A prophetic eco-praxis mash-up of tradition and culture that would cause my homesteader great-grandmother and earlier feminists to roll over in their graves
Presented at the 2016 Christian Feminism Today Gathering: “Prophets in Every Generation” held in Indianapolis, IN, June 23–26, 2016.
By Cherice Bock
I have a confession to make, friends. Sometimes I feel like a bad feminist. I spend a good chunk of my free time working in a garden, harvesting and preserving food, caring for my children, and preparing food for my family, and I wonder: what would those mid-century feminists think, to see me now? Would they see me squandering the hard work they did to release me from “women’s work”?
And I think of my great-grandmother, a woman who spent her life homesteading plots of land in Idaho and eastern Oregon. She raised and preserved almost all the food her family needed to live, and in many ways I wish her wisdom had been passed down through the generations. I have so many questions for her. But she also first homesteaded land stolen from the native people of her region, native people who knew how to live off the land without creating dams that disrupted the ecosystems, without taking out every last sagebrush, without creating straight, human-formed lines and monocrops. I did inherit the knowledge of these ways from her.
And so I wonder, friends, what does it mean to be a prophet in this generation? What does it mean to be a feminist prophet in this generation? And my main question for this time is this: If feminists stand for equality of all, what would this egalitarian society look like? I ask you to ponder that in your mind and heart right now, allowing Sophia Wisdom to guide your imagination, and hold that vision in your mind’s eye.
I think of the biblical prophet Micah’s vision of people from all tribes and nations streaming to the mountain of the Lord, where God arbitrates disputes between them, and they no longer need weapons. Quakers like the passage about turning swords into plowshares, but right after that, there’s a verse that says that everyone will sit beneath their own vine and their own fig tree, and they will not have to be afraid. They have what they need; they can claim their space on God’s mountain—their place, rooted in and sustained by God’s grace and equalizing power.
Before I sat down to write this paper, I went out to my backyard in suburban Oregon with my five-year-old. We gave food and water to our six chickens, collected eggs, and pulled some weeds to feed to the chickens. Then we picked some fresh kale and mustard greens, and several cups’ worth of strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries. We checked on the progress of our other veggies: our broccoli and cabbage forming small heads, tomatoes beginning to flower, peppers and potatoes growing into their spaces. And I saw these as prophetic actions, standing in resistance to this culture of domination and creating a new and different paradigm.
This conference is titled “Prophets in Every Generation.” To me, and based on the biblical model and my other reading on the subject, a prophet is someone who holds, together, both a critique of the current system as it is and hope for God’s transformative power at work in and through the community of faith.
In other words, a prophet has critical hope, a theme I’m developing elsewhere in my scholarly work (ask me and I’ll send you a paper I wrote on the topic!). But to give a very brief overview of the role of the prophet, a prophet is someone who truly sees reality as it is, has a relational, holistic vision for how the world could be, speaks out with grief, lament, and courage about the disparity between the vision and reality, and also speaks a word of encouragement and hope to those who are willing to struggle toward that vision together. So a prophet sees reality, laments, speaks out, imagines a hopeful future, and struggles in community toward that future.
A prophet reminds us of who we are by re-membering stories from our past: the biblical prophets remind us of God’s great acts in the past and who God has called us to be. Prophets are steeped and grounded in their traditions’ stories, and from these stories and their living connection to the same Spirit present across time in their community comes their ability to stand up courageously against the status quo. The biblical prophets were deconstructionists before their time, really; stripping away all the layers of tradition and human interpretation that were useful for a different time and place and inviting their communities to a renewed vision of hope for this time and place.
I feel like feminists, collectively, are known for parts of this—seeing reality, sometimes offering an alternative vision, grieving and lamenting—but we’re not always known for being encouraging and hopeful. In my opinion, part of this is that we’re only seeing a portion of the “reality” that is out there, and we’re not always looking at or listening to the bigger picture. (Remember the image Jen Newman showed in her presentation of all the multicolored elements that you can look up at in the cathedral, and everyone has their own perspective?) As a feminist community, we’ve had to keep expanding our understanding of who “we” are and what we are and what we’re standing for. Black, Latina, and Asian American women spoke and are still speaking prophetically to white American feminists about not speaking for all women, through womanist, mujerista, and Asian American feminist theology. Women in the Global South, or two-thirds world, spoke and are still speaking prophetically that American women can’t attempt to define feminism without recognizing the very different experiences of those who live outside the empire-of-the-moment, the United States. And, increasingly, women and men have had to hear the groaning of the rest of creation, calling out to us about the ways we as a human race are attempting to control the narrative of who and what creation is for.
