Women and the Earth

The vision of kinship with the earth described in last week’s post, “Our Sister, Mother Earth,” leaves open the question of what such a vision might actually look like in practical terms.  Helena Im, a Dominican sister from California whom I met while she was studying theology in Berkeley gave me a clue in an email last January.  When her studies were complete, Helena was sent by her community to the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico to serve the Mayan people there.  Her ministry over the last several years involved not just the spiritual needs of the people, but also education of young women, community health programs, formation of candidates for her community, and creative approaches to sustainable agriculture.  In all these projects Helena took a collaborative approach--listening, learning and sharing decision-making processes with the people. 


Helena’s email included a draft of a proposal titled, “As Sisters – Women and the Earth” addressed to a confederation of Dominican sisters of Latin America and the Caribbean which called for these sisters and the women they serve to begin a wide-ranging dialogue on gender equality and sustainable care for the earth. The proposal notes that across Latin America an important structural barrier to gender equality is the systemic denial of women’s right to land.  This issue is seen as a key to fighting other issues such as global poverty, violence against women, food insecurity, and unjust economic, political and social structures that bar equal participation of women. 


The proposal is after more than structural change.  It is based on the idea that local experiences of intimate relationship with the Land can give birth to a deep spirituality of the Land and a fundamental paradigm shift in how women, the Land, and larger social concerns are understood and experienced.  This vision is grounded in the experience of local women who have been led to a spiritual vision of the Land as a subject rather than a utilitarian object to be exploited simply for human purposes.  Put another way, these local women have learned to approach the Land as someone rather than something in much the same way as Francis of Assisi did.  They see the Land as having her own distinct voice, needs, gifts, and limits that are to be respected and worked with in a collaborative way.  It’s not just a question of human beings deciding what to do with the Land.  The Land has her own say as part of a dialogue. 


Helena shares two examples in the proposal of how local women came to fresh insights from working with the Land in this new way:

 “We opted for a process of reflecting on our actual experiences with the Land and preaching sustainable practices by witness. As we successfully grow carrots and other vegetables, our Mayan sisters take the seeds to their families, increasing options for food and nutrition, possibly impacting favorably on the health of their families. Teaching against the use of pesticides becomes unnecessary as they taste vegetables grown with companioning plants and in rotation.  Insights brought to us by working directly with the Land form our hearts and inform our ways of relating.

Our Mayan sisters’ practice of letting every seedling and every fruit on a tree live instead of pruning for a selective few has led us to reflect on the economy of solidarity. Coming to know the Land as a subject with her own process for life is inviting us to reassess our identity, relationships and tasks in life. It makes us live, not by dominance, but through mutual support for each other’s capacity, freedom and responsibility to promote life.”


In a recent email Helena shared an example of the spiritual fruits that can emerge from this approach:

“Working in our garden, touching the earth, caring for life in her is consoling.  At one of the reflections, Martha said that if she had used organic fertilizers before in order to get more out of the land, now she realizes that she wants to give good food for Mother Earth out of love for her.  Isn’t this change of perception - Earth as a utilitarian object to a subject of loving relationship - wonderful?”


The ultimate aim of the proposal is to bring the wisdom of local communities from across Latin America and the Caribbean into dialogue with each other in the service of justice:

“Our vision and commitment go beyond sustainable agricultural practices. Our intuitive hope is that through webs of dialogue as women, our solitary local efforts, garnered together, can become a viable force for our commonly desired systemic change.” 

By weaving webs of dialogue these women hope to strengthen their sacred bonds of love with one another and with Mother earth, a love that bears fruit in justice at many levels of society and across wide expanses of the earth.