Photo: © Louis Gakumba
The following essay is copyright (c) 2001 by Lorraine Anderson. Reprinted by permission of the author from AT HOME ON THIS EARTH: TWO CENTURIES OF U.S. WOMEN'S NATURE WRITING, edited by Lorraine
Anderson and Thomas S. Edwards, published by University Press of New England, Spring 2002.
May not be reprinted or used without permission of the author (contact:
Introduction: The Great Chorus of Woman and Natureby Lorraine Anderson
"Have you ever tried to enter the long black branches of other lives / tried to imagine what the crisp fringes, full of honey, hanging / from the branches of the young locust trees, in early summer, feel like?" asks the poet Mary Oliver (West Wind: Poems and Prose Poems, p. 61). The women whose work is collected in this volume have made such an attempt to extend their imaginations, and their writing invites us to come along as they enter the lives of hummingbirds and honeybees, giant oaks and ancient redwoods, prairie grasses and desert creosote. The venture is remarkably important, for as Oliver goes on to suggest in her poem, if we haven't learned to open our eyes to the lives being lived everywhere around us, outside and beyond the human drama, we're liable to complain in a "mournful voice" that something is missing from our own lives. We're liable to find that we are "breathing just a little, and calling it a life." We're also liable to find our own species in deep ecological trouble.
The voices you'll find in this book are jubilant, defiant, celebratory, appreciative, indignant, loving, curious, reverent, angry, provocative. In memoir, story, sketch, journal entry, and essay, they transport us to frontier Michigan, to antebellum New England, to the plains of eastern New Mexico, the Everglades of Florida, the forests of the Northwest, the Colorado River. They celebrate the power of a storm over a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, the gift of rain in the desert, the beauty of the great white waxy blossoms of a magnolia tree in spring. They lament the passing from our world forever of a species of bird once so abundant its flocks blackened the skies, and the drowning of a family homestead under dammed water. They challenge us to shift our attention from the endless distractions of the techno-urban lifestyle of the early twenty-first century and enter into the larger reality of land and life that enfolds and supports us.
At Home on This Earth: Two Centuries of American Women's Nature Writing is a chronological presentation of environmental literature by women of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is an attempt to outline a tradition of women's nature writing in the United States and to correct what Vera Norwood has identified as "the contemporary impression that American women have come only lately to nature writing" (Made From This Earth, p. xiv). At the same time, it is an attempt to impart "a kind of education in the art of wondering at the fulness of life" (as critic Christopher Morley characterized the stories of Gene Stratton Porter). We hope that reading these authors will teach you something about how to see the world we've been blessed with, how to let your heart and soul be stirred by the life within and around you, how to make yourself at home on this earth by entering "the long black branches of other lives."
In assembling this outline of the tradition of women's nature writing in America, we have of necessity aimed to be representative rather than comprehensive. To keep this collection to a manageable length, we have had to leave out the work of some nineteeth-century and many contemporary authors as well as the eighteenth-century foremothers of the nature essay (see Daniel Philippon's essay in this volume's companion, Such News of the Land: American Women Nature Writers). We haven't attempted to represent the work of Canadian women nature writers. And we've excluded the great volume of poetry in which women have expressed their feelings about nature, leaving that for another collection. We've sought to enlarge the traditional definition of nature writing as natural history essay by also including other forms that women have used to establish connections with their world and with each other: short stories, journal entries, regional sketches, and memoir excerpts.
Why Only Women's Writing?
Before the current renaissance and blossoming of women's nature writing, the genre was understood in both the popular and the scholarly mind to be largely the province of men. Pick up any collection of nature writing published before the early 1990s and you'll see this for yourself: Great American Nature Writing (1950), edited by Joseph Wood Krutch, includes selections by five women and twenty-seven men. Our Natural World(1969), edited by Hal Borland, includes ten women in its roster of eighty-nine authors. The Norton Book of Nature Writing (1990), edited by John Elder and Robert Finch, features fifteen women among its ninety-four authors.
Is this imbalance due to some lack of production by women, in earlier times or our own? It doesn't seem so. Lawrence Buell, in The Environmental Imagination, reports that "roughly half of the nature essays contributed to the Atlantic Monthly during the late nineteenth century, the point where the nature essay became a recognized genre, were by female authors" (pp. 44-45). The twentieth century as well saw a steady stream of nature writing by women, swelling greatly by century's end. The reason that so many of these voices were allowed to languish for so long in obscurity, not recognized or collected, probably has more to do with the way nature writing has been defined, as noted by Thomas Edwards and Elizabeth DeWolfe in the introduction to Such News of the Land.
