Eco Feminism – Erica Fielder excerpt from EnvironMentalities
Feminists frequently note that the elemental rhythms that occur within women’s wombs, and that enable women to create and nourish life, are synchronized with the cycles of the tides and the moon. Over the course of history, some cultures equated these mysterious feminine powers with nature’s uncontrollable omnipotence. They aroused fear in men, spurring insidious suppression and outright persecution of women.
But there are other cultures where the ability of women to conceive and bear children inspired reverence. Coatlicue was the Earth goddess of life and death in the Aztec mythology. Pachamama personified the Earth for the Incas of ancient Peru. Papa was the Earth Mother, according to the Maori people of New Zealand. The Greek goddess Gaia associates Earth with feminine attributes; her name combines the Greek words for Earth and grandmother. And the list goes on. Many of these traditions arose prior to the debut of written history. They emerged from societies that honored the matrix of interdependency among all living entities. Feminists generally believe that these societies manifest such stereotypical feminine attributes as compassion and tenderness. In contrast, competitive, capital-intensive societies reflect such stereotypical masculine attributes as assertiveness and independence.
Feminists link the oppression of women to racism and classism. Ecofeminists extend this logic by linking the oppression of women to the oppression of nature. The French writer, Françoise d’Eaubonne (1920–2005), formalized this thinking when she coined the term ecofeminism in the 1970s. In her 1978 book, “Eco-feminism: Revolution or Mutation,” she blamed the present-day ecological catastrophe on “the rapid expansion of patriarchy, exhaustion of resources and global population growth.” The solution she proposed involves “the elimination of the outdated structures of dominance, aggressiveness, competitiveness, and absolutism in order to replace them with those of cooperation and equality between individuals (thus between sexes), and of the species with the environment.”
Ecofeminists and Deep ecologists tend to agree that the course of civilization is being charted by those conducting hostile takeovers of the earth’s biotic and mineral wealth. But Deep ecologists blame humans for pursuing their species’ advantage (anthropocentrism), while Eofeminists target men for seeking their gender’s privilege (androcentrism). Although the objectionable aspects of masculine cultural and environmental values are easily identified, Ecofeminists are still wrestling with the iconic image of Mother Nature. Many Ecofeminist artists are attempting to make this powerful symbol an agent of environmental reform.
Born 1946 San Francisco, California
1968 University of Washington, Seattle, Washington, BFA
1998 Vermont College, Montpelier, Vermont, MFA
University of the Arts, Philadelphia; College of the Redwoods, Fort Bragg, California; and University of California, Berkeley; continuing studies in art, ecology, and natural history
Erica Fielder’s target audience consists of individuals who are thoughtless (indifferent), thoughtless (careless), thoughtless (inconsiderate), and thoughtless (negligent). Fielder traces these mental deficiencies to a stockpile of locked-down sensory receptors belonging to people who live in technologically advanced societies. The blocked bodily sensations, she believes, have gender implications. Fielder explains, “My current artwork is intended to help dissolve a form of mind-body dualism maintained by our Western social system. In one half of this dualism, the dominant side, resides the rational mind that sees nature as an abstract, female-like entity with resources to be extracted and manipulated…. The other half of the dualism holds our sensory, emotional bodies as inhabitants of the cycles and systems of the Earth. A focus on our bodies in this context raises the Ecofeminist notion of care and relationship with all life.”
Fielder believes that current populations are divested of their full complement of senses. Many receptors that are standard equipment in every human body seem irrelevant to the mental capacities valued in today’s workplace and social settings. As a result, many potential perceptions and sensibilities languish. Fielder believes that this disconnect produces thoughtlessness, which explains how we commit and tolerate environmental abuse. In order to heal the breach, Fielder reactivates the streams of environmental information we are physiologically capable of receiving. She explains, “Within Ecofeminist philosophy, caring, mental activity, and body awareness are not separate, but form a continuum of intelligence. I believe it is with this expanded intelligence, sustained by a healthy sensory experience of the natural world, that we will begin to shift from environmentally destructive behaviors toward the life and work choices that harmoniously include animals, plants, soils, air, and water. My art introduces people, through the mind and the sensory, to an element of the Earth—the concept of watershed—and a possibility for a caring relationship with the watershed ecosystems in which one lives.”
