The Breadcrumbs widget will appear here on the published site.
By Rachael Stoeve
Somewhere up the ridge, the homestead's 46 acres melt into forest overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. Dirt roads veer at a lung-burning angle toward the crest, carving ochre scars through the madrone and chinkapin. I climb upward alone, through the June heat, hearing nothing but the occasional insect whirring in the grass and the gusting afternoon wind.
The homestead is called Gypsy Cafe, home to Barb and Susie, a couple in their forties. I am here through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that connects farms all over the world with volunteers, who work and learn in exchange for room and board.
I came to WWOOFing (as it is called) through word-of-mouth. Burnt-out on city life, aching for connection to land, I dropped $30 on a year-long membership and browsed the online directory, searching not for traditional commercial farms but for intentional communities: queer, feminist, cooperative. I had my ideals; I wanted to see how they played out in real life.
Barb, with her previous partner Tina, bought the land in 2008, joining the network of lesbian-owned land in the valleys of southern Oregon. This was a new world I stepped into, a world of which I knew nothing beyond a vague mention of lesbian separatism in my college women-in-politics classes. The women I met in southern Oregon outstripped me in both age and knowledge—of themselves, of their history, of the land.
I came out as bisexual when I was fifteen; I'd known I was different since the age of eight, looking at a Star Wars picture book after school in Boys and Girls Club. Leia. The gold bikini. Possibly the most cliché way my previously unknown sexuality could have announced itself. I had a mad crush on a classmate, made moony eyes at him during crossing guard duty outside our elementary school, but suddenly I knew my interest in boys was not the end of it.
But even after coming out in high school, after countless mad crushes directed at both boys and girls, I dated only men, with varying degrees of interest and success. I struggled with my sense of identity, with feeling like a fraud, or a traitor—to whom, I wasn't sure. My queerness was a history I could not excavate, an archaeological mystery without a carbon date.
When I stepped off the bus in Grants Pass that first week in June, I left behind the end of a long, serious relationship with a man. Susie hugged me warmly; speeding out into the hills in her tiny Nissan truck, I learned I was now entering women's land, as it was called. Women's land, a no-man's-land literally, figuratively, for me. This history was real, tangible, as I read on a pamphlet Susie gave me: the first land parcel bought in 1973, followed by others, ranging in size from seven to 147 acres, open to various degrees but only for women, who can visit by a minimal camping fee or work-exchange. Just call and ask, send SASE, email. “A place of renewal and meditation.” “We host women's concerts and meditation retreats.” “Historic farmhouse, lesbian library, orchard, garden, labyrinth, firecircle, creekside, deer, turkey, fox and other wildlife.” I learned from a directory of women's lands that there were communities across the United States, and even some in Canada, Mexico, Scotland, Australia, and France.
The land known as Gypsy Cafe sits at the end of a one-lane road. The main house, at the top of a gravel driveway, has running water and electricity. There is a small cabin by the garden, a converted school bus, and farther up the ridge two cob houses set among the trees. Cob, a mix of clay and straw, sets like stone once packed into chicken wire framing; covered over in earthy pink clay plaster, the fire-proof dwellings seem to rise naturally from the ground like adobe mushrooms. Barb and Susie designed and built the houses themselves, with assistance from a host of WWOOFers and friends. Besides the cob, made in part from the clay abundant in their soil, the rest of the houses consist almost entirely of reclaimed materials. In the second house, the ceiling that divides the first floor from the loft bedroom is formed by thirteen oak doors, each one dollar from the reclaimed-wood store.
I help plant the rest of the garden: broccoli, chard, zucchinis, watermelon, carrots, radishes and tomatoes join the kale and lettuce already growing. A berry patch flourishes next to the chicken run. I learn how to chop wood and use a chainsaw. One afternoon, a rattlesnake slithers in front of Barb as she brings another wheelbarrow load of wood to the chopping block. Susie fetches the shovel and Barb does the honors, burying the head afterward, “because it can keep striking and poison you even after death.”
