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Yoga, Meditation, and Lent: Weaving a Daily Practice

So, what are you doing this year for Lent? I never considered this question until a few years ago when I started attending an episcopal church. I thought it was just another stuffy religious act that meant little to those who practice it. And it is. Until maybe it isn’t.

My life experience with religion and spirituality is an interesting one. I keep thinking one day I will write some kind of memoir about it. Each year as the story unfolds, I find that what once angered me slowly becomes just a part of the narrative. It is who I am.

Now I see how various threads are weaving together to form the fabric of my spirituality.

Ten years ago my spirit was in a bad place. I made a decision to leave an oppressive form of patriarchal Christianity that was based in fear, though it talked a lot about “love.” I was angry because I thought that the only way for me to express spirituality had to be within this system. It insisted this was the only way and that all others were “satanic lies.” I was burned out from trying so hard to be perfect in order to be worthy of this precious love…

Fast-forward to 2017 and you find me in a much different place. Not only have I found a church that is filled with actual love and compassion, I found ways to express a spirituality that were previously cut off from me.

I said to my husband, “By rejecting a spiritual life – because I had such a limited understanding of it – I was rejecting a deep part of myself.”


A week before Thanksgiving I decided to challenge myself to practice yoga every day until the New Year. My sweet son was growing, schedules were shifting for my parents who were amazing caregivers during my gym sessions, and it was becoming much more difficult to actually get to the doors of the YMCA. Daily exercise is a way I maintain clarity and I was starting to feel the strain. So, my desire for movement had an easy solution: daily yoga in my home while Arlo naps. Through the holidays I maintained this commitment, but soon it shifted to something else. I realized that my spirit was nourished while I was increasing in skill, flexibility, and strength. After nearly sixteen years of yoga practice, I fell in love with it – head over heels!

I decided to continue a daily home practice and started reading books about yoga philosophy. I absorbed Paramahansa Yogananda’s The Yoga of Jesus and Autobiography of a Yogi, the Bhagavad Gita, books on ayuerveda, Light on Yoga by B.K.S. Iyengar, and learned that…

Yoga IS meditation!

The entire purpose for the existence of yoga is not physical fitness, but to prepare the mind for meditation.

After weeks of daily practice, my mind and spirit were open to this revelation. At this point I jumped headfirst into literature about meditation, a practice I always toyed with, but never made a commitment to any sort of regularity. If I am so devoted to a yoga practice, why am I not also committed to a meditation practice? I immediately downloaded a meditation app (because that is what people do in the twenty-first century!)


In America, we often think of yoga as simply the physical practice – what we do on a mat. Rather, full, real-deal yoga brings together eight principles, a.k.a. the Eight Limbs.

  1. Yama: moral code/moral actions
  2. Niyama: purity of behavior
  3. Asana: physical postures
  4. Pranayama: breathing techniques designed to control the life force
  5. Pratyahara: withdrawl of the senses
  6. Dharana: concentration
  7. Dhyana: meditation
  8. Samadhi: oneness with the divine love

It takes years for a student to learn the ways of the eight limbs, but each one of these is considered a yoga. In other words, if you just practice yoga on a mat or at a gym, then you are really limiting yoga’s transformative potential.

Much has been written about this, of course, but here I will bring it back to the progression of my spiritual life and where I am going with this blog post.

After recognizing the need for regular meditation along with my yoga practice, I began inserting it into my life as it is intended: after physical yoga, when the mind is quieted by the breath and focus on physical asanas. I found this to be extremely rewarding. I was less distracted. My body and mind felt ready to dive into the stillness.

I am now convinced that the fullness of prayer and a connection with divine love is found in settling the senses through meditation.


This brings me to Lent. Traditionally, people give up something during this season in an effort to understand and identify with the sacrifice that Jesus made when he died on the cross and rose again, eradicating the barrier that was placed between humanity and God. Often folks will give up a food item. Some will go through their accumulated “stuff” and give away a bag of unused or forgotten things every day during Lent. These can be noble actions when the heart is in the right place. However, I prefer to add something to my days, instead of participating in the negative. This year I plan to add a Loving-kindness meditation throughout Lent in order to observe the loving-kindness Jesus embodied on earth.

Loving-kindness meditation develops greater compassion in a person through regular contemplation, concentrating love on people we know and do not know. You can even direct loving-kindness to yourself. It is not based in selfishness, but can be of great benefit if one is suffering from anxiety, depression, anger, or fear. Loving-kindness meditation will actually change your mind to become more aware of yourself and the people around you.

And I think we can all agree that the world needs more love in it right now.

More information on Loving-kindness meditation:

Loving-Kindness Meditation and Change, by Kripalu through The Huffington Post

Loving-Kindness Meditation, The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society

Loving-Kindness Meditation Practice, by The Greater Good in Action: Science Based Practices for a Meaningful Life

“The Consumption of Scenery:” Ideas on Nature and the Digital Screen

“By emphasizing visitor convenience, expediency, and comfort, we have made the national park synonymous with the theme park. In the national park the theme is scenery, not experiencing the environment on its own terms. Park visitors consume scenery in our national parks as much as they consume the obviously synthetic scenery in a Disney World jungle. The experience is easy and painless, no matter the visitor’s age, physical condition, or mental preparation for his visit. Under such circumstances, park visitors are not meaningfully in the natural environment so much as watching the environment, as if it were on television instead of before their eyes.”
John Miller, Egotopia: Narcissism and the New American Landscape (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 1997): 59.


Ken Burns calls the National Parks, “America’s best idea,” but it might be an idea that slipped our minds. Since the 1800s, the American system inspired countries all over the planet to create preserved spaces, sacred to the people and in protection of increasingly vulnerable wildlife. Lately, I devote my time to perusing blogs by people who spend their lives – either professionally or as amateurs – trekking through the wilderness. I am curious about how they use digital media to narrate their experiences and create a nature aesthetic on a “not-so-natural” platform: the Internet.

So, today in my reading I came across the above passage. The fact that it was written during the cynical nineties did not surprise me. In the twenty years since its publication, the proverbial and literal screen became all the more pervasive. Major parts of the Internet are used for discussions about the outdoors, as well as for the viewing of nature and the wilderness from the comfort of the one’s home. Take this in conjunction with the reality that the American National Parks are susceptible to the political whims of the Trump administration and congressional Republicans. These elected officials respond to a pervasive sentiment upheld by many conservatives: that the protection of natural spaces is not priority, and more critically, that climate change is not a serious problem. Yet, the popularity of Nature in the digital world, particularly in social media, seems at odds with the current political shift.

I am an Americanist. I seek to find consistencies, patterns, and cohesions in the broad culture of the United States. The problem with this is that the country is extremely diverse, and no matter how much some of its citizens insist that culture is singular (Christian, Caucasian-influenced, patriarchal, heterosexual), it is layered and complex. I acknowledge the difficulty in determining a straightforward answer to the previous question. How do we explain a simultaneous fascination with the outdoors, specifically the wilderness, on social media and a dangerous indifference to the health of the natural world? Yes, there is currently a strong political division, but Pew Research reported in 2016 that even those who consider themselves to be “particularly concerned” with the environment do very little in their every day lives to combat the effects of climate change. (Only 20% of adult respondents regularly make an effort to live in an environmentally friendly manner.) Yet, the BBC’s Planet Earth documentary series to the numerous nature flicks found on Netflix, the two hundred million (and counting) posts on Instagram with the hashtag #Nature, and the thousands of pages on Facebook dedicated to the subject all point to an interest in the outdoors. We find access to it through a screen.

Additionally, and importantly, the National Park Service had record attendance during its 100th anniversary, clocking in 330,971,689 visitors!

