People get into bushwork – work done in the backcountry, such as tree-planting, outfitting, guiding and commercial wild plant and mushroom foraging – for a lot of the same reasons people free dive and mountain climb; because doing something which demands physical and technical skills so refined that to fail is sometimes to die is an exhilarating challenge not found elsewhere in our modern lives.
Which is why, for the past five years, I’ve been spending my summer and fall in and out of the backcountry doing this kind of work.
What keeps me coming back to the bush is its inherent otherness . In many ways, the bush – a nebulous term for the netherworld of forest and mountains, pock marked with remote towns and logging roads which lurks at the periphery of the North American experience like a memory – functions as an alternate world. One without the modern comforts of cell phones, running water, internet, grocery stores and restaurants, certainly, but also one in which social customs and expectations are less prevalent and more flexible.
You can prove yourself in the bush in ways more real and tangible than those offered by typical nine-to-five work-a-day lives. Mistakes – misreading a compass and becoming lost, bear encounters which turn into attacks, drinking questionable water and getting sick – can all become fatal errors. Likewise, success – finding the right trail, leading yourself to a good patch, catching a trout – are all individual accomplishments dependant entirely on your personal abilities.
The wild punishes stupidity, laziness, carelessness and arrogance and rewards intelligence, caution, grit and skill. Economic, social and cultural divides dissolve in the face of the great, uncaring maw of the wild.
As a queer woman – especially one who identifies as neither butch nor femme – coming to work in this world was like suddenly breaching a dark sea of gender of I didn’t know I had been swimming in.
For a lot of my life before then I had tried unsuccessfully to ascertain what gender attributes I should subscribe to – should I wear more dresses? Should I learn to use makeup? Should I try to be more butch, cut my hair, wear strictly men’s clothes? I worried constantly about how I presented, how I was perceived.
In the bush, though, it does not matter how you present; the bush does not give a fuck about your butch or femme-ness, gender or your genderlessness, your queerness or your straightness, if you wear making up and shave your legs or if you don a dirty plaid shirt and army boots every day. The bush doesn’t care because the bush doesn’t care about you.
For some people, this is terrifying. We spend most of our lives in towns and cities and villages, all of of which, large and small, are human-made environments which are designed to ensure your comfort and survival. For me, however, this indifference was liberating.
Suddenly, my body was not simply an object to be classed but a tool – a glorious tool – that I could use both for my pleasure and financial success, mine and mine alone. I climbed mountains and dragged down morels that popped, honey-combed and mysterious, from the burnt remains of what had once been forests. I vaulted through ravines of Devil’s Club and lugged out hundreds of pounds of sweet, sticky huckleberries. I strode amid the gloom of West coast cedars and, with my clever eyes and nimble fingers, gently pulled matsutake from the moss.
In the bush, I was neither male nor female, but a glorious, golden animal. I was ungendered and with that, free of all the expectations my body placed upon me in the modern world.
This ungendering, especially as a queer woman, however, has proven to be a problem for me in the way I deal with the men – and some of the straight women – who inhabit the foraging community with me.
In the foraging communities, I would estimate that men outnumber women five to one. Moreover, the vast majority of these men are straight and white. I have met exactly five openly queer people and three people of colour in my work. Of those, one was a white homosexual male and one was a white homosexual female. The remaining three were queer cis women of colour. Buyers – defacto wild food ‘managers,’ if there care be said to be such a thing in this mercenary world – are almost universally white and male.
Moreover, almost all these men are single, which makes them feel that women – specifically, access to women’s bodies and/or the pleasure of their company – a commodity in short supply.
I once had a man I didn’t know very well invite me out to a remote morel picking camp. In order to ensure he didn’t have the wrong idea, I flatly told him I was gay. He said it didn’t matter, that it was just that having women around – any women – brought “a little light and joy to a camp.”
Why is that? What is it for men that women bring – or are supposed to bring? Whatever it is, I often to fail to bring it and it sometimes makes them angry.
In past years, I had always picked with my two friends, Lana and her sister. During the last season, I picked mostly by myself; busy with a job and a boyfriend, Lana was only coming out for a few days at a time, and her sister had moved to Vancouver Island, over 300 miles from where we were picking. This meant I was often the only female in the camp, and a visibly, openly queer one at that. Without my two straight friends acting as a buffer between me and the men, I found relations with them increasingly difficult. They were noticeably less helpful and more aggressive with me, especially when I would not sit quietly when they were being sexist or misogynistic.
When someone called another man a “faggot” or a “pussy,” I told them to shut up.
When someone made a joke whose punchline suggested I suck their dick, I replied that I would like it better if he sucked mine, let me go grab it from the tent. Want to see a straight boy blush? Throw that line around.
When someone would say “don’t be such a girl,” I’d point out that I was “a girl” and moreover went out every day to pick, while many of the men lounged around with hangovers.
