The View from Wiseheart

Written June 24, 2012

“What would you bring along on a trek like this?  What is bringing you along?” – Adrienne Rich

I write this from Gail and Charoula’s front porch, beside the rainbow flag that flies from the post, and the woodpeckers that swoop between the suet feeder and a giant maple.  Charoula’s yellow car sits in front of me, license plate reading “HERBALS,” the tailgate adorned with bumper stickers with slogans from simply “Love,” to “May the Forest Be With You,” and “Stop the Republican war on women.”  Bumper stickers are everywhere in and around this house – “Defend America, Defeat Bush” stickers in the bathroom, “Earth Native” and “Live in Peace and Love” on the front door, and now, “I’ll be Post-Feminist in the Post-Kyriarchy” and “These Hands Don’t Hurt” on Charoula’s computer, courtesy of CARES and the VC Feminist Alliance.  Where there are no bumper stickers, there is art – goddesses radiating power and love, rainbows and other lesbian symbols, created by them and their friends, accumulated over 50 years.  When I arrived here, Gail was painting the stars of an American flag lavender.  “It’s the only way I’ll fly it in the parade,” she said.

Beyond the house are incredibly beautiful fields and thickets of bushes and trees and forest.  Their horse, New Moon, roams near the vegetable garden.  Asparagus, gone to seed, towers above the grasses – I had no idea asparagus grew to be tall and wispy.  The backyard is thick with herbs and wildflowers Charoula grows to make salves and oils and tinctures.  More sculptures hide beneath trees and in patches of flowers.

I’ve spent a week here, and my days here have been filled with long talks about feminist and lesbian life over the past 55 years.  I’ve also been moving mulch from the drive to the backyard in the hours before the temperature rises too high to bear.  My pants are now tucked securely into my socks, protecting me from the chiggers – tiny mites that happily nibbled my legs and torso when I didn’t worry enough about them yesterday.  Along with the chigger bites, another state checked off my list, fascinating stories, and two new Vassar friends, I bring home with me a new perspective on my life as a feminist lesbian.

Gail and Charoula came to this farm in 1990, after Gail had inherited the land and bought an additional 30 acres their house sits upon.  They moved to this house to start a farm and be landykes.  They’re up against a lot here, in rural Pickaway County, Ohio, which is the center of the state’s industrial agriculture.  When I drive the 3 miles to Gail and Charoula’s house from the old building I’m staying at in the town, I pass fields upon fields of perfect corn before I come to their land growing wild with diverse, organic species, buffered by a thick layer of trees and shrubs.  It would be easy for them to grow discouraged with the state of the land.  Gail grew up here, and she talks reverently about how the soil is so rich and the fruits and vegetables it produced were so wonderful.  She’s seen the family farms disappear, machines replace manual labor, Monsanto corn and soy replace cattle and tomatoes, and a quarry open right to the edge of their land, less than 400 feet from the log cabin Gail restored with a Time-Out grant from Vassar.  Despite this, here they have stood, firmly planted, asserting their right to the land, and the land’s right to be wild.  They’ve challenged those who spray pesticides too close to their land, despite the sign posted, “Please Do Not Spray – Organic Farm.” They’ve created wetlands. They’ve encouraged birds and cats and raccoons and other wild animals to find homes here.  This land has a strong energy; it is vital and whole.

As a part of Vassar’s contemporary community of queer feminists, I often feel like we are pioneers up against the forces of patriarchy, and that struggle can feel frustrating and hopeless.  Especially from my perspective, as a Women’s Studies and Geography double major, the problems facing the world can feel incredibly overwhelming.  I constantly study the oppression of women, structural violence, the decimation of the environment, and power being held in the hands of the few; it’s really easy to throw my hands up from time to time and say, forget it – the world is doomed, and no one is safe.  Here, on this 150-acre piece of land in Southern Central Ohio, there is uncertainty in what the future will bring, but these women, Vassar lesbians fifty years ahead of us, radiate so much hope and confidence in the Earth and in the power of communities of women to keep this land strong and safe for those who come to it.  That hope and confidence makes me believe in the future.  Perhaps that, as Adrienne said, “is bringing me along.”

Thanks, Charoula and Gail – see you again, soon.

A Wolf Girl Goes Back to the Land

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” –Australian Aboriginal Group

This piece was originally posted on June 17, 2012 on Feminist Hive Mind, a community blog which belongs to me and some of my Vassar feminist community.  This (Laying Foundations) is my personal blog.  Posts here may appear on Hive Mind as well.

Tomorrow, I will drive to Ohio to spend time with Gail Dunlap and Charoula Dontopoulos, two women who went to Vassar in the late 1950’s.  As two of the original Vassar Wolf Girls, they would creep from their dorms in the middle of the night wearing wolf skins to howl at the moon together in secret lesbian sisterhood.  They needed to skirt the wrath of the Warden, who did dismiss some of these women from the conservative Vassar of the 50’s, labeling them “unfit from campus life.”  My own grandmother, asleep on the other side of campus, was oblivious to their existence until I told her a few months ago after hearing Gail speak on a panel about the lesbian experience at Vassar.

The existence of lesbians and queer women on Vassar’s campus today is far from invisible, but we’ve only come so far because of the women who came before us.  I’m on my way to Ohio to learn and work with these women on their lesbian land where they live alongside the Earth, and rehabilitate land that has been deeply harmed by human impact.

Ask any of the other Hive Minders and they will say, of course Maddie is going to lesbian land.  I earned my label of “ecofeminist” within a month of arriving at Vassar, quickly seeing the connections between environmentalism and feminism in my Global Geography class.  The ways in which the devastation of the environment and the oppression of women intertwine are extremely apparent to me.  The patriarchal instincts to dominate women and dominate nature are rooted in the same masculine* need to assert power.

By working to rehabilitate the land, we can learn how to unravel systems of patriarchy in our own lives.  There are parallels: we must live alongside the land as we must live alongside each other, compromise with the land as we must compromise with each other, and understand how our survival is as entwined with the wellbeing of the land as it is with the wellbeing of other humans.

There are also direct connections between environmentalism and other movements to deconstruct systems of oppression: poor communities which lack political power and capital have more exposure to environmental hazards like urban industry and hydrofracking, and less access to open space and affordable, nutritious food.  Environmental hazards also tend to have an especially large impact on women, particularly in the developing world, where women are often responsible for growing subsistence crops and fetching water.  If pollution compromises their food or water source, they must find different ones, which depletes their time and money, vital bargaining chips for essential self-advocacy.

In the rapid industrialization of the planet, industries and technologies, which are responsible for harming the environment, have simultaneously erased a lot of old knowledge about agriculture and land management.  Family farms are dwindling, and Native peoples which knew their land much better and for thousands of years longer have largely died out or been uprooted from their homelands.  Existing memory of how to live alongside the land is limited.  Thus, it is as important as ever to forge connections between the generations, share experiences, and continue to keep and pass along the knowledge that exists.  I head to Ohio to spend time with Gail and Charoula, to learn what they have to teach me, and to share and build on our common experiences as lesbians – Wolf Girls – invested in the land and the Earth that is our home.  We carry that shared knowledge forth with us to whomever we meet.

* I recognize that the terms “masculine and “feminine” do not inherently correspond to any particular gender.  Systems of patriarchal oppression are deeply rooted in society, which only recently began to address the problematic nature of a gender binary. It is relevant to discuss the traits and characteristics associated with the tropes of “masculinity” and “femininity” in order to dismantle them both and explore how the characteristics they describe can be embodied by anyone.