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Écritures dans les Amériques au féminin

Dante Barrientos-Tecun
Anne Reynes-Delobel

Subjectivité, identité, communauté : écritures du désir, du corps et de la corporéité

The body as threshold for connection

Brenda Peterson’s writings

Margot Lauwers


This article examines the work of nature writer and novelist Brenda Peterson from an ecofeminist perspective so as to show how she operates a highly-developed deconstruction of traditional binary oppositions present in Western concepts, such as the body/mind split. It analyzes Peterson’s uses of bodily reinvestment and the concept of “skin-dreaming” as ecofeminist writing strategies. Peterson’s writings aim at reconfiguring dichotomous social relations (e.g. men/women, or humans/animals) and at challenging the power of official narratives in order to open up a space for a more comprehensive way of “being-in-the-world.”

Cet article cherche à démontrer de quelle manière l’œuvre de la romancière et nature writer Brenda Peterson déconstruit subtilement les oppositions binaires de la pensée occidentale (telle la dualité corps/esprit) en réinscrivant le réinvestissement corporel et le concept du « skin dreaming » dans les stratégies de la littérature écoféministe. L’œuvre de Peterson cherche à reconfigurer les relations sociales dichotomiques (masculin/féminin ou humain/animal, par exemple) et à contrecarrer la pensée officielle afin d’ouvrir un espace où un « être-au-monde » puisse déployer toutes ses potentialités.

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1Brenda Peterson is an American novelist and nature-oriented writer who grew up in the forests of the High Sierra in California. She authored 16 books, including anthologies novels and memoirs. Keen on recreating links between humans and the earth, her essays explore her own Native American background and her compassion towards nature as well as the relationship of people with their environment. As a prolific and respected philosopher, she is active in environmentalist and ecofeminist circles, participating in summits, conferences and lectures on a wide variety of topics such as the maintenance of wolves in Yellowstone or the reintroduction of captive orcas into their original pods. Her writings enrich the emerging field of critical animal studies by focusing on the way humans interact with their environment and each other, and by drawing a link between the lives of cetaceans, wolves, and human societies.

2In Singing to the Sound: Visions of Nature, Animals and Spirit (2000), she reflects on her own connection to water and on the human connection towards sea mammals. She recounts the case of the Makah Indians and their relationship to the great whale, as well as her observations as a teacher. Her musings lead her to the question of how to find a way for humans to physically and spiritually inhabit the world while being respectful towards all that is other. Build Me an Ark: A Life with Animals (2001) is the story of how animals somehow guide the author’s life. She explains how her interactions with wildlife and pets have helped her acquire a different understanding of human society and talks about the transforming powers her connection with animals hold. In both works, Peterson reveals how animal bonds have enhanced her understanding of life and of her own place on earth. The conclusion of both writings is the following: as a species, we cannot live without other animals. In asserting this, what she combats in her writing is the binarism of the Western mind: the separation between mind and body, reason and emotion, to which she opposes the liminality of her own thoughts and stories. With her words and her particular way of describing bodily experiences, she aims at reconnecting those binary pairs into a new interdependent whole. As ecofeminist literary theorist Stacy Alaimo put it, what Peterson does is “occupy corporeality to recreate it as a space of liminality and resistance” (Gaard & Murphy 1998: 123).

3Of course, Peterson’s work could be read as a romanticized approach of nature, in which “romantic conceptions of nature, […] invoke nature as a disembodied space, a place in which the individual can mentally or spiritually find respite, a place to feel that ‘unity with nature’” (idem: 125), where shamanic-like experiences dwindle with the author’s perception of reality. However, given the degree to which the author bodily connects to the natural world and the erasure of dualities her work allows, qualifying her work as an over-romanticized approach might be regarded as a misreading. By approaching these works from an ecofeminist perspective, the aim of this paper is to show how Peterson operates a highly-developed deconstruction of traditional binary oppositions present in Western concepts, such as the body/mind split. I will start by replacing these works in the ecofeminist contextual framework they come from before analyzing Peterson’s uses of bodily reinvestment and the concept of skin-dreaming as ecofeminist writing strategies. This will allow me to investigate how — through her use of the body as a literary threshold — Peterson’s writings revisit corporeity and embodiment and how, in doing so, the author allows for a reconfiguration of dichotomous social relations such as those between men and women, or humans and animals. We will see how Peterson’s writing style ultimately aims at challenging the power of official narratives in order to open up a space for a more comprehensive manner of “being-in-the-world.”

