Women Write Nature
- J.M. Bridgeman (Author)
Here in Hope: A Natural History. Oolichan Books (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Barbara T. Gates (Author)
In Nature's Name: An Anthology of Women's Writing and Illustration, 1780-1930. University of Chicago Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Andrea Lebowitz
These two works offer macro and micro views of women writing nature. The Gates anthology gives the reader a sweep of authors and types of writing by British women from 1780-1930, while Birdman’s natural history is one woman’s view of the natural and social story of Hope, British Columbia.
In Nature’s Name is an anthology replete with scientific, creative and journalistic works along with many contemporary illustrations. Gates includes literary writers alongside journalistic and educational writers. These juxtapositions offer opportunities for interesting comparisons and an opportunity to meet authors previously virtually unknown as well as to be reacquainted with old friends. For both the reappearance of known writers and the introduction to new ones, Gates is to be thanked.
Perhaps, the most important questions addressed by this anthology concern the principles of selection and the mode of organization of women’s writings about nature. Gates, whose previous work includes Kindred Nature: Victorian and Edwardian Women Embrace the Living World, initially saw In Nature’s Name “as a supplement” to the earlier work, as a cultural study of Victorian and Edwardian women and nature. The anthology was to present the work of writers discussed in the previous book—“Like all offspring, however, it has demanded the right to grow in its own way.” The metaphor is apt. The diversity of voices requires new modes of organization and presentation. Gates allows the content to create the shape of the book rather than imposing pre-determined classifications on it.
While acknowledging the helpfulness of Patrick Murphy’s schema of writing about nature (Farther Afield in the Study of Nature-Oriented Literature), Gates has to go beyond his categories to accommodate all of the material she has gathered. She rejects Murphy’s separation of nature literature from nature writing, and she vastly expands the types of genres included. She contributes to the ongoing search for ways to categorize genres and to combine them in anthologies.
Gates also suggests that gender does indeed have an impact on genre in the opening section “Speaking Out.” In these selections, the authors answer the challenge to women’s very ability to write about nature. These first pieces reflect the adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Despite gaining entry to educational and public institutions in the “long century” covered by the anthology, women had to continue to argue the case for their own right to speak for nature. Hence, the first section frames all of the entries. At times authors justify their work by arguing their unique ability to protect and nurture nature; at others they reject the concept of difference between female and male intelligence. The feminist debate about equality and difference forms an interesting sub-text of the anthology.
Finding chronology an inadequate organizational principle, Gates nonetheless grounds the reader by including a useful “Chronology” as an appendix along with biographical notes. The time line places each anthology selection in context with other literary works, major events in British politics and history, occurrences in feminist history and politics and finally developments significant to science, technology and medicine. This is a helpful guide for the reader, and it also frees Gates to orga- nize her material in more interesting ways.
Within seven major categories (“Speaking Out,” “Protecting,” “Domesticating,” “Adventuring,” “Appreciating,” “Popularizing Science” and “Amateurs or Professionals?”), Gates finds room for a splendid variety of writers. At times this abundance does verge on the brink of chaos as when the big game hunters share space with the animal protectors. Despite this, Gates largely succeeds in her attempt “to offer new insights into women’s role in redefining nature, nature study, and nature writing.”
Conversely, Bridgeman does little to expand the standard format of natural history. Hope is set at the convergence and collision of geological events that shaped the western edge of British Columbia. This place offers an intriguing location and metaphor for human and natural transfor- mation. The author tries to tell the story of the natural, human and political histories of Hope, but her ambitions far outrun the space of the text. Further problems arise when Bridgeman attempts to transform
these stories into a meditation on the tran- sitory nature of human presence and the need for humility in the face of the “ancient story of Earth’s creation and on-going transformation.” Neither history nor introspection is realized, and Bridgeman fails to accomplish her goal of transforming natural history into philosophical reflection. Barbara Gates provides a diversity of material written by women concerned with nature. In addition to the individual selections, she offers interesting contributions to the study of the ways in which women use existing genres and invent their own forms of writing. She also adds to the ongoing search for ways to make anthologies. J.M. Bridgeman does not address either gender or generic issues in her story of Hope, but uses the natural history form to reflect on the effects of human presence on the natural world.
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MLA: Lebowitz, Andrea. Women Write Nature. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 5 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #183 (Winter 2004), Writers Talking. (pg. 124 - 125)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.