The (extra)ordinary life of activist, feminist, mom Dot Fisher-Smith

Though 82-year-old Dot Fisher-Smith spent much of her life protesting injustice, probably her most famous moment came in 1996 when she was chained by the neck to a logging truck near the Croman Mill in Ashland.

She and 12 others were arrested that day for protesting one of a hundred timber sales Congress had exempted from environmental constraints and administrative challenges. A Mail Tribune photo of Fisher-Smith with a bicycle lock around her neck flashed around the world, evoking sympathy, humor and support for the archetypal "little old lady" raging nonviolently against the machine.

"The picture made people stop and think," Fisher-Smith recalls from her Ashland home. "I had people come up to me and thank me and say it's what made them get informed about the rape of the ancient forests and the heedlessness of the timber industry."

The Croman Mill is long since gone, and timber sales on federal lands have dwindled to a fraction of their volume during their 1980s heyday. And Fisher-Smith is still protesting injustice when she sees it.

She's the subject of a new documentary, "Dot: An Ordinary Life, an Extraordinary Person," premiering next month in Ashland.

Director Pat Somers and producer Willow Denker say the film shows how much a difference one thoughtful, committed citizen can make in the world.

"She's an example of how to live your life in ways that are consistent with what you believe," says Somers.

The film is a personal story of a political activist, Zen student, mom, feminist and ordinary person who tries to follow the model of Gandhi by living one's highest ideals at every moment, Somers says.

"The means must be consistent with the ends," says Fisher-Smith. "That's straight from Gandhi. ...You study yourself, pay attention and have an ordinary life."

At the same time, the film captures the history of the transformative period of the latter 20th century, when the baby boomer vision of change exploded across the country.

The film will be shown at 7 p.m. Oct. 16 at Havurah Shir Hadash, 185 N. Mountain Ave., and will include a showing of Fisher-Smith's art. Tickets are $15, available at Paddington Station, Music Coop and Treehouse Books. Somers and Denker plan to show the film at festivals and possibly on public or cable television.

Far from being a charismatic leader with a fiery agenda, Fisher-Smith tries to follow the ancient Zen dictum of "chop wood, carry water."

"People tell me I'm a model for them and that how I live my life is inspiring, but what I do is bumble along, minute by minute," Fisher-Smith says. "When I'm hungry, I eat, when I have errands, I get on my bike, when I'm sleepy I ... resist going to bed," she adds, laughing.

"That's what's inspiring, that you're not perfect," Somers says to Smith. "The film doesn't say you're the greatest person in the world. You make mistakes. You go on. You've been doing it all your life."

The film goes back to segregation-era Louisiana, where Fisher-Smith, a Jew, was raised. "I knew segregation was wrong and that grown-ups were crazy and I was not going to grow up to be like that," Fisher-Smith recalls. "That was my litany, my mantra, and I did it."

She worked in New York, was a Foreign Service wife in Iran, had children in Mill Valley, Calif., in the 1950s. In 1967, her life changed. She took up yoga, tried LSD and backpacked in the wilderness. She protested the draft and fasted at the Oakland Induction Center, earning her and other protesters 10 days in jail.

"In San Francisco, the anti-war and anti-draft movements were the pulse," says Fisher-Smith. "It was simple: If people wouldn't sign up to kill people, there wouldn't be wars."

Like so many of the group loosely classified as boomer-peacenik-hippies, Fisher-Smith dropped out of political work and sought inner peace and simplicity with the back-to-the-land movement of the early '70s, buying land near Wolf Creek and living and farming communally.

The early '80s saw Fisher-Smith move to Ashland, engage in expanded activism with the founding of Peace House, and join protests of the Trident submarine base in Washington state, the nuclear power plant at Diablo Canyon and missiles at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, cruise missile guidance systems at Litton Industries in Grants Pass, defense materials at Precision Castparts in Portland, the White Train carrying nuclear warheads in Vancouver, Wash.

Fisher-Smith trekked in Nepal, started non-violence training for protestors, guided women's groups in empowerment and overcoming the wounds of domestic violence — all the while claiming no special wisdom or answers to the complex problems of modern life, says Denker, who hatched the idea of doing a film on Fisher-Smith and began taping interviews in the '80s.

"I thought, why not a documentary on her? There's something about her," says Denker. "I'm not the only one who appreciates her. She was so present with the medium (video). The movie is timeless and universal."

The movie doesn't shy away from life's difficulties — the hard work of parenting in tumultuous times, a house fire that took everything, the recent death of Fisher-Smith's son.

It tells the story of how Fisher-Smith and her husband, John, had fallen in love in their 20s but couldn't act on it. Then, 50 years ago, their paths crossed again, and they realized their hopes for a life together.

John Fisher-Smith, an architect and poet, readily complains that his magnetic wife gets all the attention and press for the projects, campaigns and consciousness-raising sessions they created together, but he heartily supports the film (which Dot stresses was "not my idea.")

"I love it and was very touched," John says. "It shows all the wonderful things of this woman I fell in love with, but I was initially furious it showed only her public side. There's so much more.

"She lives 'beginner's mind' and when you speak to her, she always comes from the basic things, down to earth, a freshness that maintains the enthusiasm and humor of youth, despite the ills of the world."

"I'm very pragmatic and minimalist," Dot says. "At the heart of it, what inspires people is that I'm my own authority. I've never been conventional. I don't look to any outside authority. That's what everyone wants to be."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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