Thoreau's Walden (1854)along with such other works as William Bartram's Travels (1791), Francis Parkman's The Oregon Trail (1849), John Wesley Powell's The Exploration of the Colorado River (1875), and John Muir's The Mountains of California (1894)helped craft a male-dominated tradition that focuses on encounters with nature separate and isolated from our everyday existence. Constrained by gender roles, women have been more likely to encounter nature close to home in the daily round, and that is predominantly what they have written about. The Victorian code of "separate spheres" assigned women the domestic sphere and men the public sphere. Accordingly, in the nineteenth century and on into the twentieth, ornithology and botany within the confines of home and neighborhood were considered to be fitting pursuits for women, but solitary backcountry living (à la Thoreau) and wilderness exploration (à la William Bartram, Francis Parkman, John Wesley Powell, and John Muir) were most emphatically not. Indeed, it was 130 years before a woman writerthe wildlife ecologist Anne LaBastille (Woodswoman, 1976)had the opportunity and the means to emulate Thoreau. Thus, women's circumstances have often kept them from doing the kind of nature writing that this culture has recognized as such.
And in a culture that had developed a taste for nature writing of a sort that celebrated solitary contemplation or conquest and derring-do, environmental writing by women was inevitably undervalued and overlooked. In his foreword to a 1968 reprinting of Susan Fenimore Cooper's 1850 book Rural Hours, generally considered to be the first fully realized piece of nature writing by an American woman, Thomas F. O'Donnell seems to confirm this idea: "America wanted its nature lessons streaked with adventure, its landscape portrayed in high colors and cased in big frames. The time did not seem right for small pictures of nature in day-to-day dress in long-settled and more familiar Eastern neighborhoods" (p. vii). Though Cooper's book actually did quite well in her day, enjoying nine editions before the author brought out an abridged edition in 1887, it fell off the map of nature writing for more than a century. Syracuse University Press resuscitated it in 1968 as a "minor classic relating to the development of New York State" (p. ix), but Cooper isn't even mentioned in Paul Brooks's 1980 book Speaking for Nature: How Literary Naturalists from Henry Thoreau to Rachel Carson Have Shaped America (her father, James Fenimore Cooper, is). The first time her work was collected along with that of other nature writers was in Sisters of the Earth: Women's Prose and Poetry About Nature (Anderson, 1991), followed shortly thereafter by her inclusion in Celebrating the Land: Women's Nature Writings, 1850-1991 (Knowles, 1992). In 1998 a new printing of the unabridged 1850 edition, edited by Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson, came out, and Cooper's renaissance was under way.
Consider the similar case of Mabel Osgood Wright. Her first book, The Friendship of Nature: A New England Chronicle of Birds and Flowers, was published in 1894, the same year as Muir's first book, The Mountains of California. Wright's is an accomplished book of nature writing that gives an intimate view of seasonal changes in the birds and flowers around her Connecticut home. Wright herself was the most influential woman in the bird conservation movement of the late 1890s, which Jennifer Price in Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America (1999) calls "the first real national grassroots conservation crusade" (p. 58). She was the driving force behind the creation of the first bird sanctuary owned and governed by a state Audubon Society. She exercised a profound influence in the field of nature study through her numerous books for children. And yet The Friendship of Nature was out of print for a century, her more than two dozen other books are still out of print, and Wright gets two sentences in Stephen Fox's 1981 book, tellingly entitled John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement. As Daniel J. Philippon comments in his introduction to the 1999 reprinting of Friendship, "Written at a time when nature was valued mainly for its grandeur and sublimity, The Friendship of Nature challenged its readers to appreciate the land on a local, personal, and familiar levelto turn their gaze from the awe-inspiring spectacles that were being given National Park status at the time and to rediscover the beauty and complexity of their own backyards" (p. 2).
Old habits of thinking about what constitutes nature writing and about whose writing is worth reading die hard, and it wasn't until the last two decades of the twentieth century that scholars began to recover and draw attention to women's nature writing as distinct from men's. In her 1983 presidential address to the Thoreau Society, the nature writer Ann Zwinger countered a remark Thoreau made in one of his journals about women having "but little brains" by asserting that "surely some of the most appealing writing about the natural world has been done by my predecessors and contemporaries who are women" (p. 3). She then proceeded to match entries from Thoreau's journals with observations on the same topics by ten women writers, including Mabel Osgood Wright, Mary Austin, and Rachel Carson. In 1984, Vicki Piekarski introduced her Westward the Women: An Anthology of Western Stories by Women by saying, "For all too long, the history of the vast land west of the Mississippi River and the literature inspired by that land have been considered men's domain. It is generally believed that women not only do not read Western fiction but that they do not write it" (p. 1). In 1986, Deborah Strom noted at the start of her collection Birdwatching with American Women, "American women have been writing about birds with wit and style for more than a hundred years, but few readers or birdwatchers seem to know their work" (p. ix). And thus the recovery of the feminine voice, so long missing from the national dialog on nature and conservation, began.
