In February I connected with a Brazilian serial rooter, currently rooting in Brussels, who is doing her Master thesis about urban gardens as commons applying an ecofeminist lens. The exchanges of thoughts and questions reminded me that I should write my annual blog about ecofeminism, after writing one in 2019 (Ecofeminism in 2019) and 2020 (Ecofeminism in 2020 – or in the time of corona), around the same time. I realised that I might have been doing more ecofeminism myself in the past year compared with the past years, but not the kind of ecofeminism that I have been reading or observing from distance in the past years. As I got more and more aware of the ‘medicines’ that I can give to myself and others, it starts to come all more together. This blog is more a series of paragraphs about my documentations (often not finished learning journeys) and my own observations and reflections upon parallels between nature observations and ‘the isms’ of domination that I witnessed and heard about in the past year, and my own activities since I am rooting again in the Campine in Belgium. While I am editing this blog, I realised that some activities are actually ecofeminist too.
What’s ecofeminism? And what does it mean to me?
As there are different streams in and interpretions of ecofeminism, it is difficult to give one definition. Recently, I read in reports about the growing ecofeminist movement in Uganda (as a reaction to land grabbing by the oil industry), a definition that describes it well: “Ecofeminism draws links between violence against nature and violence against women, seeing the health and wellbeing of both as intertwined” (Sostine Namanya & Bwailisa Christine 2021)
You have perhaps three kinds of ecofeminists: 1) the essentialist streams who draw links between the biological cycles of the women and the cycles of the rest of nature; 2) feminist who oppose this and say that the oppression of women is because of social constructions, and identify the risk that men would not feel responsible (anymore) to take care of nature, 3) feminists who are ‘between’. I think to remember that I was first in the first category, then after following some feminist studies in the second. However, after reading ‘Like a Tree: How Trees, Women, and Tree People Can Save the Planet’ by Jean Shinoda Bolen, I am in the third. There are biological differences (also in the field of neuroscience) and there are social constructions.
What is ecofeminism in Belgium?
Belgium is already an interesting ‘place’, a political/social construction. I feel the language ‘border’ is often ‘sensible’ when it’s about culture. Education, culture… are all regional, and not federal matters. In the academic world, there is also often a gap between the knowledge production in the Anglo-Saxon world and the Francophone world. As a Flemish person rerooting in Belgium, I feel I ‘missed’ a lot by focusing in Japan on Anglo-Saxon and English-writing East-Asian academics. When I wrote about ecofeminism in 2019, I was oriented toward the Flemish/Dutch/Nordic.
Last year, I connected with expats in Brussels who establish amazing networks around urban greening in the capital, like the woodwideweb.be – ‘a dynamic, interactive, crossmedia experience (which) tells the stories of urban trees (in Brussels) and allows you to participate in all kinds of ways’ (Website is in Dutch, French and English). – Or Jardins Santé à Bruxelles/Health Gardens in Brussels, a citizens collaboration project which creates live and virtual spaces for the exchange, fostering and safeguarding traditional, local, bio-cultural and ethnobotanical knowledge and health practice. Their French (and English) is better than their Flemish, and also in Brussels, French might be more ‘spoken’ on the streets, so unsurprisingly I got to know from them more about some ‘French’ ecofeminism.
Last year, I got to know the work by Pascale d’Erm and also bought the book ‘Soeurs en écologie: Des femmes, de la nature et du réenchantement du monde’ (Sisters in Ecology: Women, Nature and the Reenchantment of the World). I noticed my French is rusty, so it ended quickly in that dangerous will-continue-reading-one-day-these-books-pile. The premise is promising: From the great goddess to the Earth’s justiciars, from Hildegard of Bingen to Vandana Shiva and Rachel Carson, women have a special bond with nature.
Or they forwarded me this video, produced in Brussels:
The diagnosis : polluted brooks, lead poison and fragmentation
While many people found solace and a let-out in nature walks during the first year since the World health Organisation called COVID-19 a pandemic, I noticed that I couldn’t relax during outside walks and even got more anxious. Only in the two weekends in Walloon, just across the French border, or the two weeks in Norway last summer, I could ‘ignore’ the scars in my chest and nature. The environmental scientist and the forest therapy guide sees only more and more ‘healing’ work in Belgium. Last month, I wrote some sort of manifesto of a collective about ‘belonging in Belgian nature’ on the Flemish website of forest bathing that explains the diagnosis:
“Belgium is a highly densely populated country with land-use conflicts and which knows many different ethnical communities with their own epistemology. In addition, the ‘other’ nature in Belgium is very fragmented, resulting in Belgium being one of the forest-poorest countries in Europe. For instance, there are not many nature parks or wild, non-managed nature in Belgium. Belgium has not many forests, with many protected and fenced areas, resulting in a huge pressure on nature if many people come there. In many forests, moving is only allowed on paths. Under influence of COVID-19 restrictions we witnessed how paths became more muddy and wider (because people would walk on the edges of muddy paths, sometimes not respecting the wild beings there). During the first lockdown, when ways of virus spreading were not clear and pandemic management measures were still not well established and clear, some parts of forests were closed off. However, already before the pandemic, the availability of natural public places has already been an issue. Only few places in Belgium are designated for swimming and camping outdoors due to possible harmful human pressure on fragile nature environments and lack of human knowledge to engage safely and in autonomous manner into nature relationships. The COVID-19 measures only made some uneven distributions of land (and other resources) more visible.
