In late October, I'm flying to Toronto to the ARM conference. I will be one of several keynote speakers. One of my very favorite ecologists will be there-Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream and Having Faith. I'm looking forward to meeting her again and listening to her lecture. She has taught me so much and I am very grateful to her for doing the work she does.
My talk will be on ecofeminism and mothering in contemporary literature and film. I'm going to outline a definition of ecofeminism, explore its ties to mothering, and then connect these concepts to a number of novels (and some poetry and nonfiction) as well as to some films.
This talk is a kind of snapshot of the book I'm working on entitled, Polluting Mama: Ecofeminism, Literature and Film.
Giving this sort of talk helps me frame my book topic--there are so many things I want to cover in my book--at times it feels daunting. Should I narrow down my focus? Should it be more academic? In other words, should I refer to numerous critics and use many footnotes? If I do so, however, this will alienate non-academic readers. I want to open up my discussion to the general public, and I want to be inclusive of all kinds of readers, not just scholarly ones. I'm writing. I'm discovering. I know how to write a traditional scholarly book, but writing this kind of work is new to me--there is no clear formula to follow. Working outside of a box is thrilling, but also confusing. How do I know if it is working? Will I have an audience? Who is my audience?
My first chapter is autobiographical and it tells the story of my cancer experience and how it collided with my desire to be a mother.... Chemotherapy can kill a woman's eggs and when my cancer was diagnosed, I was childless. While I saw other cancer patients cry about losing their hair--I was crying because I knew I might never give birth and might never live to experience being a parent. There is more to this story, too. I lost my mother to heart disease a year before my own cancer diagnosis, and she also had cancer at her death. She had lymphoma and emphysema. My father died from melanoma. I came from a history of cancer. Would I pass this on to my own daughter--later, when I finally became pregnant?
So many people have cancer now. Is my story unique? No. My neighbor across the street has lung cancer and he only smoked for a short time many years ago. My cousin died at 34 from lung cancer and never smoked. Three women on my block have had breast cancer recently. A child we know well just got over two years of brutal chemo and bone marrow treatment for Leukemia. A friend's brother-in-law is dying from lung cancer and he never smoked. Four of my daughter's grandparents had cancer in their fifties; three are dead. These stories are endless. We all have them.
So why do I write and teach what I do? I suppose I feel that the more people who "know", the more people will finally stand up and say "enough." Young people (at least until very recently) who take my classes are shocked by this information about environmental degradation. They are blown away--"no one told us," they say. I feel they deserve to know, and they deserve the chance to make a difference. I teach my students about about incredible environmental activists--some of whom are quite young--who are making changes in the world. Greater change is needed from all of us. We wear breast cancer pins, but then we spray our lawns with pesticides, drive huge cars, bathe our bodies in chemicals, buy and eat poisoned food, drink from poisonous plastic bottles, and support companies that pollute heedlessly. I'm completely convinced from everything I read that our bodies are filled with toxic chemicals....For an incredible first-person story about the pollution in our bodies, see this great article in National Geographic,"The Pollution Within," by David Ewing Duncan:
Our bodies are filled with toxic chemicals. Our earth is filled with toxic chemicals.
These chemicals are causing cancer and possibly many other illnesses. Since the 1950s, with the advent of the use of pesticides and other industrial and chemical pollutants, cancer rates have risen exponentially. Rachel Carson warned of the dangers of pesticides in her book, Silent Spring. Sandra Steingraber has taken Carson's mission and applied it to what has happened to our planet since the 1950s. The polluting must stop.
I remember walking in strawberry fields when I was three and four--picking strawberries and eating them off the vine. The strawberry fields bordered our neighborhood: my house fronted the fields and I would cross the street to pick them. My yellow house was part of a new middle-class community built in the farm country of South Miami. Strawberries were sprayed routinely with DDT and other pesticides. Miami was sprayed routinely with chemicals to kill mosquitoes and other pests. My house was sprayed routinely to kill insects and, particularly, the dreaded cockroach, which we all feared. We swam in heavily chlorinated pools. There is a picture of my family and neighbors parading on fourth of July for freedom---children on bicycles, my sister as the statue of liberty, me on my tricycle carrying an American flag-- all of us so proud to be part of the middle-class dream in the early sixties. We couldn't see the chemical clouds around us, and we didn't know how we were being poisoned.
Did my cancer come from those chemicals? Did my parents' cancers come from these chemicals? Or from thousands of other chemicals I/we were exposed to throughout our lives?
What is the cost? My parents are both dead; cousins, friends, and aunt are dead. I almost died, and who knows how long I will live? Each year, twice a year, I am tested. MRIs, Catscans, sonograms, blood tests.
I am not alone. There are too many of us. It is easy to feel silenced and hopeless. Who am I to fight the chemical, tobacco, agricultural, industrial, and pharmaceutical industries? But we must act. We must learn. We must find alternatives to create the things we need and use--alternatives that are less toxic, less dangerous than those industries are now contaminating our planet with. Climate change activism is very important, and part of this re-energizing of the environmental cause includes finding clean sources of energy production. We must find clean sources of all industrial production. We must stop producing dangerous toxic chemicals. We once (not long ago) lived in a world without them. We need to go back to that time and relearn.
There is a book called The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. Davis shows us how chemical and other polluting industries have worked hard to cover up the "real" reasons for the cancer epidemic--toxic chemical pollution. Early in the twentieth century scientists understood the relationship between pollution and disease. How and why was this information buried and ignored? And what is the price for this blatant lie?