Feminist environmental philosophy

  • 1 Anthropocentrism is the term used to designate the human-centered gaze. Androcentrism is the term u (...)

4This challenging of official narratives is an important point for ecofeminist thinking of which Peterson is an advocate. Ecofeminism is broadly perceived as a grassroots movement which started in North America in the 1970s. Striving for social change, it aims at dismantling the androcentric and anthropocentric1 concepts by focusing on the interrelationship between sexism and environmental deterioration. Consequently, ecofeminist theories call into question the dichotomous structures which underlie certain western worldviews, such as the dualistic relationship between nature and culture, reason and emotion or between human and non-human beings. Starting from the deconstruction of these dichotomies, ecofeminism tries to offer new conceptions which acknowledge and insist on biological and cultural diversity, as Gaard and Murphy explain: “The foundation and ground of ecofeminism’s existence, then, consists of both resistance and vision, critiques and heuristics. Ecofeminism is not a single master theory and its practitioners have different articulations of their social practice” (Gaard and Murphy 1998: 2).

  • 2 See, for instance, LAUWERS, Margot, 2014, Amazones de la plume : les manifestations littéraires de (...)

5Synthetically, one could define ecofeminism as an activist and theoretical movement, based on the recognition of links between the exploitation of nature and the oppression of women in patriarchal societies. According to ecofeminists such as Karen Warren or Val Plumwood, these links stem from a logic of domination common to all oppressive structures. Yet, such a definition might seem a little simplistic given that it puts aside important aspects of ecofeminist thinking. Indeed it does not show the important literary production which surrounds ecofeminism and thus conceals a large part of its characteristic diversity. Although ecofeminist literary criticism is often presented as being the latest evolution of the movement, approaching ecofeminism via its literary criticism has proven helpful in understanding this complex movement: first, it is the use of ecofeminism as a critical literary theory which has allowed ecofeminism’s entry into academic circles in a less controversial manner and second because literary criticism has been a key element of the ecofeminist movement from its beginning, with texts such as Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature: the Roaring Inside Her or Annette Kolodny’s The Lay of the Land2. Through the study of writings such as Peterson’s and through an ecofeminist approach of texts, it appears that ecofeminist grassroots movements, theory and literary criticism have always evolved together, rather than one after the other.

  • 3 See, for instance, GRAVLIN, Bevie, 1994, Chakka: My Wolfchild, Arlington, Knightsbridge Pub Co. Tra (...)

6Among other currents of thoughts, ecofeminist literary critics came to the conclusion that the planet’s story had been told almost exclusively in human terms, even more so that “Enlightenment thought constructed a white, heterosexual, patriarchal hegemony that marginalized those outside the ‘fixed’ center” (Fuston-White 2002: 462), animals included. And indeed, the contemporary post-humanist era has constantly been seeking new definitions of “the human” in order to inscribe humans back into a history which would no longer be conceptually separate of that of nature. For the past forty years, scientific discoveries have only whittled down what until then seemed to be human characteristics — the use of tools and language are two of the most striking examples of this. Henceforth, the fact that certain species of birds and great apes use tools frequently is an accepted fact (in particular thanks to Jane Goodall’s work in this area) and this same phenomenon has allegedly been observed in certain domestic animals as well3. Language is no longer regarded as a distinctive human feature since the discovery of similar uses of communication in marine mammals or other large mammals like elephant. But which distinctive human features are remaining then? one might ask. Some will answer than literature is a distinctively human production. Glen A. Love, for example, explains the importance with which literature should be treated if we accept this assumption as being true:

If the creation of literature is an important characteristic of the human species, it should be examined carefully and honestly to discover its influence upon human behavior and the natural environment, and to determine what role, if any, it plays in the welfare and survival of humanity, and what insight it offers into human relationships with other species and with the world around us. Is it an activity that adapts us better to life on Earth or one that sometimes estranges us from life? From the unforgiving perspective of evolution and natural selection, does literature contribute more to our survival than it does to our extinction? (Love: 1992: 196)

  • 4 This argument is supported by important ecofeminist figures such as Greta Gaard, Karen Warren, Patr (...)

