Hazel Wolf is not famous. This says much about our culture’s notion of fame. For she is known throughout the country by many activists who continue to strive for social change. Given the tepid political temperament of our times, the breadth of her activity is heartening; given her advanced age, it is humbling.
For thirteen years, Wolf has served as editor of Outdoor West, an environmental publication. An avid backpacker and bird watcher, she has traveled to Costa Rica, Finland, Great Britain, Nicaragua, the Soviet Union, and Sweden to speak on environmental issues. At present, she serves as the secretary of the Audubon Society, is active as an environmental specialist for the Washington state Rainbow Coalition, and is chairperson of the organizing committee for the Campaign for Puget Sound, a coalition of environmental groups in the Seattle area. She is also chairperson of the steering committee for the Community Network Conference, which seeks to unite the environmental movement with the struggle for racial and economic equality. She remains an active member of the Democratic party because, in her words, she hopes to “make Democrats stop acting like Republicans.”
But the above doesn’t begin to cover the last couple of decades, much less her three-quarters of a century before that. Her father, a factory worker, died when she was young. Wolf was raised by her mother in one of the poorer sections of Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1923, Wolf left her husband and brought her daughter to live in the United States. During the Depression, she joined the Communist party and worked as an organizer for unions, workers’ alliances, and neighborhood groups. Over a period of two decades, the government instigated deportation proceedings against her a number of times, and eventually arrested her for conspiracy “to overthrow the government by force and violence.” On one occasion, the late Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas intervened to prevent her deportation.
Today, Wolf lives alone in a small, one-bedroom apartment in the heart of Seattle. She is frequently invited to sit on boards, attend caucuses, and address meetings all over the world. She travels the country to participate in marches and demonstrations, and to bring her considerable organizing experience to an array of issues. But whenever she has the chance, writes Cat Saunders, Wolf “heads out into the wilds with a backpack that dwarfs her body.”
— T.L. Toma
The Sun: I understand you were a real “women’s libber” from way back.
Wolf: Not in any organized way. It was on a personal basis. I didn’t want anybody intruding on my rights just because I was a girl. When my mother bought me my first pair of high heels, I chopped them off with an axe. I was a tomboy. Tomboys have become extinct. All girls are tomboys now. Nobody says anymore, “Oh, she’s a tomboy.” They don’t because women climb mountains and they swim rivers. But when I was a kid, tomboys were bad people.
Girls in those days had their skirts down to their ankles, wore heavy steel corsets, and put their hair up with little hairpins. Those were things girls had to do. I guess fifty years before that, it was even worse. Upper-class women wore things so tight that they used to faint all the time. It’s hard for a young woman like you to realize what it was like.
The Sun: How’d you get around that way of dressing?
Wolf: I didn’t let my skirts get long. I didn’t put my hair up. If I did, the pins would all fall out. My mother got me a corset. She was trying to protect me. She said, suppose a man touched me and felt my firm flesh! I said, I’ll knock his hand off. He better not touch me!
I wasn’t very appealing. I was a freckle-faced little kid, uppity, insulting, perky like no woman should be.
But she got this corset for me and I put it on. I hadn’t worn it a day when I was climbing over a fence and broke one of those steel ribs. The next day I broke another one, and pretty soon there weren’t any ribs left.
My childhood was very interesting. My father died when I was young. He worked in factories. With him gone, my mother and I lived in a very poor neighborhood. She always played marbles or cards with us after dinner. She was always there. She was a pillar of strength. I never felt threatened in any way when I was a child. I felt secure. I didn’t know I was poor, either. How could I? Everybody in my neighborhood was poor. There was no television to tell me different.
The Sun: You grew up around alcoholism and prostitution in your neighborhood, and yet you felt secure?
Wolf: My mother was solid. And the prostitutes were, too. They were protective of the children. I remember Stella. When I had a sore throat, she made cough medicine for me. And when my mother was in the hospital, Freddy — another prostitute — was worried because I had never gone to Sunday school. She thought my religious training was being neglected. My mother couldn’t care less! Freddy tried to bully me into going to Sunday school.
