Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Literary curiosity

Recently, a friend and I spent about two hours in fabulous large used bookstore. It was the night before the half-marathon. We'd eaten a meal that required two restaurants to accomplish and we were filled with the stamina and power the training and the food afforded, so we got there in plenty of time to stay for awhile.

I've been to this particular store many times, and in the past, I seldom ever left the religion and philosophy section. My academic library grew largely due to trips there when I used to live in smaller city in the same area and to one other in a town north of there. I lived in an area where several seminaries existed, so there were a lot of used seminary texts turned in for a little extra cash and I benefited greatly from the opportunity to get some good books at a much reduced price.

I made a vow when I went this time that I would not spend another dime on a religion text, so for the two hours that we there I wandered around the writing, fiction, travel narrative, and nature sections. Oh, okay. I'll admit it. I peaked at the religion books, looking for a couple of specific titles, but I swear I didn't last more than two minutes in that section. Okay, maybe ten.

It was fun reacquainting myself with some of my favorite fiction and travel narrative authors. A couple of them had new novels out in the last four or five years that I hadn't heard about, one of which I purchased. It's an Anne Lamott novel, based, like all of her fiction, in Marin County, CA. It's a good book, but it wouldn't matter if it wasn't. I swoon at the mention of the Wendy's in San Rafael, or barbecued oysters in Point Reyes, or the multitude of other familiar places and sights. Reading the landscape of her work is like taking a stolen glance at a lover. I'm swept away to another place, heart swelling with warmth and love, oblivious to anything else going around me.

I spent a great deal of my time carefully looking over the nature section. My interests in nature writing are growing, and I wanted to get a good feel for the varieties of work in that area. What struck me was the obvious dearth of titles written by women. With some obvious exceptions, like Annie Dillard, most of the titles I found in this particular bookstore were written by men.

Now, my survey, of course, was completely unscientific and it was a used bookstore, but I assume the selection is fairly representative of the genre. So, I'm putting some questions out there for those "in the know":
  • Is the field of nature writing overwhelmingly dominated by men and is there a scholarly explanation for that? (I made some assumptions about why and imagine I'm not far off with them, but am curious if there is anyone who's actually read anything that offers a more educated explanation than my assumptions.)
  • What women nature writers have you read and do you recommend?
  • Do anyone of you know of anyone who's actually noted major differences in the way men write about nature versus the way women do?
Just curious....


concretegodmother said...

For my money, Mary Oliver is one of the greatest nature writers I know, on a parallel with Annie Dillard.

Anonymous said...

nature writing is not something I read a lot of, so i have nothing to offer, other than it sounds like a fabulous bookstore!

Katherine E. said...

I don't know anything about nature writing, Linda, but I know you'd be great at it. !! You are a FABULOUS writer. I'm remembering when you discovered the fox and the little foxes. It was like I was right there on that trail with you (not that I'd ever be caught dead running anywhere, but, you know what I mean!) :-)

Linda: Nature Writer. Oh Yes!

Jan said...

No suggestions, but Sallie McFague's name keeps popping up. She's a theologian who wrote about the environment: Life Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for a Planet in Peril. But that would count as another "religion" text. But it's good!

jo(e) said...

Well, I would argue that the canon of nature literature has been very dominated by white men. For all the usual reasons. But the ecofeminist movement has, over the last three decades, begun to challenge and change that. Feminist literary scholars like Greta Gaard and Rachel Stein have done some of the analysis of the role gender plays in our ideas about nature literature.

In Western culture, the "masculine" mode (and this is socially constructed, not biological) is the lone man going out into the wilderness as a rite of passage, a way to challenge himself, to be tested by nature. Our culture also sees as "masculine" the body of science literature that looks at environmental issues since science in the country is still male-dominated.

Literature that looks at nature in an intuitive, instinctive, spiritual way, nature literature that talks about relationships and community, has long been considered "feminine."

Lots of thing are beginning to challenge these polarities. The inclusion of urban environmental literature in the canon, for example, has forced ecocritics to look at writers like Audre Lorde or bell hooks as nature writers. The body of native literature that has entered the canon has definitely challenged the western mindset: most native literature, whether written by a man or a woman, fits the "feminine" mode rather than the "masculine" mind. Scientists like Sandra Steingraber or Robin Wall Kimmerer have written books that include western "masculine" science and also "feminine" ways of knowing, with the idea that we need both.

Some female nature writers: Linda Hogan, Rachel Carson, Jane Goodall, Terry Tempest Williams, Pattiann Rogers, Denise Levertov, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, Louise Erdrich, Marge Piercy, Leslie Marmon Silko, Sandra Steingraber, Barbara Kingsolver, Paula Gunn Allen, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Diane Ackerman, Kathleen Norris, Joy Harjo, Susan Griffin, Luci Tapahonso, Ann Zwinger, Sue Hubbell, Anne LaBastille, Gretel Ehrlich.

The anthology Sisters of the Earth, a collection of women writing about nature, came out in 1991, edited by Lorraine Anderson. The anthology The Sweet Breathing of Plants, a book of women writing about plants, edited by Linda Hogan and Brenda Peterson, came out in 2001. The anthology Reinventing the Enemy's Language, an anthology of native women's writing edited by Joy Harjo and Gloria Bird, came out in 1997. The anthology Shorewords, a collection of women's coastal writings edited by Susan Rosen came out in 2003. These kind of anthologies are attempts to draw attention to women's voices in nature literature.

I could go on and on -- this is one of my pet topics ....

JM said...

See? I KNEW jo(e) would answer this a whole lot better than me and my "[shrug] I dunno. I study the old dead white guys just 'cuz I prefer them [at this point]."


concretegodmother said...

Wow, jo(e), you rule!!!

Linda said...

CGM: I would say the same about Mary Oliver. Thanks....

PPB: You'd love it. My favorite one is the other store though. It has a lot more character.

Katherine: Thanks!

Jan: I haven't read that Sallie McFague text, but have no doubt it's good! Thanks!

Jo(e): HOLY COW! Thanks! Your list should keep me occupied for awhile.

JM: Yeah, you weren't much help. But I still like you. :)

CGM: She does rock!!!!


I would never want to forget Ms Dian Fossey with her commitment, love, and bravery for the mountain gorillas of Africa. Other than "Gorillas in the Mist", I'm not sure that she wrote any other books. Had she not been killed by poachers, I'm sure that she would have written more about her research. What a dedicated woman she was.

Peace and Love....Lj

Marie said...

Ummmm...I got nothing other than my affirmation that you do indeed write wonderfully about nature. I liked the fox story, but I also really loved the stories of the farm. I sill have pictures in my head from those posts.

The Simpleton said...

Heartily second jo(e)'s motion on Terry Tempest Williams and Linda Hogan in particular, but all of the names on her list that I've read bear rich scrutiny!

Yankee, Transferred said...

I definitely knew this was a question for jo(e).