SISTERS OF THE EARTH -- WOMEN'S PROSE & POETRY ABOUT NATURE
Her Rape: HOW NATURE HAS BEEN ABUSED
On a visit to the Oberlin Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, I came across a striking bronze figure entitled "Nature Revealing Herself to Science." Nature is a woman swathed in a length of cloth that drapes over her head, crosses and is knotted at her belly, and falls to her feet, clinging revealingly to her hips and legs. She is lifting the cloth at her shoulders to bare her perfectly proportioned bronze breasts. Absent from the scene but seemingly present in the sculptor's imagination is a leering scientist, clipboard in hand. This imagery is an accurate representation of historical attitudes: Francis Bacon, the principal founder of modern science, described nature as a woman and defined science as a quest to capture her, subdue her, and wrest her secrets from her. Similarly, during our country's settlement, men sought to open up "virgin" territory and exploit the land, its creatures, and native peoples, seeing the earth as theirs to subdue and use.
Given the prevalence of this imagery even today, it's not surprising that many writers -- women and men alike -- have seen the despoilment of Mother Earth in sexual terms. Some of the writers in this section draw close parallels between the abusive treatment of women and the abusive treatment of the earth. Others keen and grieve and sound the alarm about the destruction of our planet without specific reference to sexual metaphors. All feel deeply the threat to earth's integrity posed by a technological culture thrown out of balance by an excessively masculine ethos, a culture that takes from the earth without giving back, that values control and conquest more than compassion and communion, that sees the world in fragments rather than as a whole cloth.
Judith McCombs (born 1939) brings a feminist perspective to writing poetry, fiction, and scholarly books and articles, and has a particular interest in how women nature writers conceive of nature. She was born in Virginia and, as the daughter of a geodetic surveyor, grew up all over the continental United States. Educated at the University of Chicago (B.A., M.A.), she taught college English for nearly twenty years and was the founding editor of Moving Out, one of the nation's oldest surviving feminist literary arts journals. She edited Critical Essays on Margaret Atwood (1988) and coauthored Margaret Atwood: A Reference Guide (1991). Her poems have been published widely in little and feminist magazines in the United States and Canada and collected in three volumes. The poems in her second collection, Against Nature: Wilderness Poems (1979), including the one reprinted here, explore the ways in which we humans have distanced ourselves from nature. She explains that these poems come from the Bruce Trail, the Boundary Waters, and the Rocky Mountains, and notes that accounts from early settlers of these areas make evident the extent of their distrust of the "interminable wilderness" where "they were so desperately busy trapping, chopping, firing, and otherwise destroying." McCombs now lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and teaches at the Writers Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
See, a small space
in the woods,
The man with the
My mother does not
body is hoisted
Mary Hunter Austin (1868-1934) was a prolific literary maverick who did her best writing about the "Country of Lost Borders," as the Paiute Indians called the high California desert east of the Sierra peak that today bears her name. In her lifetime, she published thirty-two books spanning a range of genres, plus hundreds of essays and articles, documenting her penetrating intellect, her strong feminist beliefs, and her emotional and spiritual commitment to the life of the land and its native peoples. Born in Carlinville, Illinois, Mary Hunter first journeyed west with her widowed mother after earning a degree in science from Blackburn College in her hometown. She taught school for several years before marrying Stafford Wallace Austin and following him to the Owens Valley, in the rain shadow of the Sierra Nevada. After the birth of a severely retarded daughter in 1892, she began writing and (with a little ''friendly direction" from Ina Coolbrith) selling stories to the Overland Monthly, a regional journal based in Los Angeles. In 1903 she published her first and most celebrated book, The Land of Little Rain, a collection of fourteen essays about the California desert and adjoining mountains. The only one of her books to remain continuously in print, it was also a financial success, enabling her to flee a bad marriage and settle in Carmel.
After her divorce in 1914 and the death of her daughter in 1918, Austin traveled to Europe and lived in New York, writing and lecturing, ardently advocating unpopular causes from women's suffrage and birth control to Indian and Mexican-American rights. In New York, she became close friends with Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose move to the Southwest spurred her to follow and build a house in Santa Fe in 1924. The themes of feminism and mysticism and the intuitive grasp of reality that first emerged in The Land of Little Rain underlie all of Austin's nature writing, including The Flock (1906), California, Land of the Sun (1914), and The Land of Journeys' Ending (1924). Her stories in Lost Borders (1909), including "The Last Antelope," bear a close relationship to the essays in her first book, having the same desert setting and a similar style. Austin was painfully aware of what she describes in "The Last Antelope" as "that spirit which goes before cities like an exhalation and dries up the gossamer and the dew," having seen the once-verdant Owens Valley sucked dry by a thirsty Los Angeles.
THE LAST ANTELOPE
There were seven notches in the juniper by the Lone Tree Spring for the seven seasons that Little Pete had summered there, feeding his flocks in the hollow of the Ceriso. The first time of coming he had struck his ax into the trunk, meaning to make firewood, but thought better of it, and thereafter chipped it in sheer friendliness, as one claps an old acquaintance, for by the time the flock has worked up the treeless windy stretch from the Little Antelope to the Ceriso, even a lone juniper has a friendly look. And Little Pete was a friendly man, though shy of demeanor, so that with the best will in the world for wagging his tongue, he could scarcely pass the time of day with good countenance; the soul of a jolly companion with the front and bearing of one of his own sheep.
He loved his dogs as brothers; he was near akin to the wild things; he communed with the huddled hills, and held intercourse with the stars, saying things to them in his heart that his tongue stumbled over and refused. He knew his sheep by name, and had respect to signs and seasons; his lips moved softly as he walked, making no sound. Well -- what would you? a man must have fellowship in some sort.
Whoso goes a-shepherding in the desert hills comes to be at one with his companions, growing brutish or converting them. Little Pete humanized his sheep. He perceived lovable qualities in them, and differentiated the natures and dispositions of inanimate things.
Not much of this presented itself on slight acquaintance, for, in fact, he looked to be of rather less account than his own dogs. He was undersized and hairy, and had a roving eye; probably he washed once a year at the shearing as the sheep were washed. About his body he wore a twist of sheepskin with the wool outward, holding in place the tatters of his clothing. On hot days when he wreathed leaves about his head, and wove him a pent of twigs among the scrub in the middle of his flock, he looked a faun or some wood creature come out of pagan times, though no pagan, as was clearly shown by the medal of the Sacred Heart that hung on his hairy chest, worn open to all weathers. Where he went about sheep camps and shearings there were sly laughter and tapping of foreheads, but those who kept the tale of his flocks spoke well of him and increased his wage.
Little Pete kept to the same round year by year, breaking away from La Liebre after the spring shearing, south around the foot of Pinos, swinging out to the desert in the wake of the quick, strong rains, thence to Little Antelope in July to drink a bottle for Le Quatorze, and so to the Ceriso by the time the poppy fires were burned quite out and the quail trooped at noon about the tepid pools. The Ceriso is not properly mesa nor valley, but a long-healed crater miles wide, rimmed about with the jagged edge of the old cone.
It rises steeply from the tilted mesa, overlooked by Black Mountain, darkly red as the red cattle that graze among the honey- colored hills. These are blunt and rounded, tumbling all down from the great crater and the mesa edge toward the long, dim valley of Little Antelope. Its outward slope is confused with the outlines of the hills, tumuli of blind cones, and the old lava flow that breaks away from it by the west gap and the ravine of the spring; within, its walls are deeply guttered by the torrent of winter rains.
In its cup-like hollow, the sink of its waters, salt and bitter as all pools without an outlet, waxes and wanes within a wide margin of bleaching reeds. Nothing taller shows in all the Ceriso, and the wind among them fills all the hollow with an eerie whispering. One spring rills down by the gorge of an old flow on the side toward Little Antelope, and, but for the lone juniper that stood by it, there is never a tree until you come to the foot of Black Mountain.
The flock of Little Pete, a maverick strayed from some rodeo, a prospector going up to Black Mountain, and a solitary antelope were all that passed through the Ceriso at any time. The antelope had the best right. He came as of old habit; he had come when the lightfoot herds ranged from here to the sweet, mist-watered canons of the Coast Range, and the bucks went up to the windy mesas what time the young ran with their mothers, nose to flank. They had ceased before the keen edge of slaughter that defines the frontier of men.
All that a tardy law had saved to the district of Little Antelope was the buck that came up the ravine of the Lone Tree Spring at the set time of the year when Little Pete fed his flock in the Ceriso, and Pete averred that they were glad to see each other. True enough, they were each the friendliest thing the other found there; for though the law ran as far as the antelope ranged, there were hill-dwellers who took no account of it -- namely, the coyotes. They hunted the buck in season and out, bayed him down from the feeding grounds, fended him from the pool, pursued him by relay races, ambushed him in the pitfalls of the black rock.
There were seven coyotes ranging the east side of the Ceriso at the time when Little Pete first struck his ax into the juniper tree, slinking, sly-footed, and evil-eyed. Many an evening the shepherd watched them running lightly in the hollow of the crater, the flash-flash of the antelope's white rump signaling the progress of the chase. But always the buck outran or outwitted them, taking to the high, broken ridges where no split foot could follow his seven-leagued bounds. Many a morning Little Pete, tending his cooking pot by a quavering sagebrush fire, saw the antelope feeding down toward the Lone Tree Spring, and looked his sentiments. The coyotes had spoken theirs all night with derisive voices; never was there any love lost between a shepherd and a coyote. The pronghorn's chief recommendation to an acquaintance was that he could outdo them.