People are going to the parks. So why do voters and elected officials want to make them more vulnerable? I will leave the political answer for another day. The republicans in congress cannot hold all of the blame. It is not like they just woke up one day and decided that the NPS was a big money pit and they should make it easier to sell the lands.  In fact, the slippery slope of devaluing the National Parks started long ago. I put the blame on the ever-present screen.

America is a visual culture. This may not seem that remarkable to the reader, for the obvious reason that she is reading this blog post through a digital device. Since the advent of television the screen has influenced popular culture.[1] It is a window and a mirror. We try to look out beyond our four walls, but in a way it simply reflects back to us what we want to see: ourselves.[2] Again, this is not a groundbreaking insight in 2017. What we think, though, is that while music, fashion, language, and everyday artifacts are probably influenced by what we see on the screen (smartphones, computers, television, and film), there is no way – no way – that our love for nature is affected!

Nature is our escape from all of that!!

Au contraire. As Miller writes, we use nature the only way we know how: as entertainment. How can our minds differentiate the act of looking at images on a screen from the act of looking at a vast landscape? For some, going into the “wilderness” (as if nature were a separate place away from our normal lives) requires that one takes a smartphone or GPS device: for safety. Today the popular hiking blog The Trek posted an article titled “The Top PCT Thru-Hikers You Should Be Following on Instagram.” Capturing one’s outdoor experiences has become an aesthetic in itself, our smartphones making epic photography accessible to anyone who choses to take the time. No longer relying on Ansel Adams, platforms like Instagram allow us to show our friends and followers where we are in space and time, and hopefully they will be envious of it. Incredible vistas and intimate vignettes, we capture nature and it is embedded with our philosophies about ourselves within the natural world.

These images seem to portray sensitive beings, mindful of a world that has value beyond everyday consumerism. You cannot buy a hike across the Appalachian Trail. You must do it. The journey requires blood, sweat, and tears. And this is probably why many chose to follow hikers through social media. The partition of the screen protects us. We reap the benefits without going through the struggle.

Is this why we treat nature like it is a disposable product, an entertainment that is only there to meet our needs on our demand? We cannot feel the heat, the cold, or smell the earthiness. We buy athleisure for Saturdays at the farmers’ market and wear tech gear meant for excursions in Patagonia during our commute to work.

There is a disconnection in 2017 between our ideals and our actions. Do smart devices create safety, connect us to each other, and draw us to natural spaces we would never otherwise encounter? Or does the screen create a comfortable barrier that allows us to tame and control the natural world? I argue for the latter. And as a result, we make serious political decisions that are colored by the comfort we feel in our own homes.


[1] See: Karal Ann Marling, As Seen on TV: The Visual Culture of Everyday Life in the 1950s. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.

[2] A really wonderful argument for this can be found in David Foster Wallace’s “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction,” Contemporary Fiction, 13:2 (1993:Summer), 151-194.

We Lost a Tree: Pioneer Cabin Giant Sequoia and Collective Sadness

“In California, in Calaveras Big Tree State Park, the historic giant sequoia known for the tunnel in its base came down during the heavy rain…” (NPR Hourly Newscast, 9 January 2017)

My sleepy ears perked up at the information during my brief drive home on this frigid Monday morning after dropping off my son at daycare. It is not every day that we get news about trees in the NPR hourly broadcast, but this one is special. A storm that may be the worst in a decade is pummeling areas of northern California and Nevada. People lost homes and there is tragic loss of life. But the loss of a tree is an exceptional news bit. A quick Google search shows that most major national news outlets are covering this story and my own response this morning caused me to wonder, “Why is this prompting such an emotional reaction?”

Most reporting of the event references the historic characteristics of the tree. While we do not know the exact age, most of the giant sequoias in the North Grove are at least 1,200 years old. This fact alone causes most people to pause and place a hand on these specimens in hopes of connecting to an earlier era. Often, it is only through a sense of place do we feel we can physically interact with history – spiritual pilgrimages and holy sites are the epitome of this desire. Additionally, news outlets point out the Pioneer Cabin Tree’s giant car-sized tunnel at its base, carved in the 1880’s. This is clearly the sequoia’s claim to fame. So the historic significance of this particular tree is twofold: first, its natural history through a connection to an ancient past, and second, its social history with the first tourists to the visitation of that exact spot.

This tree is significant not only for its historic and cultural relevance, but also for the time in which it fell. We are at a pivotal moment in American politics – this is one thing that both “sides” can agree on. Emotions ran high this year and they are still cooking after turning down to a vigorous simmer following the boil. We collectively lost important cultural figures, too many to note here, but their passing almost signifies the beginning of a new era, one that is thoroughly intertwined with politics. We have at our hands a new culture war.

And then we lost a tree.

At the time of westward expansion toward the Pacific, and in the throes of the American Civil War, the first European Americans considered the immense trees of Yosemite to be “the botanical correlate of America’s heroic nationalism at a time when the Republic was suffering its most divisive crisis since the Revolution.”[1] Additionally, and in-line with beliefs that America was a mission supported by a blessing from God, the trees were old enough to connect Americans to the birth of Christ. Thus, not only for their grandeur, the sequoias are mystical because they symbolize the spiritual and carry the hopes of a nation in its branches.


“The Pioneer Cabin and Pluto’s Chimney,” 1864-1874, By Lawrence & Houseworth, Original source: Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views. New York Public Library.

Our imagination is peaked by trees and the fascination is not limited to American culture. Religious stories revolve around trees. We live in trees through homebuilding. We travel in trees with boats. Trees permeate almost every aspect of our lives through paper, jewelry, home décor, objects of luxury, artwork, and essential tools. There are few other resources that we use in such varied forms.

We lost a tree this weekend and it provoked a big response. As one Facebook commenter wrote, this one “made a sound when it fell.” Others commented about how “sad” it is that we lost this tree or shared their family vacation photograph for others to see. After a year of losing celebrity after celebrity, one celebrity tree is gone. But the reasons for its fame arrive out of ambivalence. Pioneer Cabin Tree would not be renowned if it were not for the massive hole at its base – a hole that eventually killed the tree, leaving only one branch alive at the top. People took pictures with Pioneer Cabin because it had a tunnel through it, and now news outlets and social media alike are crying out. The Huffington Post published a particularly scathing article title:

Pioneer Cabin Tree, Iconic Giant Sequoia With ‘Tunnel,’ Falls In Storm:
The tree was “barely alive” due to the hole punched through it in the 1880s.

The language is meant to provoke and point to the injury that a violation like this can do to trees. Using the language of abuse, it also subtly chastises all the visitors who found fascination with Pioneer Cabin, as if they were witnesses to the crime.

If an unofficial assessment can serve as evidence, there are many who “loved” this particular tree. Reactions of anger and sadness over the loss reveal the contradiction that is characteristic of our current climate crisis. Things that we cannot control make us sad, but Americans are dangerously ambivalent to things that we can control. There is also a misunderstanding of the word “preserve” as it relates to the natural environment. I believe many to understand it as “keep forever this way” instead of letting nature take its course. A few Facebook commenters asked what was to be done with the remains of the tree. Is there potential to sell off the pieces for commemoration? Others remarked (correctly) that the tree will nourish the forest floor.

It is a poignant loss, but is it really sad? Remarks like this indicate feelings that the tree was for us. While the tree connected us to our national past, even our cultural or spiritual past, sadness comes from the knowledge that the tree no longer exists. From this perspective, Pioneer Cabin’s existence seemed to be for the benefit of human culture. This freakish tree with a gaping hole is no longer around for us to take family vacation photos with it. It is not for us, but that our government regulates space for it to thrive sometimes blurs the lines of ownership. Do we permit the trees to exist only for the sake of our benefit?