To consider the nature writing of women separate from that of men gives us a chance to balance the historical record and acknowledge that women have written under a different set of cultural constraints from men. It also gives us an opportunity to outline a different tradition of nature writing in Americaone that can tell us as much as or more than the male-dominated canon about how to live on an ever more crowded and beleagured planet.
A Tradition of Women's Nature Writing
When we consider the work of women nature writers, we find a tradition emerging that sees the natural world as "an integral part of everyday existence, where the garden outside the front door supplies an experience as immediate and direct as the mountains in the distance" (Such News of the Land, p. 4). Vera Norwood has done much to define this tradition in her landmark study Made From This Earth: American Women and Nature (1993). There she writes, "The most basic thread running from Susan Fenimore Cooper's Rural Hours in 1850 to Ann Zwinger's Beyond the Aspen Grove in 1970 is the act of homing in on one spot, living with it through the seasons until the rocks, flowers, trees, insects, birds, deer, panthers, and coyotes are family" (p. 52).
Norwood maintains that Thoreau and John Burroughs also developed this theme in writing about the American environment as home, but their images of home are less focused on the domestic round than are women's (p. 47). As noted earlier, Thoreau removed himself from society to live close to nature, while women in the home-based tradition have more often rambled near established family homes to find the plants and animals they have written about. They have also concerned themselves with the home and family lives of the creatures they have observed. Certainly, the word home comes up often in women's nature writing. A quick look through my own library reveals these titles: Homing with the Birds (Gene Stratton Porter, 1919), Home to the Wilderness (Sally Carrighar, 1973), Temporary Homelands (Alison Hawthorne Deming, 1994), Islands, the Universe, Home (Gretel Ehrlich, 1991), Home: Chronicle of a North Country Life (Beth Powning, 1996), Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1985), and Home Is the Desert (Ann Woodin, 1964).
Some of the home-centeredness in the tradition of women's nature writing stems from the "separate spheres" doctrine. As Norwood points out, nineteenth-century women nature writers had the "burden of constantly demonstrating the propriety of their work on the public stage by emphasizing their ties to home" (p. 50). On the other hand, many women nature writers have found freedom from the domestic sphere and all that it traditionally entails by finding a home in nature, away from the indoor setting where their roles have been so welland narrowlydefined. They have embued the concept of home with new meaning by expanding it to encompass the wider world. As one example, picture this scene: Terry Tempest Williams is arrested for trespassing on military property when she enters the Nevada Test Site to protest the nuclear testing that she believes has led to the cancer deaths of nine of her female relatives. She is put on a bus with other arrested protestors and then they are let out short of the nearest town. As she writes in "The Clan of One-Breasted Women," epilogue to her 1991 book Refuge, "The officials thought it was a cruel joke to leave us stranded in the desert with no way to get home. What they didn't realize was that we were home, soul-centered and strong, women who recognized the sweet smell of sage as fuel for our spirits" (p. 290). Entering "the long black branches of other lives" has been a way for American women to feel at home on this earth while living in a culture that on the whole hasn't valued their interests or their viewpoints.
Being at home for many women nature writers, then, has the larger sense of being at one, not separate from our place on earth. And this leads us to another thread worthy of note in the tradition of women's nature writing: its reliance on modes of knowing the world that are centered in relationship, in the body, in intuition, mysticism, the emotions, the heart, as much as in the rational and logical mind. Women nature writers have often come in for the criticism that their work isn't scientific, a charge meant to discredit their efforts in a culture that has enthroned a method of inquiring into nature that is supposedly dispassionate, detached, objective. Women have been criticized for writing too personally, for being sentimental, for anthropomorphizing their subjects. For instance, Anne LaBastille's description in Woodswoman (1976, p. 56) of hugging a great white pine tree near her cabin and feeling its life force pour into her body has "undercut her credibility as a scientist/naturalist," according to Kate H. Winter in American Nature Writers (p. 502). "This blending of science and mysticism is a constant in LaBastille's work, and a calculated choice about which she expresses some ambivalence," writes Winter. "She is disturbed by the possibility that some of the public and certain members of the scientific community will not respect her work."