In addition, I read about the polluted brooks in Flanders. For a ‘highly developed country’, the sewage system is still low, for many municipalities, resulting that Belgium has the most polluted brooks in western-Europe, and I believe even the European Union. I read about the water scarcity and the droughts in this densely populated country, resulting that some houses in regions with dry ground started to get ‘cracks’; the renovations are too expensive. I read about lead pollution in urban contexts, which affected mostly the kids of the migrants who lived close to the factory plant (irony: this company is also known as one of the global pioneers in the recycling and greening industry). I read how former landfill areas and contaminated plants became parks and playgrounds. I became even more eco-anxious. I read Flemish eco-fiction like ‘de liereman’ by Achilles Cools. It is a story which draws parallels between the rape of the Campine region and the main character over a course of 70 years. Well-written, with beautiful descriptions, but not good for my eco-anxiety.
Coping with eco-anxiety
A big way of coping with this, in the past year, was writing academic papers, where I shifted my focus in circular economy more toward landscape and health: “Circular economy as a COVID-19 cure?” One has a title which is inspired by Rebanks’ book ‘the shephard’s life’: Nobody matters in circular landscapes, and is under review. But not only academic. Another is about the relationship between societies where care is more valued than newness (using ‘feminity indicators’) and the domestic material consumption or the speed of housing metabolism. Also under review.
My own PhD thesis (which is about circularity in spatial planning context) starts to get some (eco)feminist layer too, and I struggle with submitting, as I know the Japanese engineers would not ‘understand’ the link. So I am now writing about systems thinking, even using the Japanese verb which explains that some apparant unrelated things could be related: “When the wind blows the barrel-maker gets rich” (For whom is interested: the explanation can be found in this blog). I got to kow that proverb as my supervisor started his class on environmental systems thinking, which I was assiting for two years, would introduce the subject with asking the international students what they believe was the connection.
Also the blogs here. Or I have been building a Flemish website to promote forest therapy as a healing and health practice: www.bosbadenvlaanderen.com, organising virtual circles, connecting guides from whole Flanders and Belgium.
I have been digging up the memories of landscapes, looking for ancient stories that could give some wisdom in this ecological, social and psychological crises. I am especially looking for women’s myths and feminine landscapes. Elder Flemish women start to know my interest and share me stories or invitations for ‘small adventures into the wilderness of Flanders’. Last winter holidays I joined one of them to a forest with a Maria statue. A lot of mud. The forest -Silsombos- is named after a female hermitess -apparantly- but nobody we met could give us more details about her. But they knew stories about almost-rape and drowning. It reminded me to the energy and stories of the Epping Forest in London, UK, where I participated in a guided forest bath in February 2020.
The Maria Statue was appealing. I am getting (back) fascinated by Maria statues in forests, and linked with linden trees, as I know there are pre-christian layers beneath it. Especially in the Campine region, there is a Maria devotion and many ‘small tree chapels’. Just visiting them and documenting them feels like an ecofeminist act.
I wrote retellings and shared them during my forest baths, and when we got the second lock down, I shared them on my instagram account @wereldwoud. I translated also one story for the Nature of City Festival: ‘the pine tree in the Campine’, which was accepted for their exhibition. It is based on an enchanted pine tree in de Visbeekvalley, close to my paternal family farm. I added a lot of ecofeminist perspectives and references to the local landscape in which this folk story took place. Recently I started also two monthly circles – Wortel-wijs (in Dutch) and (Re)*Rooting (in English, for expats in Belgium) where we cultivate our mythic imagination, dig into these landscapes and learn more about local history and folklore, combining some personal development and some activism.
No street activism, but (virtual) forest (healing) activism
My ecofeminist activities were not on ‘the street’. Last year I didn’t live in urban contexts, or was isolated from academic environments. I was in the forest, bringing people into the forest, letting people think about the forest and their nature connection. I didn’t participate in non-violent protest movements, did not chain myself to trees to protect them against chainsaws… I volunteered guiding forest baths to nurses, doctors or for charities which focus on healing through nature connection. I documented small, often informal, moments of care or sacredness, like this, in an organic farm(shop) in the fringe of a rural municipality in the Campine region :
Or this, in forest in Ghent, recorded by a Finnish expat in Belgium with whom I am now brainstorming for an application for a landscape art project in Finland, with theme ‘world tree’, researching where to get the most sustainable materials :
And I was mostly sitting in a ‘cave’, creating art, like eco-fictions, perhaps-anti-discipline-academic papers, nature philosophy-infused blogs and ecofeminist retellings.
As a forest therapy guide I believe I have a responsibility of how people behave in nature, and particularly in the field of (eco)tourism. One of my roles is to educate people in how to move in nature and how to relate to nature. Through stories and languages (and the ‘feminine’ values they harbor) and forest therapy guiding.