The women were determined to be the
voices for the trees. Among the 20 arrested that day was Joan Norman,
a 75-year-old women who has been an activist for over 40 years.
I interviewed her at the Siskiyou Forest Defenders camp near Selma,


Where did you start as an activist? 

I went with the freedom riders to the South. I went to Alabama to
stop the lynchings and to let the people be free. I went to Montgomery,
Selma, and Birmingham. I started out with members of a church. We
took a bus from California to the South. I walked with Martin Luther
King, Jr. The thing we wanted to stand up to then was the destruction
of the diversity of people in this nation. 

here you are in Selma, Oregon instead of Selma, Alabama, another
place to fight for diversity. You are on an interesting journey. 

it has been a very interesting journey. You know I once was very
rich. I married a man who became very powerful. He helped to invent
the microchip. I had a big house where many fancy parties were held
for other rich corporate industrialists. I did my wifely duties
so that we could keep our money. I came from a Republican lineage.
I was born in an oil town in Oklahoma into a culture that trashed
and enslaved the earth to extract wealth. 

day the fire grew in my belly. The fire is the work we came to do
in this life. When we are domesticated, the fire is diminished and
sometimes put out. We forget our soul urge. 

knew that the way we lived was wrong. The people around me were
mean. I had dreams. I began to pay attention. John Kennedy was running
for president then. I was so inspired by what he said to us, to
all the people. I stopped being a Republican and joined JFK’s
election campaign. I brought Democrats, working people, into my
big house. I put on fundraising events to get JFK elected. After
he was assassinated I tried to help get Bobby Kennedy elected. I
met Bobby Kennedy. I was inspired by his words and actions. And
then they assassinated him, too.

this brought much turmoil to my world. I sold everything after I
left my husband and the corporate world. I lived small and I joined
in to defend the earth and its people against the war, against the
people, and the natural world. 

have been arrested over 100 times standing against injustice. After
the civil rights struggle in the South, I joined the protests against
the Vietnam War. I was at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. I
went to Washington, DC to stop the G8 and the WTO takeover of the
world. I have been in the streets with the best of them. I have
lived for 30 years in a community of freedom riders. I lived in
a motor home for 12 years and traveled to where I was needed. I
had my own kitchen, my own first aid station, my books, and my passion
for freedom and justice. 

was at the Nevada test site protests. I stood beside the true heroes
of this country. I stood by them at Fort Benning to protest the
School of the Americas. 

you afraid to go to jail? 

I am not afraid. The food is gray, the walls are gray. The jailers
are not as mean as the cops who arrest you are. Once you get in
the jail, there are rules, but the jailers usually are just doing
their jobs the best they can. I look at it like some crazy comedy.
They are doing what they think is necessary and I am doing what
I think is necessary. We just don’t agree on what is necessary.
The people in the jails are mostly working poor struggling to survive.
They are in jail for all sorts of crazy things—some big things,
but mostly small things. These people are kept so distant from the
rest of America, they don’t even know we care. When I am in
jail, I educate. I listen to the stories and I pass these stories
onto people wherever I-go. 

I am not afraid. I am 75 years-old. Do you know what this culture
has in store for me, an old woman? They will wait for me to be sick
at the end of my life and then strap me to feeding tubes, pump drugs
into me, put me on a machine to make my lungs go up and down, and
wait for me to die. I am not bound to go out that way. I would rather
go out in a blaze, defending the world I love. I will be on the
front lines someday and my soul will know the time to go and I will
just leave. I will make that decision. Knowing this, I am not afraid.
I am more afraid that my grandchildren will think I did not try
hard enough to leave them a legacy of peace and a world worth living
in. I don’t want them to know the beauty of trees by looking
at a book. I want them to be able to walk among 800-year-old trees
and know that is our destiny. 

It sounds like jail is another important part of the journey
you are on. 

of the most important people of my life I met in jail. I met my
teachers, my inspirers in jail. I met the greatest people I ever
knew in jail. 

did you meet? 

was in jail with Philip Berrigan, the radical priest who poured
blood on draft records, pounded on missile silos, and took a stand
at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning. I was in jail with
Corbin Harney, an elder of the Western Shoshone tribe. We went up
to the sacred lands at Four Corners, New Mexico and tried to stop
the mining of uranium on this sovereign native land. 

can imagine the teachings that happened in jail. 

