Nine Women Who Are Rewriting the Environment
During Women’s History Month, we are often reminded that women write books—they write good books, even—and we’re told that we should consider reading them. I too suggest that March is a wonderful month to explore the environmental writing of women, particularly those women who invite us to reimagine what living ethically, living beautifully, and living well with human and nonhuman others might require. I will add only that all the other months are good months to read them, as well.
This brief list of novels, poems, and essays has been a collaborative effort, as everything is. These books have come into my life as gifts, and perhaps they will feel the same to you. In the spirit of collaboration that runs through the works you’ll find below, I find myself wondering what environmental thinkers, poets, novelists, and dreamers are on your short list? Who should be on mine? Feel free to add your recommendations in the comments section at the end of this post. To honor the women who write and (re)write the worlds around us every day, I hope we will all continue to share their work with one another—into April and beyond.
Getting Lost and Finding Your Way: Women Rewrite the Wilderness
Abi Andrews, The Word for Woman is Wilderness (Serpent’s Tale, 2018)
In this adventure tale for the 21st century, nineteen-year-old Erin leaves her cozy Midlands home on a voyage into the Alaskan wilderness. She hitchhikes, boats, and backpacks her way through the Arctic Circle until she ultimately lands in a remote cabin in Denali National Park. Along the way, Erin reflects on climate change, the Gaia hypothesis, nuclear war, the birth control pill, the difficulty of being alone, and the nature of the “wild” itself. Make room, Jack London! Andrews’s debut novel is “a funny, frank and tender account of a young woman in uncharted territory” that balances a feminist corrective to the wilderness mythology with a sense of “wonder for the natural world and fierce love for preserving it.”
Lauret Savoy, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape (Counterpoint Press, 2016)
At once memoir, environmental history, and a cultural study of race in America, Trace travels across the continental United States to explore “human stories of migration, silence, and displacement” and the marks they’ve left behind in the rocks, on the land, and in Savoy’s own memory. From California’s San Andreas Fault Zone to a plantation in the Old South, through indigenous lands and national parks, from the U.S.-Mexico border to Washington D.C, Savoy’s journey invites readers to explore how American landscapes are haunted—and very much alive—with the pain, the beauty, and the joys of personal and political pasts. Trace has collected a number of awards, including the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation and the ASLE Environmental Creative Book Award. To hear Savoy talk about geology, storytelling, and loving places with violent pasts check out her appearance on the Edge Effects podcast.
Kim Fu, The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (HarperCollins, 2018)
In The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, five girls at a remote sleepaway camp in the Pacific Northwest embark on a kayaking trip to a nearby island that will change each of their lives. Nita, Kayla, Isabel, Dina, and Siobhan become stranded on the island without an adult to help them make camp or find their way home. Fu’s novel follows the girls through their harrowing experience on the island and into their adulthoods, where their memories of that trip shape the friendships they sustain, the families they build, and the women they become. Kim Fu’s first book, For Today I Am a Boy, received the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction, and The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore has earned a place on recommendation lists compiled by people who read and write novels for a living. Although not packaged as eco-lit, it promises to be a powerful read that asks what happens when a supposedly safe encounter with wildness tumbles out of human control.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It: Women Write Cli-Fi
Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (DCB, 2017)
In this dystopic vision of near-future Canada by Métis writer Cherie Dimaline, anthropogenic climate change, pollution, and a terrifying new epidemic are wreaking global havoc. Inexplicably, almost everyone has lost the ability to dream, and all around the world dreamless people spiral into madness. Only North American Indigenous peoples are safe from the strange disease. When a group of scientists announces that the marrow of dreaming people holds the key to a cure, government “recruiters” set out to capture indigenous “donors” who will be confined in “schools” until they undergo the fatal extraction process. The novel’s Anishnaabe teenage hero, Miigwans, rescues Métis orphan Frenchie and a number of others from a school. Together, the small group of survivors navigate the post-apocalyptic Canadian landscape, evade recruiters, and learn the even more terrible truth behind the government’s marrow collection. Dimaline’s prize-winning novel may be written for young adult audiences (14 years and up), but that shouldn’t lessen its appeal for adult readers looking for glimmers of hope in their climate fiction.
