Resilience and Risk Taking

hanging meadow

Last fall I started developing a severe pain in my left knee, particularly when walking down hills. I could limp through it, but even a mild incline provoked incredible pain. I finally decided to go see a physical therapist in December. Fairly quickly the pain in my knee went away, but it just moved up to my hip and back. This wasn’t any better than the initial issue that brought me in, so I fired that physical therapist and went to another one.

This new physical therapist has a very approach than the two others I’ve worked with. The foundation of her work is based on what she calls “ring correction” which has to do with how the ribs poke out (this is my horrible lay person’s understanding). So when I first started working with her, she didn’t have me do anything with my left knee. Instead, we started work on my right foot.

It’s been an incredibly slow and subtle process. If I didn’t have over 16 years of practice paying deep attention to my body, I don’t know how I would make any progress in this method. It requires a lot of trust (in the physical therapist and myself) and patience.

On Friday my PT  was massaging a very tender and sensitive part of my armpit. I joked about being so sensitive. She paused and said, “You’re sensitive, but you’re also tough.” This led to her asking me about my experience at Amazon and how I recovered from that.

I told her that I have tremendous sitzfleisch which means I can literally sit and tolerate a lot of crap. But at a certain point, if there is no purpose, even I will give up. So to her point about me being sensitive but tough, if the pain/discomfort leads to something better, I can tolerate it.

We talked about resilience, and I told her I spent a lot of time thinking about resilience. I’m pretty sure I made that word my theme a few years ago. At any rate, in my investigations about resilience, here is what I want to say about developing and cultivating resilience in self. First, make sure you are getting enough food and rest. I know when I’m tired and/or hungry I’m much more brittle. Second, having a support network is vital. Third, take risks!

When I was working with my therapist, once I had regained a certain level of stability/feeling of safety, it was time for me to move back into the world. But I was terrified of fucking everything up. I thought any level of failure would mean DOOOOM. I started by taking small risks. And in order to make it easier to try things, I decided to make this my measure for success: did anyone die?

Risk-taking builds up resilience, is what I’m trying to say. BUT, these risks have to be in things that matter to you. If the risks don’t connect to a larger purpose, well, I’m not sure what happens, to be honest. I think that falls under just faffing about. It can be useful in that I can prove to myself that I can take a risk, but if there is nothing at stake, what kind of risk is it?

So, in the last four years I’ve been practicing taking risks. At first tiny ones with low stakes. As I developed my risk/resilience muscle, I’ve been taking more risks. My therapist told me that happy people take more risks. Is it because they are happy that they take more risks, or it that taking more risks makes them happy? All I know from my experiment the last few years is that in taking risks I’ve become an active participant in my life again, instead of passively waiting for things to happen.

I’m curious to hear from folks about their experience around resilience. What increases yours? And what risks are you taking toward your own goals?


Failure, part 3293409

Many of you know that I have spent some time thinking about failure, how failure is defined, what it means, and so on and so forth.


Recently, as in possibly three weeks ago, I was feeling like an UTTER failure. You know, the kind where you think you will NEVER do anything, no one likes you, why are you even BOTHERING? Yeah, that kind. I wondered why my friends liked me, why my employer hadn’t fired me, and if anyone would ever want to buy anything I wrote. I was like: hand to forehead WOE.

I rode it out. I talked to people. I checked reality. An acquaintance reminded me this was chemicals swishing around in my body. Eventually the storm passed, I dragged my weary soul back to dry land and took stock. I was fine. Nothing had changed, really, only my perception.

When I feel like that, in the morass of it all, I still try to keep my agreements with myself. It helps me to not spiral further down. And in the midst of that storm, I applied for a writer’s workshop that is held in the fall. I thought I was unworthy. I wouldn’t get in. But I would bother, and I would let them decide, before I rejected myself.

Last week my friend Nicole recommended the podcast Magic Lessons, which is by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). I was a little skeptical, since I wasn’t a fan of the book. But I’ve heard at least one of her TED talks, and I trust Nicole. The first episode was an interview with someone that Gilbert was coaching. It resonated for me. I had downloaded the last one, and none in between. The last was an interview with Brene Brown, who writes amazing stuff around vulnerability. Gilbert talked about people who had leapt and the net didn’t appear. Brown said, “What’s worth doing, even if I fail?”

“What do you love doing so much the word “failure” doesn’t have any meaning?” Gilbert asked. They go on to talk about inspiration and what it owes you, about being present to the process of creation and not focused on the outcomes.

I was starting to despair about moving to the next level with my writing. Saturday I came home from hanging out with some writer heroes of mine. I felt so encouraged just from those conversations. I checked my email and I found an acceptance to a writer’s workshop on the east coast. I was so stunned I made my girlfriend read it out loud. After so many rejections, it just seemed … so easy.