Although some environmentalists believe that the offenses committed by thoughtless people deserve sentences at eco-boot camps, Fielder devises gentle, corrective actions valued by Ecofeminists to promote environmentally ethical behaviors. Her activation tactics are based upon a radical proposition: people benefit from elemental activities that high-speed transportation, busy work places, and active play schedules rarely allow. She invites them to take a walk. She urges them to sit still.
Coming to Our Senses (1997 and ongoing), are guided walks that can be undertaken in urban settings, backyards, or the wilderness. Fielder designs these events to coax people out of their habitual thinking patterns and into new states of awareness. The walks begin and end in silence in order to concentrate on sensory perceptions that are unleashed during the procession. The sense of sight, for example, unfurls when participants are given high-powered magnifiers to explore surfaces, textures, structures, and patterns of everything from spiders to tiny seeds that they encounter along the trail.
Walking In Deeper (1997 and ongoing) is Fielder’s name for her guides that accompany the walks. She created 12 handmade booklets in which the pages rotated around a central point to evoke watershed cycles. Instead of providing taxonomies and biological facts, these guides awaken sensual rapport with the environment, at times through evocative poetic phrases: “Smells that drifted off of dinosaur eggs are still riding on the breezes.” Other passages encourage sensual delights: “Bury your feet.” Some explore senses that are commonly taken for granted, such as gravity: “Sit still until something falls.” A few address physical reactions, such as temperature sensitivity, that are common but not often acknowledged: “Lie down face up, hold the chill, hold the heat.” And so on, for responses to time, radiation, pressure, etc.
Fielder explains, “I began to explore artistic ways to introduce adults and children to a renewed alliance with their local watersheds, be it an inner city or rural area. Vital to this relationship is a sense of empathy and compassion for a myriad of complex systems, curiosity about a watershed’s social and political history, knowledge of the location of its headwaters and final destination, and a claim to membership in one’s home ecosystem.”
Fielder’s involvement with the escalation of sensory capacities is based on the work of eco-psychologist Dr. Michael J. Cohen, who asserts that humans have 53 senses, not just five. According to Cohen’s research, natural senses include light, color, temperature, season, and radiation, among others. Feeling senses include pressure, gravity, weight, balance, and motion. Chemical senses include smell, taste, appetite, humidity, and pheromones. Mental senses include fear, procreative urges, play, time, and language.
Cohen asserts that heightened sensitivities to anatomical, neurological, and perceptual connections to the environment are essential for the survival of people who live amidst the perpetually shifting conditions that occur out of doors. These sensitivities lost importance when technology gained control and delivered steady-state conditions through central cooling, heating, and artificial light. Our bodies have become tuned to synthesized sameness. Cohen reports, “In contemporary society over 95 percent of our time and 99.9 percent of our thinking is disconnected from contact with our inherently supportive biological, sensory and spiritual origins in nature.”
Fielder uses the term “acting like a species” to describe the sensitivity training that constitutes her art practice. “By acting like a species I mean holding myself in relationship with other species and the natural systems that flow through and around me. My art emanates from that practice… Thus, my work contains a strong sensory component, since it is through our senses… that we experience the world and will fall in love with it.”
Fielder provides three reasons for choosing the watershed as the target of her sensory activation projects: “For one, it is in this place that we usually begin to make the small changes that eventually lead to environmental healing.… Each one of us lives near a small wash, creek, or stream, although it may be hidden within a culvert. With some attention, we can learn to feel the slope of the land and course of the water flow, sense the direction of the breezes and become acquainted with the plants and animals that live there.