N.K. Jemisin, The Fifth Season (Orbit, 2015)
The first book of The Broken Earth trilogy invites readers into Stillness, an ironically named world of volcanoes and earthquakes in which entire civilizations are periodically destroyed by catastrophic events known as Seasons. A small population of people called the orogenes have the power to quiet the earth’s energies, as well as the power to whip them into a cataclysmic rage. Ostracized by people who fear and resent them, the orogenes are recruited to work under the auspices of the brutal, oppressive Empire that is eager to wield their powers. One day, just as a “great red rift” opens and sends apocalyptic torrents of ash into the sky, an orogene woman named Essun discovers that her husband has murdered their son and kidnapped her daughter. The novel ultimately weaves together the stories of three orogene women—Damaya, Syenite, and Essun—whose lives entwine as the world, under ash-darkened skies, lapses into chaos and Essun searches for her daughter. In this Hugo Award-winning novel, Jemison traces intimate experiences of racism, class and caste prejudice, homophobia, transphobia, ecocide, and love that can survive the end of the world. The Fifth Season ends with a cliffhanger, so be prepared to jump right into the next two books of the Broken Earth series, The Obelisk Gate (which won Jemisin another Hugo Award in 2017) and The Stone Sky.
In Search of Community Gardens: Women Write with Others
Robyn Stacey and Ashley Hay, Herbarium (Cambridge University Press, 2004)
This beautiful collection of essays and photographs offers a window into the National Herbarium of New South Wales at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia. Ashley Hay’s essays chart the botanical, colonial, and surprising personal histories preserved alongside more than a million plant specimens, while Robyn Stacey’s stunning photographs put species like mermaids’ hair, filmy fern, blue candle, dragon arum, and Wollemi pine in their best light. Because this book is rather large, you might consider finding it in your local library. Library shelves are a marvelous place to encounter specimens and curiosities otherwise usually confined to laboratories and museums. Whole worlds—like those within Herbarium—await.
Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay, Lace & Pyrite: Letters from Two Gardens (Organic Weapon Arts, 2014)
When Aimee Nezhukumatathil and Ross Gay first decided to mail each other a poem a week, their correspondence had no rules or theme. Once they realized they shared a deep love of gardening, they began to send poems born in their backyards and inspired by their work with flowers, food, and soil. The poets hope that “some of the pleasure and anxiety of tending these gardens—which is to say, tending to ourselves, our relationships, our earth—comes through in these poems.” Written over the course of year, the poems in this slim epistolary chapbook are full of joy, loss, sorrow, and the difficult work of regrowth. Despite the emotional and political difficulties they encounter, Nezhukumatathil and Gay insist that “it’s time to focus on bounty,” and reading this collection provides a startlingly rich yield. In April, be on the lookout for Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic, a new collection of research-based poetry that thinks with the earth sciences and offers “a sensuous love song to the Earth and its inhabitants.”
The Natural is Political: Women Write for Change
Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press, 2017)
In her newest book, Simpson—a poet, musician, scholar, activist, and member of the Alderville First Nation—explores the power of radical resistance that is rooted in uniquely Indigenous theory and political action. She urges readers to reject “reconciliation” efforts that do nothing to challenge the violent logics that sustain the settler colonial state. Instead, Simpson calls for political self-determination and “unapologetic, place-based Indigenous alternatives” to heteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and global capitalist exploitation. Through a vision of “radical resurgence,” she calls forth a world of renewed possibility that Daniel Heath Justice of the Cherokee Nation and the University of British Columbia describes as her most “provocative, defiant, visionary, and generous” work.
Rachel Carson, Silent Spring & Other Writings on the Environment, edited by Sandra Steingraber (Library of America, 2018)
No list of women (re)writing the environment is complete without Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. At the end of this month, the Library of America will release a landmark edition of the classic work, edited and featuring an introduction by biologist and writer Sandra Steingraber. It will feature not only the complete text of the first edition of Silent Spring—including Lois and Louis Darling’s original illustrations—but also a wide array of essays, articles, and previously unpublished letters between Carson and ornithologists, medical researchers, ecologists, and other experts as she began to track the effects of DDT. Carson’s life and work inspired protests and debate, led to laws and agencies to protect our air, land, and water, and demanded both government and industry be accountable to the people and the worlds they live within. There is not a better time than now to return to her work.
Featured image: Kim Fu. Photo by Laura D’Alessandro.
Thanks to Laura Perry for bringing Herbarium to my attention and for writing much of its recommendation.
Addie Hopes is a Literary Studies graduate student in the English Department at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her current research focuses on (eco)feminist ethics and narratives of multispecies communities in contemporary American fiction. She has previously published essays on lake monsters and Mad Max: Fury Road with Edge Effects, and she is a member of the editorial board. Contact.