Eco-feminist action in the 21st century
Illustration by Sara Haas
In early June, 2007, I was one of seven Saskatchewan women who made their way to Boston to record the vocal tracks for an ecofeminist recording project, My Heart Is Moved. In all, 85 women from ten different bio-regions of North America – many of whom had never before met – gathered to sing songs based on the Earth Charter, a global peoples’ document on sustainable living. All who traveled to Boston brought with them the breath and life of their local communities, the voices of all those in their singing circles, the amazing preparation and intention of the local group into the focused work of rehearsals and recording. The experience was profound and continues to shape me, much as the songs continue to take shape in community.
The Roots of Ecofeminism
Attempting to trace the origin of the word “ecofeminism” yields confusion. There are those who consider Francois d’Eaubonne, a French feminist and author of Le Feminisme ou la Mort (Feminism or Death), published in 1974 and translated into English in 1989, the originator. Others credit Susan Griffin’s Women and Nature or Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology: The MetaEthics of Radical Feminism, both published in 1978, as laying significant groundwork for ecofeminism, even though neither woman used the term in those works. Still others suggest that it could have been used by indigenous peoples or Black Americans working in their communities. What becomes clear in sorting through the literature is that no one woman can be crowned as originator, especially when the intricacies of oral cultures and realities of class are brought into the discussion.
Still, all ecofeminists can point to the work of Rachel Carson and her studies of birds and lakes as a significant root of ecofeminism. “Chemicals are the sinister and little-recognized partners of radiation in changing the very nature of the world – the very nature of life,” she said in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. That book rocked all of North America and much of the world, resulting in a backlash from the chemical industry and the scientific community. Accusations of emotionality, unsupported scientific data and parodies of her work by the likes of Monsanto served only to fuel the cause. Her scientific questioning of the indiscriminate use of man-made chemicals, as well as her early death from breast cancer, opened a path that allowed feminist thought, theory and practice to examine the interconnected oppressions of gender, race, class and nature.
When the U.N. General Assembly responded to the urgent, early-1980s call to address the degradation of the environment and humanity, it brought ecofeminists to the forefront of the global movement for environmental sustainability. In 1983, with the establishment of the World Commission on Environment and Development, the U.N. appointed Gro Harlem Brundtland, a Norwegian ecofeminist, as chair. Brundtland, formerly minister responsible for the environment and – at the time – the prime minister of Norway, charted a course to develop a global agenda for change in respect to the environment and development. In 1987, the Brundtland Commission issued its report, Our Common Future, calling for a new charter to guide humanity’s transition from unfettered development to sustainable development in a post-Chernobyl world.
Following that, a draft Earth Charter was presented to the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. The Charter was not accepted by the world’s leaders. Instead, the weaker Rio Declaration reached consensus among the nations and became the Summit’s formal statement. Articulating 27 principles on which the world’s leaders could agree, it included a statement, however soft, acknowledging ecofeminist principles, the need to protect “the environment and natural resources of people under oppression, domination, and occupation.” And, although governments rejected the Earth Charter proposal, global civil society, in fact, embraced it.
It was enough to move Maurice Strong, chair of the Rio Summit, and former U.S.S.R. president Mikhail Gorbachev to work with the government of the Netherlands to rework the Earth Charter with civil society. Always, their aim was to have the Charter officially recognized by the United Nations. Beginning in 1994, through a process of consultation larger than any other in the history of humanity, the Earth Charter Commission examined hundreds of international documents and involved thousands of people to bring forward a global consensus document. At a meeting at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris in March, 2000, that consensus was reached. Celebrated and formally launched at the Peace Palace in The Hague a little thereafter, it launched the next stage of action: official UN acceptance.
That acceptance came very close in Johannesburg at the 2002 World Summit on Sustainable Development. Leading up to this summit, more than 2,400 organizations representing millions of people had endorsed the Charter, but despite this – and numerous public statements of support from world leaders and heads of state – it remained unaccepted. According to EarthCharter.org, however, it has become recognized as a global consensus statement. Its understanding of sustainability, of the vision and challenges of sustainable development and the principles for reaching sustainability have been used in peace negotiations as references and resources for developing global standards, codes of ethics and legislative processes, as a community-development tool, and much more. It was this document that significantly influenced the UNESCO Decade for Education on Sustainable Development.
The Political Is Personal
And it inspired new sacred music. Carolyn McDade, a self-identified spiritual feminist and ecofeminist, took it upon herself to study the Earth Charter. As a woman “committed to the power of the human voice singing and speaking truth” and “to mov[ing] society to just and liberating transformation,” it is no surprise that her studies brought about new songs. With a recording career spanning more than three decades and including thirteen recording projects in a community-based process, which involved activist women and accomplished professional musicians, it is likewise not surprising that the new work made its way onto a CD.
