Last week on the train home from Sheffield, I read Peter Prendergast's obituary in The Guardian. Obituaries are my most treasured part of the paper. They enthrall me, evoking others' dreams and enriching my own. The Guardian had reproduced the painting about and carefully I torn out the article and traced the heavy outlines. I spent my first twenty summers a few miles from Blaenau Ffestiniog and the muted palette of North Wales - slate, purple, damp brown and green - keep with me. Yet even in the height of summer, I struggled to see past the grey of Blaenau Ffestiniog; but Prendergast's knowledge and love of the land enabled him to draw out it's loveliness.
In a short video done for BBC Wales, Prendergast recalls his father's delight in the countryside despite spending much of his life below the surface:
My father worked for 46 years as a coalminer. He liked sport, walking and Irish music but he didn't like having to be a miner. Sometimes on the afternoon shift from 1.00 pm to 10.30 pm miners hardly saw the sunlight, especially in the winter. Our backyard had always been a tip full of rubbish.
The summer my father retired I went home from college. The backyard was full of flowers. My father said that he'd always wanted a garden but being a miner meant he had no energy or time. He had been working to support his family. When he retired, he spent his life watching sport, walking with my mother, and when the sun came out, sitting in his garden in his deckchair, he became a sun worshipper. So Prendergast isn't a Welsh or Irish name, it has no particular place, there are no borders. We don't own the land, we are all travellers. Roots are where we decide to put them.
Last week I also finished reading Mary Judith Ress' Ecofeminism in Latin America. The book traces the development of ecofeminism in a period when women theologians were often disregarded or treated with hostility by male liberation theologians. Ress considers the sources of the movement in Latin America: ecology, western feminist theology, indigenous traditions and the day to day experience of local women. I was most interested in her analysis of interviews with twelve Latin American women involved in grassroots work, feminist theology, or environmental projects.
In the tradition of Umberto Eco and Ivone Gebara, Ress develops an embodied ethic from her interviews. She notes how patriarchy sets the grandeur of rational thought against the sordidness of female genitality. Yet:
It is precisely this “lower” side – our menstruating, nursing, secreting woman self – that patriarchy and patriarchal religion have sought to control and repress because it reminded humans of our true nature, our earthiness, our materiality. (Ress 2006: 208)
As with many feminist ethicists, Ress advocates a situated, more fluid approach to ethics. Echoing Bonhoeffer's Ethics, she is cautious of our attempts to establish once, for all and for everyone, what is right and wrong.(Ress 2006:209)
Secondly, Ress sees within the interviews a shift from an individual sense of self to a larger sense of self, relating to the earth and also to those who have come before and after us - in Christian terms, the communion of saints. The women interviewed speak of being in process, and also linked to others through time and space. Here Ress notes the impact of indigenous cosmologies and the sense of collective memories:
We are, it seems, the collective memory of all that has gone before – the very elements in our bodies were present in the primordial fireball – and it is probable that in some recycled form we will be present in the future generation of the community of life. (Ress 2006:203)
My major difficulty with Ress' book and other ecofeminst theologies is its implied acceptance of death as natural and therefore good and welcome. This is heavily influenced by the secular ecology movement. Although I recognize the value of underlining our connection to the earth, and recognise the power of memories in sustaining relationships beyond death, I feel we need to acknowledge death's traumatic rupture, even during expected deaths or those late in life.
That said, Prendergast's work and my reading of ecofeminism reminded me of a memory shared by a friend of mine some years ago. As a young man, he attended a funeral of the mother of close school friends. It was an awful time but he remembered being calmed as the body was placed in the ground and the earth enfolded it. So too Ress records Ivone Gebara's wish that her last sign and repose be in the arms of the earth. (Ress 2006:207)
Mary Judith Ress (2006) Ecofeminism in Latin America Maryknoll, NY: Orbis