Gilbert, a musician, has a song about being in jail that describes
our experience. It is called “We all sang Bread and Roses.”
That song describes my experience exactly. We sat down together
in the cells and sang songs of resistance and tried to educate the
other prisoners. We used non-confrontational communication to show
others how to live in this world. It did not matter if it was another
prisoner, or a jailer, we tried to teach peaceful resistance. I
am still doing this today. 

goes through your mind when you know you may be arrested. 

just know when we are supposed to stand up, you know, have a backbone.
We can’t let these people who have no social consciousness
rule the world. If we let them take our peace, our air, our water,
the sky, the trees, the plants, we will be lost.


it comes time to resist, I just do it. I sit down and I don’t
move. I don’t talk. I sit down and I hold my own sovereign

they removed me from the bridge I was blocking by carrying me in
my chair to the sheriff’s vehicle, they put me down there and
thought I would stay put. The officers went off to arrest someone
else. I got up and moved my chair back to my space. An officer yelled,
“Hey, you are not supposed to do that. Get back over where
I put you.” I just laughed. People have been trying to get
me to be where they put me all my life. I have a right to stand
up against evil and I will. 

am not afraid to say my truth. Once I was up in a tree sit and a
logger came and yelled up at us, “Why don’t you get a
job?” I yelled down to him, “I do have a job, defending
the forest is my job.” Then I said to him, “What kind
of job do you have? Cutting down the forests? I like my job better
than yours.” And the logger just walked away. 

do you know what’s the good fight? 

the good fight is different for each person. My good fight has been
about resisting injustice wherever I find it. Early on the good
fight for me included fighting for the right for women to control
their own bodies, their own fertility. The state needs to stay out
of women’s bodies. That is part of the good fight for me. Right
now, the good fight is making sure the natural world is not destroyed
by greed. This fight came to me through my grandson. My grandson
lived on the edge of a forest. He spent from early in the morning
to nightfall exploring the forests. I was concerned about this.
I thought he was there to get away from his family. I talked to
him. I said I was afraid he would get lost, but instead he was found. 

said, “Grandma, it’s so beautiful and amazing in the forest,
you have to come with me so I can show you.” So, I went with
him. It was hard for my old bones and joints. I had to try to go
up these steep paths and over logs on the trail, but I did. What
he showed me was just so amazing. I saw it the first time through
the eyes of a child. You cannot read about nature and wild places,
you have to go there. And, once you do, no threat of jail will keep
you from preserving it. The wild places are the last place on earth
that we have to remember our heritage and show us our legacy. This
is why, at this time of my life, after all I have tried to defend,
I am a forest defender. 

you explain the concept of personal sovereignty? 

are sovereign people. We are self-contained. There is a light in
you that came into you when you were born. When we stand up against
unjust laws and rules and regulations we need to make sure that
we are letting that pure light shine. We are not cogs in a corporate
machine. If we connect with that light, we will know the right way
to live on this great planet. 

I was in jail with young people, I tried to teach this concept.
I tried to teach the difference between individuation, where people
run around and act selfishly and destroy everything, and learning
to know the reason you came to this life and letting your internal
light, your sovereign light shine on the work you came to do in
this life. 

will you do now, here in the Siskiyous? 

are here for the duration. There are many local women here and dedicated
men who love the earth and love the peace. We are just a few now,
but we are growing and we will not sit by as paradise is turned
to stumps. We need people to come here and help us defend this place.
They are cutting the big trees just beyond this camp. Every day,
seven days a week they are cutting down the trees. They don’t
care that we had a legal injunction to stop the cutting. We can’t
just sit here and let it happen. Tell the people, where you are
from, it’s time to get some backbone and some fire. Where was
that fire? 

in our bellies. 

them to get some fire in their bellies and come to this gate to
paradise and help us defend it. Tell them to come. I will be here. 

Ellen O’Shea
is a Portland, Oregon area social worker and activist. She is a contributor
to and the Portland Indymedia project.