The Fall of the Wild? Feminist Perspectives of Canadian Wilderness
The following is a reading response to Melody Hessing’s article “The Fall of the Wild? Feminist Perspectives of Canadian Wilderness” from the text This Elusive Land
Max Oehschlager notes that society has shifted ‘from viewing wild nature as merely a valuable resource (as a means to economic ends) and obstacle (wilderness must be conquered for a civilization to advance) toward a conception of wilderness as an end in its own right and an endangered species in need of preservation.” Escalating demographic growth, urbanization, and technological diffusion combine to package wilderness today as a commodity, an aesthetic and physical antidote to contemporary urban stress. The concept of “wilderness,” then, has evolved from referencing the sacred to referencing a domesticated sublime, which in turn has represented a range of values from religious redemption, national renewal, and the passing of the frontier to the rejection of modernity and a rugged individualism. Human ideas about wilderness are thus in transition, “intimately related to the evolving character of culture as human nature has articulated itself in particular places and times.” (282)
This passage from The Fall of the Wild? Feminist Perspectives of Canadian Wilderness Protection written by Melody Hessing uses a quote by Max Oehschlager to demonstrate the kind of mirroring qualities we as a society have hegemonically linked between wilderness and women. Take this quote for example, and replace the words wilderness with woman: “demographic growth, urbanization, and technological diffusion combine to package woman today as a commodity, an aesthetic and physical antidote to contemporary urban stress” where “[t]he concept of “woman,” then, has evolved from referencing the sacred to referencing a domesticated sublime”. Woman, like nature, is presented as a solution to the issues of the Western World. The same motives interested in preserving these notions of women are behind the need to preserve nature – to keep both in a familiar place where man can return as he pleases, a standing reserve of resources that maintain a certain kind of fiction surrounding his masculinity.
The normative discourse of the West’s patriarchal society has successfully linked the concept of woman to attributes that allow her to be treated as if she is a commodity. Women have been manufactured into an ideal model of fantastical escape for men. Although wilderness is often attributed with masculinity, this passage is an example of how the discourses used to represent wilderness can be altered to reflect a male domination over both. Women have been passively displaced into a “domesticated sublime”. Once an entity full of secrets that needed to be learned, she has been reduced to a “range of values from religious redemption, national renewal, and the passing of the frontier …” (282). Paralleled to nature, women seem to have become a collaboration of social ideologies to fulfill a kind of emptiness within the Western man. Although a sense of discovery remains amid a fear of the unknown, regarding both women and nature, men have transitioned from a space of fear and awe, to one that underplays the sublime and highlights the exploitative gain.
The links between wilderness and the idea of femininity both represent how each can be commodified and shown in a multitude of light to reflect to what the viewer desires to see. Different types of women are explored for different needs, while the same can be said for nature. Each depends on what the user wants. The commodification of both nature and women is demonstrated through the multiple kinds of use value the dominant male can receive out of each.
Over the last few weeks we have raised the similarities between land as “mother” and “feminine” and how versatile the description of nature and wildness can be. Whether it is an idealized utopia, nourishing, sexual and/or submissive, these descriptions can be juxtaposed with many of the stereotyped traits surrounding women. The connections between the two, stemming significantly from viewing nature as the Mother, the nurturing giver of life, connects both to the notion of domination by men.
I must question why the need to dominate the ‘other’ or the ‘unknown’ are so prevalent within the dichotomies of male and female, domestic and wild. The language used to describe man’s relationship to the wild is of mystical apprehension; as if the wilderness in fact holds some soft of secrets of the universe which men themselves are not familiar with.
Excerpts such as: “Nature in Canada has changed in order to accommodate our presence and our needs” (284) and “Critics argue that concepts of the ‘wild’ reflect a dualism through which the wild becomes the ‘other’ of Western Culture” (287) represent how an image of nature/wilderness can be mirrored to woman and how both are presented in light of being objects of commodification. How have women “changed in order to accommodate [man’s] presence and [his] needs”? This archetype of woman exists and is prominently presented as the mother, the nurturing caregiver who gives life to her children and is responsible to provide the tools for growth. For a woman to be presented in this light is a type an essentialist view of woman‘ness’, where traditional mothering traits are representative of being biologically female. These claims of essence fuel a comparison between nature and women based on gender and the stereotyped qualities associated with being a woman. The second quote represents the kinds of ‘othering’, which spur from a masculine heterosexual discourse, a narrative that dominates in the role of sustaining ideology. If the white man views everything but himself as the ‘other’, then automatically, both nature and woman are differentiated. These two share a bond, finding common ground in their difference from man.
A dualism continues between ‘wild’ and ‘other’, but why do these exist? Do the similarities of nature and women go beyond their biological abilities to reproduce? If there is a “domination of Western society over the world” where does this leave the duality of women and men (287)? Are women, like nature, something to protect?
This text explains the relationship between women and nature, stating that “women’s reproductive and nurturing activities are compared to those performed by ecological systems” (286). Should these links be independent of biology, or do women and nature truly have a bond because of the shared ability to give birth? If this is true, where does this leave man? Is a man’s relationship to his child different from the woman’s based on her interaction with the child in her womb? Is the disruption between how men and women nurture, and in turn their relationship to nature, caused because a man cannot carry and grow a life on his own? It is a possibility that due to these biological differences, men are less invested in the role of raising their young and are more easily inclined to wipe their hands clean of anything beyond this creation phase? The disconnect between nature and men is upheld through a masculine narrative focused on control and domination over ‘the other’.
The theories suggesting women share a universal experience based on biology and genetics raise issues of looking at sex and gender through essentialist-coloured glasses (287). Challenging the biological assumption made regarding women and men draw attention to essentialist methods of viewing nature and wilderness, while designating attributes to be either masculine or feminine. These dualisms support modes of difference, focusing specifically on what separates the two rather than what could potentially bring them together. When nature is linked to woman because of concerns of dominance and exploitation, we must ask why types of narratives are being supported and validated by essentialist goals of a society.