But when I stop and think about it more, I have been steadily working on improving my writing, however slow my pace might be. Most of our effort is like the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We only see the tiny fraction that sticks above it. And the truth is, most successes are built on many, many failures. There has to be effort and feedback and recalibration. There has to be support and encouragement. And in the process of applying for writing workshops, I have continued to make the effort.

So I’m thinking about my relationship to failure, to my ideas around failure, and the position I hold with regard to it. What would it mean if I take the idea of failure off the table? This is going to be a huge challenge for me. As I told my friend Daryl on Saturday, I’m horribly extrinsically driven. I like pleasing other people. And deadlines. Daryl suggested knowing these things could help me hack my brain into producing. So I’m going to consider that. There is no one right way to do anything. It’s the doing.

So I am going to keep plodding. And plotting.


Reading the Other

I don’t quite know how to start this, so I’m just going to start. It feels like it’s a tangle of things, but maybe there’s a knife to cut this Gordian knot.

A friend told me last week that he doesn’t like first person POV because he doesn’t like being forced to experience things from another person’s point of view. I can kind of go along with that, but his example really upset me. He said he doesn’t want to read from inside the POV of a teenage girl.

Quelle horror. I mean, what could be worse than being a teenage girl? Apparently nothing.

He went on to justify his stance by saying that third person POV is okay, because it allows him to empathize alongside the character. First person forces him to be the character.

I’m going to go on a slight tangent now. In the last couple of years there have been a lot of calls on social media for diverse representation in fiction, television and movies. More recently there has been a call out of whitewashing, which is using white actors to portray characters that were originally non-white. (Hashtags: weneeddiversebooks which spawned the site We Need Diverse Books; whitewashedOUT is from the Asian-American community. More on that in this piece from the NYT. ownvoices is another hashtag commenting on the need for people to tell their own stories.)

I said this on Twitter the other day, because there were some people who expressed a desire to see Captain America get a boyfriend.

I’ve seen similar sentiments about giving Elsa (from Frozen) a girlfriend.

Okay, back to my point, and I DO HAVE ONE. When I was in high school, I read Catcher in the Rye. I don’t remember if it was required reading, but it was required in my mind. IT IS TOLD FROM THE POV OF A TEENAGE BOY. OMG. And let me say, further, that almost nothing I read in high school reflected any of my identities or realities. I have read countless stories from the POV of people who are nothing like me.

Gah, this makes me so angry and frustrated. For me, one of the reasons to read is to experience something different than myself, and since most of what’s available doesn’t reflect my identities, I’ve learned to enjoy those things. It is a privilege to have so much material to choose from and still have things left over that all reflect one’s identity.

I’d also like to make the case for reading (and otherwise enjoying various types of media) that don’t reflect white heterosexual cisgendered male realities. As I said in my tweet, we are tired of scraps, of hints, of winks and nods. We are tired of only being sidekicks and punchlines. None of this is new. I’m nowhere near to being the first person to say any of these things.

Since I’m ranting specifically about first person, I’m going to keep it in the first person. I am tired of not getting my happy ever afters, of always being the villain, of being alone, or being the monster. I’m exhausted at being seen as less than, as other, as subhuman. And it’s incredibly painful to not see myself reflected in the world around me. It makes me feel quite lonely. Literally one of the most comforting things I can hear is, “You are not alone.” There are many ways I can tell I’m not alone, and seeing reflections are constant reminders of that.

A couple of years ago there was a fantastic essay written by a woman about how she hated the strong female character.

Sherlock Holmes gets to be brilliant, solitary, abrasive, Bohemian, whimsical, brave, sad, manipulative, neurotic, vain, untidy, fastidious, artistic, courteous, rude, a polymath genius. Female characters get to be Strong.

Men get to be complicated and messy and all kinds of things in fiction. Women, not so much. Same for other groups. As an aside, I think strong means fully-fleshed out and humanized, but it’s come to mean what the writer above defines.

I want to touch on erasure and ownvoices a little bit more. There is media that is not made for you. I’m not saying you have to understand it. Or like the experience. I’m asking you to consider the possibility of a world that is different and richer for having these representations in the world. There are people, like me, who don’t understand your world, and we are crowbarred into it from a very young age.

I’m also going to recommend a few titles written in first person that fall under the ownvoices umbrella:

  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
  • Love Is The Plan The Plan Is Death by James Tiptree (I’m not going to get into gender identity/policing, if you weren’t aware, Tiptree was a male pseudonym for a female writer)
  • Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
  • Tides by Betsy Cornwall
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by NK Jemison

Although these works aren’t written in first person, I recommend checking out Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno­ Garcia and Shadowshaper by Daniel Jose Older, too.