7An ecofeminist answer to this question could be that, if given the chance, literature can contribute more the survival of the planet and the species that populate it4. Consequently, writers such as Brenda Peterson endeavor at creating literary spaces in which the Modernist tradition of power and knowledge is challenged in order to give voice to those who are traditionally deemed voiceless.

  • 5 Literature can indeed play an important part in this ecological awakening, if one looks at the effe (...)
  • 6 BROWN, Paul, 1985, “‘This Thing of Darkness I acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of C (...)

8Since the 1970’s this renewed interest in the natural world has proven beneficial in that it pushed people to take into account the needs of other living organisms that share the planet5. However, according to a number of ecofeminist thinkers, it would be naïve to think that this interest is devoid of anthropocentrism because this need to expand our perspective hides a longing for ecological redemption which is also human-centered. Jane Goodall explicitly words this need for redemption in the article “I Acknowledge Mine”: “I acknowledge my own complicity in this world we have made, and I feel the need for forgiveness” (Goodall 1998: 166). This need for redemption echoes, by the title of the paper, Prospero’s speech in Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In the fifth act, after abandoning his desires for vengeance, witchcraft and his negative feelings towards Caliban, Prospero looks at his slave and says “this thing of darkness / I acknowledge mine,” thus acknowledging Caliban as a person as well as his own wrongdoings. As Paul Brown has analyzed6, the analogy created between the two men by this sentence reinstalls Caliban as a human being and highlights the similarities that link him to Prospero. Goodall’s use of this quotation as a title refers to a similar desire for the acknowledgement of wrongdoings, but those committed by human beings towards the natural world. What Goodall puts forward in her text is the fact that the general vision human beings have of themselves as superior beings is wrong, in the same sense as Prospero’s opinion about Caliban was wrong.

9By the alternative worldviews presented in works such as Carson’s, Goodall’s or the ones studied here, authors allow for animals to be thought of differently by creating affectively laden images between the reader and the animals present in the narration. These affectively laden images make the reader liable for an empathetic experience of what is “Other” (here an animal or a shamanic experience). Australian philosopher Moira Gatens analyzes this point in Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality by explaining that one cannot change someone’s perception of things simply by presenting them with a démenti or contradiction, but that affect is a fundamental component in change. To name but a few, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) and Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) are examples of important changes that have been brought about by literature, by means of the empathy and the subjectivity it can convey.

10Brenda Peterson’s work poses “a strong theoretical challenge to the Modernist tradition of knowledge, reason, language, history, and identity” because her writings explore a way for marginalized groups in the United States (be they Native Americans, animals and/or women) “to find theoretical alternatives which allow for the creation of presence and voice” (Fuston-White, 2002: 464, 436), enabling the animals, bodies or objects in Peterson’s narrative to “speak, command reason, and demonstrate agency” (idem: 464) in ways that challenge the official narrative of the white male hegemony in which they are usually rendered voiceless and emotionless. As Val Plumwood wrote in The Mastery of Nature: “Cartesian thought declares non-human nature terra nullius, uninhabited by mind, totally available for annexation, a sphere easily molded to the ends of a reason conceived as without limits” (Plumwood 1994: 128). Humans have thus justified the alteration and even destruction of nature because they see it as devoid of mind or intention. By extension, animals have suffered the same treatment because they are part of this kingdom of mindlessness. Similarly, the body is seen as an object rather than as a thinking subject; it serves human action but is itself devoid of intention and considered with suspicion, as something too instinctive. In 1993, Carol Bigwood pointed out the necessity of a materialist corporeity which would find its roots in the living body. According to Josephine Donovan, the body experienced according to Bigwood’s theories would be “experienced from within as a living presence, a thou” (Donovan, 1998: 89).

