Review: Woman and Nature

Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature is, I guarantee you, nothing quite like anything you’ve read before.

Published in 1978, it’s very much a product of second-wave feminism: a remarkable extended dialogue on how the patriarchy treats women and the natural world. The interlocutors are the Patriarchal Voice itself, which is, broadly, the voice of Rationality, of Science, of everything that seeks to measure and analyse and exploit the natural world; and the voices of woman and nature, as their lived experiences and intuitive ways of knowing overwhelm patriarchy’s narrow viewpoint.

I realise that sounds hokey and problematic and cliched, but in reality this is a complex and difficult text that’s almost impossible to reduce down to a single “argument” – deliberately so. That can be seen in its very form, which reminds me most closely of Darren Anderson’s work of “creative non-fiction” Imaginary Cities: a hodgepodge of different non-fiction sources woven together to create a single driving thread of idea. There are sections on dressage; on farming; on nuclear fission; on surgery inflicted on women (content warning here for graphic medical descriptions); all drawn from (invariably male-authored) non-fiction texts. There are notes and a bibliography at the back of the book, but no footnotes within the text. The formatting is often non-conventional, as when, for example, the female voice in italics interpolates the male voice’s impassive description of a scientific procedure.

This is all deliberate. It’s a refusal to engage with patriarchy on its home ground, in the rational debates whose terms it sets and thus always wins. This is a text interested in reclaiming, and asserting the value of, modes of emotional knowledge that the patriarchy denigrates and sees as lesser.

Of course, there’s a risk with this sort of thing that it becomes schematic, perpetuating patriarchy through rigid gender roles even as it superficially challenges them. Actually the aligning of women with nature as a tool of patriarchy – if women are closer to nature that makes them “lower”, less human, less worthy – is something the book explicitly addresses. The equivalence between woman and nature here is more like an alliance: both are exploited and used by patriarchy as things that are not Man. It is a commonality of experience, not an innate commonality; an association not a comparison. And in associating woman and nature, it makes a powerful call to action to its readers: it asks us to reevaluate what we mean by “human”, what it is to live in this world, what is worthy of our attention and our respect and our love.

A word on the book’s ideas of femininity, which are a lot less problematic and gender essential than I was expecting. Although there’s a lot about vulvas and vaginas and wombs and pregnancy here, it is mostly from the patriarchal point of view; it’s not at all clear that Griffin thinks womanhood is tied to possessing these organs. Perhaps the opposite, actually. So I think the book does leave space for trans and non-binary identities, albeit not explicitly (and with the caveat that I am cis and may be reading with that bias).

All in all, Woman and Nature stands up pretty well to a modern-day reading – and is perhaps even more of its time now than it was when it was published, given our surging awareness of the effects of the climate crisis and capitalism’s exploitation of our natural resources. I’m really glad to have read it: it’s a book I want on my shelf, to re-read at will every few years.

Review: Pathworking Through Poetry

Fiona Tinker’s Pathworking through Poetry looks at work from three Celtic poets – Seamus O’Sullivan, Fiona Macleod and, inevitably, W.B. Yeats – that deals with Irish and Scottish mythology, teasing out pagan metanarratives from each poem that then inform Tinker’s pathworkings – a series of guided meditations/visualisations that bring their practitioners face-to-face with Celtic deities, in theory.

The idea’s nice, but the execution is decidedly mixed.

Full disclosure: visualisation, especially in the form it tends to take in Pagan traditions, sets off my woo detectors like little else. This is a me problem, and I probably need to do a lot more reading on the role of imagination in spiritual experience to understand why it works for some people. Suffice it to say that it’s not for me, at this particular moment in time. It’s just unfortunate for Pathworking through Poetry, whose entire spiritual content is basically visualisation.

Although – it has to be said that the pathworkings seem to have very little to do with the poems and the readings Tinker constructs of them (which are themselves pretty cringey, being a mixture of extremely basic close reading and A-level speculation), which begs the question of what the point of the whole endeavour is. I did enjoy the poems themselves, as well as the bits and pieces of folklore Tinker recounts (for example, I was interested to learn that Bride/Bridget is a sun goddess; I hadn’t come across that association before). There’s a certain joy in picking up little tidbits in all kinds of different places, so for that reason I’m thankful to have read this! But it’s not something I’ll read again, or that I need on my shelf.

Review: Listening People, Speaking Earth

Now this, I thought, was a great Paganism primer. Listening People, Speaking Earth‘s author Graham Harvey is Professor of Religious Studies at the Open University, so although he’s also a Pagan himself he brings a reasonably dispassionate, academic approach to the subject. The book covers Wicca, Druidism, Goddess worship and Heathenism among others, looking holistically at history, belief and practice and how each informs each. I really appreciated this linking up of each tradition’s underpinnings with how they manifest in their followers’ day-to-day lives and rituals: understanding the philosophy of life that accompanies these beliefs is a lot more useful to me than just having a rundown of concepts Pagans encounter every day (I’m thinking of books like Paganism 101 and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Paganism). Your mileage may, of course, vary; to me, the philosophical background is something I can build on, researching forms of practice that match what I want to achieve.

Harvey also acknowledges the more problematic parts of Paganism – namely, gender essentialism, cultural appropriation and white supremacy – although he does take some concerns more seriously than others, calling Odinist racism out for what it is while going down the “some people think” route when dealing with accusations of sexism and homophobia. Still, at least he doesn’t completely ignore it as other Pagan works seem to do.

Perhaps strangely, given the academic inclinations of the book, Harvey quotes Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series at every opportunity. Pratchett was not a Pagan, or even religious in any sense, but the more I read the more it becomes apparent that his worldview and Paganism share a lot of ground. His witches especially, with their strong connections to the natural world (attending at births and deaths, raising livestock, cultivating healing plants and generally embodying the landscapes they live in) and their canny understanding of human nature, look a lot like Wiccans. There’s a down-to-earth-ness, a grounded-ness, that his work shares with Paganism. Which makes sense: Discworld is a big part of my moral/ethical makeup at this point.

In short, I found Listening People, Speaking Earth a very useful sympathetic overview of the Pagan movement, which I’d recommend to anyone who’s still working out what Pagan path they’re drawn to, or who’s simply curious and wants to know more.