Because we know ourselves to be made from this earth. See this grass. The patches of silver and brown. Worn by the wind. The grass reflecting all that lives in the soil. The light. The grass needing the soil. With roots deep in the earth. And patches of silver. Like the patches of silver in our hair. Worn by time. This bird flying low over the grass. Over the tules. The cattails, sedges, rushes, reeds, over the marsh.
Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her, by Susan Griffin
(New York, Harper & Row, 1978)
For Susan Griffin, poet, philosopher and feminist, the sacred is seated in nature—in the earth and in the body, which is of the earth. “We in the modern world often separate spirit from matter,” she says. Matter is perceived as dead, and we treat it like an object, while the intellect is divorced from the truth of experience. This separation has brought our own personal lives and the life of the planet to a crisis.
I chatted with Susan Griffin over breakfast in her lovely home in Berkeley, California. The light-filled house, with its tender colors, its flowers and paintings, its books of art, science, philosophy, history and ecology, felt like the inside of a great bird’s egg or chrysalis, a space where the heart, spirit and imagination can come together. Griffin has written poems, feminist theory, a play. Her subjects range from the politics of abortion, rape and pornography to motherhood, nature, love and war. While her concerns arise from her own experiences as a woman, each specific consideration opens to reflections on all of existence. “Thinking I was discovering only my own answers and then the answers for women, I came upon a new way of seeing the human.”
As we sat and talked the other morning, sipping tea, I followed her process of inquiry. With each new insight she expanded . . . if this is true, then this and this, and this. . . .
She talked about the denial of the bureaucrat, the Nazi, the scientist who divorces himself from ethics. Each has separated a knowledge of personal responsibility from events which occur because of his actions. And she discussed the denial that most of us share, the denial which separates us from experiencing the horror of nuclear war.
Yet I came to see, as we continued our conversation, that Griffin’s vision is not one of despair; it carries with it a hope. Once we let go of denial and trust our own perceptions—seated in our bodies, grounded in the earth—we can find a healing consciousness larger than ourselves.
To edit this interview, I withdrew from my usual busy and noisy life to a beautiful desert retreat center in Yucca Valley, California. With its Joshua trees, the cactus just beginning to bloom, the silence . . . this was the ideal hideaway for writing! As I sat down at my desk to write this introduction, I looked out the window toward the mountains and, right in front of me, I saw a small grey bird, dead, lying in the sand. The bird hadn’t been there a few moments before. It must have just died.
My first response was to run outside and wave to a friend coming up the path, gesturing to her to join me. As she approached, I picked up a stick and began digging in the sand. “This poor bird must have flown into the glass,” I murmured, “I’ve got to bury it.” I kept digging and the fine grains of sand continued to pour back into my meager hole. I poked at the bird with my stick. Through the stick I could feel the bird’s feathered chest, sweetly soft, but sturdy. I imagined the tiny body was still warm. Then, with two sticks, I tried to pick up the bird and carry it away to the hole.
“Let’s not bury it,” my friend said suddenly. “Why not return it to the desert where it could make some meals for the snakes and turkey vultures and other creatures?” I looked her in the face, saw her laughing eye. “The bird died,” said my friend. She has had cancer for the past six years, and lived closely with death. “It’s just dead, that’s all, not worthy of such a cover-up.”
Then we both laughed. What an effort I was making to deny this natural event.
My first response had been to escape feelings (sadness? disgust?) which arose in my solitude with this dead creature. How relieved I’d been to avoid my “horror” (it was horror, I recognized it now) through talking with another breathing human. My second response was to bury the bird, ostensibly to honor the death. But, more truly, I didn’t want to write in view of this reminder of our shared mortality. My third response, in trying to manipulate the bird with sticks, was somehow to avoid the touch, to protect my hands from the contamination of natural change.
After we laughed, my friend cupped the bird in her palm, and we carried it together out into the open desert.
Here I was, about to write an introduction to an article which asks us to be present with nature, to feel our connection to all of existence—birds, grass, humans, cattails, sedges, snakes—a cycle of living and dying. Yet I wanted to deny feeling. I wanted to think about nature while protecting myself from its “disturbing” presence.
Temporary as this grass. Wet as this mud. Our cells filled with water. Like the mud of this swamp.
As a chorus to accompany this interview, I have included selections from the closing passage in Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her. This chorus is the voice of women and nature—emotional, animal, arising from the body—the sensuous voice of poetry. For me, this poetry serves as a reminder, brings me back again and again to the knowledge of the body and the earth as a source of truth.
We know this earth is made from our bodies. For we see ourselves. And we are nature. We are nature seeing nature. We are nature with a concept of nature. Nature weeping. Nature speaking of nature to nature.
Susan Griffin: I’m working on a book that’s called The First and the Last: A Woman Thinks About War and in the book I’m doing what it says in the title. I’m looking at war from the perspective of a woman, and in the way that a woman thinks, which I think is less divided than the way men think. This is not to say that women aren’t somewhat divided too, but, as I see it, we’re less divided in our thinking.
Barbara Gates: What do you mean by divided?
SG: There’s a way in which this culture has fragmented thought by creating a concept of thought that separates it from feeling and from material existence. It’s that old spirit-and-matter split, which also separates the sacred from nature, the intellect from the body, and thinking from sensual and emotional existence.
Along the lines of that separation, everything that is emotional and sensual—the natural world—belongs to women. Women have become a symbol of the power of nature to alter our lives, to cause suffering and death. The spirit and the intellect belong to men, to the masculine, as well as the desire to control nature and, thus, dominate women.
Of course there are traits that we identify as “masculine” that are very good traits, like discipline. Intellectual thought can be marvelous. I’m an intellectual. But I am perceiving that any skill can be used in many ways. And a predominant way the masculine intellect is used in this culture is to shift away from actuality. What we end up with is massive denial, as in the case of nuclear war.
BG: And so, by separating thought from feelings or experience we deny what we’re doing to one another—
SG: In developing nuclear weapons, the intellect serves to protect us from the simple present danger of these weapons to ourselves, to our children, to all humanity—and from seeing the course we’re on toward mass suicide. Many of the intellectual constructs around nuclear war, the technology, even the statecraft, are described so a lay person can’t understand. A way of thinking that diverts us from confronting reality is truly dangerous at this point in history. And this is the tendency of masculine thought . . . .
BG: Of course, women can think this way as well.
SG: Yes. And I don’t for a moment believe that men are without emotions or a sensual life. There’s a way that we’ve all been trained to become disconnected from parts of ourselves. I’m not talking about traits which are biologically determined. I’m talking about socialized tendencies that are human, that are very much a part of this culture and being played out in each of us. I notice these two parts in myself.
In meditation, when I can focus on the breath, and it’s just a simple physical reality, I really think that that’s the feminine. And then the masculine is there, trying to control nature, running off with intellectual ideas that are pulling away from that simple attention.
BG: So for you the masculine is identified with thinking, the feminine with awareness, or experience, presence—
SG: Presence with nature—
Sunlight pouring into plants, ingested into the bodies of fish, into the red-winged blackbird, into the bacteria, into the fungi, into the earth itself, because we know ourselves to be made from this earth, because we know sunlight moves through us, water moves through us, everything moves, everything changes.
It’s almost as if the masculine mind is saying, “Let’s do anything to get away from natural presence, because nature’s terrifying to us.” Existence is terrifying to us—that it’s one continual change, which means, in fact, that you don’t have a static self, that you’re really just part of a field of change. And the masculine mind is always trying to posit unchangeable, immutable ideas, and to take control of this process.
BG: But women, because we give birth, are closer to the processes of the material world. . . .
SG: It’s not only that we give birth. Even if we don’t ourselves give birth, we learn to think of ourselves as people capable of giving birth. We identify with the process. And it’s our socialization. We do the dishes, we cook the dinner. The whole culture identifies materiality with our bodies in such a way that we can’t avoid some sort of confrontation with that, even if it’s to entirely reject our bodies, as in the case of young women who become anorexic.
So when I say, “A Woman Thinks About War” I’m talking about a thinking based more in the context of actual life. Until recently if we looked for a history of the development of nuclear weapons or the history of World War I or II, usually we would find an account of public events. But there would be no connection drawn between the intimate lives of the people—their sexual lives, their childhoods—and those events.
None of the “feminine” realm would be included except, perhaps, to spice up the story.
BG: When you see those other pieces as part of the history—our love relationships, our family lives, the ways we relate to our own bodies—you begin to have a very different picture.
SG: You get a wholeness of vision.
BG: So few women have written about war. I remember Amy Lowell’s “Patterns” and Denise Levertov’s poems protesting the Vietnam War. I’ve looked for more poetry, novels, but there’s very little.
SG: There’s very little. War has been consigned to the world of men, and women come in as war nurses. There are a few exceptions, like Vera Britton, who was not only a nurse in World War I, but also became a spokesperson and a pacifist. It’s interesting, also, to look at the role played by Walt Whitman, who was a homosexual. As a nurse in the Civil War, he tended a lot of dying men; it made him very much against war. He wrote about it passionately. With few exceptions woman’s role is to weep over what happens, but she’s not empowered to do anything about it. That’s the kind of separation that we’ve had in this culture. In my book I will include my own family stories, the intimate lives of people along with the history of airplanes, missiles, the idea of bombing a civilian population . . . . What I’m hoping is that a wholeness of vision can lead us to a wholeness of behavior.
In our modern world there is a tremendous fragmentation of mind. Major decisions that change the face of the earth are made by people who, under the guise of the idea of objectivity and pure science, believe that they should be free from ethical considerations. We’ve actually come to the point where some of the finest minds, the most developed, educated human beings of our civilization, split off from the actuality of what they’re doing to that degree. I heard a very great physicist who won the Nobel Prize say that in his work he should not be confronted with ethical questions. Yet, I’m sure that if he had a gun in his hand and fired it at someone, he would consider himself liable for something unethical and would feel very bad about it.
BG: I read a marvelous article a number of years ago in The Nation about just that. The writer fantasized that the president, in order to “press the button,” would have to first commit murder with his own hands. He’d have to cut open another human being with a butcher knife to get at a little capsule necessary to set off the missiles.
SG: Yes, yes, yes! This reminds me of a story about Himmler. I’m reading about Himmler as part of my study of the development of the modern weaponry which led into nuclear weaponry. Himmler had this divided way of thinking, this divorce from responsibility for the consequences of his actions. He was in charge of the concentration camps and many of the atrocities of the camps were his ideas. Everything he did involved carrying out what he interpreted as the fuehrer’s wishes, and he didn’t take responsibility; he was an efficient bureaucrat. Once, on the Eastern front, he witnessed the S. S. men shoot partisans, Jews, peasants from the villages—men, women and children—killed en masse under his orders. He witnessed this, and he was utterly shaken. But he didn’t, from witnessing it, decide to stop it. What he did was design the Mobile Killing Van, a kind of truck that had a small gas chamber in the back of it. That was his solution!
BG: He found a way to deny the reality even more thoroughly.
SG: The split in consciousness I’m describing allowed him to carry these things out—
BG: The separation of action and thought, from the heart—
SG: Yes, and the separation of an event having occurred because of something that you did, from some knowledge that you did it. I think it comes from an early failure to develop a “self,” almost in direct opposition to the Buddhist concept that you need to move beyond the “self.” In fact, there’s another way in which it’s very important to have a “self,” that is, to recognize a center from which you are existing; to know what you’re feeling.
BG: I believe also that we do need to experience a center, which one might call the “self,” in order to see through it and experience the connections with all that’s in the universe. It’s one of the paradoxes in the Buddhist teachings, and perhaps language is inadequate to describe it.
SG: Yes! It’s a very beautiful paradox really. I agree with you, it’s one of those things where you have to have been there; the language is just a tag for an experience. Moving beyond the “self” doesn’t mean effacing the “self” in the way that women and oppressed people are often asked to do, or divorcing one’s “self” from responsibility from one’s actions. This idea of moving beyond the self is something else. It happens in meditation when you’re really present. You’re right there at that moment—sometimes you get the physical sensation of being right inside your body—an astonishing feeling of being there where you’re focusing on your own breath. And there’s no escaping the thoughts and feelings as they come up. Yet, as you say, when you couldn’t be more deeply seated in the “self,” that’s when suddenly your heart opens. Everything that separates you from connecting with all of life feels so petty and without import.
There’s a very similar paradox involved in writing, where through writing about the specific you discover the universal design. I’ve experienced this in writing out of experiences in my own life, beginning with my most personal feelings.
BG: In your book on war you’re writing about your own childhood and family?
SG: I’m using my own childhood in this book, even though, with the exception of one cousin, no one in my family had any war experience. But I feel this is of value to the book; the connection between my family structure and the war experience becomes very, very clear. I learned denial in my family. We denied the family alcoholism and erased the memory of a grandmother who had committed a sexual transgression. I’m seeing how deeply our emotional structures, our family structures, that are part of this culture, are tied in with a whole way of life that denies what’s really going on and that needs to wage war. I focus on my family history, which is unique and very much my own, and the more I focus, the deeper I go into everything that happened to me and the people in my family, the more universal it becomes.
BG: You write about the specific and get at the universal.
SG: Yes, but I think that it’s sometimes very damaging to beginning writing students who are taught in school to aim for the universal. It’s like telling a beginning meditation student—
BG: See light! Feel love!
SG: Feel love! Be enlightened! If you are making an effort for that, you’re destined for one more turn of the wheel. It’s the same with writing: You’re trying to write great literature, you’re trying to be universal and timeless, but you have to begin with the authenticity of your personal experience to get beyond what you think you know. If you accept your own experience and you notice it, as you write, a kind of detachment develops. And if it doesn’t, developing that detachment is one of the emotional tasks of writing. It doesn’t mean you’re examining your life like some sort of scientist. It’s very much the same as the detachment that develops in meditation where you can look at something and there’s a little laugh. It’s not that it’s ridiculous—you’re not making fun of yourself—but you’ll laugh. Often I’ll laugh at things because I’m getting them, and people will wonder why I’m laughing. Generally, somebody will do something that’s so much like themselves and I’ll laugh, and I’m not laughing at them, it’s just—
BG: It’s just so true, it’s so right!
SG: It’s just so true, it’s so right. And you know, it’s that little laugh that you get when you’re working when you get something—
BG: It’s perspective!
SG: It’s perspective, and the amazing thing is—I read this in some Zen writing years ago—there’s a point at which crying and laughing can be the same. Well, that’s very much the state of consciousness that you’re looking for when you’re writing. When I teach writing I work a lot with states of consciousness to allow my students to discover their own voices, and through this to discover a deeper knowledge than they ever thought they knew. And it’s very profound knowledge, and its much larger than our limited cerebral knowledge.
The red-winged blackbird flies in us, in our inner sight. We see the arc of her flight. We measure the ellipse. We predict its climax. We are amazed. We are moved. We fly.
BG: It’s amazing how little we know of our own knowledge.
SG: Much of the subject matter of the book I’m working on is about denial, which involves teaching yourself not to know what you know. If you grow up in a family system where there’s a lot of denial—say there’s an alcoholic member or there’s sexual abuse going on, just to name two of the very common obvious ones—that family all denies what’s going on and so the child learns not to trust her own perceptions, her own knowledge. And what this does also is make her unable to trust the deeper knowledge she gets when she connects with a consciousness greater than herself, what we call the spiritual, this form of knowing in which you know that you’re a channel to everything.
And, yet the blackbird does not fly in us but is somewhere else free of our minds . . . she wrote . . . her words, she thought, having nothing to do with this bird, except, she thought, as she breathes in the air this bird flies through, except, she thought, as the grass needs the body of the bird to pass its seeds, as the earth needs the grass, as we are made from this earth, she said, and the sunlight in the grass enters the body of the bird, enters us. . . .
BG: As a writer, then, you may need to unlearn a denial which prevents you from trusting your own deeper knowledge.
SG: Yes, because when you’re working very deeply with your own consciousness, you can connect to this infinite consciousness, and you suddenly find yourself capable of the kind of knowledge, say, that comes in the middle of a poem, that is clairvoyant, that seems to understand something that’s going on simultaneously a thousand miles away, or went on a thousand years ago a thousand miles away, and you understand it. Or a connection is seen between one event and another which is a brilliant leap of logic, and it happens through the music of your poetry, through the language. Through the way you’ve channeled it you get to this place where every human being has a connection to an omniscience, which is not an omniscience detached from feeling, but an omniscience filled with love. I’m not using the word love lightly; it has a cast of feeling to it that is warm and sweet and has an astonishing energy. You reach this by going very deeply into your consciousness as a writer. I’m sure it works the same way in other forms of art, too. That’s how artists, painters, composers do the visionary things they do.
And she wrote, when I let this bird fly to her own purpose … when I see, the arc of her flight, I fly with her, enter her with my mind, leave myself, die for an instant, live in the body of this bird whom I cannot live without, as part of the body of the bird will enter my daughter’s body, because I know I am made from this earth . . . .
BG: How available to you is the consciousness which you’ve described in various ways—this less fragmented way of thinking—this presence with nature—this frame of mind where laughing and crying are the same?
SG: There is some part of me which is loyal to this culture, which has a familial love of this culture, which is still holding back from knowing what I myself know. This morning when I was meditating I had difficulty keeping my attention on my breath, and one of the reasons was that every time I focused my attention there, I just opened up so wide and there was so much joy that I ran in the other direction.
In her writing about the Holocaust, Marguerite Duras describes her husband coming home from a concentration camp; he was very near death and so thin that it was hard to look at him. A lot of food came into the house for him, yet, had he tried to eat anything but a very thin gruel, he would have died. It was essential for him to introduce food very slowly because his body had lost the capacity to take in food. I think that in this culture both our bodies and our consciousnesses have lost the capacity to take in states of joy and so we must go through a process of relearning, of building up the ability again.
BG: But it’s not only the capacity to take in states of joy that we’ve lost. We tend to try to “protect ourselves” by closing off to the full range of our feelings, including both joy and grief.
SG: Yes, yes! I know this. A couple of years ago I lost my best friend, who was killed quite suddenly. We had loved each other very much; we shared a house and a daily life together. It was a great shock and a terrible loss. I lost weight, I went into a state where I couldn’t work and I spent months crying and then I got ill, partly out of the shock and stress of it. Oftentimes, when I would tell people that I had lost my friend, they would say to me, “How terrible for you.” But because I gave myself over completely to this grief, I discovered very early that it was a form of love, and that it was profound. Like all love, it was also a form of knowledge.
BG: I connect so much with what you’re saying, having gone through my father’s dying from cancer with him. I do feel it was the most shattering, but ultimately the most opening, experience that I’ve ever been through.
SG: Yes. Grieving taught me so much about life and death, and in addition to that, it was an experience of such largeness and beauty that I don’t in any way have any bitterness toward the event.
BG: You communicate a sense of your life as a process of transformation. Could you talk about the changes you are experiencing at this time?
SG: I’ve had a lot of illness in the past year and I feel that quite literally my body’s been a battlefield for the two forms of consciousness I’ve been talking about. This is true on the physical plane as well as on many other levels. On one level the toxic environment of the planet is causing a serious breakdown in our immune systems. The air is filled with radiation and pollution, and the environment is absolutely toxic to all life, including human life. So we’re all greatly subject to illness. And on another level, there is a kind of toxic environment for the consciousness, not only TV and advertising, but an ever-present atmosphere of anxiety that comes in part from denial and in part from lack of trust. I feel that the body registers that, too, and that my body has been a battlefield for a conflict between these two ways of existing. Part of healing myself depends on owning and claiming my own knowledge and perceptions, on moving further into the consciousness which is less divided, more present with nature. I feel that this transformation is necessary for me to go through; it is just happening, and the more I go with it the better I feel, on every level, including physically. It does seem to me that this sort of transformation is what is needed for the planet as well.
Because I know I am made from this earth, as my mother’s hands were made from this earth, as her dreams came from this earth and all that I know, I know in this earth, the body of the bird, this pen, this paper, these hands, this tongue speaking, all that I know speaks to me through this earth and I long to tell you, you who are earth too, and listen as we speak to each other of what we know: the light is in us.
Books by Susan Griffin
Made from this Earth: An Anthology of Writings
Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge Against Nature
Rape: The Power of Consciousness
Woman and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her Like the Iris of an Eye (poetry)
Unremembered Country (poetry)