There are many things that we ask nature to do for us. We want it to be itself, but to serve us. We want it to remain authentic, but never change. We want it to survive and be self-sufficient, to pull itself up by its boot straps and not take entitlements. We want nature to be wild, but we want to snuggle up close. We want nature to understand political borders and established treaties. We want nature to know that we love it and need it, but we have our own lives to tend to and cannot be bothered to help out during a crisis. We ask nature to provide for our physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing, and to continue to be a source of entertainment for our personal vacations. But we want to be left alone when we go home. We understand that nature is a part of us and bla bla bla, but, nature, please do not come too close or ask too much.

If we are really sad, let’s consider that the groves of giant sequoias are threatened more and more by climate change, as scientists worry that slow growing specimens might not keep up with the drastically shifting environment. Clearly, as illustrated in the event over the weekend, the increasing severity of storms due to changing climate is also a threat to giant trees, smaller trees, and all the flora and fauna that live in these ecosystems.

Pioneer Cabin Tree’s cultural significance is important to us. It is not my intention to say otherwise. But it is immensely critical that we recognize the reasons we are attracted to these trees, and use it as a starting point to propel us to greater things.

[1] Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Vintage Books, 1995): 187.

Seeking the Mother’s Psalm

Well the sun is surely sinking down
But the moon is slowly rising
And this old world must still be spinning ’round
And I still love you

 So close your eyes
You can close your eyes, it’s all right
I don’t know no love songs
And I can’t sing the blues anymore
But I can sing this song
And you can sing this song
When I’m gone 

Well it won’t be long before another day
We’re gonna have a good time
And no one’s gonna take that time away
You can stay as long as you like

I find myself humming this lullaby throughout my days now. I use it to calm my son, who seems to respond to the intimate truths in James Taylor’s lyrics. For me, the sweet sadness of “you can stay as long as you like” is a reminder that one day Arlo will decide he does not need me as much anymore. Taylor intended the ballad for Joni Mitchell, so of course it is deeply romantic. But these days I hear it with new ears. I find myself turning many popular tunes into lullabies. Some deeply rooted themselves inside my spirit as the psalms of early parenthood.

…the psalms of early parenthood: love, struggle, lamentation, and gratitude. The life experience of being a parent needs more psalm writers. We have days that direct hymns of gratitude, cries of lament, and songs of thanksgiving. I recall that I never felt so many emotions until these days watching my son grow.

I intensely feel the contradictory nature of caring for a child while attempting to form a sense of individuality. I am becoming more aware of the sources of my identity.

As a professional who sometimes studies the cultivation of identity, I have come to think that identity stems from broad social structures. I never needed to confront my personal identity in such a momentous way before now. Even as I contemplated the decision of changing my last name for marriage, there was not the ground shaking, identity-making experience that I find in motherhood.

I am a writer. I am an academic, a professional, and an educated woman.

The problem with these labels is that they fail to live up to reality. They are bulky words that take up space when we speak them out loud, but they ultimately fall short. It is because they are not substantial or proactive – or essential. They exist conceptually, but do not move me forward. Though perfectly fine labels, they do not function as identity parameters. Except, maybe, “writer.” But even this, I believe, is a shifting designation that is more spiritual than practical, more intimate than open.

I am a writer, but these days the majority of my writing remains in my head as I rock my baby to sleep, attempt a five-minute shower, or witness a beautiful developmental milestone. The weight of this title gives me pause as I place heavy importance on it that I cannot move my hand to pick up a pen. It is jealousy of the writer who spends hours at her desk, mulling over the perfect word and expounding on past participles that paralyzes me. I also, for some ridiculous reason, imagine that creative writing becomes less creative when executed on a word processor. So I cumbersomely labor away at longhand in one of the numerous journals that find their way tucked in the drawer near the rocker, by the bedside table, or stacked on the kitchen countertop. I worry too much about the lurking hand cramp and then forget what I wanted to say in the first place. I have so many ideas about what a writer does, looks like, and thinks about that I suppress my words before they have a chance to live.

The anxieties over writing derive from personal questions of identity. I seem to be in a crisis. I remember the feeling of previous crises, surprisingly. There was the crisis of identity after high school as friends moved away, the mini calamities that attended the breakup of a romantic relationship, and the devastation of rejecting the legalistic religion of my childhood that left me in a state of emotional panic. It has been a while since I had a good, old-fashioned crisis. All of the previous have been resolved, and the resolutions flourish in their maturity. The current crisis hits hard because it was so unexpected.

A “crisis” is feared because we are expected to maintain a façade of perfection. We lightly call these “transitions,” though this gives the experience a watered-down effect. We dismiss the individual going through a “mid life crisis” with a wave of the hand. No, I am talking about a real-deal crisis – one that stops you in your tracks and forces a re-evaluation of your surroundings. It is uncomfortable. It is difficult. It is often ignored.

And then if it is ignored, you never have to change.

Motherhood, in particular, is a radical physical change. Why would we not expect the same for the emotional, mental, and spiritual experiences of a woman who goes through childbirth? Feminism asked us to reject these latter experiences so that we do not come across as weak or incapable of maintaining a public life like men. To be important, we must produce, produce, produce! Be productive, they say. Do not stall. Do not take moments to gather yourself. Do not nurture. Produce!


The author and her son, Arlo, May 2016

As the tide of daily life pulls me through a current that seems to run faster and faster, I grab on to the essentials. This is a process of identity reformation that will not be bound by previous requirements for the labels. I am a mother who writes, a wife who thinks, and an academic who has a family. I am a creator who lingers in the space of the day to day.

Selah, mamas and papas. Selah.

“Rape of the Land:” 21st Century Ecofeminism and Environmental Rape Culture

One of the primary theoretical driving forces in the emergence of ecofeminism in the 1980s is the “rape of the land” concept. Essentially, ecofeminists argued that the root of contemporary ecological problems rested in a patriarchal society – one that placed a lower value upon the “other,” which was anything outside of the perceived norm: anything not male, not white, not heterosexual, and not “civilized” culture. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, indigenous people, and homosexuality all fell under this category. The realization that nature was also in this group was the work of early ecofeminists like Carolyn Merchant, Susan Griffin, and a slew of other creative and bright minds. The idea that a patriarchal society could “rape the land” stemmed from two theories:
1. That it is the nature of a patriarchal society to dominate and control entities that fall outside of established rules of culture.
2. That women could reclaim imagery of the goddess in nature (or, Mother Earth) as a source of power.

A few of the ways in which it was perceived the land was victim of violation was illustrated in the severe pollution highlighted by Rachel Carson, the overexploitation of whole species from the earth, and the controversial issue of nuclear power without proper waste disposal. Early ecofeminists decried the take, take, take of a patriarchal system that, at its core, believed in the authority of efficiency and use. By reclaiming the earth goddess for both divine and intellectual inspiration, ecofeminists connected the “body” of the land with the body of woman at the height of a renewed feminist awareness that sought the social and political respect of the feminine mind and body.

Considering the deep historical and rhetorical connection between ecofeminism and protests of rape, and the current conversation among American feminists regarding what is now dubbed “rape culture” in the twenty-first century, is there still a theoretical link between the environment and physical rape? Are there situational similarities that need to be revealed?

While these questions require a deeper analysis than what I can provide in one blog post, I will pose a few problems to consider. First, the indictments of a contemporary “rape culture” are many, including but not limited to: the realization that rape is more common than we think, that victims are often questioned about their “role” in the assault, regular complaints of disappointment in how the charge will affect the accused rapist’s life, and the prevalence of rape in popular jokes. “Rape culture” is considered by many to be a made-up grievance by extreme feminists who are looking for something to protest. Rape culture, in fact, continues as an extension of an archaic patriarchal system of dominance and conquest, but hidden by the apparent progress of feminism in mainstream culture that allowed women to live with greater independence, garner successes in reproductive rights, hold esteemed political positions and run for the office of presidency. So, the essence of rape culture is that is hidden. It is not obvious to us as we go about our days until we face it head-on, as many unfortunately do. It is important to acknowledge that rape is not limited to female victims, but 1 in 33 American men have experienced assault [RAINN]. Rape culture is a problem that we do not see, or wish to see.