After the third summer, Pete began to perceive a reciprocal friendliness in the antelope. Early mornings the shepherd saw him rising from his lair, or came often upon the warm pressed hollow where he had lain within cry of his coyote-scaring fire. When it was midday in the misty hollow and the shadows drawn close, stuck tight under the juniper and the sage, they went each to his nooning in his own fashion, but in the half light they drew near together.
Since the beginning of the law the antelope had half forgotten his fear of man. He looked upon the shepherd with steadfastness, he smelled the smell of his garments which was the smell of sheep and the unhandled earth, and the smell of wood smoke was in his hair. They had companionship without speech; they conferred favors silently after the manner of those who understand one another. The antelope led to the best feeding grounds, and Pete kept the sheep from muddying the spring until the buck had drunk. When the coyotes skulked in the scrub by night to deride him, the shepherd mocked them in their own tongue, and promised them the best of his lambs for the killing; but to hear afar off their hunting howl stirred him out of sleep to curse with great heartiness. At such times he thought of the antelope and wished him well.
Beginning with the west gap opposite the Lone Tree Spring about the first of August, Pete would feed all around the broken rim of the crater, up the gullies and down, and clean through the hollow of it in a matter of two months, or if the winter had been a wet one, a little longer, and in seven years the man and the antelope grew to know each other very well. Where the flock fed the buck fed, keeping farthest from the dogs, and at last he came to lie down with it.
That was after a season of scant rains, when the feed was poor and the antelope's flank grew thin; the rabbits had trooped down to the irrigated lands, and the coyotes, made more keen by hunger, pressed him hard. One of those smoky, yawning days when the sky hugged the earth, and all sound fell back from a woolly atmosphere and broke dully in the scrub, about the usual hour of their running between twilight and mid-afternoon, the coyotes drove the tall buck, winded, desperate, and foredone, to refuge among the silly sheep, where for fear of the dogs and the man the howlers dared not come. He stood at bay there, fronting the shepherd, brought up against a crisis greatly needing the help of speech.
Well -- he had nearly as much gift in that matter as Little Pete. Those two silent ones understood each other; some assurance, the warrant of a free-given faith, passed between them. The buck lowered his head and eased the sharp throbbing of his ribs; the dogs drew in the scattered flocks; they moved, keeping a little cleared space nearest the buck; he moved with them; he began to feed. Thereafter the heart of Little Pete warmed humanly toward the antelope, and the coyotes began to be very personal in their abuse. That same night they drew off the shepherd's dogs by a ruse and stole two of his lambs.
The same seasons that made the friendliness of the antelope and Little Pete wore the face of the shepherd into a keener likeness to the weathered hills, and the juniper flourishing greenly by the spring bade fair to outlast them both. The line of plowed lands stretched out mile by mile from the lower valley, and a solitary homesteader built him a cabin at the foot of the Ceriso.
In seven years a coyote may learn somewhat; those of the Ceriso learned the ways of Little Pete and the antelope. Trust them to have noted, as the years moved, that the buck's flanks were lean and his step less free. Put it that the antelope was old, and that he made truce with the shepherd to hide the failing of his powers; then if he came earlier or stayed later than the flock, it would go hard with him. But as if he knew their mind in the matter, the antelope delayed his coming until the salt pool shrunk to its innermost ring of reeds, and the sun-cured grasses crisped along the slope. It seemed the brute sense waked between him and the man to make each aware of the other's nearness. Often as Little Pete drove in by the west gap he would sight the prongs of the buck rising over the barrier of black rocks at the head of the ravine. Together they passed out of the crater, keeping fellowship as far as the frontier of evergreen oaks. Here Little Pete turned in by the cattle fences to come at La Liebre from the north, and the antelope, avoiding all mantrails, growing daily more remote, passed into the wooded hills on unguessed errands of his own.
Twice the homesteader saw the antelope go up to the Ceriso at that set time of the year. The third summer when he sighted him, a whitish speck moving steadily against the fawn-colored background of the hills, the homesteader took down his rifle and made haste into the crater. At that time his cabin stood on the remotest edge of settlement, and the grip of the law was loosened in so long a reach.
"In the end the coyotes will get him. Better that he fall to me," said the homesteader. But, in fact, he was prompted by the love of mastery, which for the most part moves men into new lands, whose creatures they conceive given over into their hands.
The coyote that kept the watch at the head of the ravine saw him come, and lifted up his voice in the long-drawn dolorous whine that warned the other watchers in their unseen stations in the scrub. The homesteader heard also, and let a curse softly under his breath, for besides that they might scare his quarry, he coveted the howler's ears, in which the law upheld him. Never a tip nor a tail of one showed above the sage when he had come up into the Ceriso.
The afternoon wore on; the homesteader hid in the reeds, and the coyotes had forgotten him. Away to the left in a windless blur of dust the sheep of Little Pete trailed up toward the crater's rim. The leader, watching by the spring, caught a jackrabbit and was eating it quietly behind the black rock.
In the meantime the last antelope came lightly and securely by the gully, by the black rock and the lone juniper, into the Ceriso. The friendliness of the antelope for Little Pete betrayed him. He came with some sense of home, expecting the flock and protection of man-presence. He strayed witlessly into the open, his ears set to catch the jangle of the bells. What he heard was the snick of the breech-bolt as the homesteader threw up the sight of his rifle, and a small demoniac cry that ran from gutter to gutter of the crater rim, impossible to gauge for numbers or distance.
At that moment Little Pete worried the flock up the outward slope where the ruin of the old lava flows gave sharply back the wrangle of the bells. Three weeks he had won up from the Little Antelope, and three by way of the Sand Flat, where there was great scarcity of water, and in all that time none of his kind had hailed him. His heart warmed toward the juniper tree and the antelope whose hoofprints he found in the white dust of the mesa trail. Men had small respect by Little Pete, women he had no time for: the antelope was the noblest thing he had ever loved. The sheep poured through the gap and spread fanwise down the gully; behind them Little Pete twirled his staff, and made merry wordless noises in his throat in anticipation of friendliness. "Ehu!" he cried when he heard the hunting howl, "but they are at their tricks again," and then in English he voiced a volley of broken, inconsequential oaths, for he saw what the howlers were about.
One imputes a sixth sense to that son of a thief misnamed the coyote, to make up for speech -- persuasion, concerted movement -- in short, the human faculty. How else do they manage the terrible relay races by which they make quarry of the fleetest-footed? It was so they plotted the antelope's last running in the Ceriso: two to start the chase from the black rock toward the red scar of a winter torrent, two to leave the mouth of the wash when the first were winded, one to fend the ravine that led up to the broken ridges, one to start out of the scrub at the base of a smooth upward sweep, and, running parallel to it, keep the buck well into the open; all these when their first spurt was done to cross leisurely to new stations to take up another turn. Round they went in the hollow of the crater, velvet-footed and sly even in full chase, and biding their time. It was a good running, but it was almost done when away by the west gap the buck heard the voice of Little Pete raised in adjuration and the friendly blether of the sheep. Thin spirals of dust flared upward from the moving flocks and signaled truce to chase. He broke for it with wide panting bounds and many a missed step picked up with incredible eagerness, the thin rim of his nostrils oozing blood. The coyotes saw and closed in about him, chopping quick and hard. Sharp ears and sharp muzzles cast up at his throat, and were whelmed in a press of gray flanks. One yelped, one went limping from a kick, and one went past him, returning with a spring upon the heaving shoulder, and the man in the reeds beside the bitter water rose up and fired.
All the luck of that day's hunting went to the homesteader, for he had killed an antelope and a coyote with one shot, and though he had a bad quarter of an hour with a wild and loathly shepherd, who he feared might denounce him to the law, in the end he made off with the last antelope, swung limp and graceless across his shoulder. The coyotes came back to the killing ground when they had watched him safely down the ravine, and were consoled with what they found. As they pulled the body of the dead leader about before they began upon it, they noticed that the homesteader had taken the ears of that also.
Little Pete lay in the grass and wept simply; the tears made pallid traces in the season's grime. He suffered the torture, the question extraordinary of bereavement. If he had not lingered so long in the meadow of Los Robles, if he had moved faster on the Sand Flat trail -- but, in fact, he had come up against the inevitable. He had been breathed upon by that spirit which goes before cities like an exhalation and dries up the gossamer and the dew.
From that day the heart had gone out of the Ceriso. It was a desolate hollow, reddish-hued and dim, with brackish waters, and moreover the feed was poor. His eyes could not forget their trick of roving the valley at all hours; he looked by the rill of the spring for hoofprints that were not there.
Fronting the west gap there was a spot where he would not feed, where the grass stood up stiff and black with what had dried upon it. He kept the flocks to the ridgy slopes where the limited horizon permitted one to believe the crater was not quite empty. His heart shook in the night to hear the long-drawn hunting howl, and shook again remembering that he had nothing to be fearing for. After three weeks he passed out on the other side and came that way no more. The juniper tree stood greenly by the spring until the homesteader cut it down for firewood. Nothing taller than the rattling reeds stirs in all the hollow of the Ceriso.
