Wilderness Women in Black
Fabb, Jeane, Women & Environments International Magazine
In the early nineties, I read about women of opposing "sides" gathering together in public spaces, in the Middle East and in the former Yugoslavia, to express their dissidence against the violent military regimes of their respective countries. Dressed in black at weekly vigils held in silence, they made their presence known and their protest visible. The women were part of a growing worldwide antiwar movement called Women in Black.1 Struck by their courage and the symbolic power of their gesture, I was inspired to make a related action in the context of the region where I live, Québec's boreal forest. Here, the war is against the land: the extraction of natural resources and the unbridled development of tourism has scarred and irreparably altered thousands of square kilometers of landscape. Here, the land is generally perceived as male-space: the voices publicly heard are those of forestry companies, loggers, hunters, fishermen, developers, and politicians. The Wilderness Women in Black art-actions are meant to give voice to other ways of perceiving our relationship to the land. They are gestures created in counterbalance to the dynamic of destructive industrial entrancement.
In the winter of 1995, Wilderness Women in Black was initiated on the banks of the Rouge River, a major artery in the Upper Laurentians, north of Montreal, used by lumber companies in the nineteenth century to float timber southward to the wood-mills. On the shore, a long black table was laid with upturned roots, and with bowls containing wood ashes. A small group of women from the community, and from Montreal and Toronto, were invited to participate. When gathered, we focused on our concerns about the environment and exchanged information about the story of the Rouge. In preparation for this art-action, I asked the women to feel the connection of their body with the land, to slowly open to the underlying energy of this particular place, and to respond silently in whatever manner they felt. In the cold wind, we moved over the snow as in a trance, back and forth between the river and the table. At one point, I was impelled to take the roots off the table and give them to the women. Without words, we each placed the roots on our bellies.2
Within each art-action, the interaction between the site and the women produced a unique dynamic. Underneath the gigantic energy transport lines that cut a 1000-kilometer corridor through the Laurentian forest from James Bay to Montreal, the women reacted intensely to the electromagnetic field emanating from the suspended electrical cables. Some women just froze, others crumbled to the ground. One woman stood arched backwards shaking a caribou antler at the hissing lines. Another art-action took place between the straight rows of a pine plantation. For five days, another woman and I moved up and down the alleys of this monoculture forest. The lack of plant and animal diversity was numbing. Unlike moving through a natural forest, every step was predictable, stage-like.
Specific places seemed to call for concern and attention. There is a huge open gravel pit on the side of the road between my village and the next. When some women of a local theatre troupe offered to participate in an art-action, I brought them to the pit. …