Is there an environmental “rape culture?” I argue, in the United States, there is.
The international community came together in Paris at the end of 2015 to find real solutions to problems of climate change, while American politicians running for the nation’s highest office continue to deny its existence. Often cynics will argue that it is pointless to make the American public change course because other developing countries (they cite China) are not regulating their production of CO2. Energy industries like coal and natural gas fracking resist environmental change out of economic reservations, fueling the fears of working class Americans in those industries and pitting them against environmental progress. Still others cite religious texts to “show” that the inherent role of human culture is to “subdue the earth.”

Essentially, in the United States, Americans just do not know whom to trust because of the abundant contradictory “evidence” thrust in their direction. It also does not help that in an effort to show a “balanced” view, certain news outlets provide a one-on-one debate between a climate scientist and a skeptic, as if the opinions are equal. As we know, this is certainly not true.

This is the problem: if rape culture is rooted in a suspicion that the assertions of the victim is valid, or a blatant indifference for its existence in contemporary culture, then an “ecological rape culture” may also be real.

It is no longer suitable for ecofeminists to identify the “rapists,” but to convince the crowd that the rape occurred.

Theoretical ecofeminist principles must be formed that adapt to twenty-first century needs. The ecofeminist perspective of the 1980s is not suitable for today’s problems and the challenges must be addressed in a different manner. Ideally, it is not only skepticism that needs to be tackled, but apathetic attitudes by those who know the facts.


Further reading:

Diamond, Irene and Gloria Feman Orenstein, editors. Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990)

Dunnaway, Finis. Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015)

Griffin, Susan. Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1978)

Hoffman, Andrew J. How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015)

Howe, Joshua. Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014)

Merchant, Carolyn. The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1983)

Plant, Judith, editor. Healing The Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism (Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989)

A Photograph and a Painting: William Henry Jackson, Thomas Moran, and Capturing Yellowstone Vistas


William Henry Jackson is one of the best-known photographers of the nineteenth-century, publishing images of the Yellowstone wilderness as a member of the government-sponsored Hayden Survey before it was a national park and documenting the White City during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition for tourists and posterity. He became a legendary figure in the narrative of National Park history, and living to almost one hundred years, served as a link between the twentieth-century obsession with the west and the myth of the frontier.

Through the antebellum era there was a widespread assumption that the West was uninhabitable for “civilized men.”[1] It was too desert-like to be worthwhile. Eventually, this belief gave way to a large-scale welcoming of frontier expansion by the general population for Euro-American settlers as a result of conclusions derived under the directorship of Ferdinand V. Hayden (1829-1887) during the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories. These surveys helped to “[destroy] the myth of the desert and legislat[e] the myth of the garden in its stead.”[2] Hayden approached Jackson in the spring of 1870 to become the official photographer for a large information-gathering survey that would cover parts of Colorado and Utah, which would cover the full Wyoming Territory.[3] Interest in the natural landscape transformed from the Emersonian pastoral ideal to an organized documentation and cataloging of the sublime.

Jackson’s role as photographer of these areas positions him at the center of technology, wilderness, and masculinity. Early outdoor photography operated as a contrasting practice to nineteenth century feminine sentimentalism, exemplified by Douglas through the iconic Little Eva of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: the embodiment of worshipful religious piety and wisdom, sweetness, and was generously maternal.[4] Additionally, Americanist Lois Banner defines the physical characteristics of the ideal woman under the image of “the Steel Engraved Lady.” Found in antebellum fashion magazines and widely seen lithographs, she is definitively passive. It was not the expected character of the ideal woman to lug heavy equipment over the bounds of the earth. Though women did participate in the photographic process and certainly contributed to the cultural works of the century that incorporated themes of nature through writing or painting, the arduous task of towing hundreds of pounds of gear and dangerous materials outdoors during government surveys or professional exploratory excursions was bestowed upon male photographers. In his autobiography, Jackson remembers, “Going at it in the open meant labor, patience, and the moral stamina – or, perhaps, sheer phlegmatism – to keep on day after day, in spite of the overexposed and underdeveloped negatives, and without regard to the accidents to cameras and chemicals.”[5] Living the frontier life was also a marker of masculinity. Since women were expected to be the moral center of the home, and ultimately one of the pillars of a republican nation,[6] there was little room for them on the edge of society.[7] Jackson, like many of his male peers, “seemed the perfect marginal man for the marginality of this actual frontier.”[8]

From the beginning, people assumed that there was an inherent truthfulness to the camera lens. Instead of having a creative mediator, such as the painter with canvas and brush in hand, a camera “captures” and “abolishes the narrow entrance ways of painting though which only certain prestructured faces, scenes, arrangements, and scales of space can enter and present themselves to be seen.”[9] As the industrial age moved along, new ways of seeing shattered the old and created new expectations. Landscape art of the early nineteenth century was thoroughly immersed in sentimentalism through the pastoral and the sublime. Works by American landscape painters Frederic Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) were meant to move the viewer to great emotion and enthrallment. While both artists worked alongside the developing field of photography, the reason for modern technology’s existence was drastically different. Importantly, “the work of early landscape photographers was personal work, or work intended for a rather small audience of dedicated amateurs and educated professionals, and it was devoted to structuring landscapes in familiar terms.”[10] Or, in Jackson’s case, for the use of the United States government. Though he found it immensely important to capture a pleasing image,[11] the photographs were meant for dual audiences: the federal government and for whomever Jackson wished to view them afterwards.

This dichotomy is seen between the images made by Jackson and the landscape artist also hired by the survey, Thomas Moran (1837-1926). They worked closely together during the weeks in Yellowstone, Jackson writing “Moran became greatly interested in photography, and it was my good fortune to have him at my side during all that season to help me solve many problems of composition. While learning a little from me, he was constantly putting in far more than he took out.”[12] Both the photographer and the painter created images of what Jackson called “the climax of the expedition:” the Yellowstone Falls and Grand Canyon. They are, however, significantly different types of images. It was Jackson’s primary task to document the area for congress, posterity, and on a secondary level, for the possible purchase of prints by patrons.

If taxpayers and Congressmen alike wanted more evidence, none of them wanted it half so much as Dr. Hayden. He had a double motive. The abstract scientist in him wanted more facts to work with, while the practical planner in the man at once saw how a widespread public interest could keep his Survey alive permanently. Hayden knew Congress would keep on with its annual appropriations exactly as long as the people were ready to foot the bill, and he was determined to make them keep on wanting to.

That was where I came in. No photographs had as yet been published, and Dr. Hayden was determined that the first ones should be good. A series of fine pictures would not only supplement his final report but tell the story to thousands who might never read it. Photo-engraving and ten-cent picture magazines were still unknown; but an astonishing number of people bought finished photographs to hang on their walls, or to view though stereoscopes.[13]

Even if average Americans wanted to purchase images of the Yellowstone exploration, it would be less for the artistic merit (though certainly evident) and more for the documentation the event and location. Jackson created thousands of photographs during his time with the survey, but the photographs of the Grand Canyon are certainly breathtaking. One in particular, titled “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, From the East Bank” (1872) relies on the optics of texture to provide depth of perception. The Yellowstone River weaves its way through the center of the picture plane, cutting between rock and cliff, framed by forests of pine. The horizon is high in the background, with a pale sky looming above. Close to the viewer are ancient pines and as they recede toward the Lower Falls, one gets a sense of the steep degree of the sharp descent below. Faint lines interlace over the rock walls around the falls and large faces of earth, rock, and trees protrude over the threadlike river. The photograph is indeed magnificent because the scenery is magnificent. After years of the public laughing at messengers who describe the wonders of Yellowstone, a photograph will help them believe.