Consider this an invitation, my friend, into my world. The lenses may feel uncomfortable and alien, but I can pretty much assure you this: it isn’t going to kill you, but the lack of representation makes it a hell of a lot harder for the rest of us.

If any of you reading this have other recommendations, please leave them in the comments! My preference would be to for works that are written by a member of the group presenting that POV. Thanks!

*The title of this blog post is an oblique reference to the fantastic work of Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward: Writing the Other, which is a program to help writers understand how to better represent people who are different from themselves in their writing.



Last week a friend of mine asked me what my favorite song was. I have to admit, I’m not much of an audiophile. I enjoy music mostly as a sensory experience, and if it doesn’t sound pleasant, I tend not to like it much. There aren’t many songs where I listen to the lyrics, too. So when he asked me that question, I had to go with “Long Road/Long Ride Home” by Patty Griffin (I’m not sure what the actual title is; I’ve seen both).

car lights

I started to tell him the story in the song, about a man whose wife has died and he is thinking back about their marriage. It’s this verse that gets me:

Forty years go by with someone laying in your bed
Forty years of things you say you wish you’d never said
How hard would it have been to say some kinder words instead
I wonder as I stare up at the sky turning red

I love this song because it makes me feel something deeply, and there isn’t a lot of music that does that for me. Also, I feel grateful that my relationship isn’t full of regret, like the person in this story.

You can go listen to the song here.

What songs do you love?


The Long Con

I’ve been thinking about seduction, falling in love, and the creative process. I keep thinking there are multiple strands I have to weave together, threads to embroider, knots to untangle, but it turns out there aren’t.

I’ve written about distractions before, so I’m not going to spend time on that. I’m just going to say it’s easy to get pulled away from the things I want to focus on – to a point. And that is what I want to talk about.

Heart birds

For the last several months I’ve been tweeting a good night/morning message. Last night it was: “good night existentialists. Good morning absurdists.” I do this because it amuses me. There’s no reward. Sometimes one or two people will respond. Mostly I feel like it just gets lobbed into cyberspace. It’s enough for me that a couple of people here and there seem to like it. I probably ignore a ton of stuff or don’t let the creator know necessarily that I liked something they did. I don’t take it personally that I don’t get much feedback.

It’s easy to get discouraged, to think no one cares, but it matters less and less to me as I let myself fall in love with the work. I feel the pull of the creative process and I’m resisting it less.

This is to say that a slow, steady, persistent effort turns into something else. Recently I had a few friends tell me how much they like these tweets. Individually they don’t stand up to scrutiny, but together, they’ve turned into something else. A little ritual. It’s something I love doing. And even though it might seem like no one else is noticing the effort, it turns out when I raise my head up out of the sand, they are.

There is a second part to this immersion: valuing what you love. I think it’s easy to get distracted when I don’t think what I want to spend my time on is worthy. Over the course of a year there was construction going on across the street from the yoga studio where I practice. I went to a morning yoga class, three times a week. The construction noise was constant. At the beginning of class, I would notice all the banging and clanging, but by the end, I had become so absorbed in my effort that all the noise faded away. It didn’t even bother me in savasana.

Having had this experience, I know I can create the same kind of focused effort in other areas, in areas that I care about. I just want to make a note that I’m not discussing the financial component of making art in this post. I will probably get there one day, but I’m not to that point right now.

Part of my effort this year is enjoying the seduction, and not just in the passive “oh look you brought me flowers and chocolates and wine” way, but bringing myself as an active participant in the process. So I’m doing what I love, and not worrying if anyone else will love it or not. Because just like the tweets, the truth is, there probably are people out there who will.


Push, Pull, Release

Last spring my friends Otts tweeted this:

That last line resonated so deeply for me. “I’m still trying to figure out who I am without the struggle.”

We had a brief conversation on Twitter which led to a collaboration that I’m super excited to share with you. Otts is a visual artist, and I work in the medium of words. He encouraged me to write something up and said he would draw a comic based on what I wrote. I had never worked with a visual artist, and I didn’t know what to provide. I barfed up a bunch of words about resistance, righteous anger, defending the boundaries and self care. I don’t want to say too much about what I wrote, but instead share what he created:

Push, Pull, Release

Panel 1

Panel 1

Panel 2

panel 2

Panel 3

panel 3

Panel 4

panel 4

Panel 5

panel 5

Panel 6

panel 6

Panel 7

panel 7

Panel 8

panel 8

Otts shared his process with me, and I will post that in a couple of days. In particular, I love that he included the tea ritual in this piece, since many of you know what an avid tea drinker I am!