Susan Griffin (born 1943) is a radical feminist thinker who has pursued a commitment to challenging the status quo by articulating a woman-centered view of the world in volumes of prose and poetry. Born in Los Angeles and educated at San Francisco State University (B.A., M.A.), she began writing her landmark book Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978) when she was asked to give a lecture on women and ecology. Woman and Nature is an extended prose poem that represents a conversation between the voice of patriarchal science and the voice of woman-as-nature and nature-as-woman. In making links between feminism and the environmental movement, the book helped to launch the school of thought known as ecofeminism. As the following two excerpts make clear, Griffin believes the fate of the female body and the natural world to be intertwined. She lives in Berkeley California, and lectures throughout the United States and Europe.
She has captured his heart. She has overcome him. He cannot tear his eyes away. He is burning with passion. He cannot live without her. He pursues her. She makes him pursue her. The faster she runs, the stronger his desire. He will overtake her. He will make her his own. He will have her. (The boy chases the doe and her yearling for nearly two hours. She keeps running despite her wounds. He pursues her through pastures, over fences, groves of trees, crossing the road, up hills, volleys of rifle shots sounding, until perhaps twenty bullets are embedded in her body.) She has no mercy. She has dressed to excite his desire. She has no scruples. She has painted herself for him. She makes supple movements to entice him. She is without a soul. Beneath her painted face is flesh, are bones. She reveals only part of herself to him. She is wild. She flees whenever he approaches. She is teasing him. (Finally, she is defeated and falls and he sees that half of her head has been blown off, that one leg is gone, her abdomen split from her tail to her head, and her organs hang outside her body. Then four men encircle the fawn and harvest her too.) He is an easy target, he says. He says he is pierced. Love has shot him through, he says. He is a familiar mark. Riddled. Stripped to the bone. He is conquered, he says. (The boys, fond of hunting hare, search in particular for pregnant females.) He is fighting for his life. He faces annihilation in her, he says. He is losing himself to her, he says. Now, he must conquer her wildness, he says, he must tame her before she drives him wild, he says. (Once catching their prey, they step on her back, breaking it, and they call this "dancing on the hare.") Thus he goes on his knees to her. Thus he wins her over, he tells her he wants her. He makes her his own. He encloses her. He encircles her. He puts her under lock and key. He protects her. (Approaching the great mammals, the hunters make little sounds which they know will make the elephants form a defensive circle.) And once she is his, he prizes his delight. He feasts his eyes on her. He adorns her luxuriantly. He gives her ivory. He gives her perfume. (The older matriarchs stand to the outside of the circle to protect the calves and younger mothers.) He covers her with the skins of mink, beaver, muskrat, seal, raccoon, otter, ermine, fox, the feathers of ostriches, osprey, egret, ibis. (The hunters then encircle that circle and fire first into the bodies of the matriarchs. When these older elephants fall, the younger panic, yet unwilling to leave the bodies of their dead mothers, they make easy targets.) And thus he makes her soft. He makes her calm. He makes her grateful to him. He has tamed her, he says. She is content to be his, he says. (In the winter, if a single wolf has leaped over the walls of the city and terrorized the streets, the hunters go out in a band to rid the forest of the whole pack.) Her voice is now soothing to him. Her eyes no longer blaze, but look on him serenely. When he calls to her, she gives herself to him. Her ferocity lies under him. (The body of the great whale is strapped with explosives.) Now nothing of the old beast remains in her. (Eastern Bison, extinct 1825; Spectacled Cormorant, extinct 1852; Cape Lion, extinct 1865; Bonin Night Heron, extinct 1889; Barbary Lion, extinct 1922; Great Auk, extinct 1944) And he can trust her wholly with himself. So he is blazing when he enters her, and she is consumed. (Florida Key Deer, vanishing; Wild Indian Buffalo, vanishing; Great Sable Antelope, vanishing.) Because she is his, she offers no resistance. She is a place of rest for him. A place of his making. And when his flesh begins to yield and his skin melts into her, he becomes soft, and he is without fear; he does not lose himself; though something in him gives way, he is not lost in her, because she is his now: he has captured her.
He breaks the wilderness. He clears the land of trees, brush, weed. The land is brought under his control; he has turned waste into a garden. Into her soil he places his plow. He labors. He plants. He sows. By the sweat of his brow, he makes her yield. She opens her broad lap to him. She smiles on him. She prepares him a feast. She gives up her treasures to him. She makes him grow rich. She yields. She conceives. Her lap is fertile. Out of her dark interior, life arises. What she does to his seed is a mystery to him. He counts her yielding as a miracle. He sees her workings as effortless. Whatever she brings forth he calls his own. He has made her conceive. His land is a mother. She smiles on the joys of her children. She feeds him generously. Again and again, in his hunger, he returns to her. Again and again she gives to him. She is his mother. Her powers are a mystery to him. Silently she works miracles for him. Yet, just as silently, she withholds from him. Without reason, she refuses to yield. She is fickle. She dries up. She is bitter. She scorns him. He is determined he will master her. He will make her produce at will. He will devise ways to plant what he wants in her, to make her yield more to him.
He deciphers the secrets of the soil. (He knows why she brings forth.) He recites the story of the carbon cycle. (He masters the properties of chlorophyll.) He recites the story of the nitrogen cycle. (He brings nitrogen out of the air.) He determines the composition of the soil. (Over and over he can plant the same plot of land with the same crop.) He says that the soil is a lifeless place of storage, he says that the soil is what is tilled by farmers. He says that the land need no longer lie fallow. That what went on in her quietude is no longer a secret, that the ways of the land can be managed. That the farmer can ask whatever he wishes of the land. (He replaces the fungi, bacteria, earthworms, insects, decay.) He names all that is necessary, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and these he says he can make. He increases the weight of kernels of barley with potash; he makes a more mealy potato with muriate of potash, he makes the color of cabbage bright green with nitrate, he makes onions which live longer with phosphates, he makes the cauliflower head early by withholding nitrogen. His powers continue to grow. Phosphoric acid, nitrogen fertilizers, ammonium sulfate, white phosphate, potash, iron sulfate, nitrate of soda, superphosphate, calcium cyanamide, calcium oxide, calcium magnesium, zinc sulfate, phenobarbital, amphetamine, magnesium, estrogen, copper sulfate, meprobamate, thalidomide, benzethonium chloride, Valium, hexachlorophene, diethylstilbestrol.
What device she can use to continue she does. She says that the pain is unbearable. Give me something, she says. What he gives her she takes into herself without asking why. She says now that the edges of what she sees are blurred. The edges of what she sees, and what she wants, and what she is saying, are blurred. Give me something, she says. What he gives her she takes without asking. She says that the first pain is gone, or that she cannot remember it, or that she cannot remember why this began, or what she was like before, or if she will survive without what he gives her to take, but that she does not know, or cannot remember, why she continues.
He says she cannot continue without him. He says she must have what he gives her. He says also that he protects her from predators. That he gives her dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, dieldrin, chlorinated naphthalenes, chlordan, parathion, Malathion, selenium, pentachlorophenol, arsenic, sodium arsenite, amitrole. That he has rid her of pests, he says.
And he has devised ways to separate himself from her. He sends machines to do his labor. His working has become as effortless as hers. He accomplishes days of labor with a small motion of his hand. His efforts are more astonishing than hers. No longer praying, no longer imploring, he pronounces words from a distance and his orders are carried out. Even with his back turned to her she yields to him. And in his mind, he imagines that he can conceive without her. In his mind he develops the means to supplant her miracles with his own. In his mind, he no longer relies on her. What he possesses, he says, is his to use and to abandon.
Although Joy Williams (born 1944) is perhaps best known for her novels and short stories, her The Florida Keys: A History and Guide (1987) has sold better than any of her fiction. In recent years she has gained a reputation for what one reviewer has called her "howls, protests, and pleas for sanity" regarding human mistreatment of the natural world, expressed in essays published in such magazines as Harper's and Esquire and in her book III Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals (2001). In a much-reprinted essay entitled "Save the Whales, Screw the Shrimp," she suggests that the ecological crisis cannot be resolved by politics, science, or technology, because it is "caused by culture and character, and a deep change in personal consciousness is needed." Williams was born in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and grew up in Maine, the only child of a Congregational minister. A graduate of Marietta College in Ohio (M.A.) and the University of Iowa (M.F,A.), she has taught creative writing at a number of universities. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona, but much of her writing has been "impelled and infused" by Florida, where she spent more than twenty-five years. Her essays, rooted largely in her despair over the destruction wrought in Florida by humankind's century-long assault on nature, are "meant to annoy and trouble and polarize," she admits in III Nature. The following piece from the book echoes Susan Griffin's description in Woman and Nature of the origins of Audubon's bird art and alludes to the vast wasting of wild birds that went on in the name of fashion in the late nineteenth century. Ironically, it was the grassroots activism of state Audubon Societies that finally brought the feather trade to an end.
The roseate spoonbill had almost been exterminated by plume hunters at the turn of the century. The feathers were not as popular as those of the egret for ladies' hats, but the wings were torn off and made into fans, though the buyer was often disappointed when the brilliant colors quickly faded. Knowledge of the horrors of avian carnage gives reading Edith Wharton a new dimension.
The spoonbill is a simple and shy creature of many troubles, yet garbed in glory. The young are an immaculate white and only gradually become suffused with pink. Three years must pass and three moltings occur before the bird achieves its full brilliance of nuptial plumage -- in rose and carmine and orange and will mate. The drawing of the spoonbill in John Audubon's Birds of America, considered not to be by Audubon, does not reflect the true radiance of the bird's colors. It is not likely that Audubon saw many of them. In his remarks he noted that their flesh was oily and poor eating, and that they were difficult to kill.
