Lessons Learned from Three Weeks Recycling at the Oregon Country Fair
My first years at the Oregon Country Fair (OCF) were in the early 90s as a child. My strongest memories from those years are of the spider bites on my wrist and the giant puppets we wore around as part of Ambiance Committee. After a long hiatus, I joined the Recycling Crew in 2009. I couldn’t have dreamt up a better crew to work with or role for me to play at the Fair.
OCF is an alternative universe where regular rules such as gravity and the linear passing of time are altered or irrelevant. Camped onsite (not including public visitors) are 18,000 staff and vendors, hundreds of whom pull off superhuman feats of love, communication, and kindness to make the Fair happen. I see the Fair as a city. Various crews staffed by volunteers take care of all the different aspects of the city; construction, water, fire, sanitation, kitchen, security, and – of course – recycling. We are the garbage men.
Except I am a woman and we recycle.
The week before Fair, I hesitated… “really? Give up a month of potential climbing? Wouldn’t it make more sense to drive to Ten Sleep or the Fins, to escape the heat of Oregon for higher elevation crags?” Maybe. Even so, I’m so thankful I went, thankful I spent three weeks onsite. Thankful for the lessons I learned and thankful that now I get to apply them to my climbing life.
What sets the Fair apart from other festivals or fairs, at least for me as a recycler and for many others who dedicate significant amounts of time to working at OCF, is that the actual event is hardly the point. Those three official days are nearly irrelevant, it is the act of throwing the party, the process of building a city and living in it together, that is worth the time donated twice over.
This process is a grand experiment in interpersonal communication, a place where the interactions between humans – verbal, physical – are the fabric of the event. While much of my work is word-related and I have invested years of study to language and sociolinguistics, copyediting is isolating, translation is solitary. Working with a big crew (150+ humans) and driving a truck with a smaller crew (4 to 6 humans) was energizing and motivating in a way that sitting on my laptop my lovely itsy nest is not.
The community of volunteer staff behind the event comes together to build and then operate what is essentially a city in the woods. This process is made up of talk; talk that inspires action, talk that calms nerves, talk that builds friendship, talk that shakes the earth. By bringing the verbal strategies and systems used at Fair, these practices that create tangible from thin air, and using them outside of the Fair, I can better communicate in all parts of my life.
One of the things I practiced best this year was asking for consent before interacting with someone. I was significantly impressed with Recycling crew’s consistency to check in with others; is this okay? Can I massage your left arm? Recyclers this year took consent training about sexual (or rather, potentially sexual) contact and applied it to all forms of up-close-and-personal interhuman interaction. In climbing, we should ask as well; “do you want beta?” “Do you want a close or loose belay?” Or this mid-morning, with an acquaintance, “Can I touch your necklace?”
It is, more than anything, an organic event. The paths through the site are coated in costumed creatures laughing, crying, and clowning.
For many volunteers and visitors, the Fair can be an overwhelming social context. Beautiful humans bare their bodies; it’s a place where the men wear bras and the women don’t. Shorts, socks, boots. When was the last time you showered in an open space with 100 other naked people? The nudity here is often desexualized, male nudity especially so. Some parties are family friendly, others suggestive and sexy. As a southern Oregon native, I’m comfortable in these contexts. I was raised in a similar environment and have an often, though not always, accurate, understanding of the fine lines between acceptable and unacceptable. I fight my own inner battles with self-confidence, sexuality, and my body and the Fair is a place for me to make serious inroads. I’m winning the war.
One of my struggles is with wearing clothes that tend to attract attention. As the driver for Wally (an 83 Toyota Pickup painted like a zebra), being flashy came with the job description. This role gave me permission, or so I felt, and took the pressure off me. I love to wear fun, bright, goofy, and sexy clothes. I don’t do it so that others will look at me, and I know that I judge others for seeming like they are seeking attention. It makes me feel self-conscious, makes me want to pull back. Yet, shiny turquoise pants and my rope crown make me feel invincible and joyous. With the license to be flashy and bossy, I can unabashedly be my loudest full self.
Yes. Yes. Yes. Some years ago, Yes Yes Yes was the theme of the Fair, but to me it still rings relevant.
“Can you drive with a trailer?”
“Do you want to learn to drive a forklift?”
“Will you help me with this small but important task?”
“Do you feel open and ready?”
Yes. Yes. Yes.
As an extrovert, being surrounded by so many people energizes me, even though I’m normally an 8+ kinda gal (hours of sleep) and the Fair is not an 8+ kind of place. This continuous feedback loop of people power combined with the supportive environment on the crew makes me feel like I can step up and take charge. It’s a safe environment for me to experiment with my leadership skills, growing and adapting as I learn.
Having people believe in you is one of the best types of support you can get in life. At Fair, I feel like people believe in me and in those around me. Best yet, it’s mutual.
Children of the Fair, past and present, those people who’ve been coming since they were young, are “Fair Family.” On Recycling Crew, we’re all Fair Family. Though it’s a bit of an insider’s club (you have to earn your keep), Recycling is a welcoming, supportive, encouraging, loving, and open-minded family. There are two aspects of this community that stood out to me this year; the importance of multi-year participation and an incredible plethora of power women.
One evening, as I was sitting across the campfire from some of the women half a generation older than us, I felt myself transported briefly to the future. We were them, sitting; our arms linked, our shared memories feeding the laughter fishes…Irish wrist watch, Irish wrist watch. In fifteen years, we will still be here. In those fifteen years, we had grown some and changed some, and we still had this place, this crew, this task, this process to participate in, and together we contribute what we can to create and operate the Fair.
From an operations perspective, multi-year participation enables us to improve the systems we need to effectively recycle, compost, and manage waste at the event. From a personal perspective, returning again and again allows us to go deeper into the experience and come closer to one another, building upon groundwork from years past. I often feel like I’m bouncing around like a pinball, from one crag to the next, from one goal or task to another. Circling back to Fair this year brought me a great sense of wholeness that I didn’t even know I was missing.
Recycling Crew is female driven. Our job is hard, gross, and rough. Pretty much each the 180 people on the crew (is that truly how many we are!?) handles stinky trash, sifts through compost, lifts heavy barrels, and plays as hard as they recycle. We work pre, during, and post-Fair, a minimum time commitment of Wednesday to Wednesday. During the event, we get breakfast at 4:45 to begin our day of work early enough to clean up the party from the staff before the public enter the property at 11:00am. There’s no room for dead weight; our task is enormous. We want to do the best possible job we can.
I didn’t notice at first, but our leadership is perhaps 80% female. Something about the crew attracts powerful women; Powerfrauen, alpha females. I’ve always had more male than female friends. My climbing life means that I am surrounded by men all the freaking time. One of the reasons why I decided to move back to the United States was because it’s easier (t)here to find female climbing partners. Even so, I’ve spent most of my time back in the US climbing with dudes. With the Recyclers, the women run the show and take over roles often played by male figures in other contexts, such as operating heavy machinery. The crew dynamics are uniquely empowering; I watched young women step into leadership roles with a little hesitation, only to fill their lungs with that dusty air and exhale confidence.
Communication, Confidence, and Community
I feel privileged to have spent three weeks in a context where community, confidence, and communication are the main components. Even more so, I am thankful to have spent time with so many solid, commanding, and caring women. I will do my best to give these values and skills their proper place in my life in the unFair world and I dream of surrounding myself with powerwomen year round.