In the summer of 1992, I took a job in Glacier National Park as a Biological Technician measuring the re-population of plants destroyed by fire in the remote North Fork region of the park. In Glacier, thirty-eight thousand acres had burned in 1988, the same year as the highly publicized Yellowstone Fire. The project argued the value of prescribed burns to reduce the fuel load that otherwise leads to unnaturally hot, catastrophic, devastating fires.
Our long commute occurred along rough dirt roads and on foot trails carrying equipment on our backs to our remote work sites. Our team of five worked long days measuring out plots and counting plants. We worked transects across pristine forest perforated violently by bulldozer mitigation lines with seared forest on the opposite side, all within yards of each other. After four years some, of the burned area was stark and sterile. In places the soil was fused and glassy and the trees were charred skeletons marching in formations next to the equally devastating dozer lines which brought weeds.
Our office was a charred wasteland and it was grimy work. I fervently believed that what we were doing was important, policy changing work. We were hot, dirty and we stank. We saw wolves and grizzly bears, and ate huckleberries and heard loons calling mournfully. We had wolf scat with rabbit bones in one of our plots. We smelled the distinctive funk of grizzly bear while measuring out another. Oh the adventures we had!
I realized I was having the time of my life. Literally.
Another reality struck me hard one memorable afternoon. While sorting my laundry into washers I was approached by a well-dressed neat and tidy older woman, perhaps in her late 60s, who exclaimed in amazement over the state of affairs.
“Honey, what on earth did you do? That has got to be the dirtiest clothing I’ve ever seen in my life and I’ve seen a lot, let me tell you.” And she did. Her loud exclamations to the entire laundromat regarding my transgressions were terrifying. Grizzly bears are less terrifying to me. I was mortified and embarrassed. For the laundry I had to do in that little laundromat was disgusting. Covered in black soot and brown dirt, my work t-shirts and tan khakis were hardly distinguishable from each other. Not to mention the unmentionables. The shade of affairs washing down that drain should have had their own environmental impact statement.
Once again, the litany of what I did and how I loved it was shared. Some of the other patrons shook their heads in amazement at my tale regarding my work and why my laundry gained that sooty shade.
I learned a few things that day. It didn’t matter what I did or why, I was a woman. I had crossed the line and liked playing in the mud. I just hope that she walked away knowing that it takes all kinds to make the world go around. Even women like me.
Ginnie Duran has lived in the Boulder area since she moved here in 1980 to attend CU, Boulder, and has succumbed to Chief Niwot’s curse. She’s still here! Her educational background is in Environmental Biology and Conservation, with a focus in Plant Ecology, and Environmental Design. She gardens with native, medicinal and edible plants and knows a little Latin. She lives in an ecologically focused intentional community. She has written jottings and essays for years and has two novel length works in progress. She is working on a series of short essays and stories called Montana Tales about her experiences growing up as the daughter of a field geologist and a pivotal summer as a Biological Technician in Glacier National Park. Soot is one of these stories.