These women were very protective of children. They were childless. They were like nuns. They were the outcasts of the poor. Nuns are the outcasts of the rich, in a way. Both groups are deprived of children.
We’re always drawn to young things like young puppies and young kittens and young bears and humans. Animals, too, like young things. It’s an instinct.
I had tuberculosis when I was about fifty, and I was in a sanitarium for nine months. I didn’t see any children for all that time. I remember how I missed children.
Once I agreed to meet a prisoner, a client of the lawyer I worked for, when he got out of the prison on McNeil Island. He asked that we go someplace where there were children. We went to a family place down on the waterfront. And we just sat and watched the kids.
The Sun: Elisabeth Kübler-Ross has an idea about mixing nursing homes with nurseries, so little kids get lots of attention and older people get to be around young people.
Wolf: In the past, the community consisted of all ages. That’s the natural way to live. In such communities the old people knew everything. The young people came to them because they had no written language. They had to depend on the memories of older people. That doesn’t exist today. Now older people are considered useless. There’s no part in the community for them.
The Sun: I like the story about when you came to Seattle and wanted to go swimming at the YWCA.
Wolf: I grew up in Canada where there were no blacks to speak of, so there was no prejudice. I had grown up without it, so I couldn’t see it.
Once, I wanted to go to the Y to swim. The first time I went was on a Saturday. This was in 1923. A woman told me it was Negro Day. I said, “Can’t I go on Negro Day?”
And she said, “You wouldn’t want to, would you?”
I said, “Maybe they don’t want me.” I thought, if I might not want them, then maybe they don’t want me. There may be some mysterious thing going on that I don’t know about!” So I went down to the pool and asked if they minded if I swam. They said no, of course not. And I didn’t get any black spots and they didn’t get any white spots.
The Sun: How did you come to join the Communist party?
Wolf: My daughter and I were on welfare, along with millions of other people, during the Depression. When I came to this country, I came as a single parent. You had to go down every week to the zone office. Now it’s called the welfare office, I guess. You went there to get your food voucher. Once there was a man outside the office asking people to sign a petition to get the legislature to dismiss the state militia, and use the money to finance unemployment insurance.
I asked him who cooked up this idea, anyway? He said it was the Communist party. I wanted to know more about it. I was invited to a class studying Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The class was held in a woman’s apartment. When we all showed up for class, we discovered the poor woman was being evicted for nonpayment of rent. The sheriff went in and brought some furniture out and placed it on the sidewalk. Then we’d pick it up and take it around to the back door and inside again. We were going round and round. The sheriff got sick and tired of it, and left. So we got all the furniture back in and then had the class. They gave me the Communist Manifesto, and I read it. There wasn’t anything in there that I didn’t already know. It was bred in me. See, my father believed in socialism. He was an atheist. My mother was in the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. She worked in an overall factory. She was a syndicalist. She hated all government officials from the president down to the precinct committee person. Which is up or down, I don’t know — I think it’s more like the precinct committee person down to the president!
I never saw a book that put everything all together in such a readable, logical, eloquent way as the Communist Manifesto. So I joined the party. They were involved in humanist projects. Getting Roosevelt elected was a big deal, you know. Social Security came in, unemployment insurance, industrial insurance, welfare. And the National Industrial Recovery Act, which set up these great projects that put everybody back to work. That was 1933, I think, when he came in.
The Communist party was organized on a neighborhood basis. I did all kinds of things. I organized workers’ alliances, unions, demonstrations.
The Sun: So the Communist party actually helped Roosevelt get elected?
Wolf: Yes. And helped implement the programs. The Communist party was a great influence in organizing the steel and oil and chemical and automobile industries — all those big industrial unions — under the CIO. Then the war broke out. They phased out the make-work programs and put everybody into the army. Those who didn’t go in the army went to work in the shipyards or some other war industry. It was the war that did away with the Depression. Nothing else. It was the war.
So there was not this active kind of work to do anymore, and I got kind of bored. We’d just sit around talking philosophy and raising funds. I sort of drifted away. I never quit. I went to California, and when I came back, I just didn’t go to any more meetings. But I never lost contact with my friends in the party. A lot of them have died, of course. But there’s still a lot of them and there’s still a Communist party. I got an award from them not too long ago as Newsmaker of the Year. I went to the banquet.
