text menu at bottom of page

Our Bodies, Our Earth
Christine Bucher

Karen J. Warren
Ecological Feminist Philosophies,
Indiana University Press, 1996.

Paul Shepheard
The Cultivated Wilderness: Or, What is Landscape?,
MIT Press, 1997.

Space seems to be on our minds.

There have been scientific events: the Sojourner trip to Mars, the travails of the Russian space station Mir, the excitement over the Halle-Bopp comet. Cultural texts are full of space, too: Independence Day, Mars Attacks!, The X-Files, and Contact. Space may be the final frontier - but we know it best as what's around us, the built environment of houses, streets, office campuses, and mall complexes. Then, there are the more "natural" environments of national parks, woodlands, suburban lawns, farmlands. We also have problematic spaces: strip mines, factory farms, and post-industrial wastelands; edge cities and gated communities as well as gutted and devalued urban centers; a unified European community and changing national boundaries around the world.

All of these spaces are constructed. It is easy to see that the once-obvious distinction between "natural" and "man-made" no longer applies. The "natural" survives because of zoning, government regulation, and temporary and benign neglect. Paul Shepheard notes that "Today's children are growing up in a completely mapped world." All of the spaces are filled; apparently, there is nothing new to explore on this planet, none of Marlow's "white spaces on the map." Maybe this explains our current cultural star-gazing.

What does remain to be explored? Our attitudes, perhaps, toward the world we have finally mapped, the world as it appears on globes, atlases, travel brochures, CNN newscasts, and even from our windows. How do we treat the world we have so relentlessly, over hundreds of years, explored? What can we do with it - and having done that, how do we understand our selves in it? These questions are provoked by Karen J. Warren's collection, Ecological Feminist Philosophies, and Shepheard's The Cultivated Wilderness.

At first (and second) glance, these two texts present an unlikely pairing. Warren and her contributors (hereafter referred to collectively as "Warren & Co"), mostly philosophers, concentrate on ecological concerns, the "old" understanding of nature. The perspectives are academic, the tones are reasoned and rational, the aims feminist, the illustrations given in briefly worded summaries, the bibliographies complete and neatly marking the end of each of the 15 essays (as well as Warren's introduction). Shepheard is also an academic, but his tone is chatty, his analyses often anecdotal, the anecdotes themselves sometimes disturbing to a feminist perspective, the illustrations fascinating in black and white, and the bibliography could be, generously, characterized as embedded in the text.

Eleven of the 15 essays included in Warren's collection refer to Warren's work in some fashion, often to define "ecofeminism." Because of this overall reliance on Warren's definition, I offer it in full from the introduction:

"Ecological feminism" is the name of a variety of different feminist perspectives on the nature of the connections between the domination of women (and other oppressed humans) and the domination of nature....What all ecofeminist philosophers do hold in common, however, is the view that there are important connections between the domination of women (and other human subordinates) and the domination of nature and that a failure to recognize these connections results in inadequate feminisms, environmentalism, and environmental philosophy.

Warren's own essay, "The Power and the Promise of Ecological Feminism" expands the definition of domination, casting the concept as more than a "logical structure":

It also involves a substantive value system, since an ethical premise is needed to permit or sanction the "just" subordination of that which is subordinate. This justification typically is given on grounds of some alleged characteristic (e.g., rationality) which the dominant (e.g., men) have and the subordinate (e.g., women) lack.

This logic of domination results in binary oppositions, dualisms that have come to structure the Western world and Western philosophy. For feminists, as Warren indicates, the dualism of primary concern is that of man/woman; for ecofeminists, the human/nature dualism is at issue. In one way or another, the authors of these essays are asking the question: Are the differences between humans and nature in themselves reason enough to subordinate nature?

Because of this centuries-long construction of the patriarchal, human-centered world, the work of ecofeminists consists of conceptualizing these binary dualisms in new ways, to get away from the dominating logics used to naturalize and justify their continued existence. Mere reversal is not enough; the underlying assumptions between them need to be uncovered and examined. Thus Val Plumwood, in "Nature, Self, and Gender: Feminism, Environmental Philosophy, and the Critique of Rationalism," argues with Tom Regan's The Case for Animal Rights on the basis of his employment of rights language itself, not on how he uses it. Plumwood writes, "A more promising approach for an ethics of nature...would be to remove rights from the center of the moral stage and pay more attention to some other, less dualistic, moral concepts such as respect, sympathy, care, concern, compassion, gratitude, friendship, and responsibility" The argument for a value-based ethics (or an "ethics of care") recurs in several essays: Warren's "Power and Promise"; Deane Curtin's "Toward an Ecological Ethic of Care"; Roger J. H. King's "Caring about Nature: Feminist Ethics and the Environment"; and Deborah Slicer's "Your Daughter or Your Dog?: A Feminist Assessment of the Animal Research Issue."

