When my buddy Jeremy asked me if I’d consider learning how to use a chainsaw last April, I laughed. After all, he’s an experienced tree climber and a former crust punk with more cuts than tattoos on his arms. I write for magazines when I’m not schlepping organic produce for the local co-0p. Tree work was never a part of my “five-year-plan.”
But that’s not to say his proposal was outrageous. We live in New Mexico, the land of ponderosa pines, junipers and piñons — living la vida lumberjack is a pretty realistic occupation here. In the summer, the distant echo of a saw in the hills is a part of the soundtrack.
A week later, I was in a harness 20 feet up a piñon’s trunk.
I’ve now been working as a lady arborist for more than two seasons. I am one of two women on a team of six who work for a private tree service in Santa Fe. I know how to set a rope line in a tree to direct each limb as they fall to the earth one by one. I own and regularly study a book about tying knots. At my best friend’s wedding, I was the bridesmaid with nicks and cuts along my arms in every photo. My co-worker, Katherine Hancock, is a former weightlifting competitor who can toss logs like toothpicks. She’s also one of the only other female arborists I know in Santa Fe.
When I started, I was the youngest and the only female on the team. Historically, arboriculture — a broad field that encompasses anyone who manages or cultivates trees professionally — has been men’s work, although that is changing slowly. As of 2014, the U.S. Forest Service, which manages millions of acres of forests, has 40,116 employees: 64.76 percent male, 35.24 percent female. Across the board, women make up about a third of each department (seasonal and permanent, field and office employees). Though the Forest Service employs many of those in this line of work, these numbers don’t include privately employed sawyers (literally a name for a person whose occupation involves sawing wood) and climbers.
The International Society of Arboriculture has held the International Tree Climbing Championship, which trains and prepares competitors for aerial rescue and survival, since 1976. In the arboriculture world, these games known as “the big dance,” are a big deal — think Olympics big. The first female champion, Chirtina Engel of Germany, wasn’t named until 2001. These days, a third of the competitors are women. At the international championships held in Wisconsin earlier this month, there were 39 male competitors and 19 women.
I don’t ponder these statistics while hauling brush for hours under the merciless sun, but when I get the chance to think it over, perhaps after I’ve scrubbed off the day’s sap, I wonder: What does it mean to be doing work that has typically been designated for men?
Melissa LeVangie, 43, and her twin sister Bear have been climbing trees competitively with the ISA since 2002 and 2006 respectively, but they’ve always been women of the woods. They grew up making tree forts near their home on the South Shore of Massachusetts. Both studied traditional forestry and currently work together as climbers for the United States Department of Agriculture’s APHIS’ Asian Longhorned Beetle (ALB) Eradication program in Worcester, Massachusetts. They are the only two females in the climbing program.
Though they’ve had their fair share of obstacles as women in the field, the sisters have watched the social networks within the tree-climbing community become more welcoming of women over time.
“It really was more of a good ‘ole boy network when I first started, and even if it is baby steps, I’m seeing it change before my eyes,” Melissa says. “I applaud the young men and the old timers — so to speak — who recognize the value of having a different gender on their crew.”
On the side, Melissa runs and owns Trees New England, a tree management and consulting business she started back in 2001. Melissa no longer competes for the ISA’s New England chapter (she’s participated in at least 20 competitions total) — she runs the event now. Earlier this year, she watched Bear win for the fourth time in the division. Bear also competed in the International Climbing Championships with the likes of this year’s winner Josephine Hedger (UK, Ireland Chapter) and the first female competitor from Illinois, Alex Julius.
‘It really was more of a good ‘ole boy network when I first started, and even if it is baby steps, I’m seeing it change before my eyes.’
Although they both involve spending a lot of quality time with trees, the disciplines of arboriculture and forestry work are actually quite different. Arborists maintain trees, forestry workers may do any number of tasks, from surveying to fighting forest fires. Besides trees, what do these occupations have in common? A historical dearth of female workers.
