The Eros of Child and Cupid: Wendell Berry's Agrarian Engagement with Ecofeminism

By Bilbro, Jeffrey | The Mississippi Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

The Eros of Child and Cupid: Wendell Berry's Agrarian Engagement with Ecofeminism


Bilbro, Jeffrey, The Mississippi Quarterly


IN THE LAND BEFORE HER, ANNETTE KOLODNY LAMENTS THAT AMERICA was settled under the "psychosexual dramas of men intent on possessing a virgin continent" (xiii). In response to Kolodny's seminal work, various authors have attempted to re-imagine American soil in ways that avoid the troubling implications this traditional image contains for both male-female relations and human-earth relations. Since the publication of Kolodny's analysis of early American representations of the land, a new movement, ecofeminism, has developed to theorize the connections between conceptions of the land, of women, and now of other historically oppressed groups. (1) Many of these critics have called for new metaphors to describe the land and its relationship to humans, metaphors that will enable us to imagine how to "protect and preserve" the earth and not "relentlessly destroy" it (Kolodny xii).

In this essay, I examine Wendell Berry's representations of the earth in his early farming poetry in order to understand the implications of the erotic imagery he uses to describe the bond between humans and the land. Berry demonstrates his awareness of the problem Kolodny addresses by anticipating her central thesis ten years before she published her study: "I do not know how exact a case might be made, but it seems to me that there is an historical parallel, in white American history, between the treatment of the land and the treatment of women.

The frontier, for instance, was notoriously exploitive of both, and I believe for largely the same reasons" ("Discipline" 162). Yet Berry does not abandon erotic descriptions of the land; his poetry, essays, and novels explore marriage as a way to order human sexuality and as a metaphor for human relations with the earth. While the parallel between gender relations and land relations is central to Berry's thought, informing nearly all his works, most Berry scholars have shied away from the troubling implications of his gendered metaphors. Critics have examined his traditional conception of human marriage--a culturally maintained monogamous bond between a man and a woman--and his comparison between marriage and farming, but have done only preliminary work on how his early poetic descriptions of agriculture, as a fundamentally erotic relationship, fit into Kolodny's symbolic landscape. The important question, it seems to me, is does Berry represent the farmer's relation to the land in a traditionally patriarchal way, or has he sufficiently modified the sexual "fantasies" that Kolodny decries (xii)? Berry's work clearly opposes the industrial economy's exploitation of the land and of humans, and in response to this exploitation he practices small-scale farming and advocates for sustainable agriculture. Much of his work is, like ecofeminist writing, devoted to breaking down the dualism between body and soul that lies at the core of most Western dualisms like matter/spirit, female/male. So while his political and cultural stance clearly opposes agribusiness and its exploitation of the land, does his sexual imagery undermine his explicit position and implicitly perpetuate human exploitation of the land and patriarchal exploitation of women? Perhaps because of his pro-life stance and agrarian profession, most ecofeminists have assumed Berry's thought to be traditionally patriarchal, but I argue Berry has indeed re-imagined these sexual and seemingly traditional metaphors in such a way as to inspire new, non-exploitative and yet erotic relations with the land, and thus Berry's thought can both instruct and challenge ecofeminist theory.

Although they form a diverse discourse, ecofeminisms share a core concern: "the twin dominations of women and the rest of nature .... Ecofeminism argues that the connections between the oppression of women and the rest of nature must be recognized to understand adequately both oppressions" (Adams 1). Because the erotic was so often used to reinforce male domination of both women and nature, many ecofeminists seek ungendered, non-erotic metaphors for the land. …

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