by Kelly Coughlin
Do you smell that?”
“Smell what…? Ohhhhh,” Celeste answered, eyes closing with pleasure.
We had just picked up a load of infantry soldiers fresh from their first shower in days. When we dropped off, they’d been a grubby green mob of indeterminate hair and skin color smelling of face paint, B.O., and burnt carnauba oil.
I looked across the tailgate at Celeste, adorable and sweet in her smart uniform. Helping her lift the heavy metal tailgate, I asked, “What should we call this?”
The tailgate closed with a heavy iron clunk. Celeste rubbed the dust off her small hands and smiled: “Sounds like “field lust” is what we’re gonna call it.”
After days of wearing the same clothes, senses numbed by repetitious dull grays and greens of landscape and uniform, smelling little but coffee and the chemicals escaping from our MRE food bags, our noses were suddenly flooded with the smells of herbal deodorants and clean male skin. It was intoxicating.
The young soldiers smiled at us, many of them squirming like puppies straight from the bath, newly clean and basking in the attention as we talked about them like they weren’t right there in the back of our five-ton truck.
We were two, hard-working females in the forest, surrounded by hard-working men. We carried heavy containers of hot food and supplies to men digging holes with shovels and running around with huge, heavy packs on while carrying dangerous rifles that looked like adult-sized toys.
All around us were young men expressing their animal strength and grace. We drove them to their various field missions in the Ft. Lewis woodlands, all the while laughing to each other about the way being around them was affecting us. Normally, we were both non-giggly, hard-working women, and neither of us was looking for a partner. We wondered, what was this mild madness?
I first became aware of “field lust” while on Annual training with Alpha 141 Company at Fort Lewis, and it seemed to me that for Celeste, it was a perfect storm of pheromones, proximity and watching men straining, shining with sweat, making animal noises, getting dirty.
For me, however, it became clear that something more complex was at work: In 1996, I volunteered with my Guard Unit to help transport teams of firefighting Marines to the Tower Fire Complex outside of Ukiah, Oregon. It was there I first learned that for me it was not just hormones, hot circumstances and imagination; it was about who I became out there in the woods surrounded by the sorts of men who had once been my playmates, catching snakes, building vine forts, conducting raiding parties, digging in the dirt.
I had lost them many years before, when it seemed I had grown C-cups overnight. Other girls pointed, and talked about them like I had stolen something they had wanted to find first. The boys I had been buddies with my whole life suddenly kept their distance, except for the fledgling creeps who grabbed and poked at me as I passed in the hallways at school.
My changing body was a beacon for unwanted comments, attention, and touching from uncouth men decades older than myself in donut shops, unkind strangers on the street, drunken family friends at my mother’s cocktail parties, and my grandfather.
Suddenly, there was something in my way when I ran that felt heavy and cow-like; alien bags of flesh I would have pushed back into my body or given to my envious peers, given a choice. I strapped them in tight, wanting to be invisible to predatory men. In my 12-year-old eyes, almost all men were predatory.
I squirmed when my mother fondled my thigh through the clingy pants she’d given me to showcase my developing form. I shrank into myself in dresses and heels, while she went on about how shapely and slender my legs and ankles were at parties full of grown men drinking alcohol.
Having had no experience with sexual attention up to that point, my own emerging sexual feelings terrified me, and felt like a betrayal. I tried to be remote, chaste, armored. Joan of Arc. I wanted to be loved and appreciated, but I didn’t know what that looked or felt like. Growing armor against the new world that met me, I shrank into myself, where the most nurturing regard could not touch.
While the girls around me bloomed like exotic flowers, attracting all the love, attention and approval I craved, I began to acquire an extra layer of fat and began to wear dark, loose-fitting clothing. At 16, in a big “fuck you” to mom’s insistence on clingy fabrics, dresses and skirts, I put down the makeup and the hairbrush, and adopted the shapeless jeans and t-shirts I’d wear for years to come. The sweet, rough-and-tumble boys I had taken on numerous adventures with having fallen away from my world, I now had a wide-legged stance and a withering stare, which could be deployed in defiance against the eyes and attentions of the boys, who before had been my comrades, but now seemed either hungry or afraid.
At age 27, I joined the Oregon Army Guard. I was handed heavy boots and four shapeless green uniforms. Wearing no makeup, and with my hair tucked up beneath my cap, there was little to discern me from my fellows except my exposed face, neck and hands. Sliding into the comfortable, sturdy pants I thought, this is what I want to wear for the rest of my life. This unisex camouflage was quite literally armor, created to make its wearer blend in with her surroundings, with others, male and female. Concealing my sexuality and softness, the uniform also broadcasted my physical strength and capitalized on my confident bearing. Feeling less protective of my body, the uniform now did this for me much more effectively than my previous uniform of jeans and t-shirts. For the first time in my life, I was being treated with respect.