The Sun: So you’re still officially a member?
Wolf: No, not a member. I just know these communists and I’m very fond of some of them. They’ve only recently begun thinking about the environment. They’re oriented toward the labor unions and the working class. They haven’t been involved with wilderness and wildlife issues. But now everybody’s awareness has increased. I don’t have to tell my communist friends to think about the environment. They are thinking about it, along with everybody else.
The Sun: You went through about a decade of deportation threats for your affiliation with the Communist party.
Wolf: About twenty years. But I wasn’t arrested until thirteen years after I had drifted away from the party.
The Sun: On what grounds did they arrest you?
Wolf: For trying to overthrow the government by force and violence. One of my greatest failures!
The Sun: You didn’t do a very good job!
Wolf: I sure didn’t. It’s just the same, same old establishment.
The Sun: They actually charged you with that?
Wolf: It was more complicated than that. They arrested me for belonging to an organization that conspired to overthrow the government by force and violence. When I was arrested, I was put in a room with two other women. The first thing they asked me was why I was in there. I said solemnly, “I’ve been charged with trying to overthrow the government by force and violence.”
And one of them said, “Yeah? Well, the goddamned government ought to be overthrown!” They’d never heard of such a noble cause. I was an instant hero.
The Sun: You went to jail?
Wolf: Yeah, but I didn’t get to finish my jigsaw puzzle. They bailed me out late in the afternoon. I knew I wouldn’t get to finish it. I never get to finish jigsaw puzzles. The phone rings or somebody comes. I get bailed out.
The Sun: Were you friends with Justice William O. Douglas?
Wolf: No, but we had mutual friends. He had a summer place up in the Olympic Peninsula, and I had friends up there who knew him. On one occasion I had been ordered deported and we appealed. We’d lost the case in district court, so we appealed to the circuit court. If that failed, we were going to the Supreme Court.
But the court wasn’t in session, and when the court’s not in session, the judges have regions divided among them. William O. Douglas had the West Coast region. My friends were so afraid I’d lose in circuit court that they wrote a letter to Douglas, telling him all about my case. They got a postcard back from him and he said, “Tell Mrs. W not to worry. Signed, Bill.” It was one of the shortest Supreme Court decisions I ever heard of!
I did meet him once. He led a hike down the wilderness coast. The park service was going to run a highway down the last fifty miles of the coast, and we wanted it left in the wilderness. You still can’t get to the beach along that fifty miles, though you can hike in. I’ve done that hike, too, and it takes you several days.
So William O. Douglas came out and led the hike. Of course, he’s a big guy and all the media came along. There were a million pictures in the paper. That put an end to the plans of the park service. The night before the hike, they had a salmon feast. I went with some friends. One of them asked what I would do if I saw William O. Douglas. I said in my usual flippant way, “I’d say, hi, your honor!”
Well, we walked along, we walked along, and pretty soon we saw a man approaching. It was William O. Douglas. And when he got up to me, I said shyly, “Good evening.” And he said shyly, “Good evening.” So much for hi, your honor!
[A phone call interrupts us. Hazel answers it and talks with someone about the peace rallies they will be attending. This was two days before the Gulf War began.]
The Sun: You’ve lived through a lot of wars.
Wolf: Two world wars. In fact, I was born during the Boer War. But I didn’t pay much attention to it.
The Sun: What are you doing now politically?
Wolf: About the war? I do quite a bit of public speaking around this. And I’m going to these demonstrations tonight. And I’m going to another one in San Francisco. There’s quite a contingent of people going from here.
The Sun: How would you have handled it, if you were in charge, after Hussein invaded Kuwait?
Wolf: If I were Bush, I’d have thought to myself, Hussein’s doing the same thing I did to Panama. There were thousands of people killed in Panama, and there are thousands who are still homeless. It was a real invasion. Now they’re trying to fix it so Noriega can’t get a fair trial. There are the tapes and all these goings on in the prison — government lawyers eavesdropping on his lawyers — and now the government will say that he won’t get a fair trial. And that’s true. But they’re deliberately doing this because they don’t dare try him. He’ll talk. And they don’t want to hear him.