KT Scheer, 34, has worked for the U.S. Forestry Service as a Hotshot from 2002 to 2005 on hand crews based on the West Coast. Hotshots are specially trained firefighters who battle wildfires, but they’re not just dumping water over blazes. Many of them are skilled sawyers with a background in arboriculture that safely fell hazardous or burning trees from the fire’s edge. Scheer spent months living in the wilderness, often working on all-male or mostly male crews. After three seasons as a hotshot, Scheer joined a smokejumping team, a crew that parachutes into wildfire areas before hand crews can hike in. Generally speaking, the jumpers are the Forest Service’s initial line of attack against wildfires.
Compared to what Scheer did as a Hotshot, the work I do is glorified landscaping.
“The only thing that was sort of annoying obviously was peeing,” says Scheer. “Sometimes you’re on a grassfire and there is nowhere to go. You just tell everybody to turn around. I’m not gonna walk half a mile to the next tree.”
She is quick to point out that things like finding an outdoor “restroom” and changing clothes are minor annoyances. As a Hotshot, you work outside by day and sleep in a tent by night. Showering isn’t a priority when the forest is on fire.
The hardest part, she says, is coming home.
“There is definitely a re-entry period,” she explains. “You don’t have to worry about what you’re wearing or your hygiene when you’re fighting fires. When you go back into the real world you have to clean up and act your age.”
I can relate — after eight-hour days in the trees, I struggle with going to the grocery store in grimy work clothes. Once I ordered a coffee and the barista politely informed me that my face was bleeding.
Scheer and I talked about the challenges facing women who want to do the kind of work she does.
“Not as many women want to make fire a career choice because it’s really difficult, obviously, to form relationships and to ever have kids basically,” Scheer says. “You can support a family financially, but you won’t be there. You would have to be with a guy who’d be a stay at home mom.”
Relationships are put on hold for months at a time while workers live in the woods with little contact to the outside world.
When Melinda Kelly, 26, joined the Santa Fe Hotshot crew in 2013, she broke up with her boyfriend.
“He didn’t know what to make of it,” she says.
Kelly is a self-described wild child from Colchester, Connecticut. When I met her last fall, we played darts in the living room of a mutual acquaintance. She wore a tube top. Kelly graduated with a degree in hospitality at the University of New Hampshire and then did forestry work as part of an AmeriCorps program. She didn’t even know what a Hotshot was when she saw an ad posted in her AmeriCorps office.
“At home, people are like ‘Why would you do that?,” she says. “ Why don’t you just go your business route? Why would you wanna go and live in the woods?’”
But that’s her favorite part of the job.
“You work your butt off and sleep like a rock. When I come back into the business world, there is so much pish posh that doesn’t matter. Working in the woods brings you back to the simplicity of life.”
‘You work your butt off and sleep like a rock… Working in the woods brings you back to the simplicity of life.’
Both Scheer and Kelly said that they felt they were judged by their fellow workers on the quality of their work. It was the reactions from outsiders that can make one cringe.
Kelly had an encounter with a shuttle driver who had a difficult time understanding what she was doing with a bunch of firefighter bros.
“He was asking all the boys what they did and he finally asked me ‘What are you doing here?’” she says. “When I told him I was on the crew he said ‘What do you do? Do you make the sandwiches or do you pour the lemonade?’”
When she tells me this, I wonder what I would have said to the shuttle driver. I wonder just how much sarcasm I’d use in the delivery. It’s the same feeling I experienced when a man at the rock climbing gym teased his fallen buddy by singling me out and saying: “That girl just did that climb, why couldn’t you?”
But fleeting moments of anger and frustration are quickly replaced by the task at hand. Ultimately, I’m more concerned about the influx of bark beetles—the same ones that devastated New Mexico forests a decade ago—than whether or not I’m “one of the guys.”
Now when someone asks me about my work, I confidently explain what I do, and it’s fun to see the surprise on people’s faces when a girl with pigtails says she wields a chainsaw for money.