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Buy the Fucking Opal

Buy the Fucking Opal

Stories I have Never Told (for My Girls)

It was 2000.  I was jumping up to put my pack on the van’s roof rack.  It only took me three tries. He stood behind me and said, “Hmmm.  Do you really think you can carry these boys out of the field if you can’t even get your pack on the van?”  “Stop it.” I slapped his arm while standing there in my flower poly-pro shirt by Royal Robbin. (They had come out with a female gear line and I had several.)  We were working for Blueridge Backcountry, a wilderness outfitter, where we took youth groups and at-risk youth into the woods for seven days.  We had all been trained by Outward Bound or NOLS and had our wilderness first aid or responder, some sort of swift water rescue cert, and plenty of climbing hours to lead or top rope.  But, I was different.

Sure there were three other females on staff, but I was the only one wearing flowers.  Also, the other male staff loved to question my thong underwear when we did laundry in the creek.  Being seven days on, with six nights in the field and one night off, creek laundry was all we had. A rope was tied from tree to tree using a couple of taut-line hitches and  it was the only place I knew to dry them. If I left them in my pack they would sour, put them under my tarp and they would stay wet with condensation, so there they hung between the trees for the entire staff to see.  The other girls were smart; they wore granny panties, olive green cargo pants, and quick-dry khaki shirts that they got gear discounts on from the printed Camp-mor catalog that used to come to the back country office. Hey, I was Californian, a little wild, and yeah I liked flowers.

I was their full-time intern, had spent two semesters in the woods totaling 180 user days, and was the best climber and rescue staff they had.  The summer before, I ran a ropes course and zip-line in Estes Park and the summer before that I managed 30 staff on a high ropes course and climbing wall at the largest summer camp in Southern California. (We had 100 users a day, and I helped to re-design the course so we had two tiers).  Onetime during a couple’s course, a man was yelling at his wife to come on, and then he got stuck on the double tight-rope elements and started crying. He was terrified and I went out to rescue him. He cried that he was stuck, cried that he had yelled at her, and cried that I was holding him while lowering him 40 feet.  I was a total badass, but I had no idea. I just felt like a little 20-something girl who loved flowers and to be in the woods.

In my two-semester Outdoor Skills course, I was placed with seven guys and one male professor.  We all slept under the same tarp and “Guffey” (we all went by last names like some kinda football team), our prof, slept in between us, reading us bible stories from the book of Micah because his wife was pregnant with their third child.  There in the woods on gibbon moon nights, I would think of his wife and wondered if she wished she was with us? They had hiked the A.T. together after undergrad and had tried several times to hike it with their toddlers. She was now homeschooling and pregnant, and he was leading us all over the South in rivers, caves, swamps, and atop peaks.  He taught me orienteering, and for some reason I loved maps. The boys were horrible at it, and whenever we were lost they would argue for hours before listening to me. Guffey would give me a wink like, ‘You little badass you knew all along where you were, if these boys would ever consider you’.

I now wonder if it was all my ballet training growing up that allowed me to later become a spatial ecologist.  Ballet has been shown to increase mathematical understanding and spatial awareness. I can fly to almost any new town, and immediately get oriented to North.  From there, the rest of the directions pull me where I need to go. I have an eye for detail. Try a fouette turn or stand in passe on releve for a minute and you quickly learn that micro-adjustments make the task easier, but also make the lines more beautiful.  Flip your wrist one way, place your fingers slightly apart, round your elbow, take your shoulders down your back, let your ears pull up, breathe in, exhale slowly, bend your knees slightly, push into the floor with your big toe, lift your arch, let your glutes relax, press the top part of your quad back wrapping into your hamstring, bring your arm to lower first...and that is just the preparation-- the first count of the music in 3/4 time.  It is no surprise then that my detail-oriented-love-for-beauty-spatially-aware-body seemed a little different (maybe even odd) out on that rugged trail.

Finals were coming up before summer and my internship, and Guffey had a big pow wow with me.  He knew I could portage a solo canoe a mile, run 6 in less than an hour (which represented the number of miles we would need to run to get to any given rescue), and lead climb a 5’8”, but he was worried about my swift water rescue skills. I hadn’t been able to toss the throw bag upstream of the target and hit it five times in a row. His worry was that he couldn’t pass me for the swift water section, even if he wanted to. It wouldn’t be fair and the guys already liked to harass me.  One time on my lead-day on Section 9 of the French Broad (the burliest section) they made a pact that they were all going to flip their boats in a rapid. Nick was my co-lead and he went first and flipped. Then Will, then Jeremy, then Hunter and so on.  I was supposed to go last, but I told the three in front of me to stay put and took off in my solo boat. I set up my station and started tossing them throw bags. As I brought the first couple in, the last three took off. “STOP”, I yelled. But they just went.  Then I rescued them, too. The rescue was not smooth or easy, and honestly I did a shitty job.

When, Guffey looked at me straight in his office I did not cry. Instead I said, “Okay, I get it. Let’s get all 20 throw bags out of the gear room.  I will practice over the next three weeks every day. I promise, I will be on the banks of Lake Susan daily throwing all 20. If I don’t pass at the final, then I don’t pass. I am not asking for special treatment, but I do need the key to the gear room because you are sometimes out on rock climbing PE class”.  He laughed. Daily the boys would pass me to grab their kayaks for spring runs, and say, “Hey Bates, you throw like a girl”. ‘Yep, yep, I am a girl’, I would think in my flowered poly-pro. Needless to say, I passed.  Actually, I schooled those sorry-suckers. They had spent the three weeks playing in creeks, out at Rumbling Bald bouldering, and down in Linville Gorge climbing chimneys. Meanwhile, I had been practicing.