When Audubon visited Key West in 1832, a newspaper editor wrote enthusiastically:
It is impossible to associate with him without catching some portion of his spirit; he is surrounded with an atmosphere which infects all who come within it, with a mania for bird killing and bird stuffing.
Audubon indeed had a mania. Though his name has become synonymous with wildlife preservation, he was in no manner at any time concerned with conservation. He killed tirelessly for sport and amusement as well as for his art, and he considered it to be a very poor day's hunting in Florida if he shot fewer than a hundred birds. From St. Augustine, he wrote: "We have drawn seventeen species since our arrival in Florida but the species are now exhausted and therefore I will push off. ..."
Audubon shot many thousands of birds and never in his mind made the connection between the wholesale slaughter he so earnestly engaged in and their decreasing number, although in his forties he did begin complaining about the scarcity of mammals and birds for his studies. "Where can I go now," he grumbled, "and visit nature undisturbed?"
One of the major literary voices of our time, Alice Walker (born 1944) calls herself a womanist and an earthling, choosing to identify with women's culture and with the "beautiful mother" from whom we come and to whom we all eventually return. She has authored essays, poems, short stories, children, books, and novels -- most notably The Color Purple (1982), which won the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award -- -and engaged in cultural, political, and spiritual activism rooted in her love of nature and her delight in human beings. The eighth child of sharecroppers, Walker grew up in rural Eatonton, Georgia, and was indelibly imprinted with that landscape. She attended a black women's college in Atlanta and earned a B.A. from Sarah Lawrence College in New York before becoming involved in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. When she married Mel Leventhal, a Jewish law student who was also active in the movement, their union was both unconventional and illegal in that state. In 1978, divorced and with a daughter, Walker moved to rural northern California, where she felt that for the first time she could admit and express her grief over "the ongoing assassination of the earth." Her poem "Who?" from Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1984) laments the invasion of the Wasichu, which she explains is the Oglala Sioux term for "he who takes the fat," used by the Sioux to designate the white man. Walker has asserted that our species doesn't stand much of a chance unless we do something really different and has suggested that the presidency of the United States be made up of twelve grandmothers.
Who has not been
Not I, said the people.
Not I, said the trees.
Not I, said the waters.
Not I, said the rocks.
Not I, said the air.
Rachel Carson (1907-1964) is widely acknowledged to have launched the modern environmental movement with the publication in 1962 of Silent Spring, which fuses meticulously documented science and emotion as it makes the case that chemical pesticides disrupt the delicate ecological balance upon which human survival depends. Though the chemical industry attempted to discredit Carson, her work was vindicated by the 1963 report of the President's Science Advisory Committee, and she was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter. Born in Springdale, Pennsylvania, Carson entered Pennsylvania College for Women (now Chatham College) as an English major but switched to biology after a class with a woman biology professor inspired her, and then went on to earn a master's degree in zoology from Johns Hopkins University with an emphasis in marine biology. In 1936, she joined the Bureau of Fisheries (which later became the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) as a junior aquatic biologist and rose through the ranks over the next sixteen years to become editor-in-chief of publications. The success of her first two books -- Under the Sea-Wind (1941) and The Sea Around Us (1951), which won the National Book Award and the John Burroughs Medal -- enabled her to buy a coastal retreat in Maine and retire to write full-time. She began the research for Silent Spring when she received a letter from a woman friend about the death of songbirds in her yard after an aerial pesticide spraying. The following excerpt from the chapter entitled "Earth's Green Mantle" gives an idea of the case Carson makes against indiscriminate human meddling with the fabric of life.
EARTH'S GREEN MANTLE
Water, soil, and the earth's green mantle of plants make up the world that supports the animal life of the earth. Although modern man seldom remembers the fact, he could not exist without the plants that harness the sun's energy and manufacture the basic foodstuffs he depends upon for life. Our attitude toward plants is a singularly narrow one. If we see any immediate utility in a plant we foster it. If for any reason we find its presence undesirable or merely a matter of indifference, we may condemn it to destruction forthwith. Besides the various plants that are poisonous to man or his livestock, or crowd out food plants, many are marked for destruction merely because, according to our narrow view, they happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many others are destroyed merely because they happen to be associates of the unwanted plants.
The earth's vegetation is part of a web of life in which there are intimate and essential relations between plants and the earth, between plants and other plants, between plants and animals. Sometimes we have no choice but to disturb these relationships, but we should do so thoughtfully, with full awareness that what we do may have consequences remote in time and place. But no such humility marks the booming "weed killer" business of the present day, in which soaring sales and expanding uses mark the production of plant-killing chemicals.
One of the most tragic examples of our unthinking bludgeoning of the landscape is to be seen in the sagebrush lands of the West, where a vast campaign is on to destroy the sage and to substitute grasslands. If ever an enterprise needed to be illuminated with a sense of the history and meaning of the landscape, it is this. For here the natural landscape is eloquent of the interplay of forces that have created it. It is spread before us like the pages of an open book in which we can read why the land is what it is, and why we should preserve its integrity. But the pages lie unread.
The land of the sage is the land of the high western plains and the lower slopes of the mountains that rise above them, a land born of the great uplift of the Rocky Mountain system many millions of years ago. It is a place of harsh extremes of climate: of long winters when blizzards drive down from the mountains and snow lies deep on the plains, of summers whose heat is relieved by only scanty rains, with drought biting deep into the soil, and drying winds stealing moisture from leaf and stem.
As the landscape evolved, there must have been a long period of trial and error in which plants attempted the colonization of this high and windswept land. One after another must have failed. At last one group of plants evolved which combined all the qualities needed to survive, The sage -- low-growing and shrubby -- could hold its place on the mountain slopes and on the plains, and within its small gray leaves it could hold moisture enough to defy the thieving winds. It was no accident, but rather the result of long ages of experimentation by nature, that the great plains of the West became the land of the sage.
Along with the plants, animal life, too, was evolving in harmony with the searching requirements of the land. In time there were two as perfectly adjusted to their habitat as the sage. One was a mammal, the fleet and graceful pronghorn antelope. The other was a bird, the sage grouse -- the "cock of the plains" of Lewis and Clark.
The sage and the grouse seem made for each other. The original range of the bird coincided with the range of the sage, and as the sagelands have been reduced, so the populations of grouse have dwindled. The sage is all things to these birds of the plains. The low sage of the foothill ranges shelters their nests and their young; the denser growths are loafing and roosting areas; at all times the sage provides the staple food of the grouse. Yet it is a two-way relationship. The spectacular courtship displays of the cocks help loosen the soil beneath and around the sage, aiding invasion by grasses which grow in the shelter of sagebrush.
The antelope, too, have adjusted their lives to the sage. They are primarily animals of the plains, and in winter when the first snows come those that have summered in the mountains move down to the lower elevations. There the sage provides the food that tides them over the winter. Where all other plants have shed their leaves, the sage remains evergreen, the gray-green leaves -- bitter, aromatic, rich in proteins, fats, and needed minerals -- clinging to the stems of the dense and shrubby plants. Though the snows pile up, the tops of the sage remain exposed, or can be reached by the sharp, pawing hoofs of the antelope. Then grouse feed on them too, finding them on bare and windswept ledges or following the antelope to feed where they have scratched away the snow.
And other life looks to the sage. Mule deer often feed on it. Sage may mean survival for winter-grazing livestock. Sheep graze many winter ranges where the big sagebrush forms almost pure stands. For half the year it is their principal forage, a plant of higher energy value than even alfalfa hay.
The bitter upland plains, the purple wastes of sage, the wild, swift antelope, and the grouse are then a natural system in perfect balance. Are? The verb must be changed -- at least in those already vast and growing areas where man is attempting to improve on nature's way. In the name of progress the land management agencies have set about to satisfy the insatiable demands of the cattlemen for more grazing land, By this they mean grassland -- grass without sage. So in a land which nature found suited to grass growing mixed with and under the shelter of sage, it is now proposed to eliminate the sage and create unbroken grassland. Few seem to have asked whether grasslands are a stable and desirable goal in this region. Certainly nature's own answer was otherwise. The annual precipitation in this land where the rains seldom fall is not enough to support good sod-forming grass; it favors rather the perennial bunchgrass that grows in the shelter of the sage.
Yet the program of sage eradication has been under way for a number of years. Several government agencies are active in it; industry has joined with enthusiasm to promote and encourage an enterprise which creates expanded markets not only for grass seed but for a large assortment of machines for cutting and plowing and seeding, The newest addition to the weapons is the use of chemical sprays. Now millions of acres of sagebrush lands are sprayed each year.
What are the results? The eventual effects of eliminating sage and seeding with grass are largely conjectural. Men of long experience with the ways of the land say that in this country there is better growth of grass between and under the sage than can possibly be had in pure stands, once the moisture-holding sage is gone.
But even if the program succeeds in its immediate objective, it is clear that the whole closely knit fabric of life has been ripped apart. The antelope and the grouse will disappear along with the sage. The deer will suffer, too, and the land will be poorer for the destruction of the wild things that belong to it. Even the livestock which are the intended beneficiaries will suffer; no amount of lush green grass in summer can help the sheep starving in the winter storms for lack of the sage and bitterbrush and other wild vegetation of the plains.
