By: Kathy Doyle, Ph.D., Middlebury College and Doyle Ecological Services
To what shall I give myself? That is a question I am asking these days, and the Women’s Forest Congress feels like an important part of the answer. Early this year, a group of friends and I began reading and discussing via Zoom “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis,” edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson. The stories of women contributing their talents to find solutions to the complex crises of our times have felt inspiring and also a bit daunting as we asked if we are faithfully responding with our gifts? As I grapple with the question, I come back to a desire to do what I can to ensure healthy and thriving forests deeply appreciated by diverse human communities. Indeed this vision came to mind not long ago when asked to imagine what my ancestors might someday appreciate as they reflected on my life.
Reflecting on the geography of my own life, my deep connection to forests emerged early on. As a child, I was curious about those who may have walked under the large white pine near my back door decades or hundreds of years earlier. I was curious about the inhabitants in nearby forests– the ants, birds, salamanders, flowers, and trees. Joining the Youth Conservation Corps in high school, I recall standing in a forest one day, realizing that I wanted to learn everything I could about trees. This led me to study “natural resources” in college and travel to Sweden as part of the American Scandinavian Foundation’s forestry trainee program, where I learned about Swedish forestry practices and immersed myself in the day-to-day life on a family farm in northern Sweden. I spent summers during college studying vegetation patterns on the summits of the Mahoosuc Mountains in Maine and a semester at Hubbard Brook Research Forest in NH. After graduation, I worked in the southeastern United States, learning from the forests of the coastal plain to the mountains while working for the North Carolina Botanical Garden and the SE regional office of the Nature Conservancy. From there, I headed to the northern Rockies for graduate school to research forest regeneration after a fire in the heterogeneous Teton landscape. For more than two decades now, I have made my home with my husband and sons in the hills of rural Vermont, where I have pieced together work as a teacher and freelance ecologist, collaborating on various conservation planning and restoration projects. These days, I teach environmental science labs at a liberal arts college in central Vermont.
As I reflect on my life, I deeply appreciate those who have taught and supported me and the experiences and connections that have enriched my life. I also realize I am not alone in having experienced barriers as I strived to use my gifts in support of forests. I have not always been able to find satisfying work or benefit from the encouragement, synergy, and comradery of others. I have wondered if taking time off to raise my children or opting to live in a rural area affected opportunities to do the work I wished to do. I have sometimes felt less than or that I did not fit the mold – perceived perhaps as too applied or interdisciplinary for academic positions or too academic or ecologically focused for other more applied pursuits.
Reflecting on my journey, the Women’s Forest Congress feels vital, and I am convinced that this effort is something to which I want to give myself. I want to learn from the diverse geographies, stories, gifts, and motivations of women who are passionate about forests and are committed to cultivating belonging and inclusivity in support of forests of the future. I love the humility, raw vulnerability, and welcoming atmosphere. I see great power for change in what lies between us. As one of my students said recently, “I think many people, like myself, have struggled to know their gift. I think we sometimes get caught up in finding our gift that we forget that our gift is not for us but for the land”. I hope you will join me in becoming a part of the Women’s Forest Congress so we can work together in support of forests and not waste precious gifts.