Women Protecting Wilderness

On a Saturday morning in the spring of 2008, a small circle of women sat in Salt Lake City’s Main Library. We gathered to answer a question that had been chatted about informally by numerous women around dinner tables, on cell phones and over the internet for about a year. An email inviting women to come together that morning had posed the question this way:

How can we make women’s love of Utah’s wild lands more visible? We know:

  • that many efforts to protect Utah’s wild land heritage are born out of (an understandable) fear of losing the places we love and a perception of division (us versus them);
  • fear and division often lead to polarization and accusations that protection of our wild landscapes is something advocated by “extremists,” “outsiders,” or “elitists.”

We wonder:

  • Do we need something new?
  • What could we create if our efforts to protect Utah’s wild landscapes focused on what we love (rather than what we fear) and what where we connect with each other (rather than what divides us)?

As we spoke to each other in response to these questions, our excitement was palpable. So was a deep love for the wild landscapes that had touched all of our lives and the lives of people we loved.

“I was born and raised in Utah. I have left again and again to travel the world. But every time I leave, I come back. I come back because of the land. It is home, temple, family to me.”

“I belong to a group of 40 women who hike or snowshoe in the mountains together every week. We are a very diverse lot stay-at-home mothers, professional women, red and blue and purple politically, hikers and rafters and jeepers. But we all treasure wild landscapes. I am here because I want my kids to find these lands as we found them. I am here because I want to give something back.”

“I work with children in a mental health center. I notice that what makes them most happy is when we take them out to hike on the land. There is this flow of energy and when they come back they all talk about it. I think almost everyone in Utah feels this but they do not feel safe talking about it.”

“I am an internal medicine physician. When I was raising my children, we would go hiking, kayaking and camping together every year. Now my children are grown and I have a granddaughter. But as I look around, it seems that every year more and more places are built over. I came today because I feel like it is time to take some action.”

As we listened and talked with each other, common themes emerged. We found that we all believed that Utahns whether they hike, bike, run rivers, hunt, ranch, work the land, or simply gaze at the scenery as they drive down the highway deeply value Utah’s wild landscapes and want to see their beauty preserved.  And, we agreed that most of the discourse about “wilderness” takes place in forums that encourage the assertion of conflicting positions courtrooms, public hearings, op ed pages — and at least partly because of this fact, conversations about the future of our wild land heritage tend to be polarized and divisive. We wondered what could happen if people were invited to celebrate why they love Utah’s wild landscapes and then, after we had all listened more deeply to how and why Utah’s wild places really matter to people we began to talk together about their future.

A flame caught, kindled to life by the breath of our exchange. We would invite women to come together in an open and inclusive network — the “Women Protecting Wilderness” campaign. We would use our stories, our voices, our art as well as conversation, celebration, beauty and many other tools we will create to show our community and its leaders that women from all walks of life love Utah’s wild places and want to see them protected.

At the start of the summer, an open invitation went out to women: Help launch the Women Protecting Wilderness campaign by imagining the next steps we might take together. A wonderful diversity of women showed up. Some were in their teens; some were in their 70s. Some were born and raised in Utah; some were “move-ins.” Some were currently stay-at-home Moms; others were high-ranking professionals. Some were retired. As we introduced ourselves to each other, what unified the group became clear: we all loved the landscape and wanted to be a voice for its stewardship.
We tossed our ideas into the center of the table like cooks tossing vegetables and spices into a collective stew. In the end, we settled on an old practice that has traditionally created something that is beautiful and useful at the same time create a visually-exciting, attention-grabbing Women’s Wilderness Quilt that would be unveiled at a press conference debuting Women Protecting Wilderness in the fall.

The idea was simple. Invite women to submit a personal “testimonial” comprised of a 2-3 sentence statement about why wilderness matters to you, along with a photo of themselves in a favorite landscape, and then, “stitch” the testimonials together into a figurative quilt. The idea drew people in as if we had lighted a fire in a hearth. Responses came from all corners of Utah and from coast to coast of the United States. We opened digital files of photos to see grandmothers, toddlers, women grinning with their families and friends. And the narratives read like valentines. These were love notes to the land.

“In the absence of civilization’s traceable mark, I feel nourished by something larger than myself. It’s as if I can connect to Mother Nature’s umbilical cord, and time dissolves.”

“Our family’s fondest memories center around time spent together in Utah’s wilderness. I never plan to leave it. Someday my ashes will be scattered here, when my children come with one last hike with Mom.”

“Wilderness is the place that helps me to orient to my past, present and future. I find magic in the simplicity of the desert. Everything is taken to its essence and, in that, I find joy.”

In September, an invitation was extended to women who were artists, graphic designers, and creative thinkers to help brainstorm a design for the quilt. A dozen women showed up, bubbling with ideas. One woman brought art magazines to inspire our thinking. Another woman brought some samples of dyed cloth. We spread two large sheets of paper and the testimonials received so far out on the table. Women leaned into the center, excitedly sharing ideas and scribbling designs. A concept took shape: print the testimonials on to pieces of unbleached muslin, stitch them onto panels of crinkled silk dyed the colors of the desert (rust and turquoise), and hang the panels from free-standing wooden frames like the walls of canyons.

The quilt would be alive! A poster explaining the exhibit would invite people to help grow the quilt by submitting their own testimonial. As the exhibit grew, it could travel as a whole or in parts to new locations around Utah and even beyond. We set to work, in twos and threes, experimenting with the dyeing process, laying out the graphic design, working with a carpenter to construct the frames. We put out the word that we needed hands to help prepare materials to construct the quilt and an energetic team of women showed up on a Saturday morning with scissors, irons, and ironing boards to prepare 150 muslin squares for printing. A few weeks later, we invited women to help “stitch the quilt” and over two dozen volunteers flowed through our work space. All day women bent over tables with needles in hand, stitching 130 testimonials printed on muslin onto beautiful swaths of crinkled silk. We also began investigating places to open the quilt exhibit and found a fabulous public space in the Salt Lake City Main Library.

In November 2008, the Wilderness Quilt opened at the Salt Lake City Main Library.  Since then the quilt has been exhibited at: the Salt Lake County Complex; Salt Lake City Hall; the Live Green Festival; the Sorenson Unity Center in Salt Lake City; and, it was a featured art exhibit at “Water Week.”  Currently the Wilderness Quilt is on display in Ogden Utah, at Union Station.

Meg Wheatley, a world-renown Utah-based expert on organizational change and living systems theory and a contributor to the women’s wilderness quilt writes that one of the most powerful forces for change in the world comes from the simple act of people sitting down together to talk about what matters to them. Such conversations have transformative power, says Meg, because they reveal what we care about as a community. And when people who share a common concern connect, the kind of action that can bring about meaningful change is possible.

The Women Protecting Wilderness campaign was born out of people coming together to talk about why Utah’s wild heritage matters to them. The Women’s Wilderness Quilt is designed to continue and grow that conversation.  Contact us: terri@suwa.org