Not too long ago I heard someone deride members of a seminar who were building labyrinths in the olive groves of Greece as “a bunch of tree-huggers.” I bristled! I probably first heard of the Chipko tree-hugging movement which is led by women in the 1970s and 1980s. Because I love nature, I naturally assumed hugging trees is a good thing. Originally, I had no idea that the tree-hugging movement was about much more than saving trees from being felled in the interests of short-term profit.
I did not know that the deeper purpose of the movement is to save a way of life based on forest-culture that is being threatened by the imposition of western ideas and practices promoted by colonialism and its successor, the green revolution. Nor did I know that the traditional forest-culture of India is the provenance of women: more than 4000 years of observing and experimenting created a “women’s knowledge” passed down from mother to daughter.
I have long known that women invented agriculture 10,000 years ago in the middle east. (From there it spread north into Europe and east into South Asia.) I believe that the fact that women developed and controlled agriculture is the material basis for what have been called the Goddess cultures of the ancient world(s). Some say that the fact that women give birth is their root. Surely this was a factor, but in the Neolithic period (defined by the invention of agriculture), the powers of the female body were understood to mirror the powers of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life.
In early agricultural societies, women not only gave birth to and nurtured children, they also “gave birth to and nurtured” plant life. Women understood the secrets of when and how to plant seeds, how to nurture young plants, how to keep plants alive, when to harvest, how to process and preserve vegetable products, and how to save and store seeds for the next year. In the Neolithic era, women were not only revered as birth-givers but as the nurturers and sustainers of life in virtue of their agricultural knowledge. It thus is not remarkable that Goddess “figurines” from the Neolithic are rarely pregnant or holding children. They are not fertility symbols in any limited sense: they represent the Source of Life.
Recent studies of egalitarian matriarchal societies reveal that they are matrilineal, with family identification and status being passed down through the female line, from mother to daughter. These societies are generally at the early stages of agriculture with small plots and most of the labor being done by hand or with simple tools. Property is held in common by the matrilineal clans: women’s ownership of land and extended family homes is at the heart of traditions of matrilineal descent; women’s traditional knowledge of how to nurture life in all of its forms is the other half of the equation. These societies tend to view the earth as a great and giving mother.
In her ground-breaking Staying Alive: Women, Ecology, and Survival in India (1988), nuclear physicist turned ecofeminist Vandana Shiva explains that the deep purpose of the tree-hugging movement is to save the traditional forest-culture of India which is controlled by women and has sustained life for more than forty centuries. While western environmentalism has often focused on saving “wild nature,” the trees being hugged in the Chipko movement are not wild in the western sense. Rather they have been tended and interacted with by Indian women. For example in Madhya Pradesh:
Although rice … and lesser millets… form the staple diet of the tribals, almost all of them supplement with seeds, grains, roots, rhizomes, leaves, and fruits of numerous wild plants which abound in the forests. …famine has never been a problem. (59)
Trees are lopped to provide firewood and wood for building, while manure from domestic animals is spread in the forests. Shiva notes that in addition to providing sustenance, forests help to conserve soil and water. Shiva states that forest management was in an evolved state when the British arrived. (60-61) She tells us that Indian women express and work in conjunction with a “feminine principle” called Prakriti, the creative and active source of all life.
Traditional forest-culture in India is both sustainable and bioregional, two goals of the environmental movement. People living in traditional villages are poor, but not impoverished because they have what they need to live and continue life. These villages are not profitable if profit is defined as having a product to sell or money to purchase products from outside sources.
Shiva explains further that as western economies have been driven by profit in the past several hundred years, westerners fail to see that sustainable economies do not need to be changed or developed. But if left as they are, they will not provide opportunities for colonizers and big businesses to profit from their resources or their labor or to sell them things they do not need.
Moreover, as Shiva shows, the western scientific paradigm by definition cannot appreciate the traditional knowledge of women working in conjunction with nature. The western scientific paradigm, which is rooted in classical dualisms derived from ancient Greece, defines rationality and knowledge as male capacities that stand in opposition to women and nature. As neither women nor nature are defined as having intelligence or value, modern science cannot recognize the intelligence and value in women’s traditional interactions with nature. This inability or unwillingness to see is underscored by the capitalist economic model which defines value in terms of profit.
The results are catastrophic. Traditional forests are cleared in order to plant mono-crops, including non-native trees such as the eucalyptus which require watering and deplete the water table. In order to provide water for irrigation, rivers are dammed and lands that were once fed by them become deserts. Women have to travel farther to collect water to sustain life for their families. Mono-crops are susceptible to insect predation and pesticides are applied. Land is poisoned. Traditional species that are resistant to insects because of selection and crop rotation are lost. Environmental disaster is created by programs designed to produce profit, profits are short-term, the sustainable economy can no longer be sustained, people become impoverished, and the cycle of death continues. Shiva has coined a word for this process: maldevelopment.
Next time you hear someone male and western laugh smugly at women who hug trees, please inform him of the errors in his thinking that make it impossible for him to understand the destruction that western models of knowledge and value are inflicting on women and nature and the ecosystems of the world.
Carol P. Christ is an internationally known feminist writer, activist, and educator living in Lasithi, Crete. Carol’s recent book written with Judith Plaskow, Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology, is on Amazon. A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess is on sale for $9.99 on Amazon. Carol has been leading Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete for over twenty years: join her in Crete. Carol’s photo by Michael Honneger.