As I picked berries the day I wrote this piece, I enjoyed their sun-warmed sweetness, and I also worried about the fact that early June is supposed to be prime strawberry season, with raspberries coming on in a few weeks, and blueberries around the Fourth of July, and yet our strawberries are almost done and the blueberries were getting ripe already—and this was a couple weeks ago.
I basked in the beauty of this little plot of earth my family and I get to care for, and simultaneously felt grief and anger about the fact that not everyone has the privilege of owning land in our society, let alone the time and resources to garden it.
I offered up prayers of gratitude for the place I get to call home and the miracle that berries can form out of dirt, love, and sunshine, and prayers of lament for the land my ancestors stole and mistreated, and the people impacted by the choices of my culture. How long, O Lord? I find myself crying, alongside the biblical prophets.
To me, the prophetic issue of our generation has to do with environmental justice and care for creation. For one thing, if we don’t somehow learn to re-member ourselves as connected with the rest of creation, all of humanity and other forms of life on the planet will suffer due to our overuse of natural resources and our refusal to deal with our refuse responsibly. For another thing, as ecofeminists have noted for decades now, the problems facing the women in our society, and people of color, and people of lower socio-economic statuses, and the problems facing the Earth, all those deemed “marginalized” by our society: these problems stem from the same cultural value, which is a dualistic understanding that places everything on a hierarchy. In our culture, we tend to treat everything and everyone as disposable, to be used by those in power and then thrown away and forgotten—therefore, the work of the prophet is to remember.
For feminists, I think this is of utmost importance for us to note. What would equality look like? Would it look like all of us having the level of power and privilege that wealthy, white, cisgender, heterosexual males have traditionally been given in our culture?
The problem is, this . . . is not . . . even . . . possible. If our culture is based on using and disposing of others when they no longer meet our needs, there have to be some “others” who are disposable. We can’t all live a life of privilege, and our planet’s fever and breakdown in ecosystem services is starting to show this to us with increasingly clarity.
Therefore, the liberation of people of all genders is bound up with the liberation of the planet, of people of color, and of all others who are marginalized, and this is not the same as simply bringing more people into the center and expanding the margins. That’s what globalization has already done, and we don’t have any more room to expand outward to draw more into the center. Now we have to create a different paradigm or experience the consequences of living off more than we earn. As indigenous rights artist and activist Lilla Watson put it, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Are we willing to hear creation speak that word to us? Are we ready to partner with, to care for and tend the land (which is a better translation of the “dominion” passage in the creation story)? Are we, as relatively wealthy Americans, willing to enact a lifestyle that honors and values other parts of creation? All 7 billion of us human beings on the planet right now cannot live the lifestyle that you and I live in terms of consumption and waste.
My sense of what Christian feminism in the twenty-first century looks like is that we need to take ecofeminism very seriously; not just talk about it as a theoretical concept, but enact it in radical and paradigm-shifting ways. I found this quote, which sums up my thoughts exactly: “Dreams and reality are opposites. Action synthesizes them” (Assata Shakur). So as prophetic feminists, it is our job to take action to bring our dreams closer to reality. And, again, we do this by telling our stories: seeing reality, grieving, lamenting, and re-membering who we are in the context of the love and faithfulness of God. And then we do this by taking a step toward our imagined, hoped-for world. And then another step.
I’m going to give a brief overview of what ecofeminism is, and then, in the spirit of a prophet, I’m going to re-member my own story as it relates to feminism and the environment, in hope that it will inspire you and give you the courage to begin taking a step, and another step, in the direction of a holistic vision of flourishing equality for all.
Rosemary Radford Ruether eloquently described ecofeminists thus: “Ecofeminists discern both a symbolic and a structural connection between the mistreatment of women and the mistreatment of nature in patriarchal cultures and social systems. Patriarchal cultures have seen the bodily world as something both inferior and evil and have imagined a higher, male, spiritual world where this lower world could be both escaped and dominated from outside. Thus, for ecofeminists, the struggle against ecological degradation is interconnected with the struggle against patriarchy.”
