I read a chance phrase in a new Agatha Christie novel this week that really got me thinking. The character, an artist, responds to the assumption that he must love nature by saying ‘I prefer Nature to be put in her place.’
There are several things that interest me about this phrase. First, the automatic gendering of Nature. Nature is assumed to be female, or at least feminine. Second, the almost violence with which he talks about Nature. He wants her in her place and kept there.
It brings to mind the general world today. We want to put nature in its place – we want to confine, restrict, reroute, and engineer it. A perfect example is in the path of the Colorado River. This powerful river ran at full force into Mexico. Now it barely trickles across the US/Mexico border, and that trickle is full of toxins and chemicals. The Colorado has seen its path altered to make it more convenient to development, forced into damns to give power to the area. What this creates is a river that is too strong for it’s own good. It runs faster than it should, carving out more and more of the earth.
Yet we are still convinced that the solution is to ‘put Nature in her place.’ If we are to redefine our environmental response, this is a huge part of it. Nature is not there for us to re-engineer it, it’s already pretty wonderfully engineered and it works pretty well when left alone. When it doesn’t work is when we interfere and interrupt its systems.
The gendering of nature is nothing new – how often does some one discuss what fresh hell Mother Nature has unleashed upon the world? One has to wonder then, what the combination of gendering nature and wanting to put ‘her in her place’ amounts to. It seems that we have adapted Nature to fit into the Western ideas of patriarchy – nature must be controlled just like women.
Obviously, this is not to say that all people believe that women or nature should be controlled. But it does bring up several interesting connections. Throughout history, the links between women and nature are evident. Take, for example, the story of Persephone in Greek mythology. Taken from her mother Demeter, the goddess of the harvest who ruled over the fertility of the land, Persephone is missing for several months. While Persephone is missing, Demeter searches endlessly for her, ignoring her duties of giving life to the earth. Long story short, an agreement is reached where Persephone is allowed to live on earth with her mother for most of the year, but must return to the underworld for several months. During these months of separation, Demeter mourns, and life on earth is threatened. (Some say this is the drought ridden Mediterranean summer and some say it is the long cold winter).
The link here is evident – Demeter is the goddess of life and fertility of the earth. Earth is personified as a woman, so much so that the seasons are attributed to a mother’s mourning of her daughter.
Which brings me to the conclusion that our redefinition of environmental response must take this view into consideration – it must be redefined with the understanding of Western societies’ repeated likening of nature to women. So a violent response to controlling nature must be read in the same terms as a violent response to controlling women. In short, this is a case for ecofeminism, or the understanding that environmental issues should be studies through a feminist lens.
And I whole heartedly agree.