December 16, 2007

Ecofeminism, Poetry, History

I have been avoiding writing an ecofeminist historical analysis of Charles Erskine Scott Wood’s poetry all term because i’m completely intimidated by the prospect of combining ecofeminist theory, poetry analysis, and historical analysis. I have had no idea where to begin! Perhaps my friend Claudia’s poetic influence combined with a conversation i had about ecofeminism  with someone last night pushed me over the edge because i’ve written my first tiny bit…. Here’s where i am going. This is going to be a part of a larger paper about free love, anarchism, and nature in the pacific northwest. Part of it will be about Erskine and his lover Sara (also a poet), part will be about the anarchist periodicals in Oregon and Washington, and part will be about free motherhood and the politics of eugenics. This is a really intense topic which i hate to just mention without explaining, but i will have to wait till later to go into detail about how that fits here. The last part will be about bodies and sexuality. I am trying to fish out information about three women who seem to be elusive. I want to write about Lois Waisbrooker and a court case that happened over nude bathing (she had a periodical called “clothed with the sun”); i’m trying to find information on Marie Equi, who was definitely connected to the Portland anarchists, she was lesbian, and i dont really know about her connection to the free love movement; and i want to find out about this other woman who was a seattle labor activist. She was also lesbian and into free love. I’m very confused about how all this will be put together in the end, but here’s the beginning of Erskine’s part:


Charles Erskine Scott Wood: The Poet in the Desert

Wood’s poetry employs classic, indeed cliché, metaphors likening women to nature. But rooted in this language is a keen political agenda which lends his poems both authenticity and power. Couched in the language of eastern Oregon’s high desert landscape, and through the feminization and idealization of this beloved place, Wood calls for women’s rights, free love, anarchy, and environmental conservation.

Throughout The Poet in the Desert, the book he viewed as his life’s masterpiece, Wood develops a dualism between women and men which parallels the dualism between nature and culture. Many ecofeminists, whose theories do not begin to appear for sixty years after his book’s publication, adopt a similar approach: feminizing and glorifying nature, masculinizing and vilifying culture (cite). But most ecofeminists, especially those connected to academia and in its later stages, critique this symbolic language because it tends to feminize nature and naturalize women to the mutual detriment of both (cite). To simply react to this problematic dualism by reversing it—to consider women superior to men and nature superior to culture— the latter group of ecofeminists argue, is to avoid deconstructing the oppressive conceptual framework on which the exploitation of women and nature are founded.

Although Wood’s dualism reversals may not deeply deconstruct the framework of exploitation, oppression, and ownership—key issues associated with “man” and “culture” in his work— his intent is, like earlier ecofeminists, to restore value to that which his culture was rapidly destroying. Industrialization, which played an integral role in transforming the Pacific Northwest during Erskine’s time, intensified this destruction, is a key time in ecofeminist histories of woman and nature in symbolic thought. Contextualizing Wood and his writing within an ecofeminist intellectual history in fact sheds light on his particular relation to nature, women, and freedom on the hinge of industrialization, woman suffrage, and free love in the Pacific Northwest.

The Poet in the Desert at one point consisted of a pile of papers at the bottom of a trunk. They remained there until Erskine met Sara Bard Field, a poet, socialist, and woman suffragist, equal to himself in intelligence, passion, wit and creativity. When Erskine invited her to look at his poetry, she found the poems in the trunk and insisted on their potential. The two became friends over common political and artistic sentiments, and soon lovers, and eventually divorced their respective partners and lived the rest of their lives together in a love that has impressed and inspired everyone who knew them, whether as family and friends, or as those like myself, who’ve encountered their poetry simply as a reader. The mutual love and respect between Sara and Erskine is quite astounding. For instance, in a hand bound, 1918 edition of The Poet in the Desert, Erskine wrote a note to poet Genevieve Taggard, writing that “when I consider how much this book is Sara’s– Her discovery of the manuscript– her insistence on full completion, her insistence also on less preaching and more poetry and her constructive criticisms in arrangement and phrase–many lines are hers– I cannot in this work nor in my life separate myself from her.”



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