Sliding into a pressed uniform and lacing up my boots, I felt powerful, capable. I could feel the soft skin over my curves moving smoothly beneath the stiff material as I walked. As I trained with other soldiers, I began to feel not only stronger, but unique, mysterious, even exotic. I bought my first lingerie to wear beneath this concealing field of green; taking possession of myself. I felt improbably sexy. I had won the battle for territory at last; my magnificent body was finally mine alone.
While I wore that uniform, I felt almost whole.
During those early years, not all male soldiers recognized or respected me or other women we worked with, but I finally realized I had a choice of when to enter into battle with them over it or walk away. Much of the time, I couldn’t resist digging in and fighting, Pitbull style, against sexist injustices where I experienced or witnessed them. Standing tall in that uniform, I almost always won.
Eventually, I ended up working around male soldiers who were not like the ones I saw all the time and thought of as rough den brothers. The soldiers I met on my way to the 1996 fires in Central Oregon weren’t just Marines, they were also firefighters. They used different tools, different words. Pulaski. McLeod. Hazel Hoe. Backburn. Piss Pump.
Casually rebellious, they mixed their military uniforms with Forest Service shirts, something that wouldn’t have been tolerated in either agency back at their respective base camps. Something in me caught like a match. I would never forget the morning it became clear to me what I was born to do, but it was never easy. Learning to fight fire cut away things from me like a razor, things I thought I needed, until all that was left was elemental and true.
My first early summer morning in the chase truck with Crew 3, I looked out the steamed-up window at mist rising from a glassy pond overhung with maple, reflecting, looking like a scene from Excalibur. Even though I was far away from home, from my husband, from anyone or anything familiar, I felt something click and swell in my chest that translated to “This is it. I am home. These are my people.” Even so, I was often lonesome. My only company at that time was my guitar, my books, and my beer.
My second week working for the Forest Service, I discovered the urban fantasy books of Laurell K. Hamilton. Their cheesy, sexy covers all featured a female assassin named Anita Blake who always dressed in dark, form-fitting leather pants and high-heeled boots, looking utterly impractical and completely unlike me.
Squished between people cramped up in our little Wildland firefighting brush trucks, I wondered if anyone ever suspected that in between studying our field pocket guides and maps, and while they stuffed their lips with Copenhagen until they resembled orangutans, I was off in another world, where a grown-up Buffy-the-Vampire-Slayer-like character tried to live a suburban soccer mom existence with a hot werewolf. Failing miserably at this, Anita began collecting a procession of lovers, from an ancient vampire, to a young were-leopard who was into S&M, who also happened to be a successful male stripper. Eventually, her bed was full of people of both sexes and several animal forms to snuggle and snog. My Forest Service issue bunk was empty, and nights and days were long.
The Anita Blake stories were flashy fuel for that species of fire I’d discovered while in the National Guard. These books became part of raising, and also redirecting field lust.
Like Anita, I could channel sexual energy to deal with whatever crisis arose. I had discovered my own primal energy and found that I could translate it into physical strength needed to hike my ass up long, steep hills carrying tools, and between 30 and 90 pounds of gear to unknown emergency situations. My heart pounded in my throat and sweat dripped down the length of my body, where it cooled to white, salty outlines where my pack bit into my shoulders and hips. These sensations only added to sense-driven engine, and I let it burn.
I was often quite mad with a sort of generalized carnal hunger out there in the woods, and I loved it, because it made me feel like a gathering storm; like I had a secret superpower that sharpened my senses, focused my mind. My body was a tuning fork that resonated with the people, the weather, the fire, and the landscape surrounding me.
I imagined I was like a religious ascetic or Fakir, practicing celibacy until both mind and body vibrated with a new source of power, which could then be redirected into work, acts of courage, and extreme mental and physical states.
There were times I wondered if others could sense this fever coming off me in waves, because I felt like I was walking around with my own aurora borealis, flaring beyond the surface of my skin.
There were uncomfortable and awkward times when my ardor found a subject to land on, based on a chance connection, or some odd collection of quirks.
Once, it was a young Adonis who became a friend; another time, it was a Packer/smithy who seemed to have stepped out from an old photograph, complete with pocket watch and wire-rimmed spectacles, who brought me wildflowers. One year, it was a Hotshot whose name meant “fireplace,” and with whom I ended up wrestling wildly in the dust in front of the open-mouthed crew when the tension formed a water fight, which became too much for us both. And one time, it was a shy young man, exposing his neck to me without a word, when I asked him to show me the tattoo peeking out from the top of his stretched-out sweater—and once, it was another woman who hiked like a mountain creature. She had no idea how beautiful she was. I spent a single day with her, hiking, each of us getting vulnerable and sharing our stories of life in the fire world while surveying timber units.