Jackson, Grand Canyon from the Yellowstong, Nat Archives

William Henry Jackson, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, From the East Bank” (1872), National Archives


The expectations for Moran’s paintings were slightly different, based upon sentiment of feeling and reality. The challenge that the painter could conquer that Jackson could not is the replication of color along the ravine. Yellowstone’s Grand Canyon has unique hues from mineral stains of hot springs and steam vents and, in his later years, Jackson remembers the painting’s “accuracy.” “So far as I am concerned, the great picture of the 1871 expedition was no photograph, but a painting by Moran of Yellowstone Falls. It captured, more than any other painting I know, the color and the atmosphere of spectacular nature.”[14]

This requires us to ask what a “real” picture of nature might contain. Is it the topography, as seen in Jackson’s photograph – though, only partially because he did not have access to color imaging – or is it the creation of “atmosphere of spectacular nature?” A similar painting by Moran titled The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) provides an almost equal perspective to that of Jackson’s photograph. The landscape is an immense 84 x 144 1/4 in. and like other nineteenth century works of the same genre, allows the viewer to “step into” the scene. Moran’s perspective is comparable to Jackson’s, but more painterly qualities are employed. As mentioned, the rich use of color is stunning and he shows the gradients of pale yellow to deep sienna along the walls of the canyon. At the center of the picture plane in the distance is a perfect view of the Upper Falls, consumed by sublime visuals. Instead of a pale sky in stark contrast to the texture of the land, Moran reworks the scene with deep gray sky and an abundant mist floating from the falls to the heavens.

Moran, Grand Canyon Yellowstone, 1872 SAAM

Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Yellowstone River weaves brightly in blue between craggy walls of yellow and brown. Rich green pines are artistically placed in contrast to the rock and earth, less uniform but with more sentiment of feeling. Moran even provides rugged trees reminiscent of Thomas Cole’s (1801-1848) signature dramatic foliage in the foreground to frame the image, but only a few and on the left side of the picture. Balance is the enemy of sublimity. Finally, four individuals and two horses are added at the edge of the cliff at the bottom of the landscape, for both scale and to draw the viewer in to a more contemplative engagement with the scene. Consider the men taking in the vast expanse of the Yellowstone – Moran insists that you should do the same.

One can gain a greater understanding of Moran’s goals through his correspondence with Hayden after the expedition. In the spring of 1872, he wrote the geologist about the work in progress.

I have been intending to write to you for some months past but I have been so very busy with Yellowstone drawings, and absorbed in designing and painting my picture of the Great Canõn that I could not find the time to write to anybody. The picture is now more than half finished and I feel confident that it will produce a most decided sensation in Art Circles. By all Artists, it has heretofore been deemed next to impossible to make good pictures of strange and wonderful scenes in nature; and that the most that could be done with such material was to give topographical or Geological characteristics. But I have always held that the Grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful in nature, would, in capable hands, make the grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful pictures; and that the business of a great painter, would be the representation of great scenes in nature. All the above characteristics attach to the Yellowstone region, and if I fail to prove this, I fail to prove myself worthy the name of Painter.[15]

Of great concern is the potential “sensation” the painting could provoke in the viewer. As Moran realizes this potential for nature paintings, he desires to prompt the feelings one would have when looking at a grand landscape in person.

American culture is deeply rooted in visual imagery and so it is imperative that we understand the purposes of the different structures of production. Particularly, in an era where we can access digitally enhanced or traditional images through smartphones and computer screens, art galleries and theatre stages, understanding the meanings of platforms will serve us well.



*Featured image: By Brocken Inaglory – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

[1] Jackson, William Henry. Time Exposure: The Autobiography of William Henry Jackson (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1940. HathiTrust): 176.

[2] Ibid., 181.

[3] Hales, Peter B. William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape. (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988):69.

[4] Douglas, Ann. The Feminization of American Culture. (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1977): 2.

[5] Jackson, Autobiography, 178.

[6] Linda Kerber, Women of the Republic: Intellect and Ideology in Revolutionary America (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1980)

[7] William Henry Jackson writes extensively in his autobiography about whole communities of Mormon believers moving to the frontier. Women and children were certainly a part of this experience. Additionally, it cannot be assumed that there were no women on the frontier, but the point here is that the ideal of the Steel Engraved Lady resisted the necessary skills that one needed to live in such a community.

[8] Hales, 25.

[9] Philip Fisher, “Democratic Social Space: Whitman, Melville, and the Promise of American Transparency,” The New American Studies: Essays from Representations, Philip Fisher, editor (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991): 84.

[10] Joel Snyder, “Territorial Photography,” Landscape and Power, edited by W.J.T. Mitchell (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002): 179.

[11] Hales, 72-73.

[12] Jackson, 201.

[13] Ibid., 196.

[14] Ibid., 200.

[15] Letter from Thomas Moran to Frederick V. Hayden, 3/11/1872, Records of the U.S. Geological Survey 1839-2008, Chronological Letters Received 1867-3/21/1874, National Archives,

NIGHTSCAPES at Longwood Gardens or, Thinking About the Ways We Use Landscape (Again)

Something interesting happened this weekend. I watched landscapes transform in front of my eyes. I witnessed trees alter their purpose to enfold new meanings.

I visited Longwood Gardens’ Nightscape, an artistically-driven exhibit that interlaces light and color with the foliage after dark.

[Watch the Nightscapes trailer]

During the show (which in July begins at 9:30 P.M., August at 9:00 P.M. and September at 8:30 P.M.), the visitor can start at one of four sites on the grounds: the large lake on the east end, the flower garden walk, the topiaries in the center, or the conservatory on the west side of the park. In total, there are nine separate viewing locations. Longwood Gardens is located in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, a short drive from Philadelphia.

After a long, partially sunny/somewhat drizzly day of trekking through meadows, exploring coniferous groves, and peering into the faces of blossoms, we relaxed a bit at the outdoor beer garden, specifically established for the run of the exhibit. Cold drinks in hand and bluegrass in the air, we were excited and impatient as we prepared our eyes for the nocturnal landscape.

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

As time drew closer to 9:30, we traveled to the west end lake to ensure a first-rate viewing spot before the show. Through the day we observed technical gear through the park, and though we did not have a map to guide us, we identified the prime sites: the lake, the topiaries, and the conservatory. There are many pathways in the park, but by this point it was clear that the main route was through the Flower Garden Walk. Lit with tiny LED lights, the dark flowerbeds intermittently pulsed and rippled with color around us.

When I was a child I was fascinated by anything that told the story of an enchanted garden: Alice in Wonderland, The Secret of NIMH (1982), The Secret Garden (novel and 1993 film), and even today I am obsessed with the underlying magic and things unseen in nature. Nightscape launches the visitor into a world like this. Peculiar lighting emerges from the foliage on the ground and makes the world feel comfortably intimate beneath the trees. Once positioned near the lake we set our eyes on the ancient vegetation of Peirce’s Woods that lined the water and trickles of light appeared like paint on a canvas…

This is where I will end my description of the exhibit because I hope to inspire you to attend at some point this summer. It is well worth the trip.


From here I wish to think about the reasons for and the results of utilizing a garden – a particular, constructed landscape made of natural elements – as a canvas or platform for entertainment.

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

We established in previous posts that a landscape is a culturally constructed idea, whether it is a wilderness or a city park. Nineteenth-century landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted had a particular vision for New York City’s Central Park and Boston’s Emerald Necklace: to create spaces that would both uplift the spirits and form well-developed, “civilized Americans” during a time of increased immigration to the two major cities. The parks served a purpose beyond leisure. They were tools for civic development. Somehow we started to believe that “nature” could mysteriously alter the human mindset and enhance one’s character.