11In Peterson’s narrative, the body becomes a way of producing a materialist knowledge which is neither purely linguistic nor cognitive per se, but a knowledge “rooted in a kind of special empathy that enables a dialogical relationship between ‘subjects’ and ‘objects’” (idem: 91). According to ecofeminists, this knowledge is necessary in order to outbalance reductionist worldviews which claim the body to be either a purely natural object whose sole aim lies in the use it has for the mind, either a purely cultural entity which denies the body’s anchoring in its environment: “if we reduce the body to a purely cultural phenomenon […] then we perpetuate the deep modern alienation of our human body from nature” (Bigwood 1993: 44). Consequently, Peterson’s use of the body aims at creating what Donovan calls a “metonoia, […] an epistemological awakening” (Donovan 1998: 92) whose main purpose would be political because it serves: “to make the dominator-subject see/hear what has been construed as an object” (ibid.). Through what connects it and separates it from the natural realm, the body becomes a way to overcome the “mind/matter split” (Alaimo 1998: 133): “Awareness of the body not only offers a sense of grounding for humans but also holds out the possibility for connections with nature that neither obliterate its differences nor reinforce hierarchies of beings” (ibid.).

12Peterson’s writings thus offer a new approach to the body/mind split by creating a written bridge across species and cultures, as well as across mind and body. This endows the body with an agency of its own. In doing so, she challenges the oppositions between body and mind, but also between nature and culture by showing that her way of inhabiting the earth is through “bodies that know” (Alaimo 1998: 129). She describes a way of feeling and living through which bodies “read” (ibid.) the information embodied in other creatures; advocating that corporeality functions according to a code, like culture, and that bodies too carry the faculty to interpret these codes. By describing the body as a place that is not only “written with” (ibid.) but as an organism that also reads, Peterson underscores the body’s “mind”.

Bodily investments and bodily knowledges

13According to prominent French-Belgian thinker Luce Irigaray, within the field of philosophical practice and psychoanalysis, women have been refused proper access to conceptual thinking because of the masculinism of the discipline. She claims that, because “Man” is seen as the universal norm, sexual difference is not recognized or it is in such a way that the maternal-feminine’ concept dominates and weakens trust in the validity of women’s thought processes. She sees western logic (which is dominated by male thinking according to her) as situated along principles of identity and binarism, individuality and distinction whereas female corporeality suggests “an ambiguity of individuation, a fluidity and mobility, and a rejection of stable forms” (Lennon 2014: n.p.). Notwithstanding the biological essentialism that this distinction could strengthen, it is important to bear in mind that Irigaray uses these concepts based upon bodies “as they feature in the interconnected symbolic and imaginary of western culture” (Irigaray 1985: 79-80).

14Another leading feminist figure, Julia Kristeva, distinguishes between the symbolic and the semiotic dimensions of language. She agrees with Lacan’s explanation of the symbolic being a complex of organized public significance, and language but she underlines the semiotic as being another dimension of communication which would have its roots in the body and a child’s relationship to the mother, prior to a child’s entry into language. This semiotic side of language would express itself in forms of bodily expression which may interfere with the order of public discourse. Kristeva claims that we have no possibility to recede to this mode of expression wholly (only periodically in poetry for example) without losing the consciousness of ourselves as individuated subjects, and without running the risk of psychosis.

15In both Build Me an Ark and Singing to the Sound, Brenda Peterson manages to represent corporeality and embodiment in such a way, however, that she seems to “to fall out of balance between [the symbolic and the semiotic sides of language without falling] into one or the other exclusively [which] is madness” (Crownfield 1992: 130). Even more so, she does indeed lay bare “a fluidity and mobility and a rejection of stable forms” (Lennon 2014: n.p.) which allow her to bodily inhabit this planet and its society in a way that offers an alternative to traditional patriarchal ways of knowing.

16For example, at the beginning of Build Me an Ark, Peterson decides to stop going to a dolphin center in Key Largo where she swam with semi-captive dolphins over the course of several years. She makes this decision in accordance with her uneasiness towards these captive animals. She finds it hypocritical to swim with “psychologically imprisoned” dolphins while at the same time advocating their freedom (Peterson 2001: 31). As she enters the water for her last swim with those she affectionately calls “the girls,” she declares trying to send a message of explanation through body language or telepathy to the dolphins. She recounts that usually she is flanked by a dolphin on each side, but how this time, the dolphins took up an “unusual formation,” all six of them surrounding her and taking her along in their wake:

Now they have placed me within their center in the position of a calf learning to swim. As the three lead dolphins streak forward, their powerful tail flukes pull me in their fast wake. The three dolphins behind me propel me forward with their pectorals, so I need make no movement with my own arms and legs […]. The dolphins are swimming for me, carrying me aloft in their waves, just as a dolphin will ride a boat’s wake, easily pulled along by another’s path. (Idem: 32-33)

17She goes on to explain how, in her mind’s eye, images appear of what is usually referred to as “a crossover”: hundreds of dolphins soaring overseas, as if flying:

Crossover behavior is a wonder to see, and I had not yet witnessed it myself. So where was the vivid image in my mind coming from? The dolphins or me? […] Had the dolphins carried me not only with their bodies but also with their minds? (Ibid.)

18And although the author has never seen this behavior before she describes the whole experience by saying: My mind recognizes what my body has already enjoyed”. Her body thus has its proper knowledge and pleasures, separate from that of her mind. She later states “… as I raced with them, I felt more dolphin than human. […] I knew the crossover images in my mind were not mine alone, but shared” (idem: 35). She acknowledges the fact that these dolphins, once wild, have a memory of crossover behavior experienced before their captivity, and without calling into question the validity of her reasoning, she acknowledges the fact that she was gifted with a mental and bodily embrace upon saying goodbye to, what she calls, “these sister creatures” (idem: 32). She also endows the body itself with a memory as valid as the mind’s since, according to her description, her own mind might not have experienced something that her body already has by transmission with other beings.

19This scene at the beginning of Build Me an Ark instantly challenges the dichotomies between nature and culture as it allows dolphins to have a culture of memory; between body and mind as it blurs the limits between lived bodily experience and mind images shared by a human and animals; and between subject and object as the author places the dolphins as subjects who decide to share with the human, herself becoming a target of their “teaching.” Traditionally, humans are the subjects in a human-animal relationship but Peterson goes as far as creating a space where beings are both object and subject at the same time, none being more important or more valid than the other.

20In chapter eight of the same book, Peterson explains that her younger sister and her have, from childhood on, suffered small strokes of vertigo which they realized coincided with earthquakes. She doesn’t try to rationally justify this; on the contrary, she admits the seeming irrationality of these occurrences but just accepts them as existing: “[…] we forest-born, with feet that listen to what our ears cannot hear” (idem: 116). She recalls driving through the Arizona desert with a friend, getting lost and happening upon a small shop in the Navajo reservation. Entering the shed alone, she is welcomed by a Navajo woman and they chat about the desert while Peterson looks at the jewelry for sale. She then explains how a dizziness, similar to those preceding an earthquake, takes hold of her. Leaning on the glass counter, she realizes it is something within the glass case that creates the dread she feels: “It was so powerful that it touched me long before I ever touched it. […] Something’s there, I feel it” (idem: 118). The Navajo woman agrees with this “acknowledgement or recognition of a power beyond” (ibid.) the author and takes out a necklace that was hidden underneath the counter to place it in her hands. The Navajo necklace, made up of wolf teeth, turquoise stones and silver, contains such a power to Peterson that she is terrified upon holding it: “A ferocious spirit still clung to these wolf teeth, because for one instant I had an image of bared, bloody incisors and a terrible growl too low to really hear, much like the warning growl and rumble of earthquakes” (ibid.). She accepts what is offered to her as a gift when the Navajo woman explains that the necklace has woken up because it recognized Peterson, and that it is a magical object made to protect someone. “My body knew she spoke truthfully […] it was deeply personal” (2001: 119). Faced with something that goes beyond her own understanding of things, Peterson again accepts her body’s knowledge as valid. In doing so she stresses to what extent bodily perspectives mold our perceptions and restores subjectivity as a valuable way of knowing. Her narrative work thus illustrates something “vital […] the acceptance of multiplicities, in which there is not a single history that represents truth’ but numerous truths, each affected by experience” (Fuston-White 2002: 466). Later on, she learns more about the fact that the necklace is a protection from human witches. According to the Cherokee friend who explains this to the author, the necklace had “work to do in the world” and “these sacred artworks rarely make mistakes”, and Peterson to say that “it possesses” her more than she possesses it (Peterson 2001: 125).