This curious state seemed to happen less often and fade in power once I became Dutchman’s Peak lookout. I assumed that a rough couple of years of heartbreak and depression and ultimately, my advancing age had cooled this aspect of fighting fire.
Last summer on Sleeping Ute Mountain, to my astonishment, I experienced a resurgence of it. Nervous and scared, about to fight my first fire in two years, a blast of sudden heat shot through me when I found myself on the fire line behind a filthy yellow shirt stretched tight across improbably wide shoulders that angled down to knife-edge hips. An incident commander trainee from Delores, he turned around to greet me and other new arrivals with shocking blue eyes and white teeth set in a field of ash covered skin. My fear was just not there anymore, completely eclipsed by a familiar and welcome power as I began to hike, dig, and cut line with strength and stamina I wasn’t sure I still had.
There was also an engine captain, whose way with words alone hit my prefrontal cortex like an espresso/Adderall/nitroglycerin cocktail.
Then, there were two helitack crewmen: One, a walking work of art with chiseled features, a goofy walk and a ridiculous mustache, and another with watchful, warm eyes and calm movements. Working behind the two of them guaranteed I wouldn’t pause in my work until I absolutely had to get more water.
This year was, in some ways, most remarkable of all. Without any ideas I could or would ever be intimate with any of these people, my mind was free to enjoy the rush that being near them provided. A Sawyer removing his shirt, revealing a muscled back covered in scratches, welts and fir needles was a momentary shiver shared with several others who also enjoyed the view during a fire in Washington; watching a mind-bending electrical storm with the wordsmith engine captain who was describing everyday processes with words like “longitudinal” and “anthropodetic,” and then saying things like, “wait my brain just broke” when discerning the cardinal directions was like lightning in my blood.
There have been few times I’ve ever moved to act on any of these feelings—every time I did except for one, I regretted it. The wrestling incident was in some ways more erotically charged than actually having sex might have been. I’ve come to understand that the feeling of being fully alive, the connection and the energy is the gift. I have, from the beginning, seen these mostly younger men as brothers, as comrades, not lovers.
Sometimes, though, the solitude and celibacy does get to be too much. I’ve torn my own clothes away and left myself breathless and laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes both, in some strange places: on top of snow camp in 40-mph winds when I couldn’t leave the Forest Service truck for hours, listening to a smoke jumper give weather observations over the radio. At least twice, at Dutchman Peak lookout, in the middle of the day while sitting in the antique chair, keeping a careful eye and ear out for not only motorized vehicles making their way up the access road, but for hikers and bicyclists who didn’t make enough noise for me to know they were there until they reached my door. Once, after being kissed by the most beautiful man I’d ever seen, I returned to a tent I shared with five other women and in complete silence, controlling even my breathing, got off while barely moving at all.
But field lust…what is it?
To catch sight of a sinewy forearm, wrapped with bulging vessels like a great tree branch, angular and rounded shapes moving beneath a thin t-shirt.
The beauty of a smokejumper emerging from the smoke in slow motion; his red, gleaming wet bare throat beneath a yellow shirt torn open to the breastbone. The hollows beneath and above his clavicle visible.
A man of long experience, wielding a heavy chainsaw as though making fine art, as though dancing, or pleasing a lover.
Pausing in my work to smile at the sight of Forrest in his man-boy sweetness, hitching his pants up and retucking his shirt.
The world of tattoos along Braden’s tanned, cabled arms and that guy from Delores walking away, back muscles fanned out as though wings would not be out of the question.
Catching sight of men casually removing their shirts to reveal great, work-hollowed, fibrous expanses of skin, smelling like sticky moss, fresh rain and the very earth beneath, and sometimes flushed and reddened from exertion, and from brushes with tools and brambles.
The storm of self-release alone on a mountain top in a Forest Service truck while the wind and rain howled outside.
Field lust is also the sound of a wordsmith’s voice, the scent of freshly showered young men, and the feel of green ripstop caressing satin panties, my skin and strong muscles moving with confidence and purpose, as I walk tall in heavy black boots.
Kelly Coughlin is a Wildland Fire Fighter for Mesa Verde National Park who calls Portland, Oregon her winter home. Her work has appeared in Willamette Week and Voicecatcher, and her short story, “Farewell Bend” won a Tomales Bay WxW Fellowship in 2012.
April 13, 2016
Photo by: Gessy Alvarez