Though, this was not always the case. Puritan settlers were terrified of the wilderness because of early European beliefs about humanity’s sinful nature – darkness/wilderness/uncontrollable nature was a frightening territory where evil existed. The Age of Reason, or the European Enlightenment of the 1600’s and 1700’s, changed – obliterated, actually – the way descendants of European tradition look at the world. Through the creation of scientific rationalization, they began to understand bits and pieces about nature and humanity that altered the way we comprehend spirituality and religion. Confusing aspects of the wilderness started coming into focus. Early Christian mystics [like, really early – 600’s through 1500’s] envisioned a spiritual realm that permeated all parts, seen and unseen, of our world. Good and evil surrounded us. We just could not perceive it. Enlightenment thinking drastically changed this worldview, forming a concept of duality, or dichotomy, stressing two separate parts that are in opposition and in contrast to one another. This is a gross simplification of Enlightenment theology, and I am certainly not qualified to provide a thorough overview, but the most important aspect that must be understood here is the dichotomy between the beautiful and the sublime, as proposed by English philosopher Edmund Burke in the mid-1700’s.


Burke wrote about a bunch of different things: politics, religion, and aesthetics. His understanding of aesthetics – or how we perceive/study the appearances of things – was deeply rooted in Enlightenment dual thinking. He proposed in “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful” of 1757 that there were two [yes, dual] ways of looking at the world:

Edmund Burke

Edmund Burke

1. Seeing things as Beautiful: for pleasure or for the benefit of procreation. In other words, anything that is soft, round, and pleasing like a woman’s body [his exact words] expresses beauty.
2. Seeing things as Sublime: for protection or for the benefit of saving one’s self. But at the same time, this fear instigated by seeing something terrible – a vast expanse, an overwhelming sight, great repetition, depth, etc. – can provoke pleasure in the mind of the viewer.

ENTER: German philosopher Immanuel Kant in 1764, “Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime” in hand.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant

He challenges Burke’s idea of the sublime as an outside-the-body force and argues that aesthetics and perceptions originate in the human mind, thus it is what your brain distinguishes as frightening, but at remote distances, that create sublime feelings.

There were bunches of philosophers who wrote on this topic in the 1700’s – “sublime” was the buzz word of the day.

The point here is that the once frightening wilderness morphed into something aesthetically pleasing to view from afar.

and this happens at the moment that the United States is established. Now, we cannot make a direct correlation with the formation of the USA and emerging ideas about the sublime in nature, but we do know that folks really interested in Enlightenment thinking formed the nation, including politicians, writers, artists, and readers. It was their worldview. Thus, they were “primed” for the great expanse of the New World. Americans of the European tradition saw a “wilderness,” but were no longer fearful of it (for some… of course, there are exceptions.) Many considered the landscape a place that mirrors the emerging American idea: new, full of possibilities, and kind of wild.

In fact, Americans became fascinated with early, pre-Darwin explorer-naturalists like Alexander von Humboldt, elevating him to celebrity status in the 19th century. Americans like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau melded nature with emerging theology – but on a foundation of Enlightenment thinking, even through their mysticism. How we view nature in the 21st century is undoubtedly connected to dual thinking. It is an “us versus them/it” mentality. Our separation from nature, our individuality, is what “makes us human.” [Though, delightfully, theologians and philosophers are challenging much of this mode of thinking today.]

Books such as Roderick Frasier Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind (1967), Max Oelschlaeger’s The Idea of Wilderness (1991), and Simon Schama’s Nature and Memory (1995) all penetrate the mystery of nature within European/American culture, and springing forth from our reverence (and fear) of nature is the need for recreational spaces within it. Additionally, our need to control nature – from dam establishment for power to the science of botany – stems from this fascination. Somehow we began to think we have ownership over nature. We can change and alter the landscape to meet our human needs. We can form it, visually, to fashion innumerable aesthetic purposes in order to engage with it on many levels. No longer do we fear nature. We control it.

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]


So what, then, do we make of Longwood Gardens and Klip Collective’s use of landscape as canvas? Visitors engage with the foliage on a different manner than they had hours before, closely peering into buds and taking in great expanses and heights of trees. Now, we look at surfaces and forms. Topiaries transform from precisely shaped bushes into three-dimensional structures on which to place digital images. The result is an uncanny, pseudo-industrial structure, pulsating to music. It no longer expresses the natural. It is no longer “nature.”

Yet, we definitely should have creative experiences like this with a natural landscape. I’m sure very few visitors would say they are “going into nature” when they visit Longwood Gardens, though, clearly aspects of the park are very, very natural. The newly opened meadow is phenomenal in its ability to separate the visitor from the highly structured English style gardens near the front of the park. I believe Longwood is doing something radical with their landscape. It is radical that they would separate the garden from restrictions of tradition to incorporate digital media to the visitor’s experience. It is radical that we can look at the forms of nature while separating it from its “natureness.” Longwood and the artists at Klip use the landscape, yes, as a canvas, but unlike canvas the images move. In reality, they use the landscape and forms of nature as a platform for information.

What kind of information?
…Ideas of mystery and magic, industrialization and the exotic, of nature and our abilities to create something new. Nightscape certainly alters the way one experiences the gardens. It takes the “nature” out. Or, rather, it challenges long-held assumptions of what “nature” is, anyway.


Here is a brief discussion with the creators of Nightscapes (via- Longwood Gardens):


Further reading:
Aaron Sachs, The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.

John Davis, The Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in Nineteenth-Century American Art and Culture. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Lawrence Buell, The Environmental Imagination:  Thoreau, Nature Writing, and the Formation of American Culture.  Cambride, MA:  Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1995.

Roderick Nash, Wilderness and the American Mind. 4th Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001.

Sarah Burns, Painting the Dark Side: Art and the Gothic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkley: University of California Press, 2004.

Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1995.




How Do Landscapes ‘Work?’ (Part 1)

I think about landscapes… a lot.
I think about what we do on them, how we name them, the ways we reproduce them as images in song and canvas. I think about how we move between them. I think about the methods we use to divide them. I think about the layers of history that are identified with landscapes that create deep and emotional meaning. I think about how we separate ourselves on them – how we split as individuals and as groups. I think about what we do to manipulate landscapes to serve our cultural and political purposes. I think about what we do to keep people away from particular landscapes to “preserve” its integrity.
I think about the love, fear, anxiety, and spirituality connected with the landscapes we inhabit – and even the ones we do not.

As I write this I look out to a sea of green beyond my home office window, where I purposely placed my desk to seek academic and spiritual inspiration during my workdays. The window is open because over the years I have become dependent on the songs of the birds that make their homes in the trees along my road. The most distinct to my ear are the mourning doves, who coo so smoothly and deeply that it presses on my soul and generates instant comfort. I wish I knew more about the birds in this area. At times they can be so pervasive – their sound boosted by the enclosure of the trees – that it is legitimately loud. They certainly compete with the cars that speed down my road.

The perfect thing about a landscape is that we can engage with it on multiple levels: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. It is easy to fall into the delight of landscapes and nature, but to focus on “beauty” is the easiest route to take. There is nothing wrong with remembering charm of a landscape, but my professional intentions are to explore and understand the roles “landscape” and “nature” has in our lives. This requires me to look beyond the picturesque to its deeper portions.

Earth, isn’t this what you want? To arise in us, invisible?
Is it not your dream, to enter us so wholly
there’s nothing left outside us to see?
What, if not transformation,
is your deepest purpose? Earth, my love,
I want it too. Believe me,
no more of your springtimes are needed
to win me over—even one flower
is more than enough. Before I was named
I belonged to you. I see no other law
but yours, and know I can trust
the death you will bring.