Here are a couple more examples of Otts wonderful work:
Sisters – animation for LoopDeLoop
Motion Corpse No 3

Please let him know what you think! Personally, I think he is a wonderful person AND artist.


Art AIDS America at Tacoma Art Museum

In December I made the trek down to Tacoma with two friends to see the Art AIDS America exhibit. I expected it to be intense, but beyond that, I had no idea what it would be like. The week before I went down, a group protested in front of the museum to express their anger and sadness at the small number of artists in the show who were people of color, since 40% of people living with HIV/AIDS today are PoC.

The exhibit felt overwhelmingly white and focused on gay men. I have a few theories as to why, related to who had access to support, whose voices were and are being listened to, and how the early AIDS activism was fueled and driven by white gay men.

Altogether, there were over 100 pieces in the exhibit. Apparently I took pictures of about a quarter of them. There was a lot of staring death in the face, like Tino Rodriguez’s Eternal Lovers, which also took advantage of lack of gendered markers. Many of you know I love calaveras, and I loved the interpretation of this one.

Eternal Lovers

The Tale of 1000 Condoms/Geisha and Skeleton flirted with the macabre, again, staring death defiantly in the face.

Tale of 1000 Condoms/Geisha and Skeleton

Many of the pieces I saw engaged with death and dying, bodies wasting away, the corporeal husks that so many people turned their eyes from, but the gaze was unflinching and loving.

Some pieces invited us to interact:

In the sand

In the sand
write the names
of those you
loved and lost
to Aids

So I wrote “Jerry” the sweet doorman from the Timberline, and Mark, another doorman at the Timberline with his Tom Selleck mustache and gentle spirit, and Jim, my dad’s college roommate. After each name I swept my fingers through the sand and thought of Keats’ gravestone: Here lies one whose name was writ in water.

Glenn Ligon’s “I am not an invisible man” was particularly chilling after the protest:

Untitled (I am an invisible man)

I’m only going to talk about one more piece: Silence = Death:

Silence = Death

I had this on a button when I was in college. I wore it pinned on my backpack. During the summer of ’92 I traveled around Europe. I remember being at a hostel, I think in Switzerland, and someone saw the button and said to me, “Sometimes silence equals life.” I kept silent, but I wish I hadn’t, because now I understand in a way I never could have then, that the price of silence is the death of the soul.

I really encourage you to look at the entire album. I included a lot of the plaques that give a lot more explanation. Or you can read this write up from The Stranger that gives a lot more context and information. It was what made me want to see the exhibit.


Hermes and the Tyger

In the spring of 2001, my girlfriend took a trip to France. At the end of her visit, she called me from Paris and asked if there was anything I wanted. I told her I didn’t want anything, but she kept bugging me, so I told her to get me an Hermes scarf.

One thing you should probably know at this point. In French, Hermes is pronounced differently than in English. English speakers are more apt to say something like “her mees”; but in French, it is pronounced like “air mez” or “air may.” I explained to my girlfriend this difference, so if she asked someone, they would understand her. In my experience, not using the French accent on a word means that no one will understand you, even if the word is essentially the same, like “vegetarian” (true story). On the flip side, I couldn’t understand a French speaker saying Richard Chamberlin’s name to me, so I have complete sympathy for pronunciation.

Back to the scarf. I really didn’t want anything, and I told her to get an Hermes scarf because a) I knew they were super expensive and when she saw the price she would balk; and b) I find their scarves aren’t really to my taste.

It was J’s last day in Paris, and it was a hot day. She wore a tank top and shorts and carried a backpack. Nothing terribly glam. She and our friend went to Le Bon Marche, a department store. J searched the store, trying to find an Hermes scarf, but had no luck. She is fiercely independent and doesn’t like asking for help, but finally reached the point where she had to.

She found a saleswoman and asked her if she spoke English. The woman said she did a little. J stumbled through her request, her self-consciousness over the pronunciation adding more stress. J murmured to the saleswoman, “I’m looking for a scarf. We say ‘Her-meez’ but I think you say ‘Air-mez’.”

The saleswoman didn’t understand what she said, so she asked her to write it down. J did, and when the saleswoman turned the paper around to read it, her demeanor changed entirely. Where she had been brusque before, now she was solicitous and friendly. She said, “Oh no, we don’t carry those here. But let me go ask someone else and I’ll find out where you can get them.” It turned out that the Hermes store was closed by the time J got there. I was spared her spending any money on a scarf I probably wouldn’t like, and even better, we got this fantastic story!