Other women nature writers have explicitly and purposely rejected the scientific mode of inquiry. The nineteenth-century birdersin particular Olive Thorne Miller, Mabel Osgood Wright, Florence Merriam Bailey, and Gene Stratton Portertook special pride in not killing and dissecting their bird subjects in order to know them, as was the practice of male ornithologists (as well as the artist John James Audubon), but instead observing the birds undisturbed in the field, in their own homes. Olive Thorne Miller spoke for other women birders when she wrote in a defense of her work published in The Auk, the scientific journal of the American Ornithologists' Union, that she preferred field observation, "the study of life," to the scientific mode of the day, "killing, dissecting and classifying" (January 1894, pp. 85-86). Edith Thomas, in her essay "Nature and the Native" in The Round Year (1886), pointed out to those who would come to nature on a "specialist's errand" and take home specimens ("press the flower, embalm the bird") that "a 'dry garden' and a case of still-life are poor showings for the true natural history of flower or bird" (pp. 5-6). "We cannot all be positive scientists, and heaven help the world if we could be! the spirit of things would be dried away by letter, and the affections ranged in systems about material suns," exclaimed Mabel Osgood Wright in The Friendship of Nature (1894; 1999, p. 86).
And then there was Mary Austin, whose first book, The Land of Little Rain, appeared in 1903. "She knew natural history, and by all accounts was a fairly proficient amateur botanist. But the scientific 'facts' alone were not enough for her; to these facts she always brought her intuition, her creative understanding, which immediately invalidates her work in the eyes of the professional scientist. Austin, in fact, could at times be quite contemptuous of the whole discipline of science, which she frequently referred to as 'the male ritual of rationalization,'" according to John P. O'Grady in American Nature Writers (p. 39). Austin wrote in The Young Woman Citizen (1918), "This capacity for intuitive judgment is the best thing women have to bring to their new undertaking, this and the things that grow out of it. This is what women have to stand on squarely; not their ability to see the world in the way men see it, but the importance and validity of their seeing it some other way" (p. 19).
Standing squarely on their capacity for intuitive judgment and rejecting a reductionist view of the world is exactly what so many women nature writers have done. Some (such as Austin, Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Walker, Linda Hogan, Susan Griffin, Brenda Peterson, and Terry Tempest Williams) have purposely cultivated a feminine voice, while others have simply brought the qualities of receptivity, caring, humility, sympathy, gentleness, appreciation for beauty, relationality, and reverence for life to their work. Rachel Carson, for example, was well grounded in science but was not afraid of being thought sentimental when she urged parents to share nature with children in a feeling way in order to awaken a sense of wonder. She wrote, "I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel. If facts are the seeds that later produce knowledge and wisdom, then the emotions and the impressions of the senses are the fertile soil in which the seeds must grow" (The Sense of Wonder, p. 45).
The way of seeing the world exemplified by American women's nature writing has been increasingly vindicated by science itself. Physicists tell us that objectivity is a myth because the observer affects what is observed, and that at the most minute level, all matter is a dance of relationship. Philosophers and historians of science such as Carolyn Merchant (The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology, and the Scientific Revolution, 1980), Evelyn Fox Keller (Reflections on Gender and Science, 1985), and Theodore Roszak (The Gendered Atom, 1999) suggest that the entire enterprise of science is shot through with a masculine bias that has led to our culture's alienation from and abuse of the natural world. "If feminist psychology is correct," writes Roszak, "the very conception of scientific 'objectivity' as a disciplined withdrawal of sympathy by the knower from the known, is male separation anxiety writ large. Written, in fact, upon the entire universe" (p. 91). Such authors tell us that the way back to ecological sanity and full membership in the earth community is to observe the world with heart and feeling, as if our lives depended on it. The home-based, relational tradition of American women's nature writing can show us the way.
Trends in Women's Tradition Over Time
When we read women's nature writing in sequence through time, as presented here, we can discern some trends suggestive of the ways our awareness has evolved along with the world we live in. Certainly we can trace a record of progressive depletion and impoverishment of the natural world. Caroline Kirkland remarks on the "clearing" going on at the frontier in Michigan in the late 1840s, Gene Stratton Porter laments the thoughtless destruction of trees and game populations that she witnessed during her 1860s Indiana childhood, and Leslie Marmon Silko records the demise of apricot orchards and melon patches when a uranium mine is blasted out of the earth on the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico in the 1950s. Accompanying this progressive desecration of the earth is a growing identification in women's writing with the earth itself, an increasingly intimate engagement with the natural world. There is also the dawning realization, starting with Mary Austin, that the same cultural trance that has for so long kept women's writing from being recognized is also responsible for the long steady decline of forests and bird populations.