These are the first and obvious effects. The second is of a kind that is always associated with the shotgun approach to nature: the spraying also eliminates a great many plants that were not its intended target. Justice William O. Douglas, in his recent book My Wilderness: East to Katahdin, has told of an appalling example of ecological destruction wrought by the United States Forest Service in the Bridger National Forest in Wyoming. Some 10,000 acres of sagelands were sprayed by the Service, yielding to pressure of cattlemen for more grasslands. The sage was killed, as intended. But so was the green, life-giving ribbon of willows that traced its way across these plains, following the meandering streams. Moose had lived in these willow thickets, for willow is to the moose what sage is to the antelope. Beaver had lived there, too, feeding on the willows, felling them, and making a strong dam across the tiny stream. Through the labor of the beavers, a lake backed up. Trout in the mountain streams seldom were more than six inches long; in the lake they thrived so prodigiously that many grew to five pounds. Waterfowl were attracted to the lake, also. Merely because of the presence of the willows and the beavers that depended on them, the region was an attractive recreational area with excellent fishing and hunting.
But with the "improvement" instituted by the Forest Service, the willows went the way of the sagebrush, killed by the same impartial spray. When Justice Douglas visited the area in 1959, the year of the spraying, he was shocked to see the shriveled and dying willows -- the "vast, incredible damage." What would become of the moose? Of the beavers and the little world they had constructed? A year later he returned to read the answers in the devastated landscape. The moose were gone and so were the beaver. Their principal dam had gone out for want of attention by its skilled architects, and the lake had drained away. None of the large trout were left. None could live in the tiny creek that remained, threading its way through a bare, hot land where no shade remained. The living world was shattered.
Though not a native of the Southwest, Mary Sojourner (born 1940) has become an impassioned defender of its increasingly besieged open spaces, in grassroots activism and in her writing. "I cannot bear to see the beauty of this western earth lost to bad faith," she writes. Born and raised in Irondequoit on the shores of Lake Ontario outside Rochester, New York, she experienced illumination on her first visit to the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1982, prompting her to leave behind three grown children and move to Flagstaff, Arizona, in 1985. Through prayer and ritual she gradually came to feel a connection with Earth that culminated one evening as she looked down from a limestone ridge near her home to a beloved meadow that was being turned into a gated golf-course development. "I saw hacked-off stumps of ninety-year-old ponderosa pine and gouged ravines, blasted limestone outcroppings, bulldozed dirt blocking what had been a snowmelt stream, and I felt as though I had been ripped open. ...I knew my heart had opened, my veins transfused with Earth's raw beauty, Earth's raw pain." Sojourner has written a novel, Sisters of the Dream (1989), a short-story collection, Delicate: Stories of Light and Desire (2001), and a book of essays, Bonelight: Ruin and Grace in the New Southwest (2002), from which the following essay is taken. She is also a commentator on National Public Radio and a columnist for High Country News.
The developer wants to talk. "People with different viewpoints owe each other the courtesy of listening." I look out the back window of my cabin at the meadow, at Mirabilis blooming amethyst in the tall grasses, at the houses of the old suburb across the field. Viewpoints.
We agree to meet at a local restaurant. I hang up and call my friend Baker. "I don't know," I say. "Time is precious. This guy and I don't have common ground."
"You never know," Baker says. "We may be able to touch his heart. I want to try."
The day before the lunch meeting, the developer calls. "How about we meet at the clubhouse at the golf course? That's the only way my wife can join us." In ten years, I have never been allowed into the gated second-home "community." Once, not realizing that the forest was walled off, I drove in, hoping to see what lay on the other side of the huge culvert that slashes across Griffiths Spring Canyon, and found myself barred from entry by a nice young man in a nice little gatehouse.
Okay," I say to the developer. "Do I need a pass to enter?" He laughs. "Don't worry I'll call the gate, and they'll let you in."
Baker doesn't like the change in plans. We talk about clans, about our suspicion that there are now two on this earth and that the distance between them is growing. ''I'll go," he says. "It's the only way we'll ever get in there."
The clubhouse chandelier is made of antlers. I suspect if I mention it, this bone light that I've seen in every wannabe woodsy condominium and restaurant in the Nouveau West, I'll be told that the antlers were found discarded on the forest floor, and any other questions I have will be countered with assurance that this place, this big, pseudoclassy building and the impeccably groomed land on which it sits, is the last word in ecologically sound planning.
The developer has brought his wife and his environmental consultant. Baker, I, and Third Musketeer Everett, down from trail maintenance in the Wind River Mountains, take our places at the table. A basket of fake pansies lies between the two clans. Baker orders a salad. Ev and I have already eaten. I will not let the developer buy me food. I wonder if the prohibition against eating with the enemy is as old as the DNA shining in my cells, as old as being willing to call someone "enemy."
I sip water and look past the developer toward the alien green of the golf course. I wonder what once lived here, in a vibrant messy web of life, death, and resurrection. The developer and I consider each other.
"What I want to know," I say, "is how creating these places feeds your soul."
He raises his glass. I think I see his hand shake, though it could be a trick of the bone light. "First," he says, "how much of what I say will be public? You already quoted our other conversation."
"That's true," I say. ''You would be wise to say only that which you know will be repeated."
"Okay," he says. "Then, I believe we are all here for a purpose to serve one another and that the good Lord gave us this earth to use wisely."
The woman working as our waitress brings Baker his salad. The pale chunks of meat look like processed chicken. I think of the developers' plans for Dry Lake and the description of housing as "condominium-style product." Product salad in a product room under product light, looking out on a wild place become product.
Our meal, our talk lurch on. The developer refers to the earth as a "little blue marble." His consultant talks about mitigation: "After we nuke the place," he says, "we mitigate above and beyond what we've done." He uses the word nuke a lot. He's honest -- hey, development is inevitable; somebody's got to do it. And he and the developer believe that they are doing the most environmentally sensitive job possible. Nuking the place and mitigating. I listen. I nod. I owe them the courtesy.
I think of Dry Lake. I remember Griffiths Spring Canyon, limestone, cress, and elk track braiding themselves into a living thread you follow to the huge culvert through which you glimpse the dead chemical green of the golf course, and I see the earth as a woman. She has been beaten and raped. She is not dead. The psychiatrists ask sensitive questions. They decide She is depressed, not essentially, but as a consequence of near-deadly abuse. They prescribe medication. She resumes a life. Nuked and mitigated.
We are told that the gated community into which we have been briefly welcomed is wonderful for family closeness. "Golf is great. A boy can be out there with his dad, doing what Dad does," The developer tells us he feels honored to provide a beautiful place where people from "down south" (Phoenix) can "recreate."
I ask him why he wants to develop more expensive homesites when houses costing $200,000 are not selling. "The average resident of Flagstaff," he says, "can't afford a $200,000 home. My end of the market is for people who live elsewhere and can afford property in the half-million-dollar range for recreation. This is America. They have that right."
It's time to go. "One thing," I say. "You keep referring to the earth as a little blue marble. I don't agree. The earth is a web. Everything is connected. And the earth is not here for our use, wise or otherwise. We are temporary. We are stewards."
Baker, Ev, and I climb into Baker's truck. "Hey," he says, "we'll probably never get in here again. Let's drive around and see what's to see."
We head away from the clubhouse, across the culvert from which you can look down on autumn wildness to the west and seasonless clipped green to the east, back into a necropolis of elegant, empty second homes, and out onto a road that runs between the golf course and Highway 89A. Baker curses. He stops the truck.
"This," he says and points to a tiny clump of cattails at the side of the golf-course road, "is what's left of Linbergh Spring." We climb out. "Right here," he says, "under this asphalt."
Poet, civil and human rights activist, and administrator Janice Mirikitani (born 1942) has earned a reputation for cutting through the silence that allows tyranny and oppression in its myriad forms to go unnoticed. A third-generation Japanese American, she was born in California and as an infant sent with her family to the internment camp in Rohwer, Arkansas, during World War II. She later graduated from UCLA, attended San Francisco State University, and earned a teaching credential from the University of California at Berkeley. She serves as executive director of programs for the poor and homeless at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco and has been instrumental in developing services for women, children, and youth. Married to the church's pastor, Cecil Williams, and the mother of one daughter, she is also a choreographer and producing director of the Glide Dance Ensemble. She has edited anthologies and published three volumes of outspoken poetry. "I cannot remove poetry from my daily work with the poor, with women, children, and youth," she commented on becoming the second poet laureate of San Francisco in 2000. "Poetry for me is lived in concrete and everyday expression." "Love Canal" is from her second collection, Shedding Silence (1987), and refers to the former toxic waste dumpsite in Niagara Falls, New York, on which a school and homes were built. When the deadly effects of the chemical contamination became apparent, the city and Hooker Chemical Company did not respond until twenty-six-year-old housewife Lois Gibbs began a neighborhood crusade.
