For Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating women who’ve opened up new ways of connecting with or advocating for nature. Writers, activists, educators, scientists: These trailblazers bring something new to the conversation about the natural world.
Musician/poet Joy Harjo, the first Native American to be named US poet laureate, does this through her poetry. For example, “Speaking Tree” is a poem suggesting trees have conscious, sentient thought. The poem was inspired by a dream in which she hugged an ancient tree. It bent to say to her, “Thank you for being aware of us.” Harjo says the dream evoked the possibility of a shared consciousness in nature.
Suzanne Simard is a Canadian forest ecologist whose research points to the ecological basis for this idea. Her book, Finding the Mother Tree, details the way forests interact as social, cooperative organisms connected through underground networks. Simard’s body of work is bolstered by years in the field, but she acknowledges that indigenous ways of knowing preceded the data by centuries.
In the mid-20th century Rachel Carson brought her own sensibility to the male-dominated field of biology. Carson’s Silent Spring, one of the most important environmental books ever written, posed an explosive challenge to the use of DDT and other chemical pesticides. At the time, some in power branded Carson as a “hysteric.” But the general public took note, and things changed. Her work led to the establishment of the EPA and birthed the modern environmental movement.
Earlier, Indiana’s own Gene Stratton-Porter was the first naturalist, male or female, to photograph live birds in their native habitats. Her male predecessors preferred to shoot, stuff, and pose them. Stratton Porter was not only an author, naturalist and photographer. She also was an activist, campaigning against the draining of wetlands and the widespread practice of killing songbirds to feather women’s hats.
Another pioneering woman, Kenyan scientist/activist Wangari Maathai, founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977. The tree planting initiative began in response to the needs of rural Kenyan women whose streams were drying up and food supplies becoming less secure. The movement is now a broad-based grassroots organization that works on poverty reduction and environmental conservation, linking democracy, human rights, and environmental conservation. Maathai was awarded the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts.
Carolyn Finney, author of Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, brings memoir, scholarship, and history into an exploration of why Black Americans have been marginalized in the outdoors and the environmental movement. While tracing the environmental legacy of slavery, racial violence, and Jim Crow segregation, it also celebrates environmental contributions of Black Americans. Her book is a clear call to broaden inclusion and representation within the conservation field and outdoor recreation industry.
Finally, Robin Wall Kimmerer, professor of environmental and forest biology at the State University of New York, blends botany with traditional wisdom in her writing and teaching. A member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she is known for encouraging her students and readers to come into relationship with nature. In Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, she writes, ““Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land.”
These are just a few of the women who inspire us to think about nature differently.