All posts by Ms Woods

Sacred “Garden” trees of Norway and Sweden

When I was doing research about trees in Norway I found this interesting paper by Douglas Fore Holmes about “sacred trees of Norway and Sweden: a friliftsliv quest” and was of course immediately intrigued. His abstract was very promising:

What began as a curiosity about the traditions and folklore related to trees planted in the center of many farms in Norway, “Tuntre“, and Sweden, “Vårdträd“, led me to a recognition of a tradition that can still be observed in the cultural landscape today. The tradition can be traced as far back as the Viking period, and directly linked to the mythology of the World Tree, Yggdrasil. I have been studying these traditions as they relate to the field of environmental education as an example of mythopoetic stories and folklore that influence moral and ethical regard for nature.

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 8.40.06

As I am not a native speaker, and the author is, it does not make sense to rephrase him, so I copy pasted some interesting paragraphs and comment at it:

A special tradition that is shared by many Scandinavians is the planting or the knowing of a special tree in Swedish called a „Vårdträd‟, and in Norwegian a „Tuntre‟; a sacred tree planted in the center of the yard on a family farm that reflects an intimacy with place. The caring for the tree demonstrates respect for ancestors‟ spirits that were/are believed to reside in the tree, and is a moral reminder of caring for the farm or place where one lives. One Norwegian told me that the „tuntre‟ provided a direct connection with the nature spirits that lived underground at his farm.

According to this paper, not many Scandinavians are aware. However, during my stays in Norway, my friend shared stories he heard from farmers who are visited by the “underground people”. I can imagine that in such a forested country where there are places you do not meet anyone but shadows you start to believe in spirits.

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 8.43.02
A view from a window was very mesmerizing. We stayed in a cabin in a very remote forest in Norway, which was also called “troll forest” 

Even until the late 19th century, these trees are so holy that no one dares to break or cut so much as a leaf; and to injure or damage them results in misfortune and illness. A long held belief-system tells us that earth spirits and guardian spirits resided in these trees.

For me it is so interesting to hear similar stories in Thailand, like for example about banana tree spirits and the red fanta offerings to tree spirits, and Japan with its mischievous tree trolls , while these cultures were so far from Scandinavia. It seems that many cultures share some roots 😉

The World Tree

The original sources of the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, appear to have been the holy groves where pagans worshiped to the Norse gods. Saplings from the groves were transplanted to the center of the village or the farm and grew into „boträd‟ on the grave of the original farmer.

This practice can also be connected with Yggdrasil, the ash tree in the old Norwegian mythology. In one of my previous posts I wrote about it: Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

Lonely deciduous trees

Deciduous trees are generally planted as the „tuntre‟ or „vårdträd‟, possibly to reflect the cycles of the seasons and of life and death and the return of life in the spring. Long-lived deciduous trees like oak, ash, linden, maple, and elm are common varieties used, while birch and mountain ash replace the more southerly varieties as one gains elevation or latitude.

Actually, next month my Norwegian friend and I will visit Hokkaido, the deep north of Japan, and I am also reading about the phenomenon of lonely trees along the famous Patchwork Road, and how full buses of Japanese tourists stop to take photographs of these lonely trees, often in the middle of the trees. And they are also populars and oaks. Next month I will for sure write about these lonely trees and why they can feel so sacred, for Japanese, for Norwegians, or even for an urbanized Belgian as me.

60145948_326732121326545_1657444711503233024_n
Sneak peak of an instagram post next month for my account @wereldwoude-verhalen (only in Dutch/Flemish). 

Environmental education and knowledge

Lastly, the author of this paper , the author wanted to answer questions like:

  • How does the mythology and folklore of a culture influence their perception of place?
  • How does ecological knowledge of a landscape compare with „kjennskap‟, or what is sacred in a landscape?

Kjennskap refers to the “the more intimate ways of knowing that require time, experience, and generational wisdom – „kjennskap‟, that different way of knowing compared with factual knowledge – „kunnskap‟.” He describes the wood carver’s way of knowing. I imagine my friend who is now spending time in pottery and how it will take her years of training and practice to make a bowl. Also in Japan, they really admire craftsmen, and sometimes I wished I had more time to dedicate myself, discipline myself, to become a master in a craft like woodcarving or woodblock printing. It have a lot of admiration too for this kind of knowledge, more than for academic or so called scientific knowledge.