And you will
And you will
And you will
The priests and
Jane Hollister Wheelwright (born 1905) was uniquely qualified for the task of writing two books that at their core examine the relationship between psyche and place -- and, even more the point, what happens to one's psychological state when the land in which its health is rooted is degraded by human activity. Born in Sacramento, Jane Hollister moved at age three to the Hollister Ranch, one of five cattle ranches totaling 39,000 acres near Santa Barbara, California, that had belonged to her family for more than a hundred years. The Hollister Ranch was, at 25,000 acres, the largest section and extended along the Pacific for twenty miles, one of the last wild tracts of land that size between Oregon and Baja California. Growing up on this oak-studded coastal grassland marked Jane indelibly, although her adult life would carry her far away: in 1929 she married Joseph Wheelwright and the two went into analysis with Carl Jung in Zurich in the 1930s, became Jungian analysts, and founded the first Jungian training center in the world in San Francisco in 1943. When her father died in 1961 Jane and her cousins and brothers realized they would be forced to sell the ranches, which was finally accomplished in 1967. Thereafter, the land changed hands many times and was subdivided into hundred-acre lots, one of which the Wheelwrights bought and began to live on part-time. Jane undertook to write The Ranch Papers: A California Memoir (1988), two chapters from which are reprinted here, as a way to understand the meaning of her connection with the wild land, to say farewell to it, and to address "the debatable questions: whether land can belong to anyone, or whether one belongs to the land." Jane and her daughter, Lynda Wheelwright Schmidt, later authored The Long Shore: A Psychological Understanding of the Wilderness (1991).
THE ALEGRIA CANYON
October and November, the year's nadir, is normally the dead time of year. The unexpected rain that had occurred a month too early was confusing things. In spite of the dominant gray, small fine green grass cropped up in spots like punctuation in a paragraph.
The Alegria, with its whispering secrecy and quiet, reminded me of a great sleeping animal that appears to be dead, though the slow, relaxed rise and fall of its breathing reveals otherwise. So it was with the canyon resting, waiting hopefully, if not apprehensively, for more rain. Should the rains come on time, there would be cause for exuberance; should they not, stolid acceptance. There was much to read in that one small glimpse into the lower reaches of the Alegria.
In a vast untouched area like ours, you can hear what you need to hear. You can see for your own good. Messages come through your touch. You are soaked, submerged, immersed; full to the brim with beauty. Each visit can be a final answer, but the next visit brings you something else. It never ends. It becomes an endless process: you and nature have become one, and you borrow its infinitude. You then have to go back again and again, because each time you outgrow, in some way, the self you were before.
You struggle for the words to make nature finite, to capture her, to take her with you, and you are defeated, which is right. The day before from Tepitates I had seen a thick layer of fog roll shoreward across the channel. It extended all the way to the island bases, making them appear to be resting on clouds. This did not relieve the worry about drought, nor did another sign of rain, a view of the islands so clear that their canyons and ridges were visible. From years of experience I knew that at the last moment the most favorable conditions could be a letdown. Promise is characteristic of drought. A number of brief signs of rain and their disappearance at the start of the season are sure signs of a punishing dry year. Nature's will to create is gone -- or, from nature's perspective, a rest period for the land is indicated, and then a fresh start.
I felt the impersonal quality of the cold, which matched the graying mustard. Death of the year -- any year -- is so utterly impersonal. By contrast then, is life personal?
In the fall the land is a composition of earth colors -- subtle, hardly noticeable browns, hennas and oranges. Ground colors, with so much vegetation gone, were having their brief day. Life had gone to earth, had gone underground. Energy and life were lost to view.
Sounds and scents, just as fleeting as the colors, were also faint; the scent was an essence, as the sounding wind was a presence. But it is the sound of silence that carries one away.
Will Big Coyote of the Chumash win the game of chance and bring us plenty, or will Sun and Eagle parch us?
Yet the uniqueness of the coast here directly relates to the lack of rainfall. Its overwhelming attraction is as much, if not more, the outcome of harsh conditions as of benevolent rains. Droughts have always been with us -- three years out of ten, and at least one exaggeratedly dry. The twisted, gnarled oaks, the snarled shrubbery, the tough sage with its delicate tentative lavender and white flowers in perverse ways prove the beneficence of dry years. Life, desperately but surely hanging on until the next rain -- no matter how slight -- gives the place an overall sense of beauty in strength. The desert cactus, a miracle of even greater tenaciousness, helps to make the Southwest what it is.
Unfortunately, in the cattle business long dormant periods mean bankruptcy; and there is no comeback. But nature's life force returns. The hard seed lying in the ground, no matter how long, sprouts and sets into motion the food chain.
The essence of the land, as it has been since the beginning of time -- its evolution -- still needs to be translated for human understanding. Descriptions, impacts, impressions come from the human side; but what is nature's view of us humans? What would the message be if a tree spoke to us, or an animal, or an insect? What would come from "out there"? Would "the other" in nature reach into "the other" in ourselves? If only it would.
So many thoughts, and for whom? The world is drowned by thoughts, most of them watered-down to satisfy too many people. But there is the need to capture the real stuff of this coast, no matter how difficult and personal and elusive a task it is. My notes need no justification; they are a thing in themselves, just as the coast is. Besides, one needs to have a say in one's old age.
As I walked along the beach later that day, a motor fishing boat paralleled along the shore, with its powerful, encroaching, self-assured engine noises. It was barely outside the breakers. To shut it out of my consciousness I carefully noted in detail what was around me. So that was it. Even though often redundant, my notes were also my protection.
In the afternoon the ocean began to build for the incoming tide, and the gray overcast mounted heavily out of the west. It moved deliberately toward the south where storms gather for the final push. Dampness in the air gave off the sense of a storm already spent; yet, underfoot, it was still crisply dry. There was not a sign of life at the beach.
I wanted to hurry home. I was a little frightened, yet there was absolutely nothing to fear. I had an unaccountable feeling of crisis that comes with the uneasy dusk as it also does with the dawn. Since it is neither day nor night it is a strange time. And it never lasts long enough for one to become used to it.
Standing there, watching, color finally came to the clouds, promising a vivid sunset. I knew it would be a brief one; there would be a flash of color, then the dark.
In the foreground there was no differentiation between sand and sea. The light shafts, at first so faint, were becoming distinct. There had to be open skies somewhere, for the sea kicked up a very bright sparkle in places. Wide, soft light bands intensified and searched downward. Three islands -- San Miguel, Santa Rosa, and Santa Cruz -- displayed their ridge tops in the descending sun; they stood out above the general faintness around their island bases.
I had a driving need to prove the uniqueness of this country. My fate was deeply involved in it.
Abalone shades of pearl, gray and pink drifted into the distant clouds. The sun, descending more and more, suddenly lightened the sky to the west, forcing into the northeast a contrasting heaviness. Rays from the sun, now on the western horizon, pointed up a white swish of vapor above, cutting through the layers of gray. Minutes later sun rays shot up from below the horizon separating the real from the unreal. All too soon, large patches of deep blue were revealed. The storm had fallen back. My impulse was to turn away and start for home, but with no warning the pink of the sky turned the whole vast expanse of ocean to pink.
The last verse of the Night Chant of the Navajos, the Yeibechai, came to me:
In beauty, I walk,
Each moment made the preceding moment a lie, but I could no longer look into the sun, it had already left black moons in my eyes.
Chevron authorities locked our gates yesterday.
Our appeal for a stay has not been decided by the judges in the California Supreme Court, yet Chevron has started operations. At least, they have brought their heavy equipment onto our property. They intend to lay huge pipes along the coastline -- one for sour gas and one for oil.
Their detectives are already stationed at each end of the ranch. Their new uniforms and helmets are spanking and up to date compared to our general dishevelment from the dust, patched roads and mended fences. The legal fees we have had to pay have made it impossible to allow us more than a minimum standard of maintenance on the ranch.
The story of how they have managed to do this is a human, or merely political one, but it happened some time after our original sale to an enterprising but environment-minded Los Angeles man who -- sad to report -- has since died. The property ownership went through the proverbial revolving door, becoming almost unrecognizable in the process. But that is another story, for another day.
Part of it involved parcelling prime wild land in the coast ranch in one-hundred-acre lots for individual owners, and my husband, Joe, and I bought one of them back.
Am I suspect as well, since one hundred acres now belong to me? I hope not; I am respectful of it in its wild state and consider myself its steward. Chevron claims it will restore the land to its virginal state -- but once raped, hardly twice a virgin. They could have laid the pipe at the bottom of the channel, disturbing only a narrow strip of underwater sea land. In that case, in the event of an explosion, the damage done to the wild coast, to the shifting, underwater life, and to those of us on land would be minimized.
But Chevron has chosen to tear into a fragile coastline. Their decision indicates that they feel this land is expendable and unimportant in the face of the public's need for oil, the army's insistence on preparedness, and an American need to go on being powerful -- our "manifest destiny." I can only believe that their appearance on the ranch means just one thing: another expression of man's historical arrogance and hatred of nature. He cannot understand this vast land still uncluttered by civilization, so he condemns it. The land is unknowable: therefore, destructible.
A few of us deliberately chose to live as far away as possible from the playground beaches to find the sanity and health the wilderness would give us. The others, living between us and Chevron's pollution, are even more vulnerable. The one or two families on the mesas bordering the ocean who heroically refused to negotiate with Chevron, in spite of the huge monetary settlements offered, will suffer the most.
Tepitates -- February 28, 1987
The "right to take" was judged in favor of Chevron by the Supreme Court in Sacramento. The pipeline for oil and its partner, the one for sour gas, lying parallel to it, are in the ground. I am wondering how they can be adequately monitored for leaks.
They called me "sentimental" to cling to a financially losing proposition.
