“their light step upon the earth”

Alice Walker and the Native American Ecofeminist

 

When I read “We have a beautiful Mother” by Alice Walker, I immediately thought of Linda Hogan, a Native American writer, whose book Dwellings totally absorbed me and lead me to an interest in ecofeminist writing. I was pleased to be taken into another writer’s perception of human’s relation to nature. Since my former influence was Native American, it added to my pleasure that this would introduce me to African American thought. I therefore decided to read Walker’s collection of poems for the second time with a specific intention in mind, that is to reach her ecofeminist ideals. I wrongly believed that if I did, I would be able to find a way of writing and thinking of nature that stems from Walker’s African inheritance and would therefore be different from Hogan’s.

I started with trying to find what nature meant to a woman writer like Walker. Walker writes constantly of trees. Trees are important to her. She writes of her visit to where she was born and upon finding her favorite tree cut down she writes:

            Now I can confess the sorrow

of my heart

            as the tears flow

and I see again with memory’s bright eye

my dearest companion cut down

                                                            (Blue Body 414)

She is aware of her ties to that tree, and of her grief over it’s being no longer there for her. She writes earlier that “the massive oak is gone / from out the church yard, / but the giant space is left / unfilled;” (169) The unfilled space is not only on earth but it’s inside Walker as well.

         The cutting down of trees here symbolizes the destruction of nature. Walker understands the immense effect this abuse has on nature. In “south: The Name of Home” she writes:

the earth is red

here-

the trees bent, weeping

what secret will not

the ravished land

reveal

of its abuse?

                        (Blue Body 101)

She also understands that the reason behind such destruction is the Wasichu, who for Walker becomes a symbol of Western philosophy. She condemns the Wasichu for his unjust acts of aggression towards nature:

No one can watch

the Wasichu

anymore

He is scalping

the earth

till she runs

into the ocean

the dust of her

flight

searing

our sight.

                        (Blue Body 385)

So do Walker and Hogan, African and Native, differ here? I knew what nature meant to Hogan but because Hogan’s was a Native American perspective, I thought that Walker might have a different way of looking at nature and writing about it. Of course this was a misconception. An awareness of nature and our duty to it does not differ on account of race. What was important to both Hogan and Walker, and what’s important to any one who is aware of the widening gap between humans and nature is to find some way of reform.

Walker finds the Wasichu responsible for this gap that exists between human and nature.  She understands the ecological problems of our century and puts the blame on the Wasichu. In “The Right to Life: What Can the White Man Say to the Black Woman?” she writes:

Let us consider the depletion of the ozone ; let us consider homelessness and the nuclear peril; let us consider the destruction of the rainforest – in the name of the almighty hamburger. Let us consider the poisoned apples and the poisoned water and the poisoned air, and the poisoned earth.

 

And that all of our children, because of the white man’s assault on the planet, have a possibility of death by cancer in their almost immediate future.

(Blue Body 446)

It is the white man’s way of life that is damaging nature and causing this ecological hazard.

Walker and Hogan both realize that if we plan to continue living on this earth we are in urgent need of reform. We need to look for a style of life that pays more homage to nature than this industrialized way of life that we have grown addicted to. Or as Walker puts it in her article “When a Tree Falls,” “We must absolutely reject the way of the Wasichu that we are so disastrously travelling.” (53) A new philosophy of life need be improvised.

Or maybe it’s an old philosophy that we have overthrown over years of allowing western philosophy, a philosophy that is built on oppression and domination, to dictate our lives. Rosemary Radford Ruether writes that the Earth First! Movement believes that

The ideal relation of humans to “ nature” is represented by hunter-gatherer societies, groups that not only existed in the past, as the form of human society that sustained humans on the earth for millions of years, but which exist in dwindling wilderness areas. Their wisdom must be rediscovered and emulated today. (147)

This wisdom is what’s being rediscovered by Walker through her understanding of Native American culture. Walker isn’t different from Hogan. They are both trying to find this wisdom in the same place: Native American culture.

I am not saying here that Walker is emulating Hogan, after all, Walker’s publications precede Hogan’s. Hogan is merely one example of what is Native American culture. And it is an example that we see Walker using. In reference to the Native American she writes: “It is their light step upon the earth which I admire and would have us emulate.” (When 56)

The hierarchical system of the western philosophy or the Wasichu elevates man above other forms of life. We need a system that is more in tune with feminist ideology that understands that “women’s interaction with nature is organized around a logic of reciprocity rather than mastery and control.” (Salleh 250) This is the system that Hogan and Walker call for. Hogan believes that when we put reason as our main direction we are lead to the belief of the separation between human and nature. It is through what she calls “the quest for separation” (114) that we are straying from “the treaties we once had with the land and with the animals.” (11) It is because of our belief in this separation, and in the higher position we assign to humans in this hierarchy that we are more apt to exploit nature. The ecofeminist writing works against this hierarchy.