Screen Shot 2019-05-18 at 8.45.59

Knowing your home through its Trees

In this paper, the author also refers to the importance of knowing your home. He believes if people attach more to the environmental knowledge about home, and the knowledge of plants that ripen during different seasons providing a steady source of food, or the location of secret water, or where the wind brings cooling in very hot summers, … that we can be more resilient for the societal and environmental changes. In Japan, I visit and study the country side, and how the depopulation also leads to loss of local/tacit knowledge. Newcomers with post-materials values try to unearth this tacit knowledge, but first they have to gain the trust of the elderly who stayed behind.

As scientists we can propose solutions, but through my own experience in transdisciplinary research -where academic and non-academic people co-design research and co-produce knowledge and solutions- I value a lot the knowledge that locals have about their “home”. I can also agree with the author that being aware for sacred or guardian trees can connect people to the knowledge and signatures written in the nature, and can inspire them to take care of them and the environmental surroundings.

Therefore I like to share a Norwegian poem by Tarjei Vesaas.  

 

What is Home?

Talk of what Home is – snow and fir forest is Home.

From the first moment they are ours. 

Before anyone has told us that it is snow and fir forests.

They have a place in us, and since then they are there,

always, always. Come home. Go in there bending branches –

Go on till you know what it means to belong.

As an environmental educator I think about to design a semester project to students to identify a guardian or holy tree in their home, and dig in the history behind it. We can learn so much about our homes through the history of the nearby trees.

Okinawa: from its longevity secrets to mischievous tree trolls

Some weeks ago I visited Okinawa, the subtropical island of Japan which is famous to count the most centenarians per capita in whole the world.

Why do people get so old? – the diet

I noticed indeed that the citizens seem to be more relaxed and really enjoy the good life (and all the American influenced food and drinks unfortunately too). I enjoyed myself with getting massages, walking and wandering around and joining Japanese ladies from my guest house to dive into Okinawa’s soba and beer. These Japanese bonvivants introduced me to the expression shiawase butori, which means happily plump

At some point we were not that far from Ogimi, which is famous for the high amount of 100 year old people in the world. According to some experts it is because of a certain diet… which is not the food that you find in many restaurants in current Okinawa. That Blue Seal ice-cream will not make you 100 year old. I think that the American occupation since the Second World War until some decades ago broke some healthy lifestyle aspects of Okinawa. However, I found also sometimes places where they serve the healthy traditional Okinawa food:

okinawa1

Why do people get so old? – ikigai

I think it is more than just the right diet. It is a combination of their lifestyle, in combination with the weather, the fact that medical world progressed,

the fact that Japan’s economy progressed, maybe because there are so many turtles in Okinawa, the symbol for longevity and wealth…

and  the fact that they keep working because they found/know their ikigai. 

okinawa2

If you want to know more, some people wrote books or internet blogs about it,
probably also in your mother tongue too. I will illustrate what ikigai can mean.

 

This old man’s calling and ikigai

One morning, my friendl and I experienced a outrigger sailing cano adventure, organized by Tom, in the turquoise blue waters of Okinawa, a subtropical island of Japan. After a typhoon damaged the boat, Tom decided it was time to repair and fix his cano after 7 years for six months. When I found him through AirBnb experience, I read he would offer experiences from May onwards. It was end of April when my friend and I were in Okinawa. You do not get things if you keep silent, so I wrote him and that motivated him to get the last things done. We had to wait for the weather, if there was enough wind etc, but it all worked out for us. Just before the trip, he thanked us for motivating him to finish this earlier. 

 
Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 12.10.21.png

One thing about outrigger sailing canoes: these boats do not have a rudder, so you need a pedal to steer the boat. 
 
Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 12.10.41.png

He made the cano himself and it took him 18 months (he did not work full time) and used a manual for outrigger canoes. His cano is also bigger. He used cedar wood, which is a very present tree in Japan. He used the Polynesian placemats that his father gave him once as a present … because for what else to use them? 
 
