Tag Archives: Belgium

Meeting Japan’s curse spirits during a Forest Bath

Several weeks ago I experienced a first forest bath in one of the 62 certified forest therapy bases in Japan. You can read and see photographs in this blog: Forest therapy Taking Root. What I did not mention, was that we were… not alone.

 

Hill Worms

Two days before, the facility staff of the center told us to wear long sleeves, long pants and long socks that can cover the bottoms of the pants … because there will be hill worms that suck blood. It sounds more horrible than it was. In the end, the stress hormones of most participants decreased, despite the presence of these animals. You could also see who were the city dwellers and who were more used to bugs. I also brought one of my best friends. He comes from another large forest civilization like Japan, but with a much lower population density. He was showing me  as a happy child on discovery every time a worm on the top of his umbrella or shoe, while others around us were removing the worms of their shoes with sticks, as if it was a curse.

Screen Shot 2019-06-23 at 10.06.06
(c) Wendy Wuyts

Actually, later I realised; when I reflected more with my Norwegian friend and one of the two Japanese forest therapy guides; that the worms are actually a good departure point to talk about “human control of nature”.

Forest civilisations

For a Flemish person it is striking that Japan is a real forest civilization. Even though the Japanese are twelve times as many as the Belgians, the population density is about the same. However, our country is not even 20% forested, while Japan is two-thirds forested. It may be one of the most populous countries in the world, but Japan is also one of the greenest, with a great diversity of trees. One of my research projects also regularly takes me to the countryside north of Nagoya, where I learned more about the fragrant cypress trees and forest culture and management from local experts over the past year and a half. My own professor is also interested in a “lignification” of the Japanese cities. Environmental egineers here talk about carbon storage and absorption of young trees, about the effect of trees in cities on thermal comfort and the subjective perception of temperature, the regulation of water management, reducing risk for landslides and erosion and other things. Forests are so important, and although I focus here mostly on cultural values and effects on mental health, as an environmental scientist I can give so many reasons why it is also good for the planetary health (and also for us). Trees are also central to Shintoism, their indigenous religion, and you often see how much respect they have for all their nature.

forest12.jpeg
(c) Wendy Wuyts

Since the 17th century there have been strict regulations on forestry and forest management. In the times of the samurai these were so strict that if you cut down certain trees in the Kiso valley (north of Nagoya) you even risked the death penalty. “A head for each felled tree, an arm for a broken branch,” that was the punishment. These trees were destined for the houses and temples of powerful families, or Buddha statues.

On the other hand, when I moved to Japan, I thought I would learn a lot about sustainable practices in environment, but how longer I am in Japan, how more confused I am. My Norwegian friend had also similar confused feelings as I had two years ago, and we found ourselves talking a lot about control of nature (and princess Mononoke).

Norwegian Outdoors vs Japanese forest bathing

In Norway it is quite normal to spend a lot of time in nature. My Norwegian friend explained to me that as early as the 19th century the urban working class in his country was encouraged to take the train to the woods every Sunday because, like the Japanese, they also had that intuitive knowledge that living in nature is good for you. But he was also a bit sceptical about all rules and procedures (for which Japanese are known) and did not like it that we were in a big group of more than 20. He is the kind of guy that enjoys the woods in silence, preferably alone. I have to agree that I also enjoy being in the forest on my own, or with people that make me feel comfortable. There is a poem of Mary Oliver which explains forest bathing how he and I enjoy it the most:

Screen Shot 2019-06-23 at 10.02.47.png

During his flight to Japan, an article in the Norwegian media about the trend of forest baths also caught his attention. The Norwegian journalist thought that forest baths meant “simply swimming in a lake”. After my explanation he already said that he already automatically takes forest bathes every week.

“But do you open all your five senses?” I asked him, because I knew from experience that he had a rather high walking pace, and when it comes to forest baths, it’s all about moving through a forest as slowly and consciously as possible.
“Yes, it’s normal for us to touch leaves, rest our backs against a tree, smell pine needles and so on… I just do not need rules like the Japanese do. ”

forest10
(c) Wendy Wuyts

Why especially City dwellers should take forest baths

He did admit that forest baths are effective for urban dwellers, and that the role of nature people like him and me is to get city dwellers into the wild every week. He is pleased that Japanese city dwellers travel to the forest every week, but he also shared reflections on nature conservation and how sorry he thought it was that many places were too easily accessible for many people. He noted that too many mountains in Japan had a cable car. That day, he and I had been traveling for two weeks and did a lot of hiking, trekking and camping; from Hokkaido’s national parks to Mt Fuji. Many times he had remarked how much Japanese try “to control the mountain to make it accessible for everyone”.

