“What are you doing?”
I’m a park ranger, traipsing along in the footsteps of John Muir and Stephen Mather and the like. And a lot of people, most notably my family, have accused me of casting myself as Mae. This irks me, because it means I’ve committed the most rookie of all mistakes—just writing oneself as the protagonist, rather than creating a unique character. I thought I had left those days behind in middle school.
But beyond this, it irks me because Mae’s job is different from mine. She is, at heart, a conservationist rather than a preservationist. Responsible use of resources over preservation for the sake of preservation. In fact, this is why I chose October 4th as her birthday—the death date of oft-maligned Gifford Pinchot, father of modern forestry, with the thought that she’s continuing his work. Granted, Mae has a heart for the inherent worth of wilderness that Pinchot is often accused of lacking (she probably would have been on John Muir’s side over the damming of Hetch Hetchy valley), but her job as a Woodwalker is ultimately to oversee responsible use of the Silverwood’s resources. This is a society not merely passing through a stand of wildland as visitors, but living intimately in it and relying on it for their survival. As such, preservation probably isn’t even a concept the folk of the Silverwood are concerned about.
Now, the Silverwood will have been practicing silviculture and forestry much longer than post-European United States, and as such, they’ll have graduated out of some of Pinchot’s more outdated ideas (such as restricting wildfires at all costs). The Wood Guard would oversee strategic timbering to reduce the spread of blight or infestation and would monitor wildfires to facilitate forest regeneration. So that’s what Mae is doing in the illustration above—felling a pine that has fallen prey to pine beetles.
And this is where we hop to another, less famous chapter in the history of forestry and land use—the Women’s Land Army and the Women’s Timber Corps. These two organizations, like many others involving women in unusual workplaces, emerged during the First and Second World Wars. The two mentioned were in Britain, but there was also a Women’s Land Army of America and an Australian Women’s Land Army. Their work was closely related to entities like the US Forest Service, but I bring up these lesser-known organizations because the illustration above is referenced directly from a photo of a lumberjill in the Women’s Timber Corps.
As famine loomed in Britain in World War I, women were hurriedly recruited to fill agriculture and forestry jobs the soldiers had left behind. They were recruited again during World War II. Once each war was over and the men returned home, the organizations were disbanded—yet another instance of women being ushered into a workforce to compensate for a lack of men, only to be kicked out when the need was gone (or, in the case of the National Park Service, when word got round to Washington that women were working as rangers). And despite the amount of timber the Women's Timber Corps provided for the war effort, they were given no recognition for their work until 2007, when a memorial was erected in Scotland.
The Wood Guard is decidedly coed, as with any other profession and industry in the world of Woodwalker. Women serving as foresters or soldiers or politicians is so normal as to be beyond comment. This is perhaps the biggest fantasy element in Mae’s world. But I hope Mae serves as a little homage to these women, continuing their work for the good of her people and her love for her home.
I realize few people care about the differences between a park ranger and a forester, or a preservationist and a conservationist, but Mae is unquestionably more akin to the latter. With some exceptions, her convictions align more closely with Pinchot’s than Muir’s, and her work aligns more closely with that of the women of the Timber Corps and modern foresters than park rangers. In this sense, Mae resembles my conservationist friends building trail at Philmont Scout Ranch or the vegetation crews working to control hemlock woolly adelgids in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Which apparently means I've written fanfiction about my friends, rather than myself.
Sometimes I feel like my life is broken up into chapters just like my novels. The chapter that just finished was a big one—my summer out in Yellowstone National Park. After three years of almost exclusively staying home with my girls, it was so, SO incredible to get back into my field in one of the most prestigious visitor centers in the National Park Service. Old Faithful is crazy, guys. Like, holy cow, there would be days where I’d stop to draw breath and realize I hadn’t stopped talking to visitors for an hour and a half. As a result, the people who work there have to be totally on top of everything.
I was so fortunate to work with some of the most knowledgeable, dedicated people in my field. People often think of a park ranger job as running around the vast wilderness communing with eagles or whatever, but the truth is, it’s very much a customer service job. And our staff at Old Faithful was a well-oiled machine. Through bear scares, irate visitors, bison jams, and six million Junior Ranger booklets, my fellow rangers were totally immersed in connecting visitors to the park. I learned a lot from every one of them. But more than that, I made some amazing friendships!
Hey Rangers! Here’s to next year—the big 1-0-0!!
Emily B. Martin
Author and Illustrator