Mother Nature Is A Woman

[Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from the soon-to-be-published book Daughters of Distance, written by Vanessa Runs about endurance running from a female perspective. The book will be available for purchase around the end of March. Be sure to read all the way through because we’re giving away a copy of the book!]

My epiphany came in the mountains of Colorado, right in the heart of the White River and San Isabel National Forests. I was halfway through a six-day stage race called TransRockies that would run us from Buena Vista, Colorado to Beaver Creek: 120 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain in six days. That week I climbed a vertical personal record, reaching altitudes of more than 12,500 feet. I felt amazing.

I was standing at the top of a long climb waiting for my husband Shacky to catch up when I realized: I was getting stronger (not weaker) as the days progressed. The elevation, the terrain, and the climbs were no longer obstacles that I had to overcome, but a jungle gym I was lucky to play through. I was no less an extension of the wilderness than a weathered Douglas fir or a soaring red-tailed hawk. The memories of my office cubicle were a past life, a pre-existence before my actual trail-birth that day.

Essentially, I took up ultrarunning as an excuse to be in the wilderness. Fewer people question your sanity when you say you’re “training” for hours on end instead of admitting what you’re actually doing: frolicking like a child ignoring her dinner call.

In nature, I feel more alive. Whether surrounded by friends or alone, I am most at peace with myself in the mountains. Although the same has historically been true for males, the wild woman archetype is a concept worth exploring.

Parallels between woman and nature are everywhere. Both are traditionally associated with purity, simplicity, beauty and grace. A female’s seasons and cycles can be linked to the earth’s own recurring seasons and lunar cycles. Both nature and women have the power to grow life.

In researching this chapter, I learned about eco-feminism. This concept supports a historical connection between women and nature, and compares the exploitation of women with that of the environment. Further connections are drawn between cycles like menstruation and the moon, childbirth and creation.

Eco-feminism has been criticized for being too mythical and not practical enough to be of help to women, or for ignoring the fact that nature consists of both masculine and feminine qualities. Others say it does nothing to improve women’s pay equity or power. Still, the wild woman is a concept that howls truth to me.

In her book, Women Who Run With Wolves, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola draws further parallels between women and nature. Both share:

  • Keen sensing
  • Playful spirits
  • A heightened capacity for devotion
  • Relational tendencies
  • Inquiring spirits
  • Great endurance and strength
  • Territorial awareness
  • Inventive ideas
  • Loyalty

Is it a coincidence that so many natural geographical features are personified as female? We feminize mountains, lakes, streams, rivers, trees and forests. Mother Nature herself is considered female, ruling with power and maternal care.

The linking of female deities to the outdoors is also pervasive between cultures and faiths. Kuhu, Sinivali, Anumati and Raka are lunar divinities symbolizing the waxing and waning of the lunar cycle. Persephone is associated with spring and vegetation. Vanadevis is the forest goddess and Usas is the mistress of dawn. The list goes on.

The goddess Artemis particularly intrigued me. Ruler of wilderness and wild animals, as well as protector of young girls, Artemis was herself chaste after asking her father Zeus to grant her the gift of eternal virginity at the age of three. Artemis was athletic and adventurous. She preferred solitude and concerned herself with environmental protection. However, that didn’t stop gods and men from taking notice of her. Artemis was known for her swift revenge on anyone who would try to dishonor her.

One story claims that Artemis killed Orion after he tried to rape her, turning him into the constellation he is today. It is said she didn’t need a man to complete her, but would enjoy a companion with whom she could share a “deep, intuitive connection with minimal chatter.”

The busier and more modern we become, the stronger our pull to the wilderness. In 1998, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) started an outreach program called Women in the Outdoors, with the goal of helping women “learn more about interactive outdoor activities through hands-on education and expert-driven instruction.” The NWTF expected some interest, but nothing close to what it received. In the first year, 3,000 women signed on. By the second year, more than 10,000 women were lining up to get outside. The call of the wild is a hard one to ignore.

Even when the conversation topic has nothing to do with nature, we instinctively link womanhood to the earth. “Is femininity important to you?” I ask ultrarunner Sarah Johnson in an email. A short time later, I receive her reply: “That’s like asking if the sun is important to the earth.”

Nahoko Iwata is a shy Japanese ultrarunner who draws her inspiration directly from nature. “Sorry, I don’t have good answers,” she apologizes sheepishly when I question her about being a woman. Nahoko doesn’t debate about gender roles or expectations. Her femininity is a simple kind of grace, rooted directly to the earth. “I want to be beautiful and strong like butterflies and flowers in the wild nature,” she tells me.

Her simple answer humbles me and I can’t help but wonder: why all this debate about feminine versus masculine, girly versus tomboy? Why can’t we just be who we are and accept that there may not be a category for us? Or that maybe the real categories are not male or female, but rather ocean or mountain, soil or sand.

