Legacy of Carol P. Christ: Tree-Hugging Is About Trees and So Much More Than Trees

This was originally posted March 11, 2019

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.

BIO: Carol P. Christ (1945-2021) was an internationally known feminist and ecofeminist writer, activist, and educator. Her work continues through her non-profit foundation, the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual.

“In Goddess religion death is not feared, but is understood to be a part of life, followed by birth and renewal.”  — Carol P. Christ 



Categories: Activism, Earth-based spirituality, Ecofeminism, environment, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, General, Goddess

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

7 replies

  1. ” The western scientific paradigm by definition cannot appreciate the traditional knowledge of women working in conjunction with nature” Carol understood relationship between women and nature – how close that bond used to be…. as some of us at FAR do – but change is not on the horizon….

    When most of the public wants to continue to support capitalism trees and forests will NEVER become more than a commodity. The split between women/men and nature seems to be getting even worse. Lately we “use” nature to ‘re-create” slashing trees to create paths for machines – mountain bikes – four wheelers so now in addition to the continued rape of the forests women too use her to race around and create more noise.

    WWF has come out with a new study that informs us that 70 percent of our wildlife has disappeared in the last 50 years…. Always more studies but nothing done on a corporate level to make any meaningful change. I live in a parallel universe a place where the wail of dying trees and disappearing nature is never heard..

    How I miss Carol’s understanding of the big picture….

    Like

    • Marcia Marsh, Chief Operating Officer – WWF
      $902,603 annual salary, without counting deferred payments, non-taxable benefits, and other hidden perks
      Carter Roberts, President, CEO – WWF
      $858,276 annual salary, without counting deferred payments, non-taxable benefits, and other hidden perks

      yup – we’ve vacuumed up most of the fish in the ocean to satisfy our voracious carnivorous appetites… and we’re leveling and burning the once great Amazon for cow pasture for McDonald’s hamburgers… how many of you still NEEDLESSLY consume fish?

      “When the last tree has been cut down, the last fish caught, the last river poisoned, only then will we realize that one cannot eat money.” -Alanis Obomsawin

      and he was actually predated in 1894 by the State Fish and Game Commissioner of North Dakota:

      “Present needs and present gains is the rule of action—which seems to be a sort of transmitted quality which we in our now enlightened time have not wholly outgrown, for even now a few men can be found who seem willing to destroy the last tree, the last fish and the last game bird and animal, and leave nothing for posterity, if thereby some money can be made.”

      but what I find even more troubling than WWF’s new study is the fact that these two at the top of a so-called ‘environmental’ organization feel the need to pay themselves such utterly obscene amounts of money… one can only wonder what their Carbon Footprints are – and if you’re at the top of an ‘environmental’ organization, one might think you’d lead by example and have a minuscule CF… i’d bet each of their CFs is at LEAST 10 times our household’s (probably more like 20 times)… the hypocrisy in the ‘environmental’ movement is truly breath-taking – i have yet to personally find one ‘environmentalist’ who has repudiated flying in jets… i stopped flying over 35 years ago after taking some Cubensis on a flight from San Francisco to Denver to go skiing (back when i was mindlessly deranged and thought skiing 1500 miles away from where I lived was a swell thing to do) – and i had a very interesting chat with Earth’s Halo while flying through It… a typical 5000 mile jet flight is equal to approx 80% of my entire annual transportation (car) CF now…

      these two above are not reporting on the problem of environmental destruction by capitalism, they are part of the problem of capitalist insanity – HYPOCRISY and GREED… my partner and i and our 6 cats live very comfortably on less than $75,000 / year (our home is paid off)… as the bumper sticker wisely states: LIVE SIMPLY THAT OTHERS MAY SIMPLY LIVE – and we simply LIVE SIMPLY… no vacations (utterly unnecessary), no eating out in restaurants (utterly unnecessary), no fancy / expensive clothes (utterly unnecessary), no new cars (2000 / 2009 for the 2 of us), no carcass / meat (utterly unnecessary), almost all organic food (utterly necessary), no alcohol, patriarchy’s drug of choice (utterly unnecessary), no trips in jets pouring tons of CO2 / nitrous oxides into the once pristine stratosphere / Earth’s Halo (utterly unnecessary) – i could on and on but i know that just the single concept of not jumping into a jet and flying hither and thither whenever the fancy strikes you just because you can, and feeling it absolutely vital for your life to be happy and complete, has got every single one of you dizzy, if not nauseous… relax, and take a deep breath – you are not alone…