He understood that access to nature must be a human right. “But not all nature should be accessible for everyone, because some places are dangerous for people who think they can climb a mountain with sandals, or who don’t realize that they need a guide or know what should be in a day backpack.  This results in blogs which say that for example Mt Fuji is tough. But Mt Fuji was not a difficult mountain at all. Now I understood they just were not in good shape and, or they did not bring the right gear, because they do not take the effort to get some outdoor skills and knowledge.”

We agreed that being nature is about understanding limits. Not only of ourselves, but also of nature. We have to respect that every place has a carrying capacity, and we have to not underestimate ourselves, especially in nature.

forest7
(c) Wendy Wuyts

Princess Mononoke

Nowadays, these worms are there almost whole year, one of the forest therapy guides told us. During the allocation of this forest therapy base, these worms were not there, but then this was also a godforsaken place. Now animals from higher up bring these leeches when to go down; to this place in search of food, because man has reduced their territory. “There is a reason why Ghibli Studio choose these worms for princess Mononoke. It are always animals from higher up, from more remote areas, losing territory, that bring this curse to the human world.”

For those who have seen the popular animated film “Princess Mononoke”, recognizes that animals also came from the mountains and were possessed by these demonic worms squirming over their whole body. In this movie, the toxic used by some colonising humans causes the curse. In the beginning of the movie, one of the main characters get infected by this curse when he protects his village against a possessed animal. The movie is about his search to find a cure, but in the meantime he also learns more about forest spirits, wolves and the impact of the colonisation of nature.

princess06
Screenshot of the animation movie “princess Mononoke”

This animation movie inspired me so many years ago to visit Japan, and stay there for some time, to reflect about the relationship between nature and culture, the impact of civil and environmental engineering. For me, I got maybe too excited about these worms, or curse spirits, but partly because it closes a circle for me.

I met the worms. I saw in the past two years very confusing images of infrastructure that let me wonder… why do we keep building (especially in a country which society is shrinking?). I know jobs have to be created, that accessibility is a human right … but sometimes it is good to rest.

What do you think?

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. 

Norway Spruce, a story about Shaman Claus, mushrooms and fire

Two weeks ago I attended a Christmas Quiz where I learned that the  Trafalgar Square Christmas tree is a Christmas tree donated to the people of Britain by the city of Oslo in Norway each year since 1947 (as a gratitude for their support during the Second World War). According to wikipedia, it is typically a 50- to 60-year-old Norway spruce, generally over 20 metres tall. The tree is cut in Norway sometime in November during a ceremony attended by the British Ambassador to Norway, Mayor of Oslo, and Lord Mayor of Westminster. One week later I embarked on a journey to the far north, and saw so many spruces in the wild. I also bought a book along the trip, that I read when I was 10 years, and 20 years, and as I am almost turning 30 years old, it was time to repeat the “tradition”. As the north of Norway does not see daylight between November 21st and January 21st, it seemed the right time and place to remind me again from where the idea of the “christmas tree” and also Santa Claus really comes from.

screen shot 2019-01-07 at 12.11.05

It all started with Fire

When I did know that Santa Claus, or the Dutch version “Sinterklaas” were not real, my father gave me a book “The Secret of Sinterklaas”. I learned that it was all about fire and trees, and about that we, as humans, try to control nature, but actually will never succeed to control it, as we are not above nature, but part of it. In Japan, Thailand and other countries you see still a lot of tree worshipping, but actually in north and west Europe people still do tree worshipping, but they do not know. Before the 8th century, people in northern and west Europe would burn trees in this time to remind themselves to the sacred gift of fire that our ancestors received ten thousands year ago. The oldest myths in many cultures are about that phase in history where mankind started to use fire, because that was the beginning of the exponential technological progress. By burning trees we remind ourselves humbly to the power of nature. It is a time of the year where we should look in ourselves by gazing at bonfires or candlelight. As Thoreau wrote, electricity kills darkness, but candlelight illuminates it.

screen shot 2019-01-08 at 02.38.58

Later, the Roman Catholic Church colonised this practice into a christian one and decided Jesus was born in this time. Before that happened, our ancestors called this period  “Joeltijd”. “Joel” is Dutch for “celebrating”. In other languages people would say Yule or Yulda. It is the time for people coming together; eating, drinking, making babies etc. Many taboos would be broken in these days.  However, in the times of inquisition and witch hunts, any form of pagan practice was hidden. Only after the power of the Church weakened during Napoleon’s reign, the christmas tree was re-introduced, and with the invention of lightbulbs in the 19th century we got the tree we know today.

