In the Southwestern United States, one doesn’t have to look far to find the damage done to the environment during the Anthropocene. It is apparent in droughts, dams, and heat that gets more extreme by the year. Some contemporary writers have found unique ways to shed light on the environmental crisis, going beyond science to humanize the subject in novels. Ana Castillo’s So Far from God and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes center around the lives of female characters, but both novels are also very much about the environment. The bodies of these women, through experiencing trauma, become the medium Castillo and Silko use to show the violent nature of the environmental crisis. Both authors weave feminism and environmentalism together and illustrate the importance each has to the other.
Both Silko and Castillo begin their novels by showing women and nature as interconnected, setting up the reader for further connections between the two later on. Silko’s Gardens in the Dunes opens by introducing a family of women belonging to the Sand Lizard tribe: Indigo, Sister Salt, their mother and grandmother. They live in a paradise among the sand dunes, teeming with the amaranth, pumpkins, and sunflowers that the grandmother teaches the girls to grow. She gives them gardening advice with its roots in ancient legend: “Don’t be greedy. The first ripe fruit of each harvest belongs to the spirits of our beloved ancestors, who come to us as rain; the second … to the birds and wild animals (17).” Indigo and Sister Salt receive an education in the gardens that is entirely feminine, the grandmother an archetype of the wise old woman.Castillo also writes about the female members of a family, in her case a Chicana family living in New Mexico. So Far from God has its own archetypal wise old woman as well. The character of Caridad receives lessons in healing from a curandera, do?a Felicia, who recommends chewing a sprig of sage to treat empacho, or using an egg to get rid of the evil eye (66-68). At one point do?a Felicia muses out loud about the connection of women to nature, wondering why giving birth to eight children she never cried like she saw men do on the battlefield during the Mexican Revolution, telling Caridad, “I think it has something to do with the unnaturalness of killing compared to the naturalness of giving birth (55).” Another female character notable for her connection to nature is La Loca, who is herself a bit of a wise old woman from the age of three. This is the age when she rises from the grave and claims to have come back from a Divine Comedy-style trip through hell, purgatory, and heaven in order to come back and pray for everyone in her town (24). Afterwards she becomes a recluse, more apt to make friends with animals than fellow people, and also having a natural keenness for healing her sisters when they are unwell. The most foreboding part of what makes La Loca seem so connected to nature is her fear of humans. After her resurrection, she finds the smell of other humans unbearable, claiming that they bear “an odor akin to that which she had smelled in the places she had passed through when she was dead (23).” This odor La Loca is so repulsed by seems to suggest a kind of taint, a permeation, that humans cause, just like a bad smell.
So Far from God goes on to relate many horrors that this odor portends. Throughout the novel, the women of the family experience such physically agonizing things as miscarriage, rape, breast mutilation, and cancer. Their bodies are dominated by things outside of their control, much like the environment is. Men in the novel are often depicted as greedy and taking advantage of women. Sofia’s husband gambles away everything she owns, for example, and another woman, do?a Dolores, suffers from “twelve years of marriage, eleven babies that did not survive, and to top it off, the husband drank up everything they owned (20).” The women are used up like resources until they run out. In one of the most horrific scenes in the novel, Caridad is found abandoned by the side of the road and nearly dies. The description of her body afterwards is graphic: “[her] nipples had been bitten off. She had also been scourged with something, branded like cattle. Worst of all, a tracheotomy was performed because she had also been stabbed in the throat (33).” It is assumed by the other townspeople that her mutilation was the work of men, and it certainly seems that way. Human men do brand cattle, and the fact that her injuries are compared to those of an animal that is bred for a food source to such an extent that it is detrimental to our environment is significant. However, Castillo later writes that two people other than Caridad know the truth of what happened to her, through visions, and those two people happen to be the two women most connected to nature in the novel: La Loca and do?a Felicia. It was not a man after all who “had attacked and left Caridad mangled like a run-down rabbit”—again, her injuries are compared to an animal’s, a part of nature. It was “a thing, both tangible and amorphous. A thing that might be described as made of sharp metal and splintered wood, of limestone, gold, and brittle parchment … it was pure force (77).” This is one of the most mysterious parts of the book. Upon reading it at first one might wonder what Castillo’s purpose is in including a kind of monster instead of a human rapist-murderer. The description of it is key, though. The industrial look of it, with its sharp metal and splintered wood, and the fact that it is a dark cloud, could represent pollution. By turning it into a destructive monster, Castillo shows not only the effects pollution has on the climate, but on the people who live in it as well.
Rape and domination of both women and land factor into Silko’s novel as well. In Gardens in the Dunes, Silko writes of western expansion in the United States in the 19th century, a time when settlers discovered indigenous plants and indigenous people, and made their mark on both. Indigo is kidnapped and sent to an “Indian school” where she is forced to assimilate to white American culture. As Silko writes of the other girls at the school: “… only their skin looked Indian. Their eyes, their hair, and, of course, the shoes, stockings, and long dresses were no different from the [white] matron’s (69).” The native girls have had their bodies transformed, so much so that even their eyes look different. This happens at the same time as settlers are transforming the land, too, with dams, railroads, etc. Greed is the catalyst for these transformations. What is important for the survival and culture of native peoples is unimportant to them. In her essay, “Seeking the Corn Mother,” Joni Adamson writes of how Silko uses the story of these Sand Lizard girls to highlight the concept of “food sovereignty,” a concept that “call[s] attention to the ideologies and external forces that have been threatening indigenous food systems for hundreds of years (233).” Adamson points out that the grandmother’s food-growing lessons to the girls call to mind “indigenous, agroecological knowledges … evolved through generations in the Americas (236).” Knowledges like these are disregarded by the colonizers in the novel, who view plants as a source of money, not of survival or cultural significance. Besides dealing solely with women’s bodies, Silko shows the bodies of people of a minority race, and how they are affected by the damage to the environment.
Castillo does the same thing; in her novel, bodies are further marginalized to highlight truths about environmental racism. This is especially apparent in the story of Fe’s work for Acme International, where she is lied to about the kind of chemicals she works with and develops cancer as a result. The chemicals pollute her body as much as the environment, and once again Castillo uses graphic description of the woman’s injuries to drive the point home: “Fe’s flesh almost all at once was scarred all over (186).” Though Castillo’s magical realist novel is filled with the fantastic and the impossible, this case reflects real life. Andrew Ross, in his book Bird on Fire, writes of environmental racism at a Motorola factory in Phoenix, Arizona. “It was alleged that the workplace safety standards at Motorola plants with a heavily Latino workforce were much lower that at the ones with better-paid Anglo employees,” he writes. “Their health was threatened by unsafe conditions … while that community’s drinking water and air quality was at risk from the plant’s pollution (137).” A hundred years after the events of Gardens in the Dunes, the same thing is happening to people of color, in both Castillo’s novel and in real communities. The theme of reincarnation in So Far from God raises the question of whether or not it is too late to reverse damage to our environment. Castillo writes of death and destruction surprisingly optimistically throughout much of the book. La Loca is resurrected, the daughter Esperanza comes back as a ghost, and Caridad’s injuries are miraculously healed. But in the case of Fe, who is killed by chemicals, the outcome is grim. “Because after Fe died, she did not resurrect as La Loca did,” writes Castillo (186). If Fe’s death is a symbol of the destruction of the environment, her lack of return is ominous indeed. Castillo seems to suggest that a sympathy for our fellow humans is what is needed to save the planet, something Fe did not get from the company that poisoned her.
By using women and their bodies to shed light on environmental issues, Silko and Castillo both make the subject seem like a human issue. While climate change is usually discussed on a grand scale, these women write of the intimate moments of characters suffering along with the land they live on. Perhaps a greater understanding of the effects of climate change on the bodies of our fellow human beings would illicit a more urgent sense of the need to change for the sake of our future. Perhaps then there would be hope of a resurrection for the planet.
Adamson, Joni. “Seeking the Corn Mother: transnational indigenous organizing and food sovereignty in Native North American literature.” Indigenous Rights in the Age of the UN Declaration. Cambridge University Press, 2012.Castillo, Ana. So Far From God. W. W. Norton, 1993.Ross, Andrew. Bird on Fire: Lessons from the World’s Least Sustainable City. Oxford University Press, 2011.Silko, Leslie Marmon. Gardens in the Dunes. Simon & Schuster, 1999.