See, I live. On what?
Childhood and future are equally present.
Sheer abundance of being
floods my heart.
(From the Ninth Duino Elegy by Rainer Maria Rilke)


Several concepts must be presented before further consideration:

  1. That landscapes are culturally constructed spaces that we live and move upon.
    Think about this for a moment. Bring a particular landscape into your mind (a farm, park, urban space, etc.) Would it have the same meaning if human culture did not give it a name? Probably not. National parks are what they are because we create a law. Urban landscapes exist because of engineering technology. Your home has a backyard because of its relation to the building. A battlefield is national sacred space because of the memories we place upon it.
  2. That the meaning of a landscape, including its purpose and use, is dependent on the worldview of the individual.
    If a landscape is a culturally constructed space, no matter the efforts of the body politic or “national culture,” the infinite variety of perspectives that exist will result in an infinite variety of meanings on a landscape. The combination of memories alone creates diversity and no level of institutional education will create a true cohesive understanding. Historical facts may exist, but names and dates do not matter as much as the way those names and dates are translated in the mind.

A landscape exists in our awareness beyond the “thing” that it is. This concept is easy to grasp if we imagine a space that is constructed for a specific, obvious purpose such as a soccer or baseball field, the National Mall in Washington D.C., or a state park. We can agree that these spaces exist for recreation. But consider a more complicated natural landscape: a beach. To many, this space is a vacation destination and a place to kickback after months of hard work. To others it is a work place for fishermen, hospitality industry employees, and lifeguards. To some it is a space of hostility, a place for the homeless or an unpleasant location for those who experienced injury along an oceanic setting. Even the “easy” landscapes above become complicated when we consider individual experiences. A demarcation exists along lines of privilege.

Privilege is not a word we like to use in the United States. Politically, the word is often thrown around as an insult. Liberals like to rationalize actions of ignorance with the concept. Conservatives push back from it as a sign of accepting authenticity. “Privilege” seems to signify anti-American actions, regardless of political perspective. We think it is counterintuitive – in fact, it is counterintuitive to our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps-Horatio-Alger-and-Henry-Ford narrative that we like to tell ourselves,[1] but it is not in opposition to the real history of this country… for the most part.

But when we talk about landscapes we must speak about privilege. One’s privilege is also her perspective, and thus her translation of the world. Keeping in mind the principles noted above, one’s privilege would translate into a particular, specific, and individualized view of the world, resulting in a precise understanding of a landscape.

The key point I am making here is this: the way landscapes “work” is through the filter of our histories, identities, and beliefs. We act as if landscapes are “pure” and locked in a natural state, but in fact, they hold specific meaning for each person individually.

Deep meanings associated with landscapes move beyond the narrative of indigenous people finding spiritual connection to the earth, though this is often the first thing that comes to mind when white Americans consider this concept. Americans of European heritage will often think of themselves as being the standard-bearers of our culture. This kind of thinking is a slippery slope, rooted in privilege, toward labeling anything different as abnormal. Emerging from this mindset are all kinds of prejudices.

How does this relate to the idea of landscape? I want to end this post with a recent example (among many) of this kind of privilege. Twenty-fifteen is a year that has seen many types of activism surrounding urban violence. Fergusson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, saw unprecedented activities that altered how the urban landscape is understood. Additionally, commentary about the protests illuminated attitudes about the people and the place. A common sentiment was expressed on social media during the Baltimore riots:
“That is not my Baltimore.”

The complications and layers within this statement abound and soon on this blog there will be a deeper investigation into this idea. For now, I want to consider two perspectives: first, a Caucasian individual who was born and raised in the city, now living outside of the area, reacting to the protests with the comment above and a second, a person involved in the protests, living in the city. It is not my intention to legitimize either perspective, but to show the ways a worldview alters the meaning of a particular landscape. A suburbanite making a statement like the one above holds a particular interpretation of the urban landscape – what it looks like, who lives there, and what kind of “vibe” the city holds. On the other hand, a city dweller that participated in protests holds a different perspective. Both standpoints are deeply affected by elements of race and class. The first may understand the city as a place to visit a childhood home, attend a baseball game, or enjoy a weekend trip. The other views the landscape as a current home, but also the place where he cannot fully realize the potential of his worth, or worse. Political and social decisions are made based on these worldviews that affect the city of Baltimore. Additionally, the commentary spewed by folks who are not directly involved with the situation damages the growing misunderstandings between the two groups. The urban landscape, though, is the commonality and the image to place complicated attitudes and judgments.

I think of landscapes often. I think of how we live and move upon them.
[1] Thankfully, literary scholar Michael Moon shows us how the Ragged Dick stories somehow morphed into the hard work myth from a storyline of luck and patronage in “The Gentle Boy from Dangerous Classes:’ Pederasty, Domesticity, and Capitalism in Horatio Alger,” in The New American Studies, edited by Philip Fisher (Berkley: University of California Press, 1991): 260-286.

A Few Days at Mount Rainier, A Mind Transformed

Life is at its best when a person is seized by an experience or idea that completely alters everything that came before. These moments are few and rare, which is why they work so beautifully. On top of this, the moments do not always occur as a result of a major Hollywood-worthy event, but may be a result of a simple look up. A complete alteration in the way I think about the world happened almost two weeks ago and the disruptor is called Rainier.

My consort and I planned a trip to the west coast months ago. The convenience of attending WAWH 2015 in Sacramento followed by a travel break before a summer studying for the comprehensive exam was just irresistible. It is not our style to relax on the beach with a Mexican-style lager in hand (though, we have fond memories of deflating ourselves along the sandy shores of Virginia for a week at a time), but found that travel – real exploration of a particular area – is what we like best. Over the years Seattle caught our attention, probably due to our attachment to music of all kinds (and absolute, unapologetic love for the 1992 movie Singles). Yet due to the incredible variety of expressions in the west, we also felt the need to experience several different types of landscapes during our trip. Right off the bat, Sonoma and Seattle were on the list. The difficult question remained in which “wilderness” to encounter: Yosemite? Redwood? Yellowstone? Rainier? Ah, yes… Rainier. That is the one.

Shortly before leaving, a friend expressed that Mount Rainier was the type of place that “you can’t believe actually exists” (Megan McGee Yinger). Smiling at her use of words, thinking that I believed her, we went on our way. Little did I know, Rainier’s enchanted land would steal a piece of me like a sorceress in some modern-day German folk tale.

I think I am so rational.

I think, “my interest in the wilderness – if ‘wilderness’ is really what I mean, because, of course, it is culturally-constructed in my mind – my interest in wilderness is because I am an American and thus I am prone to sentimental ideas of the pastoral landscape. And because of my post-Thoreau/post-Edward Abbey knowledge of ‘nature,’ I engage with the wilderness/civilization dichotomy and feel a need to explore my humanity by viewing a pristine landscape. Oh, and let’s not forget about the fact that my middle class economic status provides me with not only the separation, but the funds in order to appreciate this experience…”

No amount of rationalization and theoretical awareness could prepare me for an encounter with a place that I couldn’t believe actually existed.

I envision a future trip to Rainier quite soon, hopefully one that includes hiking the full 93-mile Wonderland Trail that surrounds the white cap and passes through wildflower fields, along waterfalls, and beside precarious cliffs. However, word has it that applications for permits are increasing every year and the National Park Service must regularly turn away thousands, unlike in years past. This increase in national park use deserves further inquiry and somehow I will find a way to study it. I may not be able to separate emotion from rationalism as I walk the grounds of Rainier, but I can engage my scholar’s quest through an analysis of the park’s use.

Here are a few images captured on the trip that I want to share with you. Since a large part of the AD’s mission is immersion into ideas of space, place, and landscape in the American consciousness, they may be of interest.

We stayed with Deep Forest Cabins in Ashford, WA. Located 1/2 mile from the Mt. Rainier southwest entrance, we could not imagine a more ideal spot to spend our days.

Cedar Grove Cabin, Deep Forest Cabins, Ashford, WA  [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Cedar Grove Cabin, Deep Forest Cabins, Ashford, WA [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Cedar Grove deck [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Cedar Grove deck [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]



Our first sighting of the mountain took us by surprise and legitimately took our breath away.