      Greta Thunberg is one of the very very few who not only GETS it – but LIVES it (and she GOT it at the tender age of 15 without the help Mushroom Magic)…

      however even Greta is in denial of the fact that with 8 billion (and growing obscenely by the second) civilized deranged mutant humans on the planet viciously vacuuming up all the resources for absolutely UNNECESSARY pursuits, all while initiating an anthropogenic Mass-Extinction that is unfolding right beneath our noses (the number of monarch butterflies over-wintering along the coast in California, one of their main breeding areas, was down to around 2,000 in 2020) – it is actually too late even if we all stopped driving and flying and dining on carcass 20 years ago… quite simply, there is no possible way to stop the capitalist juggernaut decimating / poisoning Earth and its once immaculate Web of Life… if you use electricity directly or even indirectly – you ARE the Problem (yes, imagine if you can, living without using any electricity for any reason, for anything you eat, or wear or use)… we have all chosen our poison – CIVILIZATION…

      we are on a speeding freight train without brakes coming up to a cliff – and the only unfortunate thing about that is we are taking the majority of other species down with us…

      the Truth NEVER hurts – it is DENIAL of Truth that causes mental anguish…

      and the Truth shall set you free…

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      • Sadly I am missing your point in this diatribe – understand your anger – I have it too – living on less than 19 thousand dollars a year I couldn’t afford to fly even if I wanted to – my car is 14 years old my cabin is six hundred square feet and I’m part of the problem when I turn a light on let alone drive to the store 10 minutes away- of course it’s too late all we can do is to try to migrate the consequences but of course we won’t. I by the way HATE the word environmentalist and most certainly am not one. I am however an earth person.

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        • my diatribe is about the utter hypocrisy of ‘environmental’ groups – and when they are quoted, perhaps it should also be noted they are part of the problem with their leaders paying themselves obscene amounts, and denying their unconscionable Carbon Footprints as they fly all around the planet to give themselves awards and pat each other on the back about how ‘environmental’ they are while they allegedly save the planet… do you know how many civilized people are conscious of the fact they are the problem every time they turn on a light – much less leaders of ‘environmental’ organizations / groups? how many fingers you got? you’ll

          and i do have the money and time to fly wherever / whenever i want – but i don’t for reasons that are screechingly obvious to me, and literally no one else i personally know… i’m kinda curious if you had the money and time – would you be jumping into jets flying hither and thither simply because you could, like every single other person i know, utterly oblivious to the tons of CO2, nitrous-oxides and other particulates pouring into the stratosphere that was pristine before civilization came along with their noxious chemicals and jets? and who even cares that CO2 / nitrous-oxide et al poured into the stratosphere has a MUCH greater effect on global warming than the same amount released into the troposphere – when they’re planning their next vacation to Hawaii or visiting family for Thanksgiving or flying to a wedding / funeral? TIME IS MONEY is their only mantra…

          and although you may not live as comfortably as we do on our $75,000, depending upon where you live in the U$ (apparently Maine for you) your $19,000 probably goes a lot further than $19,000 does here in northern CA where gas is currently over $6 / gallon and my very simple 1000 sq ft home on a ½ acre would cost me about $500,000 to buy right now… and i just threw out the $75,000 without any real thought – after some quick calculations, we actually live very comfortably in a very expensive state on less than $50,000 / year TAKE HOME… you know how expensive vets are out here – for 6 rescued cats? it costs almost $5,000 / year just to get their teeth cleaned (yes, we treat them better than most kids are treated)… organic canned cat food and vets are our biggest expense by far since we own our home (and our property tax and homeowner’s insurance is almost $5,000 / year)…

          but i’ll grant you, you probably live simpler than we do – and kudos to you… i worked 45 hrs a week until I was 72 to be able to retire and not have to worry a whole lot about money… and my apologies for yet another diatribe…

          Like

  2. look at your ‘last names’ girls – and it’s NOT a lineage / blood-line when it is traced through the supposed ‘father’, which is of course why you are not truly considered’Jewish’ unless your Mother is Jewish (Jews are fanatical about keeping the blood-line pure)…

    patriarchy is empowered, promoted and energized every time a woman takes her husband’s name, and especially when a Mother puts the alleged ‘father’s’ name on the children she creates – all in the name of patriarchal tradition / custom, PATRILINY… no laws here force you to drop your identity and take on your husband’s identity – it is done not only willingly, but generally with ecstatic giddiness…

    women have only themselves to blame for being treated as inferior in the male-dominated system of control known as patriarchy… women have totally swallowed the patriarchal / patrilineal conditioning that keeps the ancient con alive and well – and the insanity would wither, collapse and die if women ever Woke up, stepped out of Denial and stopped willingly and happily wrapping the patriarchal / patrilineal chains around themselves…

    but it’s not as simple as simply keeping your maiden name – your alleged ‘father’s’ name – and passing that on to your children… where did that come from – and what are you keeping alive with that name? your true lineage / blood-line was violently disappeared thousands of years ago by patriarchy – so choose a new lineage from Nature (jumping from Smith to Jones says / does little) that you take and pass on to your children – and start a new blood-line / lineage that is kept alive through your daughters…

    Empowerment is that simple…

    Like

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