A writer rouses Flagstaff with guerrilla journalism

  • RAISING VOICES: Mary Sojourner

  • Flagstaff activists protest the Snowbowl ski-area expansion

    Jody Montgomery photo

Twilight settles around the cabin a few miles outside of Flagstaff, Ariz., where Mary Sojourner lives with her seven cats, her wood stove and the tools of her trade - a new Mac Performa computer, a laser color printer, a telephone and fax machine.

Sojourner - her chosen name - makes her living from writing. Her arm-long résumé documents her teaching of numerous writing workshops and the 1989 publication of her Southwestern "eco-novel," Sisters of the Dream.

"In a deep sense, I'm always with the work," she says, nodding toward piles of paper that clutter every surface. She has given up comfort and security for her cause.

"I have no savings, no trust fund, no rich husband, no insurance." She gives me a long look. "I don't know how to have one foot in economic cancer and one in a healthy planet."

This outspoken woman of 58, a single mother of four grown children, left Rochester, N.Y., in 1985. She'd been a feminist counselor and says she was burned out by years of caretaking. "I came here to do two things - write and fight for the earth," she says. "I like to be on the edge. If it gets too easy, I get bored."

In 1986, she and seven other members of the activist group Earth First! blocked a national park road on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon to draw attention to the threat of uranium mining 13 miles away. They were arrested and jailed briefly.

"You can't just dress up in your mega-buck polar fleece and rave about the holiness of a place," she insists. "You have to have a relationship with it, work for it, give back as good as you get. I feel part of the Grand Canyon now."

Five years ago, Sojourner began to notice in the meadows and washes around Flagstaff, "pink survey tags fluttering like the first shadows on a mammogram." The community was dead back then, she says. "People whined and moaned, but felt powerless to do anything."

A year ago Sojourner began writing a column she called "Open Space" for a weekly paper in Flagstaff. Around the same time, activist groups sprang up, named Friends of Dry Lake, Flagstaff Activist Network and Flagstaff Opposed to Nuclear Transport. When "Open Space" was cancelled after six months for being too radical, she says, she printed 100 copies and took it to the street, pinning it on telephone poles and bulletin boards around town.

Earlier this day in May, Flagstaff Activist Network made the front page of the Flagstaff paper, Arizona Daily Sun. The Forest Service had issued a Traditional Culture Property designation for the San Francisco Peaks, the volcanic mountains overlooking Flagstaff, an area considered sacred by several Indian tribes. But the agency had also called for an environmental impact study of the proposed expansion of both a ski resort and a pumice mine on the sides of the mountain.

One of the founders of the Flagstaff Activist Network, Navajo (Diné) Klee Benally, said: "Having a ski resort on Dakoo Sliid (the San Francisco Peaks) is like setting up a skateboard park in the Sistine Chapel."

The manager of the Snowbowl ski area on the mountain, J.R. Murray, complained that environmentalists were "just saying "no" because they think development has gotten out of hand."

"The community has changed totally," says John Grahame, one of the most involved activists. "I attribute it all to Mary. The first time I read her, it was like a jolt. Her writing is so honest, so absolutely from the heart. Everybody got vitalized. Suddenly we knew we could make a difference."

Sojourner says it was "Community and people walking their talk. That's what it takes. These mountains, the rare wetlands, the little canyons keep asking us to be bigger than we are - to forgive each other, get the ego out of the way.

"When people come up and thank me for my environmental work, I say, "I don't want to hear that. What are you doing? Why don't you get off your ass and work with us?" "

Phaedra Greenwood lives in Taos, New Mexico.

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