What is the radicalizing potential of motherhood? This was a central question in Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, published in 1976, when the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 332 parts per million and feminism’s second wave was cycling toward its third. Her answer:
The mother’s battle for her child—with sickness, with poverty, with war, with all the forces of exploitation and callousness that cheapen human life—needs to become a common human battle, waged in love and in the passion for survival.
Rich was thinking of the fight against patriarchy, but in Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines, an anthology inspired by the legacy of radical and queer Black feminists of the third wave and published forty years after Rich’s book—by which time CO2 had spiked to 404 parts per million—Alexis Pauline Gumbs proposes an answer that also points at fighting climate change:
In order to collectively figure out how to sustain and support our evolving species, in order to participate in and demand a society where people help to create each other instead of too often destroying each other, we need to look at the practice of creating, nurturing, affirming, and supporting life that we call mothering.
Two important recent books—Soil: The Story of a Black Mother’s Garden, by Camille T. Dungy, and The Quickening: Creation and Community at the Ends of the Earth, by Elizabeth Rush—carry the spirit of Gumbs’s claim fully into the environmental sphere. Both were published in 2023, the planet’s warmest year on record, when CO2 reached 421 parts per million.1 Dungy and Rush explicitly critique patriarchal patterns in the literary canon of nature writing, a genre long dominated by solitary white men of privilege hankering for escape or reverie in the wild. Instead, they argue, care and community should be at the heart of writing about the natural environment.
It’s illuminating to read these books back-to-back. In Soil, Dungy asks why nobody in foundational environmental literature seems to do the dishes. In The Quickening, Rush pays attention to the people doing them by interviewing an expedition’s cooks as well as its scientists. Both insist on making the domestic visible and argue that an ethics of care that we often associate with maternity—whether we are mothers or not—is crucial in combating issues as large as the climate crisis. They emphasize the collective over the individual, posing old questions in fresh and urgent ways: What is our responsibility to the next generation? What does it mean to mother through perilous times of uncertainty, struggle, trauma, and change; to mother against violence, discrimination, plunder, and greed? To write “mother” as verb?
Mothers have often been prominent in activist groups. Our moral authority is often presumed, especially when our children are under threat. One thinks of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, the band of women who organized against human rights violations when their children were forcibly “disappeared” under the Argentine dictatorship, and of COMADRES, a similar group in El Salvador. In the US, examples of mom-dominant protest groups abound: MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving); Moms Demand Action, which advocates for gun control; Mothers of the Movement, an organization of Black women whose children were killed by gun violence or police; Wall of Moms, who protested police brutality in Portland, Oregon; Moms Clean Air Force, united against air pollution; and Mothers Out Front, which has mobilized for a “livable climate.” On the other side of the political spectrum, chapters of the conservative group Moms for Liberty have campaigned to ban books that discuss race and ethnicity, critical race theory, discrimination, and LGBTQ+ rights.
Obviously, motherhood doesn’t confer or equate to moral legitimacy. Nor does anyone need kids of their own in order to worry about the world’s many ills or care about others. Yet motherhood has politicized me around planetary crises including pollution, biodiversity loss, war, and the climate emergency—quite simply because I want our kids to live.
“Whether a plot in a yard or pots in a window, every politically engaged person should have a garden,” Camille Dungy, a poet, essayist, and editor, writes with authority from Colorado’s grow zone 5a/5b. (Among the plants she grows are beans from a line of seed handed down from survivors of the Trail of Tears.) “By politically engaged,” she clarifies, “I mean everyone with a vested interest in the direction the people on this planet take in relationship to others.” For Dungy, gardens are spaces of “edible hope” and solace.
Soil is on one level a book about the rewards of gardening, written mostly over the course of 2020, “that wild, deadly year,” with the support of a Guggenheim fellowship. On a deeper level it’s about Black American resilience and roots. Dungy’s voice alternates between anger and exuberance but is good-natured throughout: “I love a person who talks kindly to plants.” Well, who doesn’t? The text gives itself over to the labor and reward of gardening while also showing how Black women in this country might need gardens for healing and respite. Plants calm and stabilize Dungy, teaching her patience as she waits for growth. She aims to discover how to be more nurturing, how to create something more beautiful on the land than what she inherited, how to use less water and benefit more living beings.
