Letters of a Woman Homesteader, Soil, and the Absence of Mothers’ Stories
I recently finished reading Camille T. Dungy’s new book Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden. It’s an incredible work, bringing together gardening, ecology, America’s history of racism and ongoing violence against anyone who isn’t white, and the absence of women, people of color, and particularly mothers in any writing that’s considered “environmental.” Writing about nature, both in the U.S. and Europe but especially in North America, tends to be confined to stories by white men, often called intrepid and almost always alone.
Erasing any other experiences of nature and wilderness leaves us with a hollowed-out relationship to the wild world and to writing about it, as Dungy shows beautifully and with a voice that I found as strengthening as it was compelling.
Reading it reminded me of an essay titled “One Woman’s Meat” that I published a few years ago with Tin House, before they shut down their online publishing platform The Open Bar. In it, I wrote about the writer and homesteader Elinore Pruitt Stewart, who went to Wyoming to build a life for herself and her four-year-old daughter. Her Letters of a Woman Homesteader was collected and published in 1914 from regular letter-essays published at the time in The Atlantic Monthly and was wildly popular. Why is her story barely remembered, I wondered, while Henry David Thoreau’s is quoted and referenced to a tiresome degree?
“Her letters depict a woman who observed nature as keenly as Henry David Thoreau did, but, unlike Thoreau, there was nobody else washing Stewart’s laundry or dropping off dinner. Thoreau talked a good line in independence; Stewart lived it.”
Compared to Thoreau, I wrote then, Stewart’s independence was both more progressive and more radical. She writes of taking her daughter into the mountains to camp, just the two of them, walking the world amidst snowstorms and coyotes, mixing the domestic and the . . . what? The “real” world? The one of adventure and men conquering and “discovering” nature?
I loved the way Dungy picks apart this false separation in Soil, between the inside and the outside, the “domestic” and the “wild.” It’s all life, all part of us. Back in early 2016 when I published that essay about Pruitt, I wrote…