While the sea breeze played with our hair and I felt the sun tickling my face, he explained my friend and me how he and his wife got in Okinawa. After living for 28 years in Yokohama region, his wife and he felt it was time to move to a space where they wanted to live until the end. It has to be close at the ocean and it has to be warm. They thought about many options like the Philippines and Indonesia but could not figure it out in the next months. They needed a place where they also could start a business and learning a language to do business takes too much time. 
 
Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 12.10.31.png
 
During a church mass, while they were singing, he thought to move to Chiba close to Tokyo which has an ocean but was cold. 
Suddenly a voice told him to consider Okinawa. He never has been there but this voice felt very powerful. After the mass he told his wife about this mystical experience and she also said a voice has told her to also move to Okinawa. They checked out the place and knew this God chosen place was gonna be their new home. They live and work here happily (but not happily plump) for already 8-9 years. 

Why do people get so old? – Moai

I had already read about the moai, or strong relationships between them, as I joined a small PhD team research about social acceptance of internal immigrants in the rural mountainous villages in the north of Nagoya. In Okinawa, they say it is stronger. It was maybe not surprising that my friend and I got promptly invited by this bunch of men, who were mostly employees of Orion, the local beer factory, to join their food festivity (to celebrate the start of Golden Week, we assume). They seemed fun and it was outside, so …  why not?

But what are moais?

Moais came to existence in more difficult times, when farmers helped each other by exchanging information  about the best cultivation practicies or also to help each other when the harvest failed. The members of a moai gave monthly a fixed membership fee to a shared pot, which sponsored the meetings and the meals. To have a feeling to belong somewhere and support each other gives some security and contributes to stay longer young.

Last, but not least, Okinawa has tree trolls!

My inner child always comes alive when I find nice folk stories, myths and fables about trolls and fairies.
 
Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 12.11.07.png

They live in banyan trees, also called the tree of happiness, or the tree that walks, because the aerial root grows into a trunk and gradually moves itself from 

its original position over a long period of time. These trees were planted for windbreaks (there are big typhoons here) and residential use. But yes some people burn incense and pray under the tree, because they believe in the tree spirits.

Listening to these stories, it reminds you that cherishing your the inner child also keeps you long forever:

Screen Shot 2019-04-29 at 11.30.08.png

This is what I found on-line about the tree trolls of Okinawa:

Mischievous by nature, kijimuna are known to play tricks on humans; one of the most common involves laying on the chest of human during sleep, making them immobile and unable to breathe (kanashibari; sleep demons associated with sleep paralysis are common among Japanese yōkai). Kijimuna, much like other yōkai, are often associated with mysterious fires and have been seen covered in ghostly flames running along beaches or riverbanks. If one were to wake up and discover a paper lantern missing, it’s quite possible a kijimuna hijacked it in the middle of the night and ran off. Kijimuna hate octopus above all else. So keeping an octopus around is the best way to ward off any potential attacks or hijinks from a bored kijimuna on the prowl. 

 

Despite such devious tricks, kijimuna are generally good at heart and also known to befriend humans. Such friendships, however, are relatively short-lived due to the puckish and jealous nature of kijimuna. Known to be excellent fishermen, if a kijimuna really likes a human they’ll give fishing tips and perhaps even offer the bodies of the fish they’ve caught—after eating out the fish’s eyeballs, of course. Yet, if a human doesn’t offer gratitude and gifts in exchange for a kijimuna’s kindness, the kijimuna will soon lash out, behaving in a childish manner and bring the friendship to an abrupt end. 

 

Like many of the numerous yōkai in Japanese folklore, kijimuna are an essential part of the Okinawan lifestyle. Tales of kijimuna have been passed on from generation to generation for centuries. Nearly every Okinawan young and old can happily rattle off a kijimuna folktale from memory. Images of kijimuna can be found all over the island (check, I have a whole bunch of photos of them now) and have even invaded popular culture in the form of anime and manga characters. So they next time you come across a hyperactive, orange-haired fairy with with an oversized head and hands, you’ll know it’s a kijimuna.

