Happy International Women's Day!
I've written about many talented and inspiring women over the years. Here are two of them.
Photo by Mark Thiessen
The purpose-driven globe trekker
By the time you read this, Mireya Mayor will likely be in Madagascar. The venturesome anthropologist/primatologist returns in September to this massive island off the coast of Africa that’s had a sizable impact on her life and career.
Fourteen years ago, Mayor and colleague Ed Lewis co-discovered a new species of primate, the mouse lemur, in Madagascar. It would take several more years for the island to establish a national park to protect the lemur. Mayor played a role in the park’s creation by, among other things, presenting her findings about the lemur to Madagascar’s prime minister.
“That was definitely a pinnacle,” Mayor says about the primatological discovery. But if the past is any indication, she’s destined to pull off more feats of such caliber.
The vicarious explorers of the world came to know Mayor during her stint as a wildlife correspondent (the first female) for National Geographic Television’s “Ultimate Explorer” series. She has hosted other Nat Geo shows and specials, and appeared in the History Channel’s “Expedition Africa: Stanley & Livingstone” series. Her expeditions provide access to previously unexplored regions of the world, where she works with indigenous people and studies creatures of all kinds. She also shares her experiences with audiences during appearances like the one she made in Los Angeles in spring 2014.
The presentations “are meant to inspire people to care more about the planet,” says Mayor, and “to follow your dreams. I also talk about my favorite moments in the field, (and) my work with some of the most incredible and precariously endangered animals.
“The feedback from the (Los Angeles) audience was remarkable. It was one of the most heavily attended events by young girls… whose mothers had brought them.” Feedback from the crowd included “beautiful comments” from moms who thought it was good for their daughters “to see a girly girl who (once) played with Barbies and (now) explores the backwoods …”
Those young audience members in Los Angeles might be surprised to learn that Mayor had no such role models. The daughter of Cuban immigrants, she grew up in Miami’s Little Havana. Hers was a sheltered childhood – she was not allowed to join the Girl Scouts due to her family’s fears that the experience would be too dangerous. Evidently her passion for animals was less of a concern; she’s described her childhood home as a zoo filled with dogs, cats and a chicken.
After taking an anthropology class as an undergraduate at the University of Miami, Mayor developed a fierce affinity for primates and a career as a scientist. She earned a doctorate in anthropology from Stony Brook University and became a Fulbright scholar. She’s detailed her extensive accomplishments (including her stint as a Miami Dolphins cheerleader) in her book, “Pink Boots and a Machete.”
A wife and mother of five, Mayor eventually wants all of the children, ages 1 to soon-to-be 9, to join her on an expedition. For now, her eldest, Emma, is the only sibling who has accompanied Mom in the field.
Which exotic locale did the young explorer visit?
Madagascar, of course.
Photo by Shane Brown
Never at a loss for words
There’s a word for people like Allison Hedge Coke. That word is prolific. And it is a fitting descriptor of a woman entrenched in the art of writing.
On her website, www.hedgecoke.com, Hedge Coke reveals that she “came of age cropping tobacco” and working in fields and factories. Over time, she has transformed into a literary craftswoman whose career highlights include authoring books, editing the works of other authors and writing poetry. In 1998, Hedge Coke won the American Book Award for “Dog Road Woman,” her first collection of poems. She has hardly been resting on her laurels since then.
In 2014 alone, she’s working on “Red Dust: A Mixed-Blood Dust Bowl Childhood,” a film/media/literature/music project. “Twelve locations down and several Native elders interviewed,” Hedge Coke says about this production in mid-2014.
Then there’s “Burn,” which Hedge Coke says is “a book-length poem dealing with devastation, including public and personal tragedies immersed in fires. … Fire is both terrible and cleansing. The phoenix effect is necessary for certain forests and grasslands to be healthy. I think, perhaps, it is so in our lives as well.”
Hedge Coke closes out 2014 with the publication of “Streaming” in December. “A double collection with a thematic focus in change and deeply steeped in cultural nuances,” it comes with an audio CD download from her band, Rd Klā.
“In ‘Streaming,’ all of my influences come together in … meditations, witnessings, engagements, leading toward the epic and eventual turn life propels us to, if we make it through the mire of our own, our historical and our surrounding experiences …”
“With ‘Effigies II’ (a collection of Native poetry) due out any day now and ‘Rock, Ghost, Willow, Deer’ (an account of her life) going paperback in January, this makes four releases this year and a great deal of production work on the film project,” says Hedge Coke.
By the time you read this, Hedge Coke will be at the University of Hawaii where she will teach, write and edit “Streaming.” The film will be released Dec. 4 at the University of Hawaii in Manoa.
More touring, writing and recording are on Hedge Coke’s schedule for 2015. “It is a very exciting time for me, for the work,” she says.
Hedge Coke, who earned an AFAW in creative writing from the Institute for American Indian Arts and an MFA from Vermont College, hopes to spend a few weeks in Southern Pines, North Carolina – writing, of course.
“North Carolina is home,” she explains, a component of her heritage that’s “as mixed as it gets: Cherokee heritage from Western North Carolina … Metis and Huron from Canada and some Creek blood. ... We are also Luso, Irish, Scot and French Canadian descent, with some English, and smatterings of other ethnicities. … People have been marrying in for many, many generations. We are one result. Our Native heritage is a bit of backbone for the rest of life to lean into. The Blue Ridge is never far from the heart; right behind it, cradling.”