Joan Norman: Tell them to come with Fire in their Bellies
By Ellen O'Shea
"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. The slavery, racism, and violence toward people of color. The thing we are fighting today is much the same only we are trying to defend the diversity of the whole world, of life on earth. We need all of it to not just survive, but to thrive as a peaceful, loving people." Joan Norman
In Southern Oregon in the summer of 2002 a strike of 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. The Forest Service scientists dubbed the fire the "Biscuit fire". These same scientists quickly pointed out that the Biscuit fire performed needed biological functions including reduction of fuels on the ground.
Within 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 sq miles) and a proposed cut of 372 million board feet - equivalent to 74,400 logging trucks. This includes about 9,000 acres (14 sq miles) of "protected" old-growth reserves. The Biscuit Logging Project is the first to threaten roadless and 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 of the trees are part of late-successional old growth stands (very old, very big trees). The soil of the area 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.
On March 7, 2005 logging of an old growth reserve began in an area called the Fiddler Timber Sale. People from Southern Area went to the area and blocked logging trucks from crossing a bridge. On the morning of March 14, 2005 a group of women dressed in black blocked the bridge that allows entrance to the Biscuit, a beautiful diverse National Forest. The women were wearing black in solidarity with the trees. They were determined to be the voices for the trees. Among the 20 women arrested that day was Joan Norman. Joan is a 72-year-old woman who has been an activist for over 30 years. On March 8th she was arrested for blocking the same bridge that leads into one of the most botanically diverse national forests on the North American continent. Ellen O'Shea interviewed her on March 13th at the Siskiyou Forest Defenders camp near Selma, Oregon.
Joan: There are only 5% of the old growth trees left in the United States. They are clearcutting paradise; they are doing it in spite of a legal injunction. The courts don't work against evil anymore. It's time to stand up. Whatever rules and laws that civil society once had are now gone. This is the time we have been waiting for, we knew it would come, and we are the ones we have been waiting for. Yes, the people to rise up!
Ellen: You mean we need to get some fire in our bellies?
Joan: Well, I don't think I know about that, but maybe I do. There is some fire in many of the people here. I see it in the eyes of the young activists. It is such a thrill to see the energy and passion of those younger than me. It reminds me of the early days of being an activist. We were so clear about our purpose and our resolve to end the thing.
Ellen: "Fire in our Bellies" is an old term, and a new term. It is new because many people are seeking new personal ideals of strength, potency and warriorship in their lives. It is old because aboriginal people would sit in wild places trying to reconnect with the soul urge we were born to. They would ask for a dream or vision. They would ask for direction and to have one's belly - solar plexus - fired up. 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.
Joan, what "Thing" were you trying to end? You mean the Vietnam War? Where did you start as an activist?
Joan: Why, 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. The slavery, racism, and violence toward people of color. The thing we are fighting today is much the same only we are trying to defend the diversity of the whole world, of life on earth. We need all of it to not just survive, but to thrive as a peaceful, loving people.
Ellen: So here you are in another Selma. Selma, Oregon instead of Selma, Alabama, another place to fight for diversity. Joan, you are on an interesting journey.
Joan: Yes, 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. He made a lot of money and he lost his way. I was once the wife of a rich corporate industrialist. I had a big house where many fancy parties were held for the other rich corporate industrialists. I did my wifely duties so that we could keep our money. I was a Republican. I came from a Republican lineage. I was born in an oil town in Oklahoma. I was born into a culture that trashed the earth, enslaved the earth to extract wealth.
One day the fire grew in my belly. I knew that the way we lived was wrong. The people around me were mean. I had dreams. Then 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. He spoke directly to 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 JFK 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.
All this brought much turmoil to my world. My husband was still a Republican and I was spending more and more time with the everyday people of this country. The working class. I left everything I knew. I sold everything that was left to me 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.
I 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 saw the genocide against the people of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and I jumped in, with both feet. 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 few books and my passion for freedom and justice.
I was at the Nevada test site protests. I stood beside the true heros of this country. I stood by them at Fort Benning to protest the School of the Americas, the place where international terrorists, death squads are trained.
Ellen: Aren't you afraid to go to jail? What is it like there?
Joan: Like I said I have been to jail over a 100 times. And, no 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 not mean. They 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.
The meanness comes when we are arrested. One of our group who was arrested on last Monday had his arm dislocated by a sheriffs deputy. And to answer your question, NO!. No, 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 deadly 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. No, 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. That is where we have to get back to.
Ellen: It sounds like jail is just another important part of the journey you are on?
Joan: Oh yes! Some 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.
Ellen: Who did you meet?
Joan: I was in jail with the Berrigan Brothers. I was in jail with Philip Berrigan, the radical priest who poured blood on draft records and pounded on missile silos, and took a stand at the gates of hell: 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. I was arrested with Corbin Harney.
Ellen: I can imagine the teachings that happened in jail with these great visionaries.
Joan: Yes, well jail has been my classroom. Ronny 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. We tried to live in each moment, the peace that we want in the world. It did not matter if it was another prisoner, or a jailer, we tried to teach this peaceful resistance. I am still doing this today.
Ellen: What goes through your mind when you know you must resist, and you may be arrested. I mean, what kind of mind set do you have to have to be arrested?
Joan: I know when it is time. I 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. Their appetite for war and greed is insatiable. If we let them take our peace, our air, our water, the sky, the trees, the plants, we will be lost. We cannot live without these gifts to us. These things are our true national, no not national, planetary treasures. They belong to all living things on the planet.