“Secondly, a watershed includes not only other living beings, but also whole systems of interactions between water, soils, rock formations, energy, chemistry, and air. Since water permeates all, it is through water that our home extends beyond four walls. In fact, by drinking from the same source for seven days, all the fluids in our cells and veins are replaced by that water. In effect, we become, along with other animals, small wandering tributaries of the watershed from which we drink.
“Third, an environmental consciousness, dawning on some of the human residents of my home watershed, has awakened me to the possibility of an entirely new paradigm, in which people place a sense of kinship with the nonhuman world foremost in their everyday decisions, just as they might think first about a child or friend in their conversations and plans. This consciousness motivates many people in my community to form watershed alliances that collectively work toward public education and watershed protection.”
The Birdfeeder Hat: Seeding Watershed Awareness (2003), a sculpture and performance, congeals all three aspects of Fielder’s watershed priorities. For six consecutive weekends, at different public locations in northern California, Fielder tied to her head a handmade hat with a sturdy 3-foot brim that served as feeding station for birds. The hat was adorned with small branches, seed trays, and a hummingbird feeder. She sat quietly and inconspicuously, demonstrating that interfacing with wild birds requires a behavioral mode that is an anomaly in contemporary culture. She did not work. She did not seek entertainment. She did not sleep. She was not bored and she did not consider this a waste of time. She sat until she convinced birds that she was a safe and nourishing component of the landscape.
Fielder invited others to don her feeder hat and accommodate the behavioral patterns of a nonhuman species, as she had done. A hat placed on someone’s head in anticipation of an avian visitor triggers a full-body sensory alert. Participants listen for birds in the vicinity, track auditory signs of their movements, and anticipate when birds will accept the invitation to dine on their hat. The arrival of a hungry bird is registered as a resounding thump, even if the bird is a tiny sparrow. Each twitter and tweet seems amplified. It is possible to detect seeds being pecked and tiny talons scratching. As the birds hop from side to side, hat-wearers adjust their bodies to retain balance. All this information streams through multiple sensory receptors, all except vision. Fielder mutes the one receptor channel that is typically utilized during avian encounters. She hopes that awakening nonvisual engagements encourages people to adopt a more holistic relationship with the watershed they inhabit. The Threshold Foundation agreed. They funded Fielder’s ornithological project through a Visionary Social Change initiative.
The Standing Still Project (1996 and ongoing) presents a radical expression of Ecofeminist sensibilities on a sign that states, “One Artist’s Response to Environmental Degradation.” The sign enumerates the environmental benefits of standing still:
“you reduce air pollution,
you slow the cutting of trees,
you stop consuming,
you avoid throwing things away,
you halt the race,
and you remember what you forgot.”
In sum, Fielder explains, “Ecofeminism defines my ecological art practice as radical action. By awakening the senses and establishing an emotional familiarity with place, participants begin to fly on another’s wing feathers, swim with another’s fins… I imagine that day when we may truly take our place alongside the myriad of watershed inhabitants, not as dominators, but as equal community members of the home we call biosphere.”
Postscript: Although some Ecofeminists proclaim their identity through opposition to the drive for power that they commonly associate with masculine values, Erica Fielder stresses positive feminine values by celebrating creation and nurturing life. Ana Mendieta (1948–1985) laid the groundwork for Fielder’s gentle environmental practice by acquiescing to the power of the Earth and revealing that such release is not a sign of weakness, but an act of unification. Mendieta’s practice overcame the estrangement from the environment that besets people who walk on concrete, not soil; who experience contrived steady-state interiors, not fluctuating conditions out of doors; who associate rain with clogged traffic, not healthy crops, etc. In the Silueta series (1973-1978), Mendieta dissolved the borders between her body and the Earth’s body. She initiated each work by conducting a private performance in which she either pressed her body into the elemental earth or she fashioned her silhouette on the earth with flowers, branches, moss, snow, mud, or fire. She also carved goddess forms into rock, shaped them from sand, incised them in clay, and imprinted them in mud. The silent fervor of her desire to blend seamlessly with her surroundings was intensified when she held her arms overhead in a gesture that merged the Earth and sky, and when she occupied the border between air and water by floating in the sea.