59750679_586488755195788_8119574182041223168_n.jpg
Postcard which I purchased in the museum about Bokunen Naka, a famous woodblock print artist from this region. 

I have a feeling I might return to Okinawa, or for sure to the other southern islands of Japan ;). I am very intrigued by  Yakushima, the mystical island that inspired Ghibli Stidio makers for princess Mononoke, counts many thousand year old trees and had good hikes.

Norwegian Birch Bark

When my Norwegian friend told me about the journey of a two year old Viking heir to the Norwegian throne through mountains and forests by  “birch benders” (his own translation of Birkebeinar), I was intrigued. Birch benders are a rebellious party in Norway from the 12th century which was so poor that they had to make their shoes of birch bark. By doing a bit of research I learned more about the Norwegians’ relationship to winter, the mountains and cross-country skiing and birch trees. I know in other cultures, like the Celtic and Russian, the birch has special roles and meanings, but I do not know that much about the relationship between Norwegians and the birch.

birkebeiner
Do you recognize Kristofer Hivju, famous for playing the role of Tormund Giantsbane in the HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones? He was one of the stars in the Last King, a 2015 Norwegian historical drama. The Norwegian title of the movie is Birkebeinar.

The best skiers

I learned more about the “Birkebeinerrennet” or “Birkebeiner Ski Race”, which is Norway’s most traditional cross-country ski race running every year from Rena to Lillehammer. It has been held annualy since 1932, and commemorates a trip made by the birch benders (I use the name of my friend) to save an infant which could claim the Norwegian throne, as they did not like the current Norwegian king. The two best skiers were selected to undertake this dangerous journey. All participants of the current ski race carry a backpack weighing at least 3.5 kg, symbolizing the weight of the then-one-year-old king.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 17.58.09.png

Birch wood

The birch plays a central role in northern Norwegian life. I saw it being used for fire, but also the postwar houses are made from “this White Lady of the Wood”. So you see the birch in this picture in two forms ;). In Tromsø, I bought some tea infusion mix of black tea with birch bark .

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 17.55.18
On January 2, 2019 I woke up at 09.45 am with this view. I am the guest of Norwegian sheep farmers and their 5 lovely border collies 120 km from Tromsø. I am still above the arctic circle.

Birch water

In the region of Norway, the birch trees start to show green leafs, which is a sign that we soon can tap the healthy birch water. Birch sap is collected only at the break of winter and spring when the sap moves intensively. Birch sap collection is done by drilling a hole into its trunk and leading the sap into a container via some conduit (a tube or simply a thin twig): the sap will flow along it because of the surface tension. The wound is then plugged to minimise infection. Some years ago, a friend and I also tapped birch sap from birches in Belgium, and it was really refreshing. It is good for skin and hair. In a Norwegian book about outdoor and cuisine I found also instructions how to tap birch sap.

Back to the birch benders

As my friend explained to me a couple of times, Norwegians are mostly “humble hard working decent human without making too much of a fuzz.” Before they found all the oil reserves, Norway was not a wealthy nation and people were relatively poor and had to survive in severe conditions, being sync with the strong seasonal changes and deal with the ingredients and other resources they found in their land (which explains why their traditional meals are often simple). Birch was one of their resources, and they are very grateful for it, and learned to manage it in a resource efficient way. When people are poor, like birch binders, they can be often very innovative in finding new ways of underutilized resources like birch bark.

For me, while I witness how the temperature increase makes the snow on the tree branches heavier so the snow falls and reveals all the green, to experience the end of winter and observe spring and other new beginnings, retelling the story of birch benders is reminding us to the courage of two good skiers being resource efficient (especially now in this ecological crisis we should return to a higher use of biobased materials)  to dethrone a king. For me, that king of current time is the dominating paradigm of profit-oriented of economic growth and exploitation.