The Sun: You were in Nicaragua.
Wolf: The war there wracked terrible damage on the countryside. War is that way.
The Sun: And that’s not even nuclear war.
Wolf: No, I refuse to think about nuclear war.
The Sun: That would affect the whole planet.
Wolf: I don’t think they dare use nuclear warfare because they can’t control it, though I don’t know. They’re crazy, basically. They’re already crazy. If you throw a nuclear bomb and the wind changes, you get it back in your face: you can’t control it, any more than they could control Chernobyl. It just blows where the wind lists.
The Sun: And around the world eventually.
Wolf: I was in Finland when a radioactive cloud went through, and then I got another dose from Chernobyl. Of course, it’s invisible. Nobody knew about it until Sweden blew the whistle a few days later.
The Sun: When you do all these incredible things, like go to Nicaragua, do you ever get scared?
Wolf: Sure I get scared, though I haven’t done any very scary things. I have never been around where there’s real shooting. I’d probably run for cover!
Though I guess I’ve done some daring things, like going up into the wilderness, and kayaking in Baja where the whales are. I have misgivings, but then I always do these things.
The Sun: You went down the river in the Grand Canyon in a raft?
Wolf: Yes. I remember waiting for the first rapid. I was hanging on for dear life.
The Sun: When was that?
Wolf: I was about seventy when I did that.
The Sun: I understand you were a ravenous meat-eater all your life, until just recently. I’m amazed that, at ninety-three, you changed your eating habits just like that.
Wolf: Yes, those animals! I read John Robbins’s Diet for a New America. If I start to waver, I’m going to read the book again and get inspired, get my batteries recharged. It’s just terrible. It takes far more acreage to produce a pound of protein from beef than it does from planting grains. Beef production is really inefficient.
I eat an apple every day — not a whole one, but half of one. One of those great big Granny Smiths. I have no medical coverage, I can’t afford pills, and I can’t afford doctors, so I have to rely on an apple-a-day keeps the doctors away. Christian Scientists, you know, don’t believe in sickness either.
The Sun: Are you a Christian Scientist?
Wolf: Only in that it’s cheap. It doesn’t cost anything!
The Sun: I grew up as a Christian Scientist, though I’m not one now. But it was a good basis for health.
Wolf: I’ve got a friend who is a Christian Scientist, and we used to talk about it. She told me that nobody died unless they wanted to — unless they die by accident, of course. They don’t have any choice there, but you know, a long illness and people get tired and just die. And I thought that makes sense. When I’m tired of this planet, I’m leaving! If it gets uncomfortable, I’m not going to stick around.
The Sun: That was a friend of yours?
Wolf: Yes. She’s dead now.
The Sun: She got tired!
Wolf: She got tired. She was in her nineties, ninety-seven or so. She was quite a bit older than I was.
The Sun: Have all your family members lived a long time?
Wolf: No, I don’t come from a long-lived family. They’re all gone. It delights me that this upsets all the scientists’ apple carts, because I have a sneaky contempt for science. I think it’s permeated with a lot of myths.
The Sun: What first got you involved in environmental issues?
Wolf: Victoria, British Columbia, was not a large city. You could hike out of there in an hour. We went on long walks. That’s where my roots are.
I had a friend, an old communist, who belonged to the Audubon Society. We used to go camping together. She wanted me to join the Audubon Society. But I knew they were just a bunch of bird watchers and I didn’t want to be bothered. But she kept after me and kept after me, so to get her off my back, I joined. You know the camel had its nose in the tent by that time! I went on a field trip to Lincoln Park with the Society. That was the first time I ever looked at a bird, really looked.
I watched a little brown bird going up a tree. It was taking little bites of some invisible things as it went, until it reached the first lateral boughs. Then it flew down to the bottom of another tree and went up and up and up. It kept that up all day. It worked hard for a living. It worked like I did. It had a little lifestyle just like I did. I got up in the morning, made my lunch, took a bus, went to work, ate my lunch, went back to work, came home on the bus, ate my dinner. There was not too much variation. Two weeks vacation or something like that. A weekend.