The chart above shows the dualistic hierarchy implicit in our culture, where the list on the right represents everything that is superior, and the list on the left represents the inferior. But this is contrary to a vast swathe of the biblical story, starting with the creation story. Ecofeminist theologians point out the difference between the biblical account and another ancient Near Eastern creation myth, the Babylonian story called Enuma Elish. In it, the goddess Tiamat, who personifies the chaotic ocean, is destroyed by her grandson, Marduk. She is cut into pieces, and the Earth and atmosphere are created from her fragmented body. In contrast, the Genesis creation story does not require death or destruction, but invokes a creative and collaborative life force as the Spirit moves over the surface of the waters. In the Babylonian tale, Tiamat’s second husband, Kingu, is killed, and out of his body and blood, man is formed. In the Genesis story, especially in the Genesis 1 telling, the man and woman are created out of the soil of creation and the breath or Spirit of God, again using God’s creative power rather than a destructive power.
I could go on about ecofeminism, but I will leave it at that for now, and you can read any number of excellent texts on this subject. Suffice it to say that ecofeminists attempt to prevent ecological ruin, recognizing that this is bound up with women’s struggle for freedom and sustaining of life on Earth.
From there, I’ll tell you a little bit about my own story and how I became interested in and convicted about these things.
In high school, I remember discovering Lucretia Mott, a Quaker abolitionist who also spoke out about women’s rights and ended up holding an instrumental role in bringing about the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls. Speaking out about the injustice of slavery, Mott was criticized for speaking in public as a woman, and she recognized the interconnectedness of all the forms of domination American culture tries to make us buy into. Although there is much to be proud of from Mott and other earlier Quaker feminists and abolitionists, I also wonder why the Quaker church in the United States is still so white. My spiritual ancestors helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad, but worshiping together proved more difficult.
Lucretia Mott served as a gateway drug for me into the fascinating and inspiring world of stories of Quakers, and feminists, and feminist Quakers, in my spiritual sisterhood of ancestors. Elizabeth Fry, Quaker prison worker, inspired me. More recent women inspired me, as well. Reading Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza and Rosemary Radford Ruether made me feel that I could belong in seminary and in the religious academy. Catholic Dorothy Day and Quaker Elise Boulding inspired me with their peace and social justice activism coupled with contemplative practices. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of all these great women. In hearing the stories and the courage of these women (and people of other genders), I gained a deep well of resources from which to draw as I attempt to make my own steps in the direction of prophetic faithfulness. Even their stories of hardship and failure encourage me to move in the direction of justice and care. Many of my Quaker heroines were read out of meeting—basically rejected by their faith communities—but they continued working for what they sensed was good and right. Grounded in Christian tradition, the Bible, and an intimate knowledge of the living God, these feminists, abolitionists, theologians, and activists inspire and ground me.
I wrestled with the question of what the social justice issue of our time is. Although gender issues are important to me, I see that the deeper root is the desire for power and control. This is not a new idea, but the question is: What are we actually DOING about this problem?
I’m grateful for the work that my Quaker foremothers and other feminists did to open up the workplace to women, but the prophetic part of me asks, have we actually moved beyond second-wave feminism in practice? Are we living out a feminism that does not require domination of an “other” for the self to advance? Are we so focused on our careers and daily lives that we are unable or unwilling to do what it takes to not dominate the Earth? Are we so focused on the glass ceiling that we forget the dirt floor, that same dirt floor that once caressed our mothers’ hardy feet, as they stood, “barefoot and pregnant in their kitchens”?
And so I turn to stories about my own family history, my homesteader great-grandmother, who I’m almost certain spent a great deal of time pregnant in her kitchen. I’m not sure about the barefoot part. But she did have a dirt floor.
At the same time I’m attempting to follow the same kernel of wisdom and truth present in the feminist movement, I also recognize that I could learn a thing or two from my great-grandma.
For me, part of being a feminist in this time and place is looking at the past and learning from it, but not being bound by it. It also requires looking at the past with compassion, honoring and not dismissing the actions of my foremothers out of hand; they lived in their time and context, too.
So I will tell you the story of my great-grandmother, Fanny Nutting, who was born in 1900 near Joplin, Missouri. She moved to Idaho at age fourteen to homestead a place, with her dad and two of her brothers. To give you a flavor of her life on the new homestead, here’s an excerpt from a letter she wrote that year.
Tomorrow is the Fourth. What did you do? It is now 7:20 a.m. and I have made up two beds and straightened up the bedroom and front room and sitting room and living room, piled one pile of sage brush [sic] and burnt two piles, now I’m ready to write. Haven’t much to tell. Tuesday evening after supper I went out with the gun and was out about 15 minutes and shot three rabbits. . . .
Compared to Granny, as my mom called her, my little attempts to live off the land pale!
