Women Writers and Nature

22nd Apr 2013

Women Writers and Nature

Happy Earth Day!  The aim of Earth Day is to join people together across the globe every year on April 22, “to acknowledge the amazing planet we call home and take action to protect it”.

To do our bit to celebrate the day, we are taking a look at how a couple of contemporary women who write about the natural world and our relationship with it…

The idea that women are somehow ‘closer to nature’ has been around since narrative began.  We talk about ‘Mother Nature’ or ‘Mother Earth’ and refer to practices such as mining or forest clearance as the rape of virgin land.

The cycles of our bodies are suggested to make us subject to the uncontrollable whim of nature in a way that men’s bodies do not.  Such language makes possible the privileging of male/scientific over female/natural.  As ecofeminists have pointed out, women and earth are on the same side in the fight against patriarchy.

You only have to look at the gender politics on BBC’s Springwatch to see how the narrative plays out there. The objective science comes from the men, often fed with lines from the women as they ask questions about the cute, fluffy ducklings (I’m exaggerating, but only slightly!). The one scene in which Kate Humble and Michaela Strachan were both talking science with no men present was shocking in its novelty.

So who are the knowledgeable women writing about nature and how are they writing about it?

Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest and Esther Woolfson’s Field Notes from a Hidden City, both combine beautiful descriptions of their experience of the natural world with detailed scientific knowledge and with plenty of personal detail and analysis thrown in.

Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest weaves together fairy tales based in woodlands with the stories of real life forests throughout the UK.  She takes the year month by month and in recounting a visit to a forest, she draws in its social, economic and cultural history along with its flora and fauna.

After each chapter is a modern day retelling of a classic fairy story.  The book is full of interesting revelations such as the fact that Tennyson coined the term ‘silver birch’ and that the word ‘panic’ is from the Greek God Pan, the God of wild places and especially forests.  Her telling of the Hansel and Gretel tale from the point of view of the pair as adults is particularly beautiful.

Esther Woolfson’s book also covers a year in her life, in this case as she follows the wildlife in her immediate environment in Aberdeen.  Through this medium she also tells her philosophy of life and nature and humanity’s relationship to it.

Her knowledge of the natural world is clearly as detailed if not more so than Maitland and her scope is wider.  While Maitland concentrates on small nature, looking at particular trees, animals and forests, Woolfson sees nature on a big scale.  She looks at climate change and loss of biodiversity and explores moral and religious questions of how animals are defined in order that we can treat them in the way we do.

Nature can teach a child vital lessons in both freedom and humility Nature has a powerful significance for both writers.  For Maitland the forest is both something to learn about and a site of learning.  Children in the stories go there to learn morality and decency and to learn their own fear and capacity for survival.

Forests are places to play and explore magic and the imagination.  Woolfson also stresses the importance of learning about the natural world for children in terms of protecting it for future generations.  How can you respect something if you don’t even know the name of it?  Nature can teach a child vital lessons in both freedom and humility.

So how do these  women actually write about it?  Autobiographical detail in both books is used to give life to the knowledge.  The science and personal detail go hand in hand as they do within the minds and lives of the women writing.

These books express perfectly the notion that all knowledge is subjective.  They are both well read and extremely informative but they do not restrict themselves to presenting dry objective factual data.

These are personal stories and the science informs the narrative and the opinion being expressed.  The natural world is a multi-sensory space and has multiple significances for each individual.

‘Autobiographical’ is often used as an insult in regard to women’s writing, as if by expressing factual data through the medium of one’s own life somehow reduces its credibility.  But it could be seen that scientific objectivity in regard to the sensory world is a bit of a fallacy anyway.

We can only ever experience anything through our own senses and perception, and these are specific to an individual.  Through these two books we are given a window onto the beauty and power of the natural world through these writers’ experience of it.

Other recommended reading: Also by Esther Woolfson: Corvus: a life with birds; Woman and Nature by Sarah Griffin is a founding work of ecofeminism.  Marianne Taylor has also written several field guides for the UK for both adults and children.

Jenny Tipping

Image from josemanuelerre‘s photostream