Which brings me to March 2015. Last year my mom gave me money for my birthday to buy an Hermes scarf, in part motivated by this story. In the pit of my stomach I was sure I wasn’t going to find any scarves I actually liked. I looked at their website, but it was so awful and I couldn’t figure out what they might look like. I kept putting off going to a store. I really wanted to go with my mom, so we could share the experience, but our only chance to do that was last summer, and there ended up not being any time.

Last week I made plans to meet up with my friend Lauren, who lives on the Eastside, because I had something I wanted to give her. I decided to combine meeting her with a shopping trip, since there’s an Hermes store over there. Saturday was a cold and dreary day. I headed out in the rain and dodged the raindrops. Since I don’t have a car, I took the bus over.

Hermes store

Bellevue is very different from Seattle, even though it’s separated by a small body of water. The Hermes store is in a high-end/designer shopping center. Everything there is so foreign from my daily life. It’s hard for me not to be super judgmental about all of it. I arrived at the store around 3:30, expecting that it wouldn’t have many customers. How wrong I was. The small space at the entrance was filled with women who surrounded the scarf case. They were throwing scarves in the air, one after the other, gesturing and talking loudly. In retrospect there were probably about five women, but it felt like twenty! I stood in front of the case amidst the melee for a good five minutes, hoping that a salesperson would appear out of the fray, but none did. I finally went over to a young man standing to the side who wore a suit. He seemed to be a cross between a security person and concierge, and I asked him if he could help me find a salesperson. He welcome me to the store and then apologized profusely for me having to wait.

A salesperson was procured and began helping me. She started by asking me if I wanted a classic scarf, etc. etc. I asked her about the size, because I don’t understand centimeters. Then she took me back to the case and asked me about colors and what I was looking for, what colors I liked, etc. I told her pinks and reds, even though before I got to the store I was thinking I wanted something with blues and greens. I don’t know why I didn’t just say that. I was so overwhelmed by the frenzy! She pulled out one scarf and tied it around my neck. I looked in the mirror and didn’t feel anything. I pointed out another scarf that had a cheetah on it, with bright pink splashes. The saleswoman said, “Let me get that before it gets snatched out from under us,” but that also produced a meh reaction when I looked in the mirror. You can torture yourself by trying to figure it out on their site. I can’t even find the scarf I ended up buying.

While I was feeling meh and overwhelmed and starting to get a little fed up with the whole thing, the saleswoman came back with something totally different. No pink or red at all. It had a giant tiger with a green background and these bright, lush orange lilies.

Hermes scarf

Some people know I’m not a fan of green. I don’t really wear it that much. I don’t gravitate toward it. I will pass it over for pretty much any other color. But I have a thing for lilies, and so I decided why the hell not? She tied it on, and I looked at the mirror, and something in me sang out. I told her, “This is the one.” She showed me five different ways to wear it and was super willing to show me other scarves, but I just knew. This was it. No matter what else I saw, it wouldn’t please me.

Hermes scarf

She rang me up and I left the store, feeling completely triumphant. When I got home, I posted a few pictures of the details on the scarf, including the one above. And when I was taking the pictures, I saw that it has the line from William Blake’s poem: “Tyger tyger burning bright in the forest of the night” … which you can just make out here:

Hermes scarf: tyger tyger

That line also has a special resonance for me (and possibly for many people), and was such a delightful surprise. On top of that, a friend posted this lovely piece about the symbolism of the tiger:

The confidence of the tiger is contentment. Contentment comes from discernment, the virtue of touching our feet to the earth of every moment. As we slow down and consider our thoughts, words, and actions with the question, “Will this bring happiness or pain?”, we become like tigers who carefully observe the landscape before pouncing. In looking at what to cultivate and what to discard, we are remembering our precious human life and deciding to use it well.

And that perfectly sums up the theme of the work I did with my therapist, so now this scarf has become a talisman for me, too!


A Personal History With The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

I invited my friend Danielle to write a blog post about her experience surrounding the Malheur NWR, based on a longish comment she left on Facebook. What she sent to me gave me chills. I really hope you will take the time to read the full piece. It is worth your time. And thank you, Danielle, for trusting me to share your story.

gembalaheadshot_02 small
Wearing the stereotypical pith helmet as a joke for a photoshoot at Fort Vancouver. Photo Credit: Bean and Sprout Photography.


I have struggled with a lot of deep pain and anguish since I first saw the Bundy militia show up in Burns, Oregon to protest the prison sentence of Steven and Dwight Hammond for arson on BLM lands in 2001 and 2005.