The solution for this exploitation of nature lies in our ability to allow a place for animals and land that lies on the same level of that we assign to ourselves. We need to overthrow the hierarchy that separates us. Walker realizes that to do this is not easy. It involves a change of beliefs, a change of rationality. Vera Norwood writes that “biological models of women’s reproductive functions have been used to tie them more closely to animals and “explain” their perceived lack of rationality and heightened emotionalism.” (173) Walker knows that “To keep a passionate courtship with a tree / one / must be / completely mad” (Blue, 145) mad in the sense assigned by the patriarchal system that looks down on women’s ties with nature and links it to the realm of the irrational and unwise:

but she was known to be

unwise

and lovesick lover of motionless

things

wood and bits of clever

stone

a tree she cared for swayed overhead

in swoon

but would not follow

her

                                                (Walker, Blue 219)

But how can we do this. How can we allow a place for animal and land that is parallel to ours. This is where myth comes to find its place as it helps us in regarding animals as more than a source of food or clothing. Myth assigns to animals and land characteristics that we usually assign to ourselves, the humans. If we learn to accept myth, we will eventually learn to respect animals and land. In Native American stories animals “are given ‘mythic proportions’ to clarify certain values, attitudes, and lessons.” (Williams 136) The Native American believes in events that do not necessarily follow our reason but have their own conception of reason, a type of “sacred reason” as Hogan calls it. (19)

Walker appreciates this need, the need to accept myth as a type of reason. For the Native American, this is the function of ceremony, it is to help us remember our relation to the rest of the world, that we are all connected:

Remembering this [that all things are connected] is the purpose of the ceremony. It is part of a healing and restoration. It is the mending of a broken connection between us and the rest. The participants in a ceremony say the words “All my relations” before and after we pray; those words create a relationship with other people, with animals, with the land.(Hogan 40)

The ceremony that Walker performs is writing that article in MS “When a Tree Falls.” She explains in it that “in writing about the needless murder of the snake who inhabited our garden – the snake’s and mine – I ask it’s pardon, and in the telling of its death, hope to save the lives of many of its kin.” (56)

For the Native American ceremony and ritual becomes important as it provides then with a way into being part of nature. Through the practice of these ceremonies the person becomes connected with nature, and the duality Man/Nature that is a part of the Western mindset is erased in these rituals. As this dual position is refused it becomes necessary for us to identify ourselves away from the other part of Western thought that results form this duality. The linear form that Western thought assigns to life becomes problematic in a native American culture.

This linearity is opposed by many feminists as they see in it a picture of the patriarchal system of thought that sees that everything in the world is (and should be) moving towards one final truth. The idea is challenged by feminists as they see that it would lead to the elimination of all that does not conform to this system. Hence the elimination of the Other or at least the Other’s beliefs. As feminism moves away from this linearity, it takes the form of circularity. This is seen in many feminine narratives that embody a style of writing considered feminine. Readers of such narratives find themselves returning, towards the end of the text, to the point of its beginning. And here the novels of Toni Morrison come to mind.

The circularity of narrative is an important aspect of Native American culture as well as African American as is seen in their stories and myths. For Native Americans the universe, including humankind, moves in a circle from east to south to west to north to east symbolizing the circuit of the sun. It is also a symbol of human life passing through infancy, childhood, adulthood, old age. (Ruoff 10-11) Walker also believes in this circularity. In the beginning of her collection of poems we read these lines

Always to You

Beautiful One

From whom

I have come.

And to whom

I shall happily

Return.

It is the word “Return” that shows me that Walker believes in the circularity of life. That when things die, they return in one form or another. In “My Heart has Reopened to You” Walker writes of the sorrow she felt when her tree/companion was cut (this I referred to earlier). Here she realizes that her sorrow stems from her inability to believe the tree still exists:

Because to save myself I pretended it was you

who died.

         You that now did not exist

because I could not see you.

                                    (414)

Walker’s belief, or attempt to believe, in the circle of life returns us to an understanding of Native American culture. In trying to find her relation to nature, Walker walks in the “light steps” of the Natives.

 


Works Cited

 

Engel, J. Ronald, and Joan Gibb Engel, eds. Ethics of Environment & Development. Tucson: Univ. of Arozona Press, 1990.

Hogan, Linda. Dwellings. New York: Touchstone, 1996.

Norwood, Vera. Made From This Earth. Chapel Hill: Univ. of NC, 1993.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. Gaia & God. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.

Salleh, Ariel. “Living with nature: Reciprocity or control?” Engel and Engel 245-253.

Walker, Alice. Her Blue Body Everything We Own. San Diego: Harvest, 1991.

Walker, Alice. “When a Tree Falls.” MS Jan. 1984: 48-56.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Pieces of White Shell. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1994.