When 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 space and self in that spot. I am fighting the good fight. I am just like Tar Baby in that story about Brier Rabbit and Tar Baby. I am just like Tar Baby. I go limp and I don't resist. I let them arrest me.
Last Monday, they came and removed me from the bridge I was blocking by carrying me in my chair to the edge of the sheriff's vehicle. They put me down there and thought I would stay put. Then the officers went off to arrest someone else. I got up and moved my chair back to my space. My sovereign 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.
I am not afraid to say my truth. Once I was up in a tree sit and a logger came to the tree and he yelled up at us, "Why don't you get a job?" And, I yelled down to him " I do have a job, defending the forest is my job". And, 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.
Ellen: Tell me more about the "good fight"? How do you know what is the good fight?
Joan: The good fight? Well, the good fight is different for each person. My good fight has been about resisting injustice wherever I find it. I find it in unusual places. 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 for me is making sure the natural world is not destroyed by greed.
This fight to save the forests came to me through my grandson. I was not much of an outdoors person. I had never had a chance to live and explore a truly wild place. My grandson lived on the edge of a forest. He was a beautiful child. He spent from early in the morning to nightfall exploring the forests. I was concerned about this. I thought he was in the forest to get away from his family. I talked to him. I said I was afraid he would get lost, but instead he was found.
He 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 and keep up with him. He was so excited to be showing me this pure, beautiful world he had found. He was so excited that someone in his family would go with him. I had to try to go up these steep paths and over logs on the trail, but I did. And what he showed me was just so amazing. I saw it the first time through the eyes of a child. We should all go into the forest with young children. They see it like it is meant to be seen. With the innocence of a being still connected to the earth. They see it the way humans lived it for thousands of years. I cannot explain in words what my grandson taught me. I can only say that 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. We need to stand up and protect these places. This is why, at this time of my life, after all I have tried to defend, I am a forest defender.
I lived in cities and I never went to the woods. No one I knew went to the natural places. We just went from store to house to work. We created gardens and lawns and tried to bring some natural beauty to our homes, but it wasn't the same. We never saw the intense beauty of the forest, or desert or wild ocean places. We watched it on TV. But to live in it, be in it, it is so much different than seeing it in a book or on TV. It changes you to be where it is wild. It reminds you that it is time to wake up.
Ellen: Yes, I live in a city and many people around me never go outside the city. I live next to Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens. People in Portland once in a while lift their eyes towards the mountains and say how beautiful it is but rarely do they go there and just be in the place of beauty. If they do, they bring all sorts of noise and gadgets with them. It's almost as if they are afraid of what the earth will say to them.
It is amazing to sleep on the ground, feel the earth breathing through you, and look up at the sky at night and see the millions of stars. Last week Mt. St. Helens erupted and many people stopped what they were doing in the city to look at the ash plume rise into the sky. It was a good reminder that nature is very powerful too. As we become less wild, and more domesticated, we won't know how to survive if and when this artificial world ends.
Joan: Well, it will end. That is the prophecy. When I went to Hopi Land I learned about a prophecy. Here look at the back of my shirt. The prophecy is on the back of my shirt.
Ellen: Well let me write that down too.
"When the earth has been ravaged and the animals are dying. A tribe of people from all races, creeds, and colors will put their faith in deeds. Not words to make the land green again. They shall be known as the Warriors of the Rainbow. The protectors of the environment."
Joan: We are truly the ones we have been waiting for.
Ellen: You spoke today about personal sovereignty and the individuals right to stand against injustice. Can you explain this concept of personal sovereignty?
Joan: We are sovereign people. We are self-contained. There is a light in you that came into you when you were born. In this light lies your purpose for being here. Your job is to let your light shine on what is around you. 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 his great planet.
When 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.
We have a very unjust legal system right now. It all started in 1896 when our government gave corporations personhood. The few people who wrote these laws of corporate personhood were a Supreme Court judge and his robber baron friends. The Boston Tea party was about fighting this corporate take over of the world resources and people. The revolutionaries wanted to keep the corporates and monarchies out of this new country. They had pretty much taken over all of Europe. People were starving; the forests and natural lands were being decimated in Europe. The air was foul from burning coal; sewage ran in the rivers of London and other large cities in Europe. This is the legacy of greed. This is what the corporates want to spread over the whole world.
Ellen: They must have some plan to save their own. Maybe, like in Huxley's "Brave New World" the rich will build domed cities where the atmosphere is controlled and they will be able to breathe, but the rest of us will be left to try to survive in a wasteland.
Joan: I don't think they have a plan. They are not deep thinking, forward thinking people. They are out of touch with everything living and natural. Everywhere they look they see enemies, people who want to keep them from the present moment of greed and consumption. They want profits now. They don't think about five or ten years or a hundred years from now. We need to adopt a different way of acting and being and stand up. The biggest challenge to people of good consciousness now, is to get people to stand up. To stop being afraid, and stand up.
Ellen: What will you do now, here in the Siskiyous? What kind of a stand do we need to take right now?
Joan: We 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. Everyday, 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?
Ellen: Fire in our bellies.
Joan: Tell 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.
To learn more about the campaign to Save the Wild Siskiyous check out
For more information print out an informative brochure on the project to save the Siskiyou's at http://media.portland.indymedia.org/media/2005/03/314650.pdf
The Oxygen Collective practices creative resistance through projects that address injustice in our communities and destruction in the natural world. http://www.o2collective.org
Check out Portland Indymedia's on-going coverage of the Battle for the Biscuit struggle at http://portland.indymedia.org/en/action/biscuit/
Ellen O'Shea is a Portland, Oregon area Social Worker and social activist. She is a contributor to http://portlandwriters.com and the Portland Indymedia project.