When one man compared women to “lazy monkeys looking for a handout.” I refused to speak to him after that, and when another picker asked me why, I told him it was because of his comment.
The picker – a young lad whose injuries I had treated earlier that week after he had fallen from his dirt bike, his foot still wrapped in bandages from my first aid kit – rolled his eyes at me.
“What do you expect?” he had asked. “It’s the bush. We aren’t going to change.”
It was around this time I began to refer to the bush as Manland.
Callum wouldn’t leave.
Sitting half-slumped, struggling to keep himself upright but defiant, he reached out a stumbling hand and helped himself to one of my beers from the flat behind him.
“Fuck you,” he slurred.“I don’t gotta go. I don’t gotta do anything.”
It was mid-June, 2018. We were working a burn in the East Kootenays and it had been an unusually cold, wet spring. Like all mushrooms, morels love rain, but they can’t be picked in the rain – they soak up the water like a sponge and then rot, turning into a red-brown fetid mush. This meant many days of downtime, waiting for the weather and, without internet, movies or even a coffee shop to get in out of the rain, many pickers had taken to drinking to stave off boredom and loneliness.
For the last hour, Callum – who had been drinking all day and much of the night – had been sitting by the fire at the camp belonging to myself and my friend, tucked under our tarp. He hadn’t so much appeared without invitation as stagger out of the black night and throw himself down onto one of the overturned buckets we were using as chairs, bottle of wine in hand, and start drinking, as if he lived there.
Like any society, mushroom camps have their own set of unspoken but universally understood rules. A camp has one communal fire around which anyone may cook, sit or come to chat. There are also smaller fires built at individual sites, around which pickers working together congregate: relax, dry their boots, have a quiet drink, read. It is rude –like letting yourself into an acquaintance’s house and sitting down in their living room – to just invite yourself to sit, unbidden, at someone’s fire.
To refuse to leave when asked is more than disrespectful; it’s aggressive.
From his position from across the fire from my friend, he began asking her all sort of questions about herself – what did she do for work, where was she from, did she have a boyfriend? – and telling her all about the tree planting camp he had just come from, how good of a tree planter he was, how hard a worker.
My friend, Lana, nodded, answered his questions and tried to humour him. She mentioned multiple times that she had a boyfriend, which Callum did not seem to hear.
When he got up to take a piss and nearly fell, face first, into the fire – had I not caught him by the shoulder he would have eaten a mouthful of coals – I decided I had enough and told him it was time to go. Despite being only five-foot-five, I know how to bounce a guy – I’ve worked in bars for 15 years – and so after some whining and complaining he did get up and go, staggered off into the dark towards his truck, presumably to sleep it off.
Except he came back.Twice. Each time he went away he came back fuming, protesting that he didn’t want to leave, he wanted to stay right here, like a child being sent to bed early. He was acting increasingly manic, alternating between drunken camaraderie, flirtation and anger, tilting dangerously close to the fire, tripping on stones, falling off his bucket. I was afraid he would hurt himself – or us – in a fit of temper.
“I’m not leaving.” He turned to look blearily at my friend, who was sitting quietly. A mosquito was sucking blood from his cheek, a swelling black spot.
Lana quietly but firmly told him she thought he should go back to his tent and “have a nice sleep.”
He ignored her.
“I want you to leave.” I said, keeping my voice low but firm. “This is our fire, and I’m telling you to leave. You’re drunk and you’re not welcome here, and you’re making us uncomfortable.”
“Fuck you.” He was squinting his eyes, his mouth tight and mean, trying hard to think around the liquor flooding his brain. “Fuck you. This is the bush. There aren’t any rules. I can do whatever I want here. That’s why it’s the bush.”
And he looked at me with his flat, glittering eyes, like one dog challenging another, a hard, hackle-raising stare that says this is mine.
I know that look. That look is dangerous. Men who wear that look, hateful and arrogant and simmering, are being denied something they feel is theirs to have. I’ve seen men with that look throw chairs through windows, pull knives. Once, when I was working at a bar in Ottawa, a man wore that look on his way out the door after being rejected by a server he had been hitting on. He returned the next day during the Friday lunch rush and, using a water bottle full of gasoline, set the front door of the bar on fire.
He looked over at Lana, who was quiet. That’s what he wanted. Her. I’m not suggesting he wanted to hurt her or rape her or even fuck her. He just wanted her attention.
And I was in the way.
I lunged to my feet and, before I fully understood what I was doing, seized my axe from the woodpile, holding it crosswise between us.
“Get the fuck out of here.”
He paused. Considering. Never breaking that flat, even smirk. And then he started to laugh.
I did the only thing I felt was left to me. I went and woke the buyer, who was also Callum’s uncle.
I was ashamed of it then and I am ashamed of it now. I felt disempowered, turning to a male for help, but, short of breaking open Callum’s skull with the back of my axe, there didn’t seem to be an alternative.