This bird’s lifestyle was tough, hard work. Enemies to watch out for. It could get run over in the street. Bigger birds could attack it.
It was the first time I felt that close to some other species. My birding went on from there. I wanted to see every bird in the United States. When I retired in 1965, I was sixty-seven years old. I went on a frenzy of camping trips all over the United States with other women, carefully avoiding all cities. Going to ranches, putting birds on our checklist, watching them to see what they did — it’s a really fun game.
The Sun: Are you still active in the Audubon Society?
Wolf: Yes. Before I retired, I went to a couple of meetings and helped them with their bylaws. Then the president called me and said, “I understand you were a member of the Communist party, and I know the communists are good organizers. Would you come to our board meeting?”
About a year before I retired, the nominating committee wanted to know if I would accept the nomination as secretary. I decided well, why not? Now what am I supposed to do? I’m still finding out. Twenty-six years later, I’m still the secretary. I’m still finding out what I’m supposed to do.
The Sun: And you’ve started more chapters than anybody in the country?
Wolf: We have twenty-five chapters in the state of Washington, and I organized eighteen of them. I like to organize. That is basically what I’m good at. But when I say I organize these chapters, it’s not quite accurate. With a big project of any kind, no one person does it. I just have a method worked out. I have a knack for getting people together.
The Sun: Tell me a story about bringing people together. I see you’ve gotten some awards for that.
Wolf: There’s one I really like out here, in the living room. It’s written on that piece of bark over there on the wall. It’s in Spanish and it says it’s for my great work as a feminist. Like most of these awards, I got it for the wrong reason!
They think I’m a feminist, an ardent worker in women’s rights, because I pulled something off down there that just delighted them. I was invited to attend a conference in Nicaragua as an observer. The first thing I observed was that they had all these panels and discussions and monitors, but not a woman among them. They had women from every country in Central America — many of them scientists — but no women monitors and no women speakers.
At lunch, I got together with a small group of women, and we decided this was unacceptable. Some of them didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak much Spanish. But we communicated, helping each other. I said I would draw up a resolution in English, and then we’d get together and see how everyone liked it. Then we’d put it in Spanish and get some men to endorse it.
It was a funny resolution. The first “whereas” buttered them up. It went something like this: whereas this is a wonderful country and a wonderful convention . . . And then I had another whereas. I said, we deplore the lack of women speakers and women monitors and women workshop leaders. And whereas women do all the nitty-gritty work, they do the ushering and they prepare the food and they do all the hard work, the men get all the credit. Those were my whereases. Then I wrote, therefore, we resolve that we show our appreciation to the women who did all this work. And we resolve that hereafter when they have conventions, women be given prominent places as speakers and monitors.
They liked it. So I got this award because they thought I was a great feminist.
The Sun: You said you’ve never had to let go of your daydreams. What do you daydream about now?
Wolf: As I said, I grew up in a very poor neighborhood. There was a lot of drunkenness, a lot of sickness, a lot of poverty and old, tumbled-down houses. I used to have daydreams about what I was going to do. Like everybody does when they are growing up. I’d dream I was going to become a doctor and come back and cure everybody. Or I was going to become an architect and come back and build all these houses. I was always going to go out into the great world and come back with these wonderful skills to help my own people. I’ve never wanted to leave my own people. These were my people and I wanted to do these things.
When you’re very young, you think the individual can do great things. But as you go along, you realize you’ve got to work with other people to do great things. Together you do great things. I couldn’t go and become an architect and come back and build these houses. I found that out somewhere along the line. You’ve got to have a committee! We survived as a species because we hunted together. No single human could pull down a big animal alone. You had to have a committee!
I never became a doctor. I never became an architect. But all during the Depression I worked for better housing and health insurance. Later, I found out that the old-growth forests where I grew up had been clear-cut, and the waters where I swam for miles as a kid are so polluted that no one is allowed to swim there anymore. That really hurts.
If I’d known as a child what I know now, I’d have become an environmentalist on the spot. I guess you could say that my childhood dreams led me first to help people in their individual environments — housing and health care, and things like that. But I ended up working to save our natural home.