Fanny attended a Baptist church, and she met Glen Beebe somehow and invited him and his family to church. They got married in 1919, after his service in WWI. They farmed in various places in southern Idaho, renting farms for twenty years, living in twenty-one different houses in first twenty years of marriage because landlords controlled who lived there. They only had their “own two hands, and five children to raise,” said Granny, and it was the Great Depression. They fell into debt. Then came the New Deal, when civil engineers built the Owyhee Dam, opening up parts of eastern Oregon and Idaho to irrigation in places where farming had previously been impossible. Fanny and Glen moved onto a 240-acre homestead on February 1, 1939. They built a concrete basement house, 924 square feet for five kids, two parents, and (for several years) the local schoolteacher. They cleared much of their land of the native sagebrush, planting hay, sugar beets, and other cash crops, in addition to running a small dairy.
Granny saw the hand of God at work in her family’s ability to get this homestead. She saw it as a blessing based on God’s provision and her own and her husband’s faithful work; a “bargain with God,” she called it. They experienced great hardship and she often worried they would not have enough, but my grandpa remembers how Granny always set aside 10 percent of their net income for a tithe, no matter what, before paying any of their other bills.
Although Granny passed away when I was not quite two years old, my grandpa told me what she was like. He says that while his dad ran the farm, she ran the garden and the farmyard. She planted, harvested, and put up most of the food their family needed for the year. She canned extensively, and she was also in charge of caring for, then slaughtering and preparing, all their meat: chickens, pigs, and occasionally cows. Glen and the kids ran a dairy with six to eight cows, and Fanny made the family’s dairy products out of this milk. Amazing to me, the family didn’t have a refrigerator until after WWII. Additionally, Fanny opened up their home as a Sunday school for neighborhood families, who couldn’t always travel the six miles to the nearest church building. She prepared elaborate flannel graph stories to teach the kids the stories of the faith.
Fanny and Glen donated portions of their land to become a public school and a church property, and my grandpa remembers Fanny often inviting people to share meals with them. They didn’t have much, but what they had, they shared. They lived through the Great Depression, and when they didn’t have enough, they used what they had with creativity and resourcefulness, as opposed to my generation. When we went through the “Great Recession,” what were we told to do? Shop! Go into debt!
Knowing what I know now about the fragmentation of ecosystems due to dams and large acreages of monocrops displacing native habitats, some of Granny’s story is cringe-worthy. Also, recognizing that this was not just empty land, but that it had been cared for and managed by the Cayuse, Shosone, or Paiute tribes, who had been forcibly removed from the region, makes Granny’s understanding of this land as a “blessing” for our family problematic.
When the reservation system was set up in eastern Oregon and Washington, the tribal spokespeople stated they could not sell their land, for the God who had given them the land had created the Earth and made them of it, and it was not theirs to sell. Removing them from the land was like removing an infant from its mother’s breast. Did the Native peoples not strike a convincing-enough “bargain with God” to retain their land? Who spoke the prophetic word in this situation? How do we respond today to this prophetic word that still rings in our ears, as heirs of colonists? What would equality truly look like in our society and environment?
At the same time, I honor and wish I could learn from my granny’s knowledge, and I am humbled by her dedication and faithfulness. I see the truth she sought to embody: care for the land and the community, a willingness to work hard, and a desire to share the bounty of God’s creation with those around her. I doubt she would have called herself a feminist by any stretch of the imagination. Her role fit firmly into the category of “women’s work,” but it was some seriously bad-ass women’s work: shooting rabbits, running the household finances, and ensuring that her family and community survived another year, clothed and fed. Her life is not my life, and her time is not my time, but I utterly respect her tenacity, generosity, and strength.
Although I don’t know if she would recognize my life as something similar, I see myself following in her footsteps—through emulation and, unfortunately, complicity, based on the legacy she bestowed. I respect the frugality she learned in the Depression, and I honor the work that she dedicated her life to, work that required expert knowledge of a different sort from what I’ve learned in the academy: the work of parenting, growing and preserving food, slaughtering livestock, cooking, keeping food safe and edible without refrigeration, and all the financial knowledge required to keep the books.
My grandparents didn’t pass down Granny’s knowledge of homesteading, but they did take my mom to visit the family farm annually as she grew up. (It’s still in the family, by the way, and I visited the farm often as a kid.)