I was even more ashamed when, having banged on his door, the buyer stumbled out, angry and drunk himself. Why was I waking him up? I explained that I was frightened – his nephew was drunk and aggressive, refusing to leave. He scoffed at me. Callum was not his problem, he said. Callum was harmless.
“That’s just the way he is. He just wants some attention,” he said. “Just go back to your tent and ignore him.”
I thought about going back to my tent and laying down in the dark, knowing he was out there, sitting around my warm, glowing fire, angry at being asked to leave, angry at not being given the attention he felt he deserved. Seperated from me only by a thin skin of zipper canvas. A knife on his belt.
“I know this is Manland,” I spat. “But you need to deal with this. This isn’t right.”
“It’s not Manland,” he muttered, rolling his eyes.
But it was. It is. And we both knew it.
Eventually, the buyer followed me. His nephew, hearing his uncle’s voice coming down the path, was already starting to slink away.
The buyer hauled him off. In the impossible, starless dark of the rainy mountain night, we could hear them shouting at each other, cursing and swearing somewhere down the trail.
In the morning, the buyer took me aside and told me that if I ever woke him like that again, there would be hell to pay.
I want to make it very clear that I have never experienced overt homophobia at any time in bush work. In fact, when myself and a few other LGBTQ folk joined forces a few years ago, we wrote Bushqueers on the dust on the side of my car (we also had a theme song) and some kind soul erased it because he thought someone had put it there as a slur. Even when I don’t always agree with their perspectives or choices, the men I meet in the bush are some of the kindest, most giving, honest human beings I know.
That doesn’t change the fact that there are aspects of bush culture which perpetuate misogyny, male entitlement and a gender dichotomy in which I simply do not, as a queer woman, have a place. This is important, because this ultra-binary way of thinking about gender is a throwback from the prototype culture on which much of modern North American culture has been founded. It’s also proof positive that it continues to exist in a very really, tangible way, consciously and subconsciously.
While foraging is a largely undocumented profession – cash based, with workers that are hard to follow – research from other industries, such as mining – which also occurs in largely in white male dominated, physically remote areas – shows similar (if not more extreme) issues with with misogyny and queer discrimination, as does oil and gas extraction. The influence of the highly masculinized culture often found in remote all-male work camps has been cited by some First Nations groups as a threat to the safety of Indigenous women who live in adjacent communities.
The binary gendering and sexism inherent in bush culture and similar industries means that I am, in an unspoken ;way less valuable than a heterosexual female, partly because I am not “fuckable” (a resource) and partly because it causes me to not treat men in the ways that men expect – and believe they are entitled to – have women treat them. This puts me in social limbo, exempt from the protections males covertly extend to straight women and simultaneously expected to adhere to the unspoken expectations around how they believe women should to respond them.
Would the man referring to women as “monkeys” have said that if Lana, a straight woman, had been around? Probably not – because there goes his chances, however, slim, of winning her attention.
Would the buyer have responded to my request with such disdain were a straight woman? I don’t believe so; a few days later, a man was literally chased out of the bush with the implied threat that coming back would result in bodily harm for touching a straight woman inappropriately when he ran across her while she was picking. That buyer was among those summoned to remove him.
What the buyer had objected to, he told me later, was how “aggressively” I had pounded on his door.
There’s a tremendous resistance which borders on willful blindness around recognizing and talking about misogyny, sexual violence and gender in the bush community. In late 2018 I wrote a piece on misogyny in bushwork, during which I put out a public call for stories on the Facebook Group ‘Vancouver Island Mushroom Pickers.’ One of the three moderators of the group – all of whom are male – responded almost immediately, calling me a piece of shit out to cause trouble, denying any such thing ever happened in the community and admonishing me to “stay out of the woods” if I was going to talk like that even though he knew I was a journalist reporting a story.
The morel picking season is already underway even as I write this and I am not sure that this year I will participate – if I do, it will be in a much smaller way, perhaps just picking for myself.
Largely, this decision has to do with my unease about the way wild food companies exploit a non-insured, largely untrained workforce to collect fancy mushrooms, berries and herbs in difficult and often dangerous conditions for the absolute lowest dollar-per-pound amount without any consultation with or compensation to First Nations people, on whose land this work often occurs. Partly, however, I am also exhausted by trying to pick alone as a queer woman, constantly battling the latent misogyny and old-boys-club attitudes and struggling with the feeling that I am not always safe.
I am not at ease with this decision. In the offseason I always long for the backcountry, for the excitement and challenge and hardship that go with it: I miss the thrill of pounding up a mountain in my frame pack, the smell of wood smoke in my hair, the sight of a moose clumsily lumbering through the brush. I don’t just love the bush, the bush is home, but I need, if nothing else, a break from the toxic culture of heteronormativity and masculinity which surrounds it.🌲
edited by rachel.
*Names have been changed to protect the privacy of others working in this very small community