Dr. Clarissa Pinkola writes of La Loba (The She-Wolf), a woman deeply in tune with her innate, wild nature. La Loba is “circumspect, often hairy, always fat, and especially wishes to evade most company. She is both a crower and a cackler, generally having more animal sounds than human ones.”

La Loba lives among the rotten granite slopes in Tarahumara Indian territory and her job is to collect bones. Over mountains and along dry riverbeds she searches and searches, until she has pieced together a full wolf skeleton. She then sits by the fire and thinks about what song to sing. When she is certain she has the right song, she stands over the dry bones and raises her voice.

The bones begin to flesh out and grow fur. La Loba sings some more and the creature begins to breathe. Finally, she sings so deeply that the desert floor shakes and the wild animal leaps up and runs down the canyon.

As Clarissa tells it, “somewhere in its running, whether by the speed of its running or by splashing its way into a river, or by way of a ray of sunlight or moonlight hitting it right in the side, the wolf is suddenly transformed into a laughing woman who runs free toward the horizon.”

All women begin as a bundle of bones lost somewhere in the desert. A few of us—the lucky ones—will live to howl the songs of our souls from the depths of our wild, wild hearts.

What does any of this have to do with endurance? Here I will draw on the wise words of the late and legendary endurance runner Caballo Blanco (Micah True): “When you run on the earth and with the earth, you can run forever.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you see feminine qualities in nature? Can you describe what you have observed?
  • In contrast, does nature ever take on a masculine tone? If so, what are the circumstances in which you’ve seen this?
  • For female readers, do you ever feel connected to nature via your femininity? How and when has that happened?

Giveaway Contest

[Editor’s Note: The contest is now closed. Thanks for entering!]

There are 16 comments

  1. @frumioj

    Although I like Vanessa's anecdotes, I largely don't identify at all with this characterization of nature as a human-defined thing (feminine, masculine or anything else).

    I guess my wilderness experience at its best is that the boundary between me and nature disappears entirely. I am not a "thing" in my own right, at all. I am simply part of everything, and everything is a part of me. When I'm simply "being" on the trail, I don't recognize myself as male or female, or human, or animal. I am just fully there.

    To heal the division between myself and everything else is something I fully appreciate, because most of the time, I am "in my head", and we can't help but draw distinctions between one thing and another when we are in our heads, as opposed to fully out in the world. As I have done here.

    Thanks for the stories though Vanessa – your piece made me able to explain how I feel, hopefully well-enough for others to understand.

    1. @TEMrunner

      I agree – when I'm in nature I feel like I simply "am," not masculine, feminine or trying to define myself in any other way. That's part of the allure of nature for me, that I don't have to wear the labels or play the roles that I find myself getting caught up in in the "civilized" world. Like Vanessa says, why can't we be who we are and accept that there may not be a category for us?

      1. @TEMrunner

        That being said, the feminine qualities of nature that I identify with are her captivating beauty, mystery, nurturing, and reliance on intuition and instinct. I hadn't really thought about it before, so thanks for the excerpt.

  2. laurenmuirdpt

    I agree with the statement why can't we just be who we are? Why is there a need to categorize? Why do we try to categorize ourselves? On the trail is where I am most free. Especially if I don't encounter another human being. I do get a buzz when I am out there running and encounter a deer, rabbit, snake, or even a squirrel. When I see a deer and I am running there is a second, maybe two where I instantly feel energized, inspired to maintain a light stride. It makes my heart sing!

  3. lonestararchangel

    I've read this site for a long time because I admire the mental toughness of the men and women ultra-runners. But I don't come here to read about "eco-feminism," "exploitation of women," and "rape." This site doesn't know what it wants to be anymore. If you're going political with this kind of nonsense, you may lose your base.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      lonestararchangel,

      This book excerpt is about some of the many ways that the human species has related feminine and female qualities to nature throughout human history. There are quotes from female trail runners about how they relate to the places through which they run. The philosophy and limitations of ecofeminism are explained. There are references to mythological stories from multiple cultures about women and nature. The author shares a first-hand experience with nature.

      The word “rape” is used in the telling of a Greek mythology story about Artemis and Orion; this is a very common story that can be found in many books in the library. The concept of “ecofeminism,” the study of how women and nature are linked, is defined. The phrase “exploitation of women” is used to explain that one arm of ecofeminism compares the environmental and feminist movements. The mere mention of these words/phrases in an article does not mean the article has a political agenda. The author makes no attempt to argue any ideologies.

      I realize that this article deviates in some ways from what you normally read on iRunFar. In the last year or so, we have been trying to create articles written by women, for women (and the men who are interested in women’s-specific issues), so it’s possible you haven’t seen many of those. This article contains iRunFar’s second reference ever to Greek mythology (the only other time was in 2009) and first reference to feminism. However, a great many of our articles discuss trail runners’ relationships with nature. While I know that this sort of article may not appeal to all of iRunFar’s readers, it’s my hope that some women and maybe a few men will enjoy this rather philosophical treatment of women’s relationship with nature.

      Thank you so much for reading iRunFar. I hope you’ll continue to read along. I know not everyone likes and reads every article, but it’s my hope you’ll continue to seek out the ones you do.

      1. @PutMeBackOnBike

        Sorry, I lost the second part of my comment some how. It was… I think it goes without saying that no one would object to a feminist perspective in any article, but the complete lack of realism in a concept such as Eco-feminism, is the real problem here. This isn't a website for people that buy crystals or bang drums under 'vortices' in Sedona.

  4. randall031

    Like you, I added trail running to my repertoire so I could spend time playing in nature. Since childhood, I've been an outdoor kind of a girl and only now, as a "mature" woman, do I seem to have developed the confidence to return to my earliest loves.

    I often see nature as female and not only when life is growing and being nurtured. Some days nature is a harsh bitch. Really. And some days so am I. Fierce. Angry. Raging. Beautiful.

  5. kjz

    I don't know that I ever think in terms of gender when I'm immersed in the wild outdoors, but I love the strength and empowerment, the humbling and the sense that I am but a speck, and the deep beauty and power there. I love that some places feel truly like home or like I'm made of fibers or breezes from that place…. Others I appreciate from a distance but never really become 1 with. It's like relationships and friendships, I suppose… And my femininity is one of the lenses thru which I look.

    Re: type of article–I'm loving the different writers and voices–I love reading about the lifestyle and not just the race–I love hearing more women's perspectives and the non-elite side as well. Keep up the good work and variety!

  6. thorhammer24

    This was such an exciting blog post for me to read, as I heard about Vanessa's new book on the Diz Runs With podcast and it sounded fascinating. This excerpt just proves me right.

    As someone with some…confusion…regarding their gender identity, the questions in the call for comments leave me nonplussed. Even at the age of 33 I'm still surprised when I'm subjected to Everyday Sexism, because I don't strictly think of myself as female. And I definitely don't look at the world and see shades of feminine and masculine. I find it a very limiting way of being.

    Running, and being outdoors, strip away those differences as though seen from a great height, until all that's left is the speck that is me, driven by an invisible but nonetheless mighty flame of desire and determination and anger and joy and deep-seated magical power.

    1. Meghan Hicks

      thorhammer24,

      You are right. I tried to phrase the first two call-for-comments questions in ways that would encourage anyone who sees masculine and feminine qualities in nature to express themselves. And my last question, I wrote it trying to intentionally welcome women to comment. The reason I did that was because women are not only outnumbered by men in the people who read iRunFar, but also by those who comment to our articles. My only intent was to encourage our voices here. I can see now how this last question in particular might make some people feel uninvited, and I apologize for that. Thank you for sharing your thoughts about your relationship with nature despite this.

  7. jesseluna

    I appreciated reading blog posts and books on trail/ultra running that have different perspectives. I had a chance to read Vanessa's book Summit Seeker and can relate to a lot of her story in terms of growing up while dangling from trees. I think there is definitely a feminine spirit about nature. The mountain is a living, breathing entity and can give life and take life.

    In terms of goddesses and archetypes, I think that it's good to look at these figures as historical and even inspirational icons but I think that it's also problematic in that they are a part of religious histories that include archetypes that have been use to subjugate women. But I guess a large part of religious history is finding what appeals to us and discarding or reshaping what does not serve us.

  8. clairemj23

    "Or that maybe the real categories are not male or female, but rather ocean or mountain, soil or sand." YES YES YES.

    I love this article! I have actually done a lot of exploring in the world of ecofeminism and a lot of feminists write it off as spiritual nonsense but i think there is a lot of validity and credibility to it. I have done a lot of research in linking environmental degradation with gender equality rights and how some of the most horrendous environmental attacks are also in places more prone to violence against women. i think there is a strong correlation there and while saving the earth and coming to complete gender equality are complex problems that solutions may be far off in the future, it is something to think about! At the very least, changing the way people think about either the earth or women could play a big role in the next steps towards improving the world! A beautifully written piece and I look forward to reading Vanessa's book. Thank you!

  9. TheTrailSnail

    To Vanessa: Okay, you brought tears to my eyes. The way you describe your connection with nature and the joy of playing like a child perfectly mirrors my feelings when I run in the wild. I love the way you have explored the archetype of the wild woman throughout mythology. I was called a tomboy, and at a certain age I thought that was a bad thing. Fortunately I couldn't suppress that girl forever, and trail running unleashed her for good.

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