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From Muir to Matriarchs: The New, Female-Penned Nature Novel

As apocalyptic weather events grow ever more frequent, a group of women nature writers is urging readers to listen to — and care for — our warming Earth.

By Ellie Robins


Three women-penned nature novels released in summer 2016 encourage listening to the planet as a living system and noting its clear warnings about its health. (Photo: Ecco/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Henry Holt and Co.)

Earlier this summer, a wildfire in the Santa Clarita Valley gave Southern Californians a disturbing glimpse of a warmer future. What began as a small brush fire northwest of Los Angeles spread across 38,000 acres due to high temperatures, blustery winds, and dry conditions created by the state’s historic drought. The blaze raged for more than a week, killing one man and forcing thousands of residents from their homes. Though experts warned that climate change was in part to blame, Los Angeles gridlock didn’t let up while the mountains above the city were literally on fire.

Indoors, seeking refuge from the falling ash at home in Los Angeles, I finished reading Rae Meadows’ new novel I Will Send Rain. Set in Oklahoma’s panhandle in 1934, the first year of the Dust Bowl, the book contains an environmental message that mirrors those of two other new works of fiction, Alexis M. Smith’s novel Marrow Island, released in June,and Robin MacArthur’s short-story collection Half Wild, published in August. Emerging at a pre-apocalyptic moment for the Earth, each considers humanity’s relationship to nature — and is written by a woman.

In these stories, the Earth humbles characters, and at times inflicts great pain on them: As their characters learn, underestimating nature is a mistake, and attempting to tame it futile. Each book encourages listening to the planet as a living system and noting its clear warnings about its health. As California endures its fifth year of drought, and fires like Santa Clarita grow only more common, that message couldn’t be more timely.

As stories penned by women, Meadows’, Smith’s, and MacArthur’s books belong to a modern school of nature writing. Men such as John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, and Edward Abbey have long dominated the genre, an imbalance partially explained by women’s historic lack of freedom to leave home. “The Victorian code of ‘separate spheres’ assigned women the domestic sphere and men the public sphere,” Lorraine Anderson writes in her introduction to At Home on This Earth: Two Centuries of U.S. Women’s Nature Writing, her ownattempt to redress the canon’s balance. “Ornithology and botany within the confines of home and neighborhood were considered to be fitting pursuits for woman, but solitary back-country living … and wilderness exploration … were most emphatically not.”

This legacy has skewed the genre’s rhetoric, equating the land with women, and suggesting both are the property of men. Nature writers have conventionally described the Earth with female pronouns and characterized the American continent as fertile, virginal, nurturing, or in need of taming, as literary critic Annette Kolodny notes in her 1984 study of 16th- to 19th-century American literature, The Lay of the Land: Metaphor As Experience and History in American Life and Letters. “At the deepest psychological level,” Kolodny writes, America’s early colonists saw the continent as “regression from the cares of adult life and a return to the primal warmth of womb or breast in a feminine landscape.”

If nature writing has always been a tad chauvinist, the more recent field of environmentalist writing has served as a corrective. The text widely credited with founding the modern environmental movement, Silent Spring, was written by a woman, Rachel Carson; women like Vandana Shiva, Wangari Maathai, and Elizabeth Kolbert have also made important contributions to the genre. Unlike earlier nature writing, environmental writing emphasizes humanity’s humble place in powerful ecosystems—a theme that pulses with particular urgency in Meadow’s, Smith’s, and MacArthur’s works.

Smith’s Marrow Island establishes the novel’s theme that all of humanity is powerless in the face of nature through an event that ends many lives and sends more off course. Twenty years ago, an earthquake devastated the Pacific Northwest and ignited a fire at an oil refinery on the book’s namesake island, leaving nine men dead and the ground saturated with toxic chemicals. The book centers on a group of environmentalists that moves in after the fire, establishes an ecologically utopian society, and is ruled entirely by women.

Under the leadership of a former nun, the environmentalists cultivate fungi — which are natural detoxifiers — all over the island to break down the toxins in the soil. While the strategy isn’t entirely effective (many members of the colony end up riddled with tumors), the former nun believes it is still better than an ecologically oblivious existence that she argues is no less dangerous: “The entire population of the industrialized world is putting itself in the way of certain death and suffering” every time it gets into a car, drinks alcohol, or eats a hamburger, she says. “The only choice for us is to live in service to each other and to the planet itself.”

Nature writers have conventionally described the Earth with female pronouns and characterized the American continent as fertile, virginal, nurturing, or in need of taming.

Still, the novel doesn’t endorse the island’s lifestyle entirely without question: The women of the colony suffer frequent miscarriages, one of the most traumatic results of the toxicity of the land. Toward the end of the novel, as Lucie takes a shower, she feels her belly and wonders “whether there’s something growing inside me.” She considers, “Maybe it all goes back to the earthquake, to the fire, the smoke in the air, the debris onshore, the oil in the water, the dispersants…. That early exposure.” The “something,” indeed, could be a baby; it could alternately be a tumor caused by the island’s toxicity.