The book describes Dungy’s “prairie project” to convert her family’s one-fifth-acre lot in the predominantly white town of Fort Collins into a wild oasis of native pollinating plants, cutting against the grain of their homeowners’ association’s idea of a tidy lawn. Joy Williams wrote of doing something similar more than twenty years ago with a waterfront acre in Florida, letting it become “neither grounds, nor yard, nor garden, nor park, nor even false jungle, but a functioning wild landscape that became more remarkable each year.”2 Like Williams, Dungy is committed to cultivating diversity in her habitat and deepening her relationship with the nonhuman world around her, including by learning the names of plants and birds. Her fellowship year coincided with multiple flare-ups: the onset of the global pandemic, uprisings over police brutality, and a historic Colorado wildfire season in which the Cameron Peak fire overtook two simultaneous fires as the largest in the state’s history. “I’ve lost my writing time to this virus!” Dungy complains to her husband, Ray. An idea she writes down in February gets sidetracked until September, by which point the sky is dark orange and filled with smoke that burns her eyes. Nevertheless, and thankfully for us, she accomplishes her goal.
Soil is a natural outgrowth of Dungy’s past works, especially her 2017 essay collection Guidebook to Relative Strangers: Journeys into Race, Motherhood, and History, and the landmark 2009 anthology she edited, Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, which conveyed how empathetically Black people have written about the natural world, attending to legacies of trauma with stories of renewal, despite our fraught relationship with the land. This latest book is dedicated to her family, broadly defined to include not just her daughter, husband, sister, and parents but also “plants and birds and beasts tame and wild.”
Dungy’s original ambition was to create something like the yearlong study Annie Dillard made of her surroundings in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974). “I wanted to spend a year thinking about the soil that surrounded me: what grew up from it, and why,” Dungy writes. “But even before I found myself overseeing my daughter’s remote education during the pandemic, I was troubled by the seeming improbability of a Black mother writing about nature.” She keeps getting thrown off the contemplation of her garden by the ghosts of history, domestic duties, civil unrest, climate collapse, weariness, dissipation, disquietude, and the threat of violence. Such is her environment. Consequently, Soil is messy, interesting, and tangled, like the garden itself. Dungy regularly interrupts herself: “But what’s with all this history? This book is supposed to be about my garden. And it is.”
The book’s sections are interleaved with the author’s nature poems, as well as photos of plants and cuttings from her robust prairie project. We are treated to pictures of golden columbine, sweet William, showy milkweed, rabbitbrush, echinacea pods, snapdragons, hollyhock, sunflower, Nuttall’s larkspur, wine-cups, Colorado blue columbine, a juvenile mountain cottontail rabbit, and her nine-year-old daughter Callie’s hands touching the thorny hawthorn tree and a quaking aspen leaf.
One of Dungy’s interventions is to include her daughter in the story, to write about the routine aspects of parenthood—such as helping Callie with her homework—alongside life outdoors. “Something in the environmental imagination I was trained in did not admit children, or the women who raise them, into the canon of work that writes about the wild,” she writes. Shouldn’t concerns about stewardship, nurture, and conservation extend to mothering? Don’t such concerns often stem from motherhood?
Maybe we don’t find mothers in this canon, Dungy guesses, “because it’s impossible for most mothers to create a world where they have nobody to think of but themselves.” This line reminded me of the artistry evident in the handcrafted quilts and gardens of older generations of Black women that Alice Walker describes in her 1983 essay collection In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. She praises the ability of unsung Black women (including her own mother) to garden on top of bone-crushing drudge work. Without the leisure time to practice other arts, they nevertheless created masterpieces out of domestic scraps, signaling strength of spirit. In Soil, Callie is often at her mother’s side in the garden, snipping the heads from dandelions and naming the cottontail bunnies who dwell there. Dungy teaches her the difference between working the land by force and working the land by choice. In that sense, Dungy is a more integrated narrator than Jamaica Kincaid, who wrote more than thirty years ago in My Garden (Book) that “there is a big difference between a mother and a gardener” and seemed to enjoy her garden as a creative space liberated from her young children. Fair enough.
What is history? Kincaid asks in a knockout essay in My Garden (Book) on colonialism and plant nomenclature, in which the actions of Christopher Columbus and Carl Linnaeus are checked against the landscapes emptied by colonialism of peoples who had their own names and uses for the flowers of their world. “To name is to possess,” Kincaid writes about the violent erasure of conquest. Thus did the cocoxochitl become the dahlia.
Dungy adds: What is nature? What is wilderness? She stands on Kincaid’s shoulders in writing with authority and style about our tortured past in a book on gardening. She writes about Bird Names for Birds, an activist initiative that pushed to rename around 150 birds, such as the songbirds named after John Kirk Townsend, a nineteenth-century naturalist who robbed Native American graves and sent human remains east for scientific study, and the sparrow named for John Bachman, a reverend who supported slavery and compared Black people to wild boars, claiming their intellectual inferiority. Why memorialize such men through birds? Dungy asks.
As a Black woman who gardens, I took particular interest in reading Soil while tending my own little plot in New York City’s grow zone 7b, where the climate was recently reclassified as “humid subtropical.” (My palms are raw from yanking up snakeweed as I draft this.) Dungy writes brilliantly about bindweed—which spreads underground and surfaces to strangle healthy plants—as a metaphor for the tenacious hold of racism: “I’ve come to understand that I’ll struggle with bindweed, one way or another, until I give up. Or I die.”
When Dungy recalls being rebuked at a public reading by a white woman in the audience who questioned how she could call herself an environmental writer while focusing so much on Black history, I felt defensive on her behalf. I felt affirmed when Dungy’s father reminds her that for those of us who descend from people dragged to this land “as chattel, without consent, to ‘tame’ every aspect of the environment for the pleasure of others…there is no separation between the environment and social justice.” Yet at times, such as when Dungy mentions integrated pest management in passing, I wanted to pause the next sociohistorical swerve to bring her attention back to her garden: But wait! Before you tell me about what Thomas Jefferson didn’t allow his slaves to grow—can’t you tell me whether installing a bat house helped get rid of the mosquitoes in your yard? I live in the Bronx, where my community suffers from environmental racism as well as mosquitoes, and on a practical level I really did want to know.
Still, I appreciated learning more about Anne Spencer, the poet and librarian whose home and restorative garden in Lynchburg, Virginia, served as unofficial Green Book lodging for many Black intellectuals seeking safe places to stay while traveling under Jim Crow; about Dr. George Washington Carver, who taught botany and agriculture at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, the Black teaching college and trade school; and about how Harriet Tubman’s skills as a naturalist with deep knowledge of outdoor Maryland—where she worked in timber fields, wet marshes, and wharves—helped her to navigate the Underground Railroad, where she used the call of the barred owl (“Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?”) to guide refugees through the woods. Dungy celebrates these individuals not only for their ecological knowledge but for their commitment to community. By contrast, she critiques the “solitary grandeur” and “individual genius” tropes that characterize so much of the environmental canon: Edward Abbey, John Muir, Henry David Thoreau (man alone in the wilderness); Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard (woman alone in the pastoral). She feels erased from their “so-called seminal texts” and the worlds they portray. She keeps wondering where their people were:
Ecological thought, conservationist thought, the thoughts of the gardener—these should foster nurturing and collaborative relationships with other life-forms, including those we’ve long called wild. This planet is home to us all. All who live in this house are family. What folly to separate the urgent life will of the hollyhock outside my door from the other lives, the family, I hold dear. My life demands a radically domestic ecological thought.
For Elizabeth Rush, community is also essential to radical ecological thought. So is reckoning with the environmental canon. Just as Dungy does some path-clearing to tell her own story, Rush critiques prior writing about Antarctica to do the same. The Quickening chronicles her seven-week voyage in 2019 to study the rapidly melting Thwaites Glacier aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer research vessel alongside fifty-six scientists and crew, an international and interdisciplinary “instant community.” Rush’s cohort sets sail for terra incognita not to explore or extract but to collaborate on solving a serious problem: the collapse of the widest glacier in the world.
Rush’s passage aboard the Palmer is financed by the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers program. In preparation for the mission, Rush reads everything she can about the unknown continent’s “discovery” by humans. “A few months in, I grew bored,” she writes.
The same half-dozen events—Amundsen’s conquest of the pole, Scott’s death eleven miles from One Ton Depot, Shackleton’s miraculous return, Douglas Mawson shooting and eating his sled dogs—are woven into nearly every narrative account of the last continent’s history.
Their repetition builds up a set of expectations not just about what Antarctic narratives include and what they don’t, but also about who belongs on the ice in the first place. The more I read, the more I realized I wanted little to do with this tradition.
In Rush’s fresh telling, Antarctica is not an object, an imperial trophy, a desolate outpost at the bottom of the planet, or a place of apocalyptic unraveling, but rather a subject, an animate force, a place where life begins.
Thwaites is roughly the size of Florida. It is rapidly melting from the warming water below. Given its nickname, the Doomsday Glacier, and the alarming implications of its disintegration for coastal communities around the world, Rush’s book is surprisingly optimistic. In her previous book, Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore,3 an elegiac meditation on sea-level rise, Rush cautioned against our ill-preparedness for disaster. In The Quickening, she is interested in imagining a better future. “Antarctica’s going to pieces has the power to rewrite all the maps,” she considers, without presuming to know what will happen as a consequence. The text is driven by questions without answers. She’s not naive. The entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet could be destabilized if Thwaites comes completely undone, prompting about ten feet of global sea-level rise. Despite this potential calamity, Rush ponders her central question in the company of others: What does it mean to bring a child into the world at this time of radical change?
“The climate crisis is a crisis of reproduction,” the science writer Meehan Crist has written. Rush is preoccupied with motherhood. At the time of the expedition, she is thirty-five years old and anxiously aware of her ticking clock. The trip interrupts her family planning back home in Rhode Island. Pregnant people aren’t allowed to go to Antarctica. Women were long considered too burdensome to belong in terra incognita and until relatively recently were all but banned from polar travel. (Not until 1969 did the US military lift its ban on women working in Antarctica.) Her ob-gyn warns her she’ll be a geriatric pregnancy if she conceives after she debarks. She packs prenatal vitamins. She menstruates while crossing the Drake Passage, worrying all the while that the more she learns about Thwaites, the less she will want to bring a child into this world.
But the opposite happens. The experience of community and accountability she winds up discovering on the ship affirms her desire. The Quickening is dedicated to the author’s mother and to her son, Nicolás, conceived upon her return and born during the pandemic. Its epigraph comes from the cultural theorist Fred Moten: “You can’t count how much we owe one another. It’s not countable.”
Like Soil, The Quickening is a hybrid text. It’s structured in four acts, opening with the dramatis personae: three teams of scientists (reconstructing past ice sheet behavior via geological records and present-day ice interaction with the warming ocean), members of the crew (including the captain, chief mate, marine project coordinators, technicians, sailors, and cooks), and a handful of journalists. Each act begins with a photograph that Rush took on the journey, progressing from open water to a distant iceberg to the glacier’s rending cliff face to retreating sea ice.
Rush stitches her personal story together with hard science and condensed interviews with her shipmates about their roles, goals, and observations, as well as their birth stories. This has the unifying effect of giving us their backgrounds while also stressing new beginnings and intergenerational justice. She incorporates these interviews as monologues, similar in style to Svetlana Alexievich’s Voices from Chernobyl. Here’s Guilherme “Gui” Bortolotto, a Brazilian marine mammal ecologist, thinking through the personal timescale of the lives of his son and future grandchildren versus the timescale of the human species at large:
One thousand years from now, if humanity is still around, people will look back and say, That was the generation that changed everything. The world was collapsing, and they did something. I want to be part of that legacy. But it’s not a given.
Rush’s approach is inclusive. Like Herman Melville and Michel Foucault, whom she mentions, she’s interested in the ship as a democratic space where a redistribution of power might spring from isolation, though she notices the hierarchies that persist. How often has the dishwasher been heralded for making a journey into the wilderness like this? I appreciated hearing from Julian Isaacs, one of the cooks, who asked at McMurdo Station if anyone else from Jamaica had ventured to Antarctica before him: “Some part of me wanted to be the first one. But nobody knew if I was or not.”
Rush’s voice is curious and poetic, but most of all humble. When the Nathaniel B. Palmer finally reaches Thwaites, she and her shipmates grow quiet, whispering “as though we’re in a giant, roofless cathedral.” The ice is distressed—mangled, gnarly—appearing sick. Someone says later that it looks like “reptile skin.” Its sheer size is disorienting, nearly incomprehensible. While they are there to witness its disassembling—previously captured only by remote satellite imagery and mathematical modeling—a hunk of glacier bigger than Manhattan cleaves into the Amundsen Sea without anyone even noticing. Hundreds of icebergs are calved. “We stand together in the difficulty of it, trying to see what sits right in front of us,” Rush writes. She’s so awestruck, she has to remind herself “why we are here: to observe what no one else ever has, to gain insight into the physical processes that are causing the widest glacier in the world to lose six times as much ice annually as it did three decades ago.”
The Quickening is an apt title, calling to mind both the Great Acceleration (the dramatic surge since the mid-twentieth century in human impacts on earth systems) and the moment in pregnancy when a fetus’s fluttering can first be felt in the womb. As her baby grows inside her after her return from the expedition, Rush wonders if what she witnessed was “transformation or a trauma, calving or collapse? But what if it isn’t one or the other…. The baby moves again. Both it and the ice, quickening.” She cannot seem to settle or set aside the question of agency—whether Thwaites is going to pieces to teach us a lesson or fracturing because of our actions.
Rush’s project floats among a contemporary fleet of literary works theorizing motherhood by Sheila Heti, Eula Biss, Rachel Cusk, and Kate Zambreno, which describe the obliterating sea change to identity and experience wrought by childbirth. What do we owe our children? What will we sacrifice for them? Indeed, what is the price of love? But with its environmental focus, it is also in dialogue with more overtly sociological books like Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli’s The Conceivable Future: Planning Families and Taking Action in the Age of Climate Change and Jade S. Sasser’s Climate Anxiety and the Kid Question: Deciding Whether to Have Children in an Uncertain Future,4 which look bracingly at the ethics of parenting in a climate crisis.
Interrogating the idea that the world is ending, Rush argues:
But there isn’t just one world, and this isn’t the first time much has been lost. Having children can be an act of radical faith that life will continue, despite all that assails it.
She quotes Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s essay in Revolutionary Mothering, “m/other ourselves,” in which Gumbs describes mothering as action, commitment to life, a way of resisting violent history while making space for new futures:
To answer death with utopian futurity…is a…strange thing to do…. The radical potential of the word “mother” comes after the “m.” It is the space that “other” takes in our mouths when we say it…all day long and everywhere when we acknowledge the creative power of transforming ourselves, and the ways we relate to each other. Because we were never meant to survive and here we are creating a world full of love.
One way of relating to each other is through naming things. Like Kincaid and Dungy, Rush exposes the possessive and often violent traditions of naming the natural world. She is critical of Antarctic place-names, such as the ice shelves, inlets, and bays christened after Shackleton, Bellingshausen, Palmer, Amundsen, Scott, and other early explorers. Even though it’s the one place on earth nobody owns, she writes, “at least at the language level—it’s clear to whom the continent belongs.”
The crimes of colonialism have contributed to climate collapse. Care, these writers suggest, is the cure. Whatever form it takes—in a garden, on a ship, care for all we don’t possess through capital or bonds of blood, care freely given rather than co-opted or coerced, care for nonhuman kin, care for the environment with all it contains. Toward the end of The Quickening, Rush writes:
We lived alongside one another; we had no choice. Proximity made such care possible. Now my son is the one teaching me that there is no end to what we give one another and to what we owe, that every single being on earth was born through the innate generosity of a body. A body as large as the last continent on earth, even larger than all that.
If I had to name that scale of care, I’d call it “motherlove.”
Experts warn that we should be at or below 350 ppm for a healthy planet, and that surpassing 450 will mean that we have failed to meet the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. ↩
Joy Williams, “One Acre,” Harper’s Magazine, February 2001; collected in Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals (Lyons, 2001). ↩
Milkweed, 2018; see my review in these pages, November 21, 2019. ↩
To be published this year by Rowman and Littlefield and University of California Press, respectively. ↩