The earliest women writers seem to be describing a nature that exists "out there," separate from themselves. Around the end of the nineteenth century a subtle change occurs, exemplified by Gene Stratton Porter: in her passionate closeness to nature, she realizes the birds she grew up with as kin. This theme is strongly echoed in Sally Carrighar's experience of finding a real family in the wild creatures who came to her cabin in Sequoia National Park, and again in Brenda Peterson's feeling for the trees of her High Sierra childhood as ancestors.
With Mary Austin an even closer identification begins. Austin sees the earth as female, not in the old sense of Mother Earth, but in an entirely new sense that invites us to see the earth's body as our own. She writes in her story "The Land" (Stories from The Country of Lost Borders, p. 160): "If the desert were a woman, I know well what like she would be: deep breasted, broad in the hips, tawny, with tawny hair, great masses of it lying smooth along her perfect curves." Terry Tempest Williams similarly writes, in Refuge, "There is musculature in dunes. And they are female. Sensuous curvesthe small of a woman's back. Breasts. Buttocks. Hips and pelvis. They are the natural shapes of Earth. Let me lie naked and disappear." And Meridel Le Sueur writes of her own birth, "Contracted in cold, I lay in the prairie curves of my mother, in the planetary belly, and outside the vast horizon of the plains, swinging dark and thicketed, circle within circle" ("The Ancient People and the Newly Come"). We aren't surprised, then, when Julia Butterfly Hill reports that "learning about the clear-cut made me feel like a part of myself was being ripped apart and violated, just as the forests were" (The Legacy of Luna. p. 9).
Thus, we can trace in women's nature writing over time a movement from seeing nature as kin to seeing nature as self, from seeing earth as our mother to seeing earth as our body. Along with this closer identification has grown the awareness that women's oppression is related to the earth's, an awareness known as ecofeminism. The French scholar Fran┘ois d'Eaubonne coined the term in 1974, but early in the twentieth century Mary Austin had made the connection between patriarchal oppression of women and that of nature and had argued that liberating women would also free nature (Norwood, p. 279). The advent of the modern women's movement in the 1970s marked the beginning of a more sophisticated understanding of how patriarchy operates. Susan Griffin's highly imaginative Woman and Nature in 1978 exposed in a scorching light the world view that for centuries upon centuries had imposed a hierarchy of domination and control with men at the top, women and nature at the bottom.
Since then, American women's nature writing has been informed by the understandings of ecofeminism. Feminist thought has also helped us understand the close connection between the systematic suppression and undervaluing of women's writing and the exploitation and abuse of the earth. A force seems to be moving through the world that insists that the time has come for women's voices as well as the earth's to be heard.
The Recovery of the Feminine Voice
As a natural outgrowth of the consciousness raising done by feminists and ecofeminists, an archeology movement in the service of life on earth was born at the end of the twentieth century. Scholars began to haunt the musty archives of libraries and the aisles of used book stores in search of what women had written about nature that had been lying long forgotten. Champions for different writers emerged: Melody Graulich set out to recover the voice of Mary Austin, Rochelle Johnson and Daniel Patterson went in search of Susan Fenimore Cooper's lost writing, Sydney Landon Plum took on the task of recovering Gene Stratton Porter, Daniel Philippon roamed the vicinity of his childhood home in Connecticut to piece together a picture of the life and work of Mabel Osgood Wright, Linda Lear brought together Rachel Carson's unpublished writing. At the same time, contemporary women came into their own as nature writers and the literature blossomed.
That this resurgence of the feminine voice is coming at the same time that human damage to the biosphere is becoming more evident and widely acknowledged is probably no coincidence. Women's relational sensitivities are crying out to be adopted by the culture at large, for it is these sensitivities that will guide us out of the crisis our species finds itself in. As women have taken their special feeling for the local, the everyday, and the relational out into the world, they have articulated an ethic of individual responsibility for environmental protection that has come into its own since the first Earth Day in 1970. Their home-based, relational tradition is in tune with the growing realization of our times that appreciating nature encountered in the daily round, in the garden as much as in the national park, is the avenue to ecological sustainability and sanity.
And so it is that the great gushing energy of the feminine is reasserting itself in the world. Call it the reemergence of the repressed feminine, the recovery of the wounded feminine nature, call it the anima mundithe soul of the world, call it whatever you like, but listen now to its voice, "the great chorus of woman and nature, which will swell with time" (Griffin, Woman and Nature, p. xvii).
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Copyright (c) 2001 by Lorraine Anderson. Reprinted by permission of the author from AT HOME ON THIS EARTH: TWO CENTURIES OF U.S. WOMEN'S NATURE WRITING, edited by Lorraine
Anderson and Thomas S. Edwards, published by University Press of New England, Spring 2002.
May not be reprinted or used without permission of the author (contact: