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NWSA Journal 15.2 (2003) 164-167

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Such News of the Land: U.S. Women Nature Writers edited by Thomas S. Edwards and Elizabeth A. DeWolfe. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2001, 300 pp., $55.00 hardcover, $24.95 paper.
In Nature's Name: An Anthology of Women's Writing and Illustrations, 1780-1930 edited by Barbara T. Gates. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002, 673 pp., $75.00 hardcover, $27.50 paper.

In a world that seems farther than ever from embracing the eco-feminist vision of nondominance and nonviolence, one greets volumes such as these with a mixture of hope and a sense of futility. Nearly a century ago, after the United States had entered World War I, Mary Austin (1868-1934), an American naturalist treated in Such News of the Land, wrote:

The world is really a very feminine place, a mother's place, conceptive, brooding, nourishing: a place of infinite patience and infinite elusiveness. It needs to be lived in more or less femininely, and the chief reason why we have never succeeded in being quite at home in it is that our method has been almost exclusively masculine. We have assaulted the earth, ripped out the treasure of its mines, cut down its forests, deflowered its fields and left them sterile for a thousand years. We have lived precisely on the same terms with our fellows, combatively, competitively, geocentrically. Nations have not struggled to make the world a better place, but only to make a more advantageous place for themselves. Man invented the State in the key of maleness, with combat for its major occupation, profit the spur and power the prize. (254, n. 33)

As with many of the writings cited in these two works, her words remain unfortunately timely. [End Page 167]

Such News of the Land is a collection of nineteen scholarly articles, more than half of which were originally delivered as papers at the American Women Nature Writers Conference held in 1998 at Westbrook College (University of New England), Portland, Maine. As the subtitle indicates, its focus is on U.S. writers, whereas In Nature's Name is almost entirely composed of British authors.

With the exception of the two opening articles--which deal with eighteenth-century horticultural writings and a nineteenth-century nature writer, Susan Fenimore Cooper--all the articles concern late nineteenth-century and twentieth-century writers. This includes such predictable figures as Mary Austin, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Sally Carrighar, Leslie Marmon Silko, Annie Dillard, and Linda Hogan, as well as unexpected discoveries such as Zora Neale Hurston's WPA (Works Program Administration) writings on Florida.

In general, Such News of the Land extends our understanding of American women's nature writing. Although it lacks a unifying theoretical and ethical focus, most of the articles implicitly (and some explicitly) raise a couple of significant theoretical issues. The first is the question, which the editors posit in their introduction, of what nature writing really is. Traditionally, it has meant writings about a masculine wilderness far from the entrammelments of (feminine) civilization and focused upon "wild" flora and fauna. Such writing, as the editors point out, relies upon the "nature/culture dichotomy" (2). By their inclusion of garden writers, botanists, and horticulturalists, the editors challenge this division (as Vera Norwood did before them in Made from this Earth [1993]).

In his essay on early American women garden writers, Daniel J. Philip-pon challenges the concept even further, proposing that gender assumptions have heretofore defined the nature-writing genre.

Cookbooks and narratives of food preparation, for instance, are not usually considered to be "nature writing," yet the human consumption of plants and animals must surely rank among the most complex of human-nature inter-actions. Likewise, the intimacies of pregnancy and childbirth. . . are hardly subjects most readers would identify with nature writing, yet what could be more distinctively "natural" than the mysteries of human reproduction? (10)

While such redefinitions are fascinating and...


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