Enduring ecofeminist

Writer Susan Griffin describes her profound, lifelong ties to the earth in this Q and A.

“We have to become much more collective, much more communal. And we have to find ways to do that that are sustainable not only ecologically, but also psychologically and spiritually.”
— Susan Griffin

A thread of concern about nature runs from Susan Griffin’s first book, “Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her” (1978) – a classic work of ecofeminism – through her current project, a novel about global warming.

The poet, essayist, playwright and screen-writer will be the keynote speaker and discussion guide next month in St. Paul at Wisdom Ways’ annual Fall Soul Conference: “What Is the Cosmos Telling Us?”

Minnesota Women’s Press spoke with Griffin by telephone recently from her home in Berkeley, Calif.

Minnesota Women’s Press: How did you come to have a consciousness about nature?
Susan Griffin: I was born in California, and even though I’ve always been a sort of bookish, intellectual person, I was raised in an outdoor life. I body surfed and I camped out in the mountains for a month at a time. I learned to chop wood, hike with a forked stick [watching] for rattlesnakes, sleep on the ground. So I’ve had a very profound relation with nature, and with trees, since I was very young.

MWP: What was your relationship with trees?
SG: I remember camping under a very tall redwood, and I felt a communion with the tree. I could feel its presence. It was extremely powerful – a deep, spiritual experience. That feeling has stayed with me all my life.

MWP: Your first book, “Woman and Nature,” came out in 1978. What led you to write it?
SG: When I was a young mother, I remember watching a conference on ecology on public television. People who would become my friends, but weren’t yet, were talking about how the earth is suffering. I had this vision suddenly: This will bring us all together. I thought: We’re all on the earth, we all depend on the earth, so maybe we can all come together.
Of course, that didn’t happen. And I began to question why. I began to connect the denigration of nature with the denigration of women. At the same time, I was teaching a course in women’s literature, and I began to notice that women wrote differently about nature than men, even men whose writing I really love, like Wordsworth. In contrast to Emily Dickinson, who I also love, you can see that he thought of himself more as outside nature, while she had a very intimate relationship to nature, as if she was part of nature. Which we all are, of course.

MWP: What do you see from younger people these days?
SG: I have a 16-year-old granddaughter. From a much earlier age she still has this quality of entitlement as a woman that I find wonderful. She’s very clear about ecological issues, gay rights, human rights. I’ve heard from a lot of people that their grandkids are like this. These kids, this next generation, really get it.

According to all calculations, 2050 is when the environment will become practically unlivable, and our grandkids are going to be alive then. Unless we turn things around radically, they’re facing cataclysm. They seem to be much more aware of that than my generation.

MWP: What can be done?
SG: I feel shell-shocked about what has happened to the world because of corporate power, what has happened to democracy because of corporate power. I understand feeling sort of paralyzed: “Well, I’ll just make a little quietly good world where I am and I’ll support organic farmers.” All of that’s terribly important, but it’s not enough.

MWP: Why hasn’t more changed?
SG: The generation after us benefitted from the changes we created, but there was a place beyond which that change couldn’t go. One reason was because it requires a very radical change in the way we live. It’s almost unimaginable – it’s hard to make such basic changes in the way you live. But that’s what we have to do. We have to become much more collective, much more communal. And we have to find ways to do that, that are sustainable not only ecologically, but also psychologically and spiritually.

MWP: Are you hopeful?
SG: I grew up in the ’50s and it was a time of McCarthyism, a terribly repressed time, yet there were amazing women in that time. There is often a movement going on that isn’t visible, like the seed in the ground that’s growing. You haven’t seen the first shoots yet, there doesn’t appear to be anything, but suddenly there’s a tree.

That’s what I’ve seen happen in my life, first with the movement in the ’60s for freedom of speech, civil rights and the anti-war movement – all of those sprang from a society that seemed really rigid and tight. And then the women’s movement, which was suddenly as if springing up overnight, but of course it wasn’t overnight. There were all the elements there; it took a while for it to coalesce into an actual movement.

So I’m hoping that we’re in that time. People are so fed up over so many different issues. I’m just hoping that this begins to coalesce into a really powerful movement that begins to turn things around in the way that they really need to be turned around.

FFI: For further information about the Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality Fall Soul Conference, Nov. 22-23, 2013: www.wisdomwayscenter.org

Three of Susan Griffin’s many books have been chosen by readers in Minnesota Women’s Press book groups as “Great Books”:
Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (1978)
Pornography and Silence (1982)
A Chorus of Stones: The Private Life of War (1993)