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Twin Firs trail, an old growth section of Mt. Rainier Park [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Twin Firs trail, an old growth section of Mt. Rainier Park [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

A high sighting of Mt. Rainier. It was a perfectly glorious day - barely a cloud in the sky. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

A high sighting of Mt. Rainier. It was a perfectly glorious day – barely a cloud in the sky. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Narada Falls, Mt. Rainier [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Narada Falls, Mt. Rainier [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

At this point in the day I felt completely overdressed. It may look cold, but the temperatures reached into the 60s(F) and we were shedding clothes left and right. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

At this point in the day I felt completely overdressed. It may look cold, but the temperatures reached into the 60s(F) and we were shedding clothes left and right. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Mossy Trees [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Mossy Trees [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

A quiet moment after a long day on the trail. [[Image: David Wilson]

A quiet moment after a long day on the trail. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

We loved the new life growing on fallen trees. (Insert "Circle of Life" theme here) [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

We loved the new life growing on fallen trees. (Insert “Circle of Life” theme here)
[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Grove of the Patriarchs is the most well-known and most walked old-growth trail. It is very accessible for all levels of physical ability and the NPS does interesting work with this trail. Lining the walk are information panels that give the grove a museum-like quality. I have never seen anything like it. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Grove of the Patriarchs is the most well-known and most walked old-growth trail. It is very accessible for all levels of physical ability and the NPS does interesting work with this trail. Lining the walk are information panels that give the grove a museum-like quality. I have never seen anything like it. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

Patriarchs 2

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

The Patriarchiest of the Patriarchs [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

The Patriarchiest of the Patriarchs [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[All images: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

This begins the Silver Falls area (Silver Falls Trail.) [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

This begins the Silver Falls area (Silver Falls Trail.) [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

I was totally excited to stumble into this little part of the woods. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

I was totally excited to stumble into this little part of the woods. [Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]

[Image: Sarah Ruth Wilson]



The Western Association of Women Historians 2015 Conference, Sacramento

Ok, folks. Here is a brief run-down of the conference I attended May 15-16, 2015. Many bits of conversations from this trip will find their way to a future AD blog posts. I love that I was able to talk through ideas with other scholars and feel inspired to pursue both academic writing and “on the side” blog topics on various issues. Until then, here is the Western Association of Women Historians 2015 conference, in brief.

Historian Jane DeHart (emerita, UC Santa Barbara) declared, “Research and writing is a collaborative effort.” This contradicts much of what the public perceives of as the historian’s burden. In fact, it challenges the typical working experience of many intellectuals! But I trust the words of an incredibly successful academic when she proclaims that relationships are of utmost importance to the researcher-writer.
(Additionally, one might notice a grammatical error in the statement. Are “research” and “writing” two separate actions? Deeply and somewhat obviously, no. If one writes, one researches, and vice versa.)

So, here I am at the Western Association of Women Historian’s annual conference, this year in Sacramento, schmoozing and chitchatting with my fellow women historians and historians of women (because not all are female here, it should be known.)
There is much to say about this intimate meeting. It is small enough that one continues to see the same people through the day, which enhances and enables the connection-making experience, but the scholarship is rich enough to realize some of the best women’s historical work is happening here. It is also very graduate student friendly.

About five sessions happen at a time, so it is difficult to take in all the work presented at this conference, but it is clear that even though this is a western association, the scope and participants reach out broadly – beyond the political borders of the United States.

The first session I attended on Friday was on the topic of women’s reproductive rights. Too often the national conversation gets funneled into an extremely limited sound byte-worthy “dialogue” (notice the quotations.) These historical approaches offered by Alicia M. Gutierrez-Romine (University of Southern California), Lisa Stern (UC San Francisco), Rebecca M. Kluchin (California State University, Sacramento), and Christi Anderson (California State University, Sacramento, commentary) illustrated the ways historical perspective can enrich the dialogue. In particular, Anderson noted all panelists expressed the need to recognize women as independent beings within the medical and legal system in America. Their work deepened the conversation about reproductive rights to critique the ways women are perceived, question the historical dialogue surrounding family planning, and the ways a woman and her fetus are defined as individuals and/or physically connected.

That afternoon there were several stellar roundtables – and you know how much I love a good roundtable. I think they reflect the best characteristics of an academic conference. Sometimes structured, mostly spontaneous, roundtables illustrate the scholarly dialogue that arises when academics meet. First, the Presidential Panel this year honored the late Stephanie Camp, feminist historian and author of the influential book Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (2004, University of North Carolina Press). Rachel Jean-Baptiste (UC Davis), Marne Campbell (Loyola), and Stephanie Jones-Rogers (UC Berkeley) elaborated on the impact of Camp’s work on their own research and the discussion was seamless. One of my favorite statements of the conference was an audience member’s comment that the dialogue was “beautiful.” First of all, it is incredibly encouraging that language like this is used in this environment to describe scholarship. Second, it was amazingly on-point. Personally, I left the session inspired and excited. Clearly, Camp was a remarkable intellectual, but the women presenting are building strongly upon her work. This panel was particularly relevant as our national discussion focuses race and class in light of Ferguson and Baltimore. It was rich with information, so almost impossible to convey the fullness of it here. Key points and questions raised include:
– The body as a site, a counterspace/alternative space in the margins that allows those oppressed to engage in their humanity and actively resist oppressors.
– Geography is a place of history and as such, scholarship recreating “3-D” histories enhance the knowledge of black women’s lives. (Jean-Baptiste)
– How do women become free? Slave women in antebellum south experienced commodification and the slave trade in very particular ways. They used knowledge to calculate their own value and negotiate – to reclaim their own bodies (Jones-Rogers)
– How do we define resistance? How do we define the body? Space? How do we use sources in creative ways? Who owns the discourse? Who gets to define what constitutes resistance?

After this I attended a roundtable that peaked my interest as soon as I read it in the program: “Jane DeHart on Ruth Bader Ginsberg: The Challenges of Writing on a Sitting Supreme Court Justice.” I have a few confessions before I elaborate: 1., I am not very familiar with DeHarts work, 2. I love Ginsberg, 3. But know nothing, really, about the S.C. I attended the panel because Ginsberg and the compelling focus on writing about a living figure actively engaged in their work. Somehow, DeHart’s insights may help guide my research on living musicians. This second need was quickly relegated to the back-burner as I was absorbed by DeHart’s storytelling (though, as I reflect, I see relevant details to build upon.) Her experience with pre-Friedan higher education, feminism, and working with the Supreme Court justice was sensational.

This morning I presented my work along with two excellent scholars during a session titled, “Democracy as Myth: Color as a Category of Difference.” Courtney L. Thompson (Hamilton College) and Christopher H. Hayashida-Knight (Penn State University, State College) both offered thorough analysis on their subjects: contemporary women’s activism and African American women during the 1876 centennial World’s Fair, respectively. From my perspective, the session was well-rounded and considered the issue of difference from multiple, and important, angles. My work retold the stories of two women in the 1920s with ties to Wilson college: an international student whose Japanese heritage granted her access to the institution due to her exoticism and an African American who was denied enrollment because of racist bias in Pennsylvania. I will write more on my research at a later date.

Overall, this conference has been a great experience. It is a very open group of people and a welcoming atmosphere to graduate students. At the same time, a high level of scholarship is made available to participants and one can see key developments occurring within conversations. (The academic trifecta: publications, the classroom, and conferences.)

Again, this is a reminder to how important academic conferences are for graduate students. It is not about the “learning,” as a colleague of mine likes to quip, but about the professional connections. I met several folks that I intend to continue communicating with in the future, and I foresee their input being incredibly valuable.

Yes, sometimes it is all about “me.” But, simultaneously it is all about “them.”

As DeHart said, it is a “collaborative effort.”