Continue reading Norwegian Birch Bark

Become Line friends with Japanese camphor trees

Today I stumbled upon a hiking video about Mt. Tachibana in the area of Fukuoka, one of the biggest cities in Japan. The hiker highlights camphors and shows shots of tags with QR codes. The comments taught me it allows you to add the tree as a friend on Line (Asian version of WhatsApp) which brings you to a website with information and a quiz about the train, made by elementary school students. I think that is adorable.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 17.07.04

A small note. The tree at the screenshot is not a camphor, but a cedar. A camphor looks more like this:

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 17.14.29
2 x “husband and wife”, April 22, 2018, Meiji shrine in Tokyo
These camphor trees, planted in 1920 at the time of the enshrinement of Meiji Jingu, have grown under the protection of the deities. Well known as “husband and wife”, or “meoto kusu”, the coupled trees have become symbols of marriage and harmony in the family.
For some reason, when I entered the domain of the shrine, the right tree drawn my full attention and I walked straight to it. I think it more magical than the shrine itself. No idea if the right tree is the husband or the wife.

In Japan, camphor trees are often seen as holy trees.

Anyway, the hiking video and the idea of the QR code reminds me to an American article from 2015 about a campaign in Melbourne that a friend shared with me some weeks ago.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 17.10.14

Let me copy paste one paragraph of this soul warming article:

Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas. “The email interactions reveal the love Melburnians have for our trees,” Wood said.

Isn’t that beautiful? By the way, it is funny that the chair’s family name is Wood. In matter of fact, my family name is also derived from old Dutch for wood. It seems tree sap runs through the veins of our families for many generation 😉

Communicating with trees does not only happen in Australia. On April 1st, another friend shared the video of Google Netherlands about Google Tulip. (I have this reputation of being a tree lover, so occasionally it happens to find tree-related messages in my inbox).  Google Tulip would allow us to talk with tulips.

Screen Shot 2019-04-10 at 17.18.22

I really loved the video, and my friend too, but she was not aware it was posted at fool’s day. However, I am very sure it is going to be the future soon. In cities in Japan, I see a lot of loneliness among elderly, and maybe it would be good to connect old men that look like trees with trees that look like old men…

If you could add one tree to become your WhatsApp or Line friend, which tree would you choose and why? Let me know in the comments.

Continue reading Become Line friends with Japanese camphor trees

Norwegian Easter: time for ash and crime

“These yellow flowers are the heralds of spring,” my friend told me in a small road trip in the coastal area of Norway. He pointed to coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara) at the side of the road. In his mother tongue it is hestehov

I asked him to stop the car and found myself plucking the yellow wildflowers. I felt back like a child, and it felt right. 

It reminded me also to the ancient-Greek myth of Persephone, whose life really began when she decided to pluck wildflowers. Once she was goddess of vegetation but eventually became the Queen of the Underworld. She was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter. Her myths explain the change of the seasons, making her a very important part of Greek culture.

The change of seasons

While she went plucking, she got abducted by Hades, who was madly in love with her. Nobody had seen the kidnapping and a frantic search started. Her mother was madly looking for her, and when she found out the truth that even her husband was behind this abduction, she was furious. There was a terrible fight after this and Demeter threatened to make the entire earth unfertile and doom the entire population to a certain death. It was then that an agreement was made. Persephone would be allowed to leave Hades for half the year and stay with her mother. The remaining half she would stay in the Underworld. This is the explanation for the change of seasons. When the earth becomes barren and cold, Persephone is with Hades and her mother is too distraught to keep up with her duties.

A good crime

My friend knows that I work for years on a novel based on the story of Persephone and Demeter, and it had once the working title “When Persephone disappeared” It is now turning into a mystical eco-thriller. I had to think about my own Persephone story, because in this same road trip, my friend had told me earlier that easter time is the time in Norway to buy and read good crime thrillers and I could see the link with spring. 

 I knew before that Nordic countries export a lot of crime stories to the world, and I know about the christianity’s influence, but I had always thought that Easter was more about (re)birth than death. Later, in a shop, he pointed out also to a advertisement of a list of crime books which was decorated with easter eggs and cute baby chicks.

56218214_653473591758886_2987080055638720512_n

It felt so weird to see this combination of death and horror with something cute and innocent as a baby chick.  “Don’t you read crime books or bingewatch crime series in this time in Belgium?” he asked a bit puzzled. “No, not really,” I answered. 