Part of it is because I spent part of my childhood in Ontario, Oregon. My grandparents were farmers in Vale, and my father loved hunting, fishing, and being outdoors. I spent a great deal of time following him through the beautiful rivers, streams, lakes, canyons and mountains of the High Desert. We didn’t live in Burns, but we spent time around there, too.

My fifth grade class at Alameda Elementary in Ontario spent the year studying the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Our art projects involved constructing a color guidebook of the different bird species there and habitat collages of the different species. Our spelling words were the names of birds, plants, and natural features. Our history lessons were about the rich prehistory of the area, learning about how millions of indigenous people who thrived in the lakes, and the ways early farmers used the lands. We did science experiments about caves. It culminated in a five day field trip to the Station, where we followed the amazing rangers and scientists recording and watching the birds, preserving their habitats, and the rich cultural history of the area. I discovered that the HQ building was built on a significant prehistoric village built by the Wadatika, ancestors of the Burns Paiute.

I will never forget the moment when our ranger guide pointed out the two snowy owlets in a nest above us, blinking at the gaggle of noisy kids.
Malhuer trip 1988
Malheur trip 1988: My friends Sally and Shawna. This is the only photo I have of that trip to the Refuge in 1988, taken the same day as that fateful moment with the owlets because all of my photos were destroyed in a flood in 2005. Photo Credit, Danielle D.M. Gembala

I stumbled over a projectile point on the ground that had been scuffed up by the feet that had walked before me.

That had been put there by feet that had walked this same ground so very long ago.

But that isn’t the only reason the Bundy militia in the Malheur Refuge bothers me.

I realized, growing up among ranchers and farmers, loggers and hunters, miners and lawyers, that we don’t know what is under our feet, that surrounds us. The beauty of. Not until it is gone. I realized that our ignorance, our blind focus on our own use and ideas of the land often leads to tragic consequences for everyone.

I decided I could change that. That I would use my own experience and knowledge as a voice.


Two Dragon Camp 1996
1996: Me at Two Dragon Camp, a Chinese mining site in the the Wallowa Whitman National Forest. Photo Credit, Gary Keenan.

I worked first for the Forest Service as a volunteer while doing my undergraduate honor’s thesis and my master’s research on the archaeology and vernacular architecture of 19th century Chinese mining site in the Wallowa Whitman National Forest and Italian railroad camps over Santiam Pass in the Willamette National Forest.

I went on to study archaeology in graduate school at the University of Washington in 1998.

After my first year in school, I went to Russia to excavate at Pavlinovo, an Iron Age fortress in Western Siberia. While driving through the countryside, our driver pulled a sharp U-turn and I heard gunfire. I knew only three phrases in Russian, but the French archaeologists sitting next to me told me that the driver had to evade crooked police stopping vehicles at a roadblock, because they’d gotten word “Western foreigners” were in the area. These same police later searched our camp, so the few “Westerners” hid in tents occupied by the students from Belarus while the police searched the rest of the camp. I suspect someone bought them off.

Archaeological excavations at Pavlinovo, and Iron Age archaeological site, Kaluga Oblast, Western Siberia. 1999. Photo Credit, Danielle D.M. Gembala

I was bitten by giant mosquitoes, had to eat, drink, and bathe in dangerously polluted water, and witnessed a lot of shady mafia-esque activities. It was uncomfortable, but an adventure. When I learned my colleagues face similar dangers here, I realized that I didn’t need to go far for danger if I wanted it.

Soon after, a colleague invited me to work with her in Bosnia to help identify human remains in mass graves. I declined. I was in grad school, and I had just returned from Russia. I wasn’t ready to be shot at again, and I wasn’t sure I had the strength to face that level of horror.

Instead, I interned at the Burke Museum, where I worked in a room down the hall from The Ancient One, a.k.a. Kennewick Man, while Army Corps of Engineers archaeologists cataloged and studied the bones during the drawn-out lawsuit. It turned out to be a horror in my own backyard.

I listened to native peoples’ stories, and wept at the tragedies I have been part of. That I’ve benefitted from. I have held hands with people who have had all they know taken from them systematically, then erased because they are not descended from white Europeans.

I learned that it isn’t enough to put artifacts in collections and preserve them. They need to be touched, to be accessible, to be known to remain important.

So, I joined several museologists and local tribal members in a project to take their hidden cultural heritage and make it accessible, touchable, available to children in tribal schools, and to the public in the Archaeology of West Point Burke Box education kits.

Station Camp photo
Station Camp Photo: Analyzing Fire Cracked Rock (FCR) in a frigid lab at Middle Village/Station Camp in 2005. Photo Credit, Melissa Darby.

