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.
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.
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 .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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)
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.
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.
Some time ago, when the animals were still talking, I lived in Thailand. Ok, it was only 1.5 year ago that I left Thailand for Japan. I was blessed to became a friend of a Thai young woman who likes to travel, knows a lot about Thai customs and traditions and is also into sustainability. Recently we were texting over Instagram about Loy Krathong festival (celebrated on November 23rd, during full moon) which is traditionally a festival to pay respect to the goddess of rivers. Thai people would put “krathong” or containers in the rivers, which were made from natural materials. But unfortunately many people use non-natural materials like styrofoam and it became more, as my friend called it, a river polluting instead of river celebrating festival.
It reminds me a bit to the Japanese anime “Spirited Away” which is also about polluted rivers and nature, which are represented by spirits that got cleaned in the bath house. Japanese culture and Thai culture are partly about spirits of ancestors or of an ancient soul. In Japan, you have shintoism and buddhism, and it is difficult for me to know often which practices comes from shintoism, or which from buddhism. In Japan, people go to shinto shrines for celebrations around life and transitions in life, but they have buddhist funerals. It also does not help that Thai and Japanese buddhism are totally different. Japanese buddhist priests can marry. In Thailand, they cannot.
In Thailand, you also find everywhere also small spirit houses everywhere. This could be connected with buddhism-hinduism since when Thai put a new spirit house, they have to ask a buddhist monk to do a special ceremony. These spirit houses are for the spirits who take care of the area. Thai Buddhists believe that there are different classes of spirits or angels: some lives on earth, some in a tree, some in the air, but not in every tree there is a spirit. In Thailand, the spirit is not connected to a certain tree. There was a story where people were stopped to cut a tree, because a monk heard the spirit asking for few days time to find another tree as new residence. In Japan, the tree is not seen as the (temporary) residence of the spirit, but the spirit is the soul of the tree, not of a dead ancestor or angel.
The Asian tree spirits especially fascinate me a lot. Especially the banana, fig , ta-khian and banyan trees are inhabited by trees. Ta-Nee is the famous spirit associated with the banana tree. Many big trees have spirits inside, my Thai friend told me.
My friends in Thailand introduced me to Thai horror, which are mostly ghost stories, and some are about tree spirits. But it was also weird that there was also some humor in it. What can it be about? If you cut down a tree without its permission, the tree spirit would haunt you. An example is “Takien” (trailer with English subtitles)
One day, this friend and I decided to climb 3790 steps to Wat Khao Wong Pra Chan. This picture is taken at the beginning. I was very intrigued by this, and she explained me that when Thai people know the gender (or sex) of the spirits they would hang clothes for them. They say the spirit inhabits a Ta-khian tree and sometimes appears as a beautiful young woman wearing traditional Thai attire, usually in reddish or brownish colours, contrasting with Nang Tani who wears a green dress. Northern Thai use also dress trees to ordinate that there is someone there. When a tree is ordinated, no one dares to cut or destroy it. While trees in Japan are marked with sacred ropes with paper folded in a zig-zag way, some sacred trees in Thailand are marked by statues. Also when you looked carefully to some banyan trees at my previous campus, you would find holy statues. A professor who studies the stop of belief in nature spirits as early warning signals of environmental degradation in local villages in east-Thailand pointed me to these statues, and I had one of the best conversations on that campus.
Please also take note of the drinks in front the spirit house. It seems that the spirits like red Fanta. According to one of my Thai friends, it is because it is a more innocent version of blood, and their beloved previous king loved red Fanta too, but that is maybe an urban legend. My friend and I discussed that people copy from the past or their elderly. Thai people would say “Tum Tam Tam Kan Ma”. Adults love to tell the children that when they ask for the reason. It means “follow what elders did” … but actually, my Thai friend (she is very wise) told me it does not resonate with the Buddhist idea of Kalamasutta; the Buddha named ten specific sources whose knowledge should not be immediately viewed as truthful without further investigation. As you see, Thai norms are sometimes against the Buddha’s thought.
So do not be surprised that you can find red Fanta at the feet of statues, especially from kings, but nobody seems to know really why. Once, in the big airport of Thailand, people started to put red Fanta at the feet of these guardians, and the airport staff got very confused. Red Fanta bottles were removed. The airport announced “please don’t do this”. My Thai friend reacted: “Very Thai. I have to say that.”
What do you know about Thai Tree spirits?
Ps special thanks to my wise Thai friends S. and P. who gave additional information and feedback on my first versions.