However, I started to grasp when I thought about it more. Death and rebirth are intertwined with each other. In matter of fact, Persephone was also the queen of death and the underworld. Every death is a beginning; and easter time is the ideal time to reflect on that.  

56416892_343863289806968_6442193409170997248_n
Evening break after a day working, time for reflection

Ash, connecting death (sacrifice) and rebirth

When I consulted my book about the wheel of the year and the related trees I found this was also the time of the ash. The ash is a tall tree of imposing grace and is known in leggings as the tree of life. It branches stretch far out to the heavens, with the earth at its centre, and its roots reaching own to hell. it also appears in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil, the great ash of Odin who hung from it (yes, he died and got resurrected) in order to gain the secrets of the runes and enlightenment. Do you see the similarity with Jesus at the cross, the event remembered during Easter?

Since the winged fruits of the ash looks like keys, the tree itself symbolises a key to the universal understanding of how all things are linked and connected. Like death and life. 

Now it begins

Some hours later, I put the yellow flowers in a vase in his house and took a seat in his sofa where I continued reading “The Sixteen trees of the Somme” by Lars Mytting, which is a mystery (too) about the love of wood and finding your own self. (I had bought the book some weeks ago, because of the promise I can enjoy reading about the love for birches, carpentry and wood carving, and not so much because it was a mystery). The end of the first chapter resonates perfectly with the Norwegian easter spirit. Someone had died, and the main character thought:

Now it begins. 

Ecofeminism in 2019

In European countries such as Sweden, Belgium and the United Kingdom, the current climate movement is attracting enormous interest, and it is perhaps not by chance that it has female (and even teenage !) frontrunners such as Anuna De Wever (Belgium) and Greta Thunberg (Sweden). Women seem to be at the forefront of tackling climate change problems and at the same time they are also the main victims of persistent gender inequality. Since the 1970’s, ecofeminist analyses have  drawn attention to the links between women and nature, both in celebration and in highlighting their subordination to patriarchal capitalist regimes.

Greta and Anuna.jpeg
Greta and Anuna during a climate protest in Belgium, end of February 2019

However, when we play the devil’s advocate, we wonder what makes women different from men that they could improve the environment?  Are they really that different? Is there no danger that we let men off the hook in our transition toward a more just and balanced world? Some feminist and environmental writers say that women are more connected with the nature and that makes them the perfect “sustainability saviours”. Why is that?  Other writers point out that women have more pro-environmental behaviour and even do more environmental activism (compared with men). Why is that? Or do these correlations (which are not necessary causalities) point to a more hidden truth?

Are women more connected with nature?

Neurosciences can provide a first answer if women are more connected with nature. Female and male bodies have different neurotic systems which cause different feelings and thoughts. Jean Shinoda Bolen is drawing on this in her book “Like a tree: how trees, women and tree people can save the planet” to point out that empowering women can save trees (and the nature in general), because “female brains” make “oxytocin” in stress related situations which let them behave in “tend-and-befriend strategies” while “male brains” produce more “adrenaline” which results in “fight-or-flight” strategies. Bolen argues that women are more capable of solving environmental problems, because they tend to cooperate more, which is in her opinion a key for a more sustainable world.

like a tree

However, this idea is problematic in the sense that it could exclude men from environmental decision making, which is also a critique about certain streams in ecofeminist philosophy and activism. 

Ecofeminism: origins and today

The term “ecofeminism” is coined in 1974 by Francoise d’Eaubonne in “Le Feminisme ou La Mort” and used afterwards in the context of actions and activities by women against environmental destruction and disasters in the seventies (example is the Greenham-Common) and against the development of technologies, especially weapon technology, and bio-engineering, and in 1980 during the Amherst Conference which had the title “Women and Life on Earth”, where they saw the “liberation of women as part of a bigger fight for the conservation of life on earth”. (Van de Ven, 1996, Van de Ven, 2015)

Nowadays, I see the word coming up again. Korean friends recommended me to read “the vegetarian” by Han Kang, and told me they really liked the ecofeminist message behind it. Some days ago I found an invitation for a panel and film screening in Belgium which is called “ecofeminism” and points to female frontrunners as Aruna and Greta.