After I received my masters in 2001, I moved back to Oregon, and worked for many years as an archaeologist for Fort Vancouver National Historic Site in Vancouver, Washington. Our team worked at sites and with collections from around the Pacific Northwest, including Fort Clatsop and Middle Village/Station Camp at the mouth of the Columbia River, and Cathlapotle at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. I gave countless tours of the park’s amazing collection, and instructed new students and volunteers in active excavations and laboratory work to preserve the past, on public display for visitors every single day of my job.

Analyzing metal artifacts in the archaeological lab at Fort Vancouver NHS in 2006. Photo Credit, National Park Service, Fort Vancouver NHS.

I spent over a decade protecting our nation’s heritage and natural resources from people like the Hammonds and these so-called patriots. I attended conferences with antiquities law enforcement officers, and conducted numerous interventions with people attempting to destroy archaeological heritage on our lands. I spent countless unpaid hours developing outreach programs for children and adults to educate people about our natural and cultural heritage, to attempt to change how we approach conservation and historical preservation by making it more accessible and more important to everyone.

I learned how to engage in the difficult, daily dialectic with people who think that their want to use the land in a particular way constitutes a right, not the misplaced privilege that it has been.

I fought to educate people who support and have engaged in riding ATVs through protected habitats and cultural landscapes, intervened with friends who argued for setting back-burn fires, letting them know how they endanger historic structures and landscapes let alone lives and habitats, talked with poachers who chafe at being restricted from “their” forests by “environmentalist hippies” like me.

I’ve sat with developers who want to build roads through prehistoric villages. Given tours to congressional staff members who want to please someone higher up the food chain by making a highly visible project happen regardless of the laws right now, dammit. Congressional staff who work for politicians who get paid by lobbyists who will benefit from their plans to privatize the entire parks system.

I’ve intervened when hot-shot Forest Service crews wanted to trample over extant historic log structures in order to practice fire suppression. I’ve called the police and helped guide them to meth-heads who want to collect metal artifacts to sell for scrap at a historic site. I’ve stopped construction workers who just want to dig that damn hole right through a privy once used by Ulysses S. Grant, on the edge of a cemetery with Native American remains in it. I’ve argued with ranchers who want to graze cattle on public lands so that they profit on directly on the destruction of delicate riparian zones and wildflower habitats, had beer with loggers who want to destroy watersheds for steelhead and salmon. I’ve taught pothunters and “collectors” who loot artifacts and sell off antiquities to form that funnel to an international black market, aka “recreational metal detecting.”

These last ones are the most dangerous. I’ve had multiple law enforcement officers report that illicit antiquities are used to funnel money into most drug, weapons, and human trafficking organizations all the way up to international warlords and cartels. The site Conflict Antiquities has a trove of examples, if you have the heart to read the heartbreaking stories there.

That trail starts with the arrowhead and potsherd enthusiasts.

I lived this for a decade, committed to the mission of preservation, education, and conservation. I’ve been personally threatened. I know people who have been shot at while surveying for pipelines, people who have been threatened. I had to quit when the backbreaking pace of this work threatened to kill me after I was diagnosed with a progressive congenital neurological disorder.

We don’t get paid much. I was paid less than the entry-level construction workers I supervised. We don’t do it for the Indiana Jones-style hats, or the glory of being covered in the dirt, or living out of suitcases, waking up arthritic and bruised after another day in the hot sun, or even the non-existent sweet, sweet gold nuggets that everyone asks us if we’ve found yet.

We do this because we all believe in the importance of knowing where we come from so that we know where we are going. Because we believe this is important for all of us, not just us history nerds.

My colleagues have died — and are dying — to protect the past in multiple parts of the world, including the United States.

My heart is in my throat for the rangers and scientists who work for the Forest Service and BLM right now. This is not because I think they will be shot at. Well, partially that.

It is because I fear that all we have done has not been enough to make people aware why this is so wrong, and the desperate pain that arises when you’ve given your life to this greater cause only to have everyone turn their back and say, “Who cares. It’s just a wildlife refuge in the middle of nowhere Oregon. Let them burn the place down.”


The Bundy mob stated they want to open the Malheur Wildlife Refuge and the surrounding lands to ranchers, that the “best possible outcome” will be that the government will “relinquish control” over “their” land and that what they are doing is not “rebellious” but in accordance with the “Constitution.”

These are the same people who have organized ATV trail rides through cultural heritage sites in Utah that are off limits because the mere touch by human hands can destroy what has survived for millennia. They support the “American Lands Council” who argue that all public lands have been “taken from them” by the government. While I agree in some cases with eminent domain cases here and there, by-and-large, the same politicians behind these movements are paid by lobbyists for international corporations who would benefit from the wholesale opening of public lands for stockholder gain for mining, water, agriculture, etc.

