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Of fathers, fireweed and affection

Posted: January 23, 2014 - 1:07am

Father’s Community Café is a place where men are invited to have monthly conversation about the joys and challenges of fatherhood. Seven of us attended last week’s meeting. We listened to one young father describe his traumatic legal fight to gain joint custody of his two young children. Another single father with a 3-year-old son sought the group’s advice because, as a young boy, he was taught that signs of affection weren’t a proper display of manly behavior. Behind us the two paintings of fireweed acted as a metaphor for healing from the fire storm of separation and repressing the feminine impulse toward affection.

Last week the City and Borough of Juneau Planning Commission dealt with its own controversy centered on fireweed. They voted to deny a property owner’s rezoning application that would have allowed commercial and industrial development to occur on 56 acres of private land wedged between Egan Drive, airport property and the Mendenhall Wetlands Game Refuge.

During the summer, much of that acreage transforms the landscape into a brilliant pink foreground for the distant mountains on Douglas Island. That’s why opponents of the zoning change call it the “Field of Fireweed.”

As usual, conservation and economic development formed the central themes of the debate. The opposition argued that the land is a necessary buffer to the larger wetland area, and that it had become one of the community’s iconic views. Proponents countered that allowing development to proceed is a matter of prioritizing the city’s economic future.

The Empire’s Editorial Board gave serious consideration to both arguments. As they wrote in the view which favored development, fireweed got its common name from the way it takes over land that had been scorched by wildfire. They also noted that this particular field of fireweed had once been a gravel borrow site and the fireweed grew there “because the land wasn’t suitable to sustain much else.” The same can be said for the rocky peninsula in front of the Mendenhall Glacier where fireweed is one of the first plants to spring out of the barren landscape.

These colonizing characteristics are biological signs of the land healing from catastrophic disturbances. But for the “Field of Fireweed” it’s about recovering from destruction caused by man. And in this case I’m being gender correct, because “It’s a Man’s World, and It Always Will Be.” That’s the title of an essay published last month in Time Magazine. Camille Paglia wrote it’s “overwhelmingly men who do the dirty, dangerous work of building roads … cutting and clearing trees, and bulldozing the landscape.” She concludes that our “modern economy, with its vast production and distribution network, is a male epic.”

Indeed, men are the primary authors and characters of our long walk down history lane. But the march of progress hasn’t all been pretty. It’s been filled with violent chapters, and every day new ones are being written. There have been countless wars between nations led by men who claim to be the leaders of the civilized world. In America over the last decade, men were the assailant in more than 90 percent of gun related murders. Rape and domestic violence are failings patented by men.

And yes, the modern economy was forged by men, but not so much by their hands as the machines they invented to violently conquer the land. Some things have changed thanks to our evolving awareness of environmental consequences. But should flowers alone, like the fireweed along Eagan Highway, ever be a barrier to development? I’m not arguing that the rezoning decision was right or wrong; it’s a matter of pausing to consider whether there’s something we’re missing whenever we’re locked into these kinds of debates. Maybe we keep having the same battles because we’re outwardly objectifying the parameters as ecology versus economics.

Steve SueWing, the parent leader for Father’s Community Café, reminded us all at last week’s meeting that unlike our fathers’ generations, men today don’t have to repress their sensitive nature when it comes to being involved with their children. Society at large can learn from that lesson. And wildflowers like fireweed may help us heal the feminine aspects of our collective psyche and break away from the man’s world of violence.

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