Well-known to many activists within spiritual communities in North America, McDade’s work has helped countless others to better understand themselves and to deepen their own consciousnesses, as well as humanity’s. As the Earth Charter songs came into being, she shared them with various singing groups around the continent and invited these women to join her in her study of the Charter. Nancy Nordlie, a choir director living in the Great Lakes Basin region near Detroit, and Norma Luccock, a Vancouver, B.C. woman who had served as choral director for two of McDade’s earlier recordings, took up the call for creativity, study and writing new music. And McDade, in turn, carried their work with her as she traveled from region to region of North America, workshopping the new music along the way. Of these songs, McDade said:
“This music, drawn from the heart and words of The Earth Charter, pulls us to where waters run … seep … pool…. We need these songs if we are ever to rudder ourselves through the narrows to a deeper understanding of who we are as planetary and cosmic beings, intent on the wellbeing of the community of life of which we are inextricably a part.”
At some point in the process, she understood that the Earth Charter songs needed to be grounded in something more. A song she had previously recorded, “Compassion Piece,” called to her anew. It was a piece which had had its beginnings in Nicaragua in 1986, where McDade had lived for a month, a time when Nicaragua’s people were vulnerable to attacks by the U.S.-backed Contra rebels. One day, she joined people aboard a bus and traveled to a field that needed to be cleared of stones before it could be seeded. Conscious that she was acting subversively against her own government by helping the Nicaraguan people displaced by war create their own just harvest, she allowed her commitment to justice to guide her as she moved stones. Upon her return to the U.S., she was invited to participate in a symposium on love, lust and compassion. Thus asked, she agreed to explore compassion, trusting that her personal aquifer, that place within, beneath the surface, where emotion dwells, would lead.
Tapping into her own aquifer during her Earth Charter study, another piece came to her. An avid reader of poetry, McDade revisited the work of the radical U.S. feminist poet, Adrienne Rich. McDade says that after reading a powerful poem about hope rising in the worst of places, she rose, moved to the piano to sing. What came forth were these six lines, which occur near to the end of Rich’s poem, “Natural Resources”:
My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.
Rich’s poem was originally published in her 1978 book, The Dream of a Common Language, the same year as Daly’s and Griffin’s early ecofeminist works. A contemporary of these women, McDade breathed new life into Rich’s work, using the song, “My Heart Is Moved,” as the title piece for her new recording project, which animated the Earth Charter.
The Personal Is Political
My work as a feminist activist over the past 25 years found me in attendance at a workshop, the Circle of Relations Gathering, facilitated by Carolyn McDade during the summer of 2000. What drew me there in particular was the fact that a group of women who had participated in one of McDade’s previous recordings, We Are The Land We Sing (1999), had plans to publish an anthology, which became Running Barefoot: Women Write the Land (Rowan Books, 2001). That event was life-changing. It broke open my heart, made me vulnerable, and took me deep within myself to a place the circumstances of my life had forced me to cut off. It gave me a deeper understanding of the importance of the arts in daily living, challenged me to take my work as poet and writer more seriously. And it introduced me to a community of ecofeminists whose ongoing support sustains me as I write my journey. Of course, it also gave me Carolyn McDade as an informal mentor for my creative work.
Though it took me a couple of months to realize it, I really wanted to be part of McDade’s new project. At first I was simply happy to be learning the music, to allow it to take shape in me. But while on a writing retreat in rural Saskatchewan I suddenly realized that my poet-self had to be in Boston, singing the words of one of my favourite poets, Adrienne Rich. And so, I put my name forward in our local process of discernment. And, very early on the morning of June 3, I joined my Regina-based sisters in song en route to Boston. We met up with other singers along the way: our Saskatoon colleagues and a bass singer from B.C. We engaged in random acts of singing in the airports, attracting attention and reveling in the opportunity to talk about the Earth Charter. And, when we finally arrived in Boston, we were greeted by women from across the continent.
In Boston, our purpose was two-fold: to bring our community’s life and breath into our recording community in order to move “the depth of heart, yearning and teaching within these songs” into the world; and to further the principles of the Earth Charter and “the aquifer of heart and soul out of which they lift.” The time was honoured as a retreat, with simple ritual and a heartfelt respect for the Earth Charter. Songs shaped collaboratively in word and sound by beloved artists, given instrumental voice by exquisite musicians, shaped as they were sung in community, were further shaped as they were sung in the whole community.
As an ecofeminist poet and nonfiction writer born the same year Rachel Carson’s crucial book was published, I was profoundly moved by the opportunity to participate in the process of recording the CD, My Heart Is Moved. The opportunity to live – intentionally – within a community of women reminded me how strong women’s power really is, when honoured and used responsibly. The many new friendships developed were a special gift. And the deepened friendships among we who traveled from Saskatchewan have proven to be significant to my ongoing political work, as we move into a time of right-wing governance in this province.