Han-Kang-Side-by-Side.png

But … what is ecofeminism?

There is not really a definition for ecofeminism, because there are many streams. The common characteristic of the different streams are the suppression of the nature and the suppression of women, both by the patriarchy. (Van de Ven, 1996, Van de Ven, 2015). Karen Warren et al (1987) defines patriarchy as a framework “which takes traditionally male-identified beliefs, values, attitudes and assumptions as the only, or the standard, or superior ones; it gives higher status or prestige to what has been traditionally identified as ‘male’ than to what has been traditionally identified as ‘female’. A Patriarchal conceptual framework is characterized by value-hierarchical thinking” (1987:6).

Ecofeminism is all about rejecting the binary power structures that suppresses nature and women. One interesting stream is the essentialist stream,  which draws on the fact that nature and women have both “built-in biological clocks” and experience life-death-life cycles and nurture. (Van de Ven, 2015:6).  

Screen_Shot_2018-08-22_at_2.33.12_pm_grande.png

These thoughts were very present in the seventies and eighties among many ecofeminists, but are abandoned in the nineties by especially people from the Global North, because this thinking  is still based on dualistic thinking and ecofeminists want not be seen as “children” which “should be nurtured by Mother Earth” and can use this view to avoid responsibility. (Van de Ven, 2015:6).

However, in Latin-America, they see it differently. Kate Jenkins describes the anti-mining activities of “old man women” in Peru (2017), and explains how this visualisation of the connection between the earth and women can function as a symbol in the resistance. Paddock (2018) is using an ecofeminist epistemological framework to analyse narratives of women to understand challenges of food insecurity and diet-related ill-health across the Caribbean and the West Indies, the Turks and Caicos Islands. 

Does having a female body mean you are more connected to nature?

The American feminist anthropologist Sherry Ortner researched if “female is to male as nature is to culture” (1972). In this classic paper, she rejected biological determinism (or essentialism) and pointed out that women’s social association with motherhood, nurturing children and working at home places them closer to “nature” than men are (1972). Also an UN Women Report of 2014  pointed out that the relationship between women and environment is not intrinsic, but based on gender roles and norm: “Women-environment connections -especially in reproductive and subsistence activities such as collecting fuel wood, hauling water and cultivating food – were often presented as if natural and universal rather than as the product of particular social and cultural norms and expectations.” (UN Women, 2014: 40)

erin brockovich
Julia Robert as “Erin Brockovich”

We should not look to the biological body or the sex, but to the gender, which is according to Candace and Zimmerman “the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one’s sex category” (1987:127). Sex category is “a categorisation established and sustained by the socially required identificatory displays that proclaim one’s membership in one or the other category”. (1987:127). Candace and Zimmerman also argued that gender is not something we are, but something we do. “Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine “natures”” (1987:126). In other words, gender is expected and a product of social doing and often seen as natural given, but it is created by society and people are often not aware of that.

As Ortner noted, this relationship between nature and women is part of gender expectations, which are only present in certain cultures in a certain time. Also Judith Butler (1990) wrote that gender is a product of culture and history. In certain cultures, mostly in rural areas in developing countries, the relationship between gender roles and environment is still visible because women and men live in separate spheres. The “separate sphere” of women in (rural areas) in developing countries is the domestic, the forest, the nature and staying in this separate sphere gives them more insight than the men of their culture who live in another sphere which was not so connected with nature.