In Marrow Island, the fertility of women’s bodies gives them a unique connection to this green, growing land: They feel the power of natural processes, and the danger of perverting them. In Smith’s novel, women are attuned to the Earth’s processes because they are more directly affected by them than men are. And so, though Lucie has deep reservations about the colony’s project, not least because she’s among those it harms, she ultimately finds herself unable to reject Sister J.’s approach, consciously or bodily: Her state of physical health and the fate of her child, if there is one, hangs on that of the land.

The critique of patriarchal societies is even more direct in Meadows’ novel than in Smith’s.Set in the first year of the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma, I Will Send Rain follows a nuclear family’s breakdown in the face of severe drought. Like other families in their community, the mother, Annie, works in the home, and her husband, Samuel, is charged with reviving the desiccated fields. This traditional division of labor ultimately causes great environmental damage — those same fields are ironically destroyed by Samuel’s plough.

Men ruining the Earth with technology is, indeed, a consistent theme in Meadows’ tale. Early in the novel, the whole town gathers to watch a handsome snake-oil salesman blast explosives into the sky to “shock out” the rain — a real practice during the years of the Dust Bowl — as the men encourage him on. “Let’s bomb it to hell!” they say.

This muscular, violent gesture is, of course, futile: It succeeds only in burning a flock of crows to a crisp, sending ashes and oily feathers floating down onto the assembled crowd. But it’s the novel’s main female character who finds the destruction hardest to bear: “This is an awful thing,” Annie says — reflecting what historians and agriculturalists now know to be true: homesteaders’ poor farming practices were a major driver of the Dust Bowl.

In both novels, nature sends warnings about the danger of human actions such as overpopulation along fault lines, refining oil, and poor farming practices. But while in Marrow Island’s matriarchal society, those warnings are heard, and the characters — many of them, at least — make the difficult decision to work for planetary health, even to the detriment of their own, in I Will Send Rain’s patriarchy, the warnings are ignored. As a result, as Meadows puts it, there will be “years of dust storms yet.”

MacArthur’s Half Wild shows that humans abuse and domineer nature — and women — at their own peril. Though few of MacArthur’s tales are told from the male perspective, those that do make short shrift of nature writing’s traditionally sexist rhetoric.

Take “Maggie in the Trees,” in which a man falls in love with his best friend’s wife. He is attracted in large part to her wildness, and thinks of her as property — he wonders, for instance, how it was that his best friend “had landed something as spectacular as that.” But nature and women are both less obedient than the men in the story initially grasp: Maggie disappears, leaving her husband and his best friend devastated, and her car beside a bridge on the interstate with the driver’s door open. Her body is never found: Maybe she jumped or hitchhiked away, the protagonist wonders, “heading where there are lots more trees to get lost in.”

Throughout the story, MacArthur demonstrates that neither women nor the land are subservient to the men who attempt to tame them. Maggie’s husband had been logging and developing the hillsides she loved, a betrayal Maggie, with her deep connection to the land, could not countenance. He “used to say I was all mountain,” she says bitterly during a conversation about the housing developments. “That that’s why he loved me…. And the girl I was believed it.” Maggie feels the violation of the land as a personal attack — eventually responding by breaking her husband’s heart.

Though few of MacArthur’s tales are told from the male perspective, those that do make short shrift of nature writing’s traditionally sexist rhetoric.

The female protagonists in MacArthur’s stories, meanwhile, do not presume to master the land or their spouses. In “Love Birds,” a woman is surprisingly content after the death of her beloved husband (and sole companion): “I thought of a couple of old stumps out in the woods,” she says, “rotting and turning to dirt and making fertile ground.” Unlike Maggie’s husband, the woman understands that she never owned her husband. There are echoes, in that pair of old stumps, of Marrow Island’s fungi — their decomposition reflects women’s acceptance of the Earth’s natural processes, even when they cause them great pain.

Despite their unflinching portrayals of death, these women-penned novels are works of hopeful fiction, responding to an era when humans are increasingly recognizing that their planet is sick. Though the majority of Americans now believe in climate change, the latest data show that greenhouse gas emissions in the United States continue to rise. In these books, this situation is not a cause for despondency. Even when their settings turn apocalyptic, their characters wrestle consciously with the conflict between human ambition and biological and ecological imperatives, and settle on listening to the latter.

This is a refreshing change after centuries of mostly male writers like William Wordsworth, Muir, Thoreau, and Edward Abbey that have portrayed nature as tool for human aggrandizement. Smith, Meadows, and MacArthur, by contrast, stage the environment as a hero, a villain, a plot mechanism, and a setting, and humans as improvisers on its stage.

It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that this conscientious shift is originating with women who write strong, sage female characters. Environmentalism and feminism are driven, in part, by a similar impulse: the will to break the bonds of subjugation. In these books, sustainable, healthy life comes out of compromise, as well as a healthy acknowledgement of nature’s real power. They suggest that the ideal end point of women’s will to empowerment might well be to show the rest of the species that our real master, all along, wasn’t men, but the planet.