My mom and my mother-in-law taught me a love for gardening, much to my surprise! I learn a little more each year, experimenting and researching because, although I learned to love gardening, I didn’t actually learn how to do it. I just learned to love the fresh food, the smell of the soil, the fragrance of the blossoms, and the miracle of watching soil transform into food.
Although the actual practices of caring for the land didn’t get passed down in a direct line from my great-grandmother, I feel like reclaiming this knowledge is a piece of what it means for me to be a feminist in this time and place. I work alongside my mothers, but not only my mothers. (My husband taught me to cook.) I learn from the practiced experience of my family, and also from books, YouTube videos, and the stories of those who used to care for this land, the native peoples. I am working to combine critique of this current system, critique of the way we have attempted to dominate this land and one another, critique of earlier feminists who seemed to only give us the option of becoming like our oppressors rather than breaking down unhealthy paradigms, critique of my own self-righteous bike-riding when also I fly on an airplane to a conference, with the hope that these small acts of reclaiming rituals that connect us to the land and one another also connect us with the Creator of the land.
In closing, I’ll attempt to do a bit of the work of putting these pieces together, but in true prophetic fashion, I find myself with more questions than answers.
I am so grateful for the history of feminists, who have opened up the way for women to work in the public sphere and to receive an education, and I love the work I do outside the home: teaching undergrads and seminary students and editing an environmental studies journal. I love the graduate program I’m enrolled in. I’m also glad to be a parent, a spouse, a friend, and a member of a faith community. I’m grateful that in today’s world, we can “have it all”; we can have careers and families—but this also worries me. Are we as feminists not simply buying into another of our culture’s lies, the promise of ever-more, of consumption and waste, of degradation and disposal?
Addressing these problems from a feminist framework, I recognize the need to set up limits and boundaries, to take up my space, and to hold firmly to the boundaries of who I am, but also to recognize the porousness of these boundaries.
Here, ecological metaphors come in handy. I am “like a tree, planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season, and whose leaf does not wither,” as the psalmist put it in Psalm 1. I am strong and solid, wholly separate, and yet wholly connected; surviving and thriving only because I’m rooted in the nourishing soil, replenished by sunlight, water, and air, and living in the midst of a community of other species who help cycle the soil, water, and air. I am myself, and I could not survive without this community of others; nor could they survive without me.
In the figurative sense, I am rooted in the law of the Lord, the stories and traditions passed down to me, decomposing and deconstructing, then reconstructing into new life and meaning in my veins.
Ecologically speaking, just like the tree, I am part of this living network. We’re all part of the social–ecological systems that cycle nutrients through each being on the planet, whether we acknowledge it or not. But for too long, we have tried to think of ourselves as separate, as higher, as over–against nature, rather than acknowledging our relationship to it. From a feminist perspective, it makes sense to acknowledge we are the “same,” and yet wholly “other”—we’re made up of the same stuff and we’re part of the same systems, but we are separate entities with particular roles and tasks, of no more or less importance than others.
My eco-praxis is a paradox of steps in the right direction alongside recognition of how much farther there is to go. I probably eat more food that I produce myself or acquire locally than the average American, but I also shop at grocery stores and buy mass-produced items. I raise my chickens for eggs and I’m a vegetarian, reducing emissions of greenhouse gases from cows and from fossil fuels needed to feed and transport livestock, but I also drink quite a bit of coffee and eat chocolate and sugary foods, none of which can be produced in my region. I try to bike as often as I can, and I drive an electric car, but I also flew on an airplane to get here, my fifth round-trip flight this year. I take hikes and spend time outside in my watershed, attempting to know and connect with the land under my care, but I recognize the level of privilege this amount of time shows, compared to the ways many in the United States are forced to live. I am grateful for the beauty of space, plant life, and scenic mountains and waterways I see all around me in my home town, but I also acknowledge that Oregon is one of the whitest states, and our Pacific Northwest culture is built on a history of exclusion of people of color, so that it is a mark of white privilege to live in such a place of beauty.
The other night, my father-in-law and I used a wood chipper to chip up some limbs I’d pruned the previous weekend, and then I turned the compost pile, almost giddy over the dark, rich earth that transformed from yard debris and food scraps in a corner of the yard. I thought about how composting is like the process of re-membering that I talked about earlier: taking all our gross, disgusting scraps of history, turning it, mixing it up, and letting the passage of time process it into something that can nourish us and our ecosystem again. Later, I spread the compost on my garden and covered it with wood chips. “Add more to the soil than you take from it,” I’ve heard, and I’m pretty sure my granny would agree.
© 2016 by Cherice Bock