One of the most famous stories, which is often mentioned in ecofeminist papers, books and lectures, like Miess and Shiva’s “Ecofeminism” (1993) is the Chipko movement. In the seventies, tribal women in a village in the Indian Himalaya protected the trees which were going to be felled by embracing the trees. (Van de Ven, 2015) These Chipko women lived also in a separate sphere, which was mostly in nature, and could “see” what would happen if these trees were felled down and they were right.

big_chipko_movement_1522047126

Although their gender role linked with the separate sphere can motivate them to protect the environment, like the Chipko women, this is not the case for all women. They are even not conscious about it. Smith et al. (2015)  did a study about food self-provisioning in Poland and Czech Republic. While in West-Europe, food self-provisioning is seen as a (luxurious) hobby, often out of health or environmental consciousness, in Czech Republic and Poland it’s more done out of economical necessity. They introduce the term “quiet sustainability”, which “summarises widespread practices that result in beneficial environmental or social outcomes and that do not relate directly or indirectly to market transactions, but are not understood by their practitioners as being driven by explicit environmental or sustainability goal.” (2015) Stern (2000) researched that someone with an environmental intent  may fail to result in environmental impact when actions undertaken with the intent to benefit the environment are futile. (Stern, 2000), while there are other determinants, like financial reasons, that also lead to pro-environmental behaviour (Whitmarsh, 2009). It could be argued that many women in rural areas, who are also often not educated, do not have notions of sustainability, but rather do things because of economical benefit and gender/cultural norms.

In “Western” countries, like in West-Europe and USA,  most women do not collect wood and fruits in nature, partly because of the innovations in food and agricultural technology, partly because more women go to work and are not anymore the “traditional housewife” as the ones of Betty Friedan’s the feminine mystique” (1963) and do not belong anymore to a separate sphere. There are even women in “Western countries” which probably pollute more than men in the same countries and men in more developing countries. A person in a Western culture could have pro-environmental intentions, but still by using car or airplane (to go to a “climate conference” to make it more ironic) and drinking coffee have a higher environmental impact than women and men in less developed areas.

The cultural norms and the asymmetry between impact and intent point out that because you’re born in a woman’s body, like essentialists would argue, that you are more environmentally sustainable, but because of certain gender roles in certain cultures in certain time you become a sustainable person. De Beauvoir’s famous quote “one is not born, but rather becomes a woman” (1949: 309) could even be changed that “one is not born a sustainable person, but rather becomes a sustainable person”.

Back to Greta and Aruna

I see also the counter-attacks to young ladies as Aruna and Greta. Some people joke that these young people are naive and stupid, because they do not realize they are protesting again “their own lifestyle”. There is critique that these young people do not provide solutions and should stop skipping school “so they can become smarter and find solutions”. Some older people complain about the arrogance of young people, using arguments that they were more sustainable in previous decades when there were no iphones, ast fashion, and even plastic bottles. I saw even social media messages with a list of Aruna’s flight travels (which are true or not, does not matter). What a hypocrite, many people say.

Based on my own experience as researcher, it is actually sad to see how we work with “guilt feelings”. I am involved in a project with youth of all walks of life and their introduction to the circular economy.

In our society, we are more often reminded of our individual responsibilities, when perhaps that is not the solution? The arsenal of choices we offer is also accompanied by the development of guilt feelings among individuals. “If you don’t eat like that or take the plane too much, you’re not sustainable.” I think most people will recognise these feelings of guilt. Often during this project, I heard the young people “joking” that they would eat less, eat earth, or just don’t eat anymore. While some of them are already underprivileged. That is not the intention of the educational project.

My own consideration is that a faster transition to a more just world without waste can happen  if policy makers concentrate on the structural limits (in political, legal etc.) instead of insisting on (even more) sustainable choices that individuals should make.

That means focus on cooperation, passiveness, being careful, reproduction, passiveness, cycles, and coming together. These are “feminine” or “yin” values, and these are missing in many domains of our life and of our society and how things are arranged, decided and are done. For me, Aruna and Greta, which let people talk and cooperate, and protest together… that is “yin”.

It does not matter they have a female body.

It matters that we give more a voice to the “yin”.

And yes, that means, in 2019, still giving a voice to (more) women and indeed use symbolic ideas as ecofeminism.

 

Part of this blog is written as a final essay for a Master course “introduction to feminist studies” at the University of Graz, Austria, submitted in June 2015, together with my friend Marielis Suárez Rivera, an engineer from Puerto Rica. In this blog I added some extra scholar references, because in the last 2,5 years I learned more about ecofeminism. Please share in the comments your ideas about ecofeminism anno 2019, and which ecofeminists are active in your country or state.