Ranching was always a struggle; but struggle fit the original character of this place. There were floods and droughts -- and always the midsummer heat and January cold. Dust and relentless winds, drying out the land after too little rain, blow to hurricane proportions, driving the sand from the beach. Shipwrecks off Point Conception and Point Arguello and offshore winds that have driven fishermen's rowboats out to sea, and to their deaths, are witness.
But when millions of dollars are poured into the place, the struggle will be over. The winds will be controlled by special planting in the canyons and by cabanas on the beach. The droughts will be relieved by water wells or water recovered from the ocean. The dust will be laid under cement. Only fire can wreak some havoc and revive some need for wariness- -- a last reminder that man is not all-powerful.
There will be about fifty signs along the stretch. There will be mileage markers and indications of bends and turnings of pipe. These will be installed before the pipelines go into operation and will be read by fixed-wing aircraft once a week to observe possible problems. The wording on the signs is a miracle of economy and precision. It is the Night Chant of the White Man:
NATURAL GAS LINE
"I see myself weaving connections that are alive," writes Marilou Awiakta (born 1936), an author of poetry, essays, and books that connect cultures and perspectives, peoples and their worlds. Born of Cherokee/Appalachian heritage and raised in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where her father worked at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, a center for nuclear research, she sees herself as a teacher and communicator between the Western mind and Native American cultures, as well as a synthesizer of the perspectives of science and emotion. This theme of harmonizing disparate views is found in Selu: Seeking the Corn- Mother's Wisdom (1993), from which the following poem is taken. Selu is Awiakta's exploration of the role of corn in human life and of the various ways that different cultures have understood corn. Her own Cherokee tribe and other indigenous peoples have seen Ginitsi Selu (pronounced Say-loo), "Grandmother Corn," as a teacher of wisdom, whereas Western science has focused on describing its development and history as a food crop. In her book, Awiakta shows that "thinking in unity of heart/mind/soul" is the key to fully understanding the impact of corn on both Native American and Western cultures. As an activist, she was involved in a fifteen-year struggle to protest the construction of the Tellico Dam by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which ended up being built and flooding Cherokee burial mounds. For Awiakta, the reason for contemplating the wisdom of Selu is "So we won't die. Neither will Mother Earth."
WHEN EARTH BECOMES AN "IT"
When the people
call Earth "Mother,"
When the people
call Earth "it,"
Already the sun is
Susan Fenimore Cooper (1813-1894) is generally credited with producing the first book of nature writing by an American woman. Her Rural Hours (1850), predating Walden by four years, is a record of natural events in the vicinity of Otsego Lake in New York, arranged as a year's worth of journal entries. The book mingles matter-of-fact reporting of weather, flora, and fauna with longer, pithier entries, such as the one reprinted here from July 28, that show Cooper's conviction that the progress of civilization must be balanced with responsibility if the abundance and beauty of nature are to be enjoyed by future generations. She was born in Mamaroneck, New York, and educated in botany by her maternal grandfather during drives about his farm and woods. Her adolescence was spent receiving a formal education in Europe, living in Paris with her family and traveling with them to Switzerland, Italy, and England. When she was twenty, her family returned to the United States and settled in Cooperstown, founded by her paternal grandfather in 1789. Never married, Cooper spent the rest of her life there, devoting her energies to humanitarian concerns, to serving as copyist for her father (the popular novelist James Fenimore Cooper), and to producing a modest literary output -- including stories and articles for magazines, a novel, an anthology of nature poetry, and a series of introductions to a new edition of her fathers works. A repeated refrain in Rural Hours is the depletion of plant and animal life witnessed by Cooper, living as she did in a developing region of upstate New York that was wilderness when her grandfather first saw it in 1785. Ahead of her time, she hoped that by educating people about the flora and fauna around them, she could also convince them that they ought to care about preserving the environment.
THE HEWERS OF WOOD
In these times, the hewers of wood are an unsparing race. The first colonists looked upon a tree as an enemy, and to judge from appearances, one would think that something of the same spirit prevails among their descendants at the present hour. It is not surprising, perhaps, that a man whose chief object in life is to make money, should turn his timber into bank-notes with all possible speed; but it is remarkable that anyone at all aware of the value of wood, should act so wastefully as most men do in this part of the world. Mature trees, young saplings, and last year's seedlings, are all destroyed at one blow by the axe or by fire; the spot where they have stood is left, perhaps, for a lifetime without any attempt at cultivation, or any endeavor to foster new wood. One would think that by this time, when the forest has fallen in all the valleys -- when the hills are becoming more bare every day -- when timber and fuel are rising in prices, and new uses are found for even indifferent woods -- some forethought and care in this respect would be natural in people laying claim to common sense. The rapid consumption of the large pine timber among us should be enough to teach a lesson of prudence and economy on this subject. It has been calculated that 60,000 acres of pine woods are cut every year in our own State alone; and at this rate, it is said that in twenty years, or about 1870, these trees will have disappeared from our part of the country! But unaccountable as it may appear, few American farmers are aware of the full value and importance of wood. They seem to forget the relative value of the forests. It has been reported in the State of New York, that the produce of tilled lands carried to tide-water by the Erie Canal, in one year, amounted to 8,170,000 dollars' worth of property; that of animals, or farm-stock, for the same year, is given at $3,230,000; that of the forests, lumber, staves, &c., &c., at $4,770,000. Thus the forest yielded more than the stock, and more than half as much as the farm lands; and when the comparative expense of the two is considered, their value will be brought still nearer together. Peltries were not included in this account. Our people seldom remember that the forests, while they provide food and shelter for the wildest savage tribes, make up a large amount of the wealth of the most civilized nations. The first rude devices of the barbarian are shaped in wood, and the cedar of Lebanon ranks with the gold of Ophir within the walls of palaces. How much do not we ourselves owe to the forests as regards our daily wants! Our fields are divided by wooden fences; wooden bridges cross our rivers; our village streets and highways are being paved with wood; the engines that carry us on our way by land and by water are fed with wood; the rural dwellings without and within, their walls, their floors, stairways, and roofs are almost wholly of wood; and in this neighborhood the fires that burn on our household hearths are entirely the gift of the living forest.
But independently of their market price in dollars and cents, the trees have other values: they are connected in many ways with the civilization of a country; they have their importance in an intellectual and in a moral sense. After the first rude stage of progress is past in a new country -- when shelter and food have been provided -- people begin to collect the conveniences and pleasures of a permanent home about their dwellings, and then the farmer generally sets out a few trees before his door. This is very desirable, but it is only the first step in the track; something more is needed; the preservation of fine trees, already standing, marks a farther progress, and this point we have not yet reached. It frequently happens that the same man who yesterday planted some half dozen branchless saplings before his door, will today cut down a noble elm, or oak, only a few rods from his house, an object which was in itself a hundred-fold more beautiful than any other in his possession. In very truth, a fine tree near a house is a much greater embellishment than the thickest coat of paint that could be put on its walls, or a whole row of wooden columns to adorn its front; nay, a large shady tree in a door-yard is much more desirable than the most expensive mahogany and velvet sofa in the parlor. Unhappily, our people generally do not yet see things in this light. But time is a very essential element, absolutely indispensable, indeed, in true civilization; and in the course of years we shall, it is to be hoped, learn farther lessons of this kind. Closer observation will reveal to us the beauty and excellence of simplicity, a quality as yet too little valued or understood in this country. And when we have made this farther progress, then we shall take better care of our trees. We shall not be satisfied with setting out a dozen naked saplings before our door, because our neighbor on the left did so last year, nor cut down a whole wood, within a stone's throw of our dwelling, to pay for a Brussels carpet from the same piece as our neighbor's on the right; no, we shall not care a stiver for mere show and parade, in any shape whatever, but we shall look to the general proprieties and fitness of things, whether our neighbors to the right or the left do so or not.
How easy it would be to improve most of the farms in the country by a little attention to the woods and trees, improving their appearance, and adding to their market value at the same time! Thinning woods and not blasting them; clearing only such ground as is marked for immediate tillage; preserving the wood on the hill-tops and rough side-hills; encouraging a coppice on this or that knoll; permitting bushes and young trees to grow at will along the brooks and water-courses; sowing, if need be, a grove on the bank of the pool, such as are found on many of our farms; sparing an elm or two about the spring, with a willow also to overhang the well; planting one or two chestnuts, or oaks, or beeches, near the gates or bars; leaving a few others scattered about every field to shade the cattle in summer, as is frequently done, and setting out others in groups, or singly, to shade the house -- how little would be the labor or expense required to accomplish all this, and how desirable would be the result! Assuredly, the pleasing character thus given to a farm and a neighborhood is far from being beneath the consideration of a sensible man.
But there is also another view of the subject. A careless indifference to any good gift of our gracious Maker shows a want of thankfulness, as any abuse or waste betrays a reckless spirit of evil. It is, indeed, strange that one claiming to be a rational creature should not be thoroughly ashamed of the spirit of destructiveness, since the principle itself is clearly an evil one. Let us remember that it is the Supreme Being who is the Creator, and in how many ways do we see his gracious providence, his Almighty economy, deigning to work progressive renovation in the humblest objects when their old forms have become exhausted by Time! There is also something in the care of trees which rises above the common labors of husbandry, and speaks of a generous mind. We expect to wear the fleece from our flocks, to drink the milk of our herds, to feed upon the fruits of our fields; but in planting a young wood, in preserving a fine grove, a noble tree, we look beyond ourselves to the band of household friends, to our neighbors -- ay, to the passing wayfarer and stranger who will share with us the pleasure they give, and it becomes a grateful reflection that long after we are gone, those trees will continue a good to our fellow-creatures for more years, perhaps, than we can tell.