You and I, the common citizen, would not benefit in any way. We would probably lose a great deal of our treasures if the American Lands Council got their way.

They use the imagery of Wounded Knee and the history of Native American genocide as symbols of their anti-government movement, while benefitting from the privilege of being on the “winning side” of that war of conquest.

My experience is that these people have no respect for heritage other than their radically skewed version of the past. They have have absolutely no respect for science, for culture, for heritage. They have no understanding of what lies beneath their feet, what is or isn’t a common good, other than how it reflects their shortsighted, narcissistic, vision of the world: a vision that reflects a white man carrying a gun and doing whatever he wants whenever he wants, no matter what anyone else wants or needs.

The Constitution says they can believe that. It is a free country.

Until they use their power, their force, their ignorance, and their hypocritical symbols of “justice” and “Constitutional Rights” to force the government to bend to their personal vision of a world in which “public lands” are theirs to use as they wish, whenever they wish.

The FBI considers domestic terrorism as:

  • Involve acts dangerous to human life that violate federal or state law;
  • Appear intended (i) to intimidate or coerce a civilian population; (ii) to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or (iii) to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination. or kidnapping; and
  • Occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the U.S.

And that:

18 U.S.C. § 2332b defines the term “federal crime of terrorism” as an offense that:

  • Is calculated to influence or affect the conduct of government by intimidation or coercion, or to retaliate against government conduct; and
  • Is a violation of one of several listed statutes, including § 930(c) (relating to killing or attempted killing during an attack on a federal facility with a dangerous weapon); and § 1114 (relating to killing or attempted killing of officers and employees of the U.S.).

They are carrying guns. They have told media that they will resort to violence if law enforcement attempts to remove them from federal property. They want to take lands we stole from the people who came before us, a place Teddy Roosevelt set aside for all of us in 1908, and make it into a cattle ranch for their fun and profit. They want to subvert our justice system in order to support two arsonists who poached, burned, and consistently opposed efforts to conserve habitats in areas that are environmentally very sensitive to fire and grazing.

Nevermind that this is the same justice system that a few days ago failed to indict a police officer for shooting of Tamir Rice, a black twelve-year-old child for carrying a toy gun in a park because he was a reasonably suspicious threat.

They are no different than ISIS, who use the same weapons to dismantle the archaeological sites in Iraq and Syria than they do to kill their own people. Who are selling artifacts on the international black market to fund their terrible war to make the world into their radical vision. They are no different than the Taliban, who did the same in Afghanistan. Or the junta who took over Myanmar and destroyed much of the Buddhist heritage there, or the Nazis, who looted and pillaged their way across Europe and North Africa. Or the British in India, or the Americans in North America. The list is really endless.

This is a tactic of terror, conquest, and control.

If you feel any of this is wrong as I do, I’ve learned something else working in public service.

You have a voice as a citizen, while the government employees are tied by bureaucracy and the silence of ethics.

You can call your elected officials, local and national. The Oregon governor, Kate Brown.

Talk to your neighbors, your kids, people you meet online and around town. Educate yourself. Educate others. Be vocal. Be an advocate. For it is all of our future that is at stake, here.

But most of all, please, do not mistake the fact that they haven’t “shot at anyone yet” for peaceful intent. They are not peaceful. They are not patriots. They are not protesters.

They want what is all of ours for their own. And they will kill to get it.



A couple of years ago I started selecting a word as my theme for the year, rather than doing resolutions (which are fraught for many reasons that most of you know). I like to choose verbs, because they remind me to take action. I like to treat the word like a mantra or meditation focus. It’s something I can return to, again and again, without labeling myself as a failure. Our attention wanders. It’s natural.

century plant with bloom

For 2014 the word was return. For 2015, it was try.

I was thinking last week what I wanted it to be for 2016. I was listening to The Moth podcast, and Dan Kennedy shared some resolutions that listeners felt were particularly potent. One was, “fail more.” Given how much time I’ve spend pondering failure on this blog, I thought I would focus on that.

So for 2016, the word is submit. I particularly like Merriam-Webster’s definition.

: to give (a document, proposal, piece of writing, etc.) to someone so that it can be considered or approved

: to stop trying to fight or resist something : to agree to do or accept something that you have been resisting or opposing

I like that there are multiple meanings. Amongst my writer friends, the first meaning will probably the one that comes to mind. And I like the second meaning: to stop resisting and give in. In this case, even though I know I want to write and be published, I resist it. In addition, I can bring the words from the last two years along. Return. Try. Submit.

2016 is going to be about giving in even further to what I want. What do you want for 2016?