Later, she shows us how to skin and gut the snake. The hide soaks in milk for preservation; the guts she throws to the chickens, who, I have learned, are far more savage than their appearance suggests. They sometimes eat their own eggs and other dead chickens; they are related to dinosaurs. I watch them fight in the dust over the snake's innards, one snatching up the streamer of flesh and running away, the others scuttling madly behind.
Another WWOOFer joins us a week into my stay and we immediately become good friends, a closeness borne out of a shared ineffable experience: life in the southern Oregon woods. I write almost constantly and read the memoirs of the women who own the lands near Gypsy Cafe. I want to know these women, who came before me, carving out the space in which I rest. I want to find the pieces of myself in their lives and struggles, want to understand how I fit in to the circle of history I now recognize as mine. I take tools, my words and theirs, dig up the bones of memory, plunge my fingers into the soil of the garden and remember myself.
Returning one day from a walk on the ridge behind the property, I meet Susie on the path. The dogs dash up to me and then away through the grass. I remark that even up in the trees, utterly alone, I feel strange, like someone is watching me.
“If you spend more time in the woods,” Susie says, “you might find that changes.” Other people from the city have told her similar things. “In cities, you are always being watched.”
I think of the over-shoulder glance, a habit so ingrained in me it has become unconscious; if I resist the urge, an itchy sense of compulsion overwhelms my thoughts until I turn and look. I am used to the constant threat of possible danger. I am used to being watched. By men or surveillance cameras, it makes no difference.
This was the community I had searched for in the online directory of the WWOOF-USA website, I realized: not specifically one made up of only women, but one where I felt safe. With others, with the land, with myself. Each component fits into the rest. My identity, once an ethereal presence inhabiting some parallel universe, became now a physical thing, inseparable from flesh and bone. I was in my body again, no longer a ghost in my own home. I slept in the main house alone, no locks on the doors, without fear of intruders. No one was watching me, my body, my interactions. I learned the rhythms of the earth on my own terms, unmediated by a logic of development and growth formulated mostly by distant, wealthy, powerful men.
The women's land movement is changing now; many of the original landowners are aging or leaving their lands. They connect with each other through a magazine, Maize, and write of deep sadness, of not knowing what will happen to their lands, their movement, when they die. Young urban queer women like me don't know they exist or don't wish to separate from the city, from the community they've built. The notion of life without men seems archaic, Amazonian, mythical in a new queer landscape where gender lines break down and are reconstructed or ignored altogether. Many of the women's lands are open only to what the older generation calls “women-born women” and what my generation calls “cis-women”: women like me, born biologically female, who identify with their birth sex. Transpeople are, in many cases, intentionally and specifically excluded from women's lands.
In my third-wave anarchistic feminism there is no place for such stern divisions. The feminist movement, the queer community, indeed the world at large, is moving swiftly toward a reality that includes transgender people and their struggles. No longer shoved aside, marginalized, by queers and straights alike, transpeople are making themselves heard, and getting results. And many feminists see the inclusion of men as integral to successful feminist liberation. I understand the old dykes' wish to escape, to create a world of their own, but the chasm of historical distance permits only this. There is no permanent place for me, only knowledge to inherit and carry with me into a new world, with Gypsy Cafe as my bridge. Barb and Susie, younger, new additions to the landscape, have cis-male friends, trans friends, keep their lands cis-women-friendly but still open to all genders.
Three weeks pass and I begin the process of uprooting myself for the long drive home. Re-packing, cleaning the room, once more around the garden to stand and breathe in the dark smell of mulch and growing things. Here I have found a home, but only one of many. I am not made for separation. I thrive like a wildflower does, in an environment uncontrolled by either men or women. So I put my shoes back on and return to the city.
I walk alone at night in the park by my mother's house, in the damp July heat of a suburb outside Seattle, hearing the ever-present electrical buzz and the rumble of cars passing on the road. I think of 70-year-old landykes somewhere in Oregon, sleeping on land they have known since before I was born. Their history has become part of mine. A touchstone, a point of departure. A foundation on which I can build a life of my own, a land without borders or definitions, open to all. A safe place within me, a place I call home.
#Real #FirstPersonEssay #Womanhood #Feminism
Visit our shop and subscribe. Sponsor us. Submit and become a contributor. Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.