This volume is not at all a reader on ecofeminism; a variety of approaches to a general ecofeminism is not included (no Leslie Marmon Silko here). Instead the volume applies Warren's analysis of the related dominations of nature and women to many contexts from various perspectives, working out the implications and possibilities of such an analysis. Issues addressed include vegetarianism, animal rights, ecofeminist literary criticism, the deterrence of nuclear war, ecofeminist activism, environmental ethics, the deep ecology/ecofeminist debate, language use, and ecosystem ecology.

Ecological Feminist Philosophies was originally published in 1991 as a special volume of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, the "first collection ever published of explicitly philosophical articles on ecological feminism." A few articles have been added to the originals. To mark that event, it seems, the bibliographies reflect the state of ecofeminism in 1991. (Will the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 produce a second volume of ecofeminist essays?)

Shepheard, an architect, is interested in what humans have done with the land and in how we think of what's been done once it's been done. To Shepheard, everything is constructed, and everything is interesting. Unlike Warren & Co., he finds little that is "wrong" or "right" but rather a set of explanations, a set of landscapes..., what he refers to as operations, strategies, and tactics. Rather than enacting a theoretical move against essentialist identity politics, this fundamentally curious approach to the constructed world is itself allowed to generate Shepheard's inquiry. He wants to know how things are made, both physically and culturally. He explores, as he says, "the way cultivation arises out of the circumstances people find themselves in, and out of the piece of the globe they are inhabiting at the time." He wants to know why we tell stories about places - and why we tell the stories we do. He wants to know if the space! aro und us can resist our stories, or themes, as Shepheard sometimes refers to them, alluding to Disneyland.

"Landscape" takes on several dimensions in The Cultivated Wilderness, not surprising in light of the subtitle. Clearly, pace the ecofeminist stance, Shepheard's interest lies not in the natural world, but in the built world itself, the cultivation of the wilderness into built environments and abstract ideas. He formulates this into something of a war metaphor, citing a bourbon-drinking fellow-passenger on a plane:

"You got strategy, the overview. You got tactics, the putting into position. You got operations, the carrying out," he had said as we passed over Massachusetts Bay. That's fine, I thought. That's architecture. There are buildings in the middle: tactics. There are machines at the close end of the scale: operations. And there is landscape at the other. Landscape is the overview, the strategy.

Strategy for what? Commercial profit? Shepheard is not explicit on this point, primarily, I think, because in many ways, those who build the landscape aren't always entirely aware of what they are doing. This book implies that landscape building is guided by abstract ideas - Unity, Hope, Nation, Utility, Vision, and Memory - but that these ideas may only be apparent at a distance both temporal and spatial, and perhaps, to that special viewer who can see them precisely as built landscapes.

Each of the above listed ideas evolves from a particular landscape: Alexander the Great's world, Antarctica, Scotland, Flevoland (the Netherlands), the London Basin, and the Western Front, respectively. Several of these readings of landscape are fascinating; here I'd like to focus on the "Utility: Flevoland" chapter, as it presents an interesting case study in terms of ecofeminism.

Shepheard travels to Amsterdam to take part in a conference on machines in the landscape. From Amsterdam he bikes to visit the polders, the flat landscapes the Dutch have reclaimed from the sea, creating landscape and horizon alike below sea level. It is a landscape based on agriculture, recreation, and other practical uses. It is:

a phenomenon of human effort, as though all the fields were buildings as well as the buildings.... In drought years, when the rest of Europe is gasping for water, the level in the IJsselmeer is allowed to rise by a mere foot - and then is trickled back into the drainage channels to irrigate the reclaimed land. In dry weather on the polders you are constantly coming across sparkling channels of water, part of the whole daily drama of water management, the sound of water moving inland filling the air with luxury. I am lyrical about it because there is such beauty in utility: the big dike is the evidence of such clear strategic thinking that its very side effects are a boon others would kill for.

The polders are brand-new land, so new that one constantly realizes one is walking on the sea-bed, on brand-new earth. Nature reclaimed - or nature engineered? Useless underwater land made arable, or anthropocentric violation of nature? No clear answers are offered, either by Shepheard or Warren & Co.

At one point, Shepheard's friend Sally declares, "I'm a woman. I'm not a landscape". No one but herself can "own" her. But can such a division, between self and land, be made? There are interconnections between women and nature, between culture and nature. Shepheard says, "The wilderness is not just something you look at; it's something you are part of". Divisions and differences exist, but how they are constructed has everything to do with how they exist, and how we exist with them. In the end, despite the differences between these two volumes, both call for a hard look at what we are doing to, with, and in the wilderness around us.







>--thREADs     reVIEWs--<