Screen Shot 2019-01-08 at 02.38.21.png

Shaman Claus and mushrooms

Another story that I read was about mushrooms. The shamans of the old religions of North and West Europe used Amanita muscaria, also known as the Fly Agaric mushroom, or the the Alice in Wonderland mushroom, or as the house of leprechauns we see in western fairytales.  It was held very sacred by these ancient people, and was used by the shaman and others for ceremonial and spiritual purposes.  They only grow beneath certain types of evergreen trees, and I assume that they also grow under Norwegian Spruces. However, I also heard they were originally from North-America and cultivated in Norway for Christmas, but then I read at the blog of Tree Spirit Wisdom that “In Sweden, scientists have found a living Norway spruce named Old Tjikko, dated to be 9,550 years old. It has achieved this age through self-control and by cloning itself thus regenerating new trunks, branches and roots in the same space.” So, I think my assumption can be right.

screen shot 2019-01-08 at 02.40.51

These mushrooms and evergreen trees form a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the tree, the exchange of which allows them to grow.  One of the reported ancient beliefs was that the mushroom was actually the fruit of the tree. These mushrooms can have different colours: from brightly red and white to golden orange and yellow, which reminds me to… the christmas decorations of the christmas tree.

Tree of Birth, the Tree of Not Giving Up

In Greek mythology, the Spruce tree was dedicated to Artemis, the Goddess of the Moon, Hunting, Nature and protector of women. The Greeks suggested that the enduring Spruce tree represented constant, eternal life and was labelled ‘The Tree of Birth’; its scented evergreen needles signifying resilience and strength. This is the reason the tree is so associated with Artemis – as renewal, resilience and resurgence are all qualities which this goddess prized above all others. It’s also no wonder that the spruce is our Christmas tree, as Christians celebrate also the birth of Jesus Christ. As the tree is known for its resilience and renewal, it reminds us that perseverance and patience leads us higher. Sometimes we have to overcome darker periods because these dark times gives us a lot of knowledge and tools. We should not give up! While I was freezing in the dayless days in the Far North, looking for the northern lights, I tapped into the energy of the spruce and also told myself “Be Like a Spruce!”

Screen Shot 2019-01-08 at 02.47.31.png

Spruce Beer from Native America

Spruce trees are mythologically important plants among Southwestern tribes, where they are symbols of the sky and directional guardians of the north. According to Hopi myth, the spruce tree was once a medicine man, Salavi, who transformed himself into a tree. Besides, Spruce “beer” was first brewed by the indigenous peoples of northern Europe and North America as a medicinal beverage. Depending on the time of year and the type of spruce, the flavour varied. By the 1700s, alcoholic spruce beer was common in colonial America and eastern Canada.

Use of Spruce

Not only the mushroom has special properties. They are known for their resins. Resin incenses are typically the dried sap from trees. According to the blog of Druid Garden, “Norway Spruce is another tree that produces a good amount of incense.  I have found that not all Norway Spruces smell the same.  They all have a skunky/musky smell, which can be pleasant but very different than the pines.”

According to Mercola, “Spruce oil is frequently added in soap, air fresheners and household cleaner formulations to lend its fresh scent and act as a disinfecting agent. Because of its pleasant earthy scent, its calming effects and its ability to ease anxiety and stress, spruce oil is also a favourite in meditation rituals like grounding. ”

And talking about patience

Several authors who I adore, like Elif Shafak, Margaret Atwood, Han Kang, David Mitchell and Sjón (ok, the last one I do not know) buried their next book for almost 100 years in Norwegian forest, as part of Katie Paterson’s Future Library project. According to the Guardian, “Starting in 2014, Paterson has asked a writer a year to contribute a book to her public artwork. Riffing on themes of imagination and time, each work has been seen only by its author and will be printed in 2114, when a patch of 1,000 Norwegian spruce trees planted in 2014 in the forest that surrounds Oslo will be cut down to provide the paper for the texts.” I think using a spruce, the tree of resilience and renewal, was no coincidence…

Please share in comments what you know about the Norwegian spruce – or the Christmas Tree.