So here I was in the Summer of 2000, an intern creating a trail guide using a map and compass and UTM coordinates for Blueridge Backcountry.  I would hit the trail around 7am after cowboy coffee and oatmeal over open fire (we didn’t believe in stoves back then and lived like old-school Outward Bound with Kurt Hahn and Paul Petzold types).  The Backcountry dog kept black bears away while I stopped quietly to take bearings, write down observations, and triangulate. For eight of the weeks, I also led groups and that is when Charlie saw me trying to place my pack on the van’s roof rack.  His words stung. When I told my female mentor about it she said, “He’s making fun of you, because he wants to marry you”. ‘What?’ She’s crazy I thought, ‘That’s not how you get a girl to marry you’. But, I was wrong. It totally worked.

The next spring, I saw him in a coffee shop and gave him a side hug.  We both never let go. We lived in a town of 6,000 people and the male-female ratio was 6:1.  I stuck out like a sore thumb with my halter tops and flip flops, and little did I know there were dibs on who got to marry me.  Imagine it like the wild west and the Grand Tetons during the early 1850s. John told Charlie that he took me for a beer in California.  Ben said, “I sent her a mixed tape of bluegrass when she was in Colorado”. Brett said, “My parents think she’s too young for me. But we had a fun fall on my motorcycle”. Will decided that I was his late night phone call to hit a concert in Asheville. Jeremy thought I was too wild and wouldn’t do what he said. Jason thought because I set up his climbs for him, that I was “in to” him.  And Tommy swore I was in love with him, because he once told me a group of guys were hitting the Bald on Saturday and when I showed up it was just me and him. He drove me to some fancy dinner with my flowered shirt and climbing pants on.  Then there was Charlie-- he liked to make fun of me, but he let me belay him, which meant he trusted me.

Three weeks in Guffey took him on a long walk around Lake Susan and said, “When are you going to marry that girl?”  Three months later we were engaged and six months later we were married. It’s been seventeen years and he adores me, really adores me. When I picked out my ring it was a pearl with two small diamonds on the side. He went to the same jewelry store and said, “That looks like Mel”.  He was right; I loved that ring. The jeweler’s wife said he couldn’t buy it for me. It would break. Pearls were too fragile and they were not meant for wedding rings. She convinced him, he asked me what I thought, and I obliged.  It felt like the right thing to do as a soon-to-be bride: to agree, to say “yes sir”, and to let go of my wants. This was marriage. Or so it had seemed like it was from the late night Bible stories under the green-brown tarp hovering in the Appalachian sky.

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I applied for a science position the other morning.  I was really excited about it and I felt like a total badass that less than 40 of us were asked to apply.  Soon after sending in my application the researcher wrote me and asked me to reconsider applying. I had written a descriptive and brief two-paragraph cover letter (as was directed) and attached my full resume with 19 years of teaching and science experience.  He was looking for someone to assist him and he said “I was a strong candidate”. His worry was that he thought I might not really want the job. He wasn’t sure I had time and questioned whether I could handle it. He knows me well (like a daughter) and so I was surprised.  My accomplishments, work ethic, and rigor had been made evident over our three years together. He had seen me in the field and in the classroom, and had given me an award for my work.

What was this about?  Why would I not want it?  I wouldn’t have applied first thing the next morning if I did not want it, and if I did not think I could handle it.  He even asked me to take 10 days to think about it. I promised him I would. Today I realized that the job is the pearl. I wanted the pearl ring.  It was what I really wanted. I really really wanted it. I obliged and said, “Okay” because I thought my husband knew what was best for me. There is no need for that mistake again.

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I texted Eva Mae, my oldest daughter, and told her I wanted her to get the opal ring.  She asked me about it in Cambridge and I was unsure. “They break you know,'' I said, “They are fragile stones.”  Eva and John have been approved to buy a farm together. She asked him what he thinks of women proposing. He loves the idea, and says he thinks it’s good for women to say what they want out loud.  Man, I love that boy. Good land he comes from, I tell you-- good land.

Tonight I started thinking, ‘Opals and pearls are probably not that fragile after all; they are just different’.  Look at them quickly and they stick out against grey rocks and oyster shells. They kinda look like a girl with a flowered poly-pro shirt and thong underwear up against the Appalachian foothills.  They are probably just feminine and not fragile at all. She should buy the fucking opal. It’s what she wants. If I am the best candidate I should take the job. And if I am not the best— I will wake up everyday, go outside, and practice.  It’s what we girls do.

Love,

Mom

PS- Eva Mae and Sarah Jewel saw Tommy out at the coffee shop. He said that he used to date me. They came home and told me all about it. I said, “He kidnapped me. I never wanted him”. That felt super good to say out loud.

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Melissa B. Wilson, M.S. is an active conservationist and environmentalist who happily lives in paradise (the U.S. Virgin Islands) working to create STEM career pathways and networks for Caribbean students. As a former evangelical, a current climate activist, gay ally, and descendant of the Bohemian Reformation (the first Protestant Reformation) she speaks about faith, life, ecology, and our current political climate on her blog www.ecotheologist.com. She graduated from Harvard University in May 2019. Her conservation research about wilderness, reaching Half-Earth, and STEM education can be found at www.melissawilson.net.

You Can Apologize Now

You Can Apologize Now

This is 40!

This is 40!