Quite recently, two instances of an opposite character connected with this subject have accidentally fallen under our notice. At a particular point in the wilds of Oregon, near the bank of the Columbia River, there stood a single tree of great size, one of the majestic pines of that region, and long known as a landmark to the hunters and emigrants passing over those solitary wastes. One of the expeditions sent out to explore that country by the government, arriving near the point, were on the watch for that pine to guide their course; they looked for it some time, but in vain; at length, reaching the spot where they supposed it ought to have stood -- a way-mark in the wilderness -- they found the tree lying on the earth. It had been felled, and left there to rot, by some man claiming, no doubt, to be a civilized being. The man who could do such an act would have been worthy to make one of the horde of Attila, barbarians who delighted to level to the ground every object over which their own horses could not leap.
Opposed to this is an instance less striking, but more pleasing, and happily much nearer to our own neighborhood. Upon the banks of the Susquehannah, not far from the little village of Bainbridge, the traveller, as he follows the road, observes a very fine tree before him, and as he approaches he will find it to be a luxuriant elm, standing actually in the midst of the highway; its branches completely cover the broad track, sweeping over the fences on either side. The tree stands in the very position where a thorough-going utilitarian would doubtless quarrel with it, for the road is turned a little out of its true course to sweep round the trunk; but in the opinion of most people, it is not only a very beautiful object in itself, but highly creditable to the neighborhood; for, not only has it been left standing in its singular position, but as far as we could see, there was not a single mark of abuse upon its trunk or branches.
Lydia Huntley Sigourney (1791-1865) was one of the early nineteenth century's most beloved writers and the first American woman poet to make a full-time living from her art. Although she has been pilloried as a sentimental poet (Appleton's Cyclopedia of American Biography, published 1887-1889, opines that "her poetry is not of the highest order," as it "portrays in graceful and often felicitous language the emotions and sympathies of the heart, rather than the higher conceptions of the intellect"), her work can also be seen as basically political. Her concerns included temperance, social inequities of class and gender, peace, Native Americans, and the environment. Deeply religious, she was active as a philanthropist throughout her life. Born in Norwich, Connecticut, the daughter of an estate caretaker, she was mentored by her father's employer, the widowed and childless Mrs. Daniel Lathrop. With the backing of a wealthy Lathrop relative, she and a friend opened a private school for young women in Hartford in 1814, a career she unwillingly gave up when she married the much older and more conservative Charles Sigourney, a hardware merchant with three children, in 1819. When his business began to fail, she turned to writing to supplement the family income, eventually producing dozens of books of prose and verse and contributing to nearly three hundred periodicals. "Fallen Forests" first appeared in Scenes in My Native Land (1845) accompanied by this comment on environmental conditions in western New York: "Hills and vales are seen covered with stately and immense trunks, blackened with flame, and smitten down in every form and variety of misery. They lie like soldiers, when battle is done, in the waters, among the ashes, wounded, beheaded, denuded of their limbs, their exhumed roots . .. glaring on the astonished eye." The slightly different version reprinted here appeared in The Western Home, and Other Poems (1854).
Man's warfare on
the trees is terrible.
Barbara Mar (born 1936) is a poet whose main theme is the female spirit and body of the earth, which she sees as the mother of us all. Born in San Diego and educated at San Diego State College (B.A.), she served as poetry consultant to Woman-Spirit magazine, coauthored The Great Cosmic Mother: Rediscovering the Religion of the Earth (1987) with Monica Sjoo, and has published three volumes of poetry. Mar's long poem Bitter Root Rituals (1975) was first printed in an early edition of WomanSpirit magazine and later performed as a dance piece in Taos and Washington, D.C. It expresses the violence that has been done to the earth and her creatures, and sees the seeds of healing in a unitary vision, female in character, of the connections among body, animals, and the earth.
BITTER ROOT RITUALS, STANZAS I, II, AND III
white woman enters
she is dressed in
to the elders of
our tree is white
I have just eaten
the young men of
she gives them her
and in the dream
and the thighs
and the earth
and they strip her
they snap the dry
and with the
for us you fly
we suck you dry
sweet is the milk
and they stand
and laughing they
and she laughs
In a much-reprinted essay entitled "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," which forms the epilogue to her classic work Refuge (1991), Terry Tempest Williams (introduced earlier in this book) writes of the fact that nine women in her family underwent mastectomies (her mother, both of her grandmothers, and six aunts) and that she herself has had two biopsies for breast cancer and a small tumor between her ribs diagnosed as a "borderline malignancy." She wonders if the female relatives thus disfigured and later claimed by cancer were victims of nuclear fallout in Utah. She suggests that they might have paid with their lives for their unquestioning obedience to a federal government that tested nuclear weapons aboveground in the Nevada desert from 1951 through 1962. Devastation of landscape thus becomes linked in her writing with devastation of the female body. In the following excerpt from Leap (2000), which is essentially an inquiry into her relationship to her Mormon faith in light of her ecstatic love affair with the earth, Williams continues this weaving together of body and landscape.
The report from the pathologist reads "benign." I do not have breast cancer. I am relieved, but a melancholy hangs over me. This story tires me, breaks me down, erodes my spine. Mother had breast cancer, so did my grandmothers. They are dead. I am alive. Why?
Last night, I had a dream that the mountain across from where we live had been clear-cut.
My grandmother is sitting on the chaise in our den. I say to her, "How did this happen and so soon?" She is dressed in white and says nothing.
I run outside to see if it is really true.
I am creating a narrative on the forest floor out of found objects -- pine needles, sticks, and branches, pieces of bark, cones, stones, feathers, moss -- it is a sentence written in the native voice of the woods. I do not know what it says, only that I am its scribe. What I feel as I place these "letters" on the ground is that it is a way to stay the cutting, long, flowing sentences rising out of the duff that acknowledges the death of trees.
A friend sends me a large wooden ball. It is made out of yew, yew that heals the cancers of women. Taxol. This is a tree I know from the Willamette Valley where she lives. Pacific yew, so elegant below the towering cedars and firs. I remember watching the slash piles burn, the pungent smell that inevitably follows the chain saws and timber sales. I recall all the clear- cuts I have stood in, walked through in Utah, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia.
The phantom limbs still waving above my head.
The hillsides from a distance look like a woman's body prepped for surgery, shaved and cleared, ready for the scalpel.
I hold this yew ball in my hands, close my eyes. Heartwood. Wood round like the cyst my body created, now removed by a surgeon, the same surgeon who removed my grandmother's breast, his hands holding the knife -- cut and release. What have I released?
Where do the clear-cut breasts of women go? Where has the tissue of my body been thrown? I should have asked for it back so I could have buried it in my garden like a sunflower seed.
I want to be buried on Antelope Island out on Great Salt Lake. It is not legal, but my husband and brothers have promised to sneak my carapace onto the land, dig a good hole, then cover it with rocks, a fine perch for horned larks.
Mormons believe you should be buried with your feet facing east so you can rise in the First Resurrection. I want to face west toward the lake, toward the setting sun, toward the unknown, my body easing back into earth, food for beetles, worms, and microbes. I am satisfied to be soil. The songs of meadowlarks and curlews will be my voice. Stampeding bison over my grave are the only eternal vision I need.
White roses sit on our dining room table like doves, the doves I saw cross over our home in unified flight on the morning of my surgery. Are we ever at peace?
Yesterday, my breast was cut open, a cyst removed. I was unconscious as part of myself was taken. I dream of mountains being clear-cut. My eyes open, the hills outside our home are still wild. It is only when I look in the mirror that my body reveals the trauma.
Bear tracks in the snow coming down from the mountain. They are filled with blood. I see the blood of my mother and grandmothers. I smell the potent sap of yew, slash and burn, cut and release. I cup my two breasts, one tender, one firm in my hands.
My friend from the forest and I are canoeing in a lake. The mountains that surround us are burning, the trees are burning....
What do I do now with the open space in front of my heart?
In a long and distinguished career, Adrienne Rich (born 1929) has become one of the most eloquent and respected voices of contemporary feminism. Her steady output since 1951 of nearly twenty volumes of poetry, four collections of essays, and a groundbreaking study of motherhood has been marked by an increasing determination "to write directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman's body and experience." Born in Baltimore to a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, she won the Yale Younger Poets Award for her first book the year she graduated from Radcliffe. She married a Harvard economist soon thereafter and bore three sons in the space of five years but became increasingly conflicted over the traditional female roles in which she was cast. Participation in movements for social justice and the women's movement helped Rich articulate her growing discomfort; she left her marriage in 1970, eventually entering a lesbian relationship, and became known for powerfully exploring the effects of patriarchy on landscapes both literal and psychic. She won the National Book Award in 1974 for Diving into the Wreck, accepting jointly with Alice Walker and Audre Lorde, two other nominees, in the name of all women who are silenced. Over the years, Rich has taught at a number of universities, including Rutgers, Columbia, and Stanford, and now lives in Santa Cruz, California. The following poem, one of twenty-nine in the self-exploratory "Contradictions: Tracking Poems" series, is from Your Native Land, Your Life (1986 , in which Rich says she is trying "to speak from, and of, and to, my country ... to speak of the land itself."
CONTRADICTIONS: TRACKING POEMS, PART 18
unstated till now, is how