21If objects can perform actions such as wanting, working, protecting and possessing (idem: 115-125) like it is the case in Peterson’s narrative, then they no longer have the passivity classically associated with objects, but are embodied as well. Here again, the divide between object and subject, and thus other traditional divisions, is heavily blurred. When she is told of the intended use of the necklace she received, Brenda Peterson learns about a Native American belief according to which certain humans, identified as witches, can change their physical appearance. She explains that “The Navajos believe there are real wolves who are part of nature and therefore good, but there are also […] human witches, called skin-walkers, who disguise themselves as wolves or coyotes and work evil against those they dislike” (idem: 126).

22In all Peterson’s writings, Native American mythology plays an important role, both in offering a more intuitive look on the world and in recreating links for humans with the place they inhabit. This inclusion of oral traditions is reminiscent of Patrick D. Murphy’s theories according to which we need to include oral lore into the realm of nature-oriented literature for it to be all-encompassing (Murphy 2000: 2). This inclusion of Native American lore gives way to a literary device called “skin-dreaming” through which Peterson blurs the boundaries between human and non-human being, thus further challenging the power of official narratives according to which human stand apart from the natural world.

Skin-walkers and skin-dreaming

  • 7 Directed by James Isaac in 2006.

23The passages of a spirit from human to animal, or animal to animal are a frequent occurrence in Build Me an Ark and Singing to the Sound, like when she recalls the Nootka Indian myth which says “that when orcas went walking on land, they did so as wolves” (idem: 183). This idea is relatively unknown in western culture albeit the fact that it has been recycled by Hollywood in films such as Skinwalkers7 where the term is used erroneously as a synonym for werewolf. What is typical to the shape-shifting here referred to is the loss of identity. Indeed, in the case of skin-walkers and werewolves, one of the protagonists loses his or her identity in the change. With werewolves, it is the human side that is obliterated for example, whereas with a skin-walker, it is the animal identity that is silenced. There exists thus a disruption between the body and the mind, similar to the one we find in the western conception of the body and mind as being separate.

  • 8 See BIERI, Aurore, 2012, “A sense of place: ‘Skin dreaming’ in Brenda Peterson’s writing. Blurring (...)

24Although Peterson uses something similar, her use of shape-shifting has different characteristics. This process has been called “skin dreaming” by Linda Hogan in a poem written in 1993 (Hogan 1993: 32-34). The term “skin dreaming”, as opposed to “skin walking” implies movement to a lesser degree. That is to say, with skin walking, one shifts bodies; one sheds his or her own skin to momentarily take up another. With skin dreaming, however, there is no shedding and the process, although limited in time, has consequences that last in the present. Skin dreaming could be defined as a process where “during physical contact of two bodies through the skin, there happens a psychological transposition between those that touch, whether they are human or animal”8. Skin dreaming thus enables one spirit (human or non-human) to gain insight into what it means to be the other, without ever losing one’s own identity. Within the narrative, because of its intimacy with the outside world, skin serves, in Elizabeth Grosz’s words, as “a brave corporeal ambassador” or a “threshold or borderline concept that hovers perilously and undecidably at the pivotal point of binary pairs. […] The body is neither — while also being both the private or the public, self or other, natural or cultural” (Grosz 1994: 126).

25This use of skin as a threshold for connection is common throughout both books in the different animal, and sometimes human, encounters the author experiences but one of the clearest examples is her meeting with Mauyak in Build Me an Ark. Mauyak is an 11-year-old beluga whale, living at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo, who has just lost a calf soon after its birth. Invited by one of her friends who works there, Peterson penetrates the space where Mauyak mourns her baby. The whale is pushing around a rubber buoy which serves as surrogate for the small beluga’s lifeless body. In the wild, beluga mothers who lose a calf push their bodies around until it disintegrates. Wary of her caretakers who removed her baby’s corpse from her, Mauyak refuses to make contact with them. Peterson being new to her, she accepts her presence because she needs to connect to someone, as whales do, the caretaker explains. When Peterson lays her hand on the whale’s giant forehead, Mauyak’s forehead starts throbbing:

It felt so alive, like encountering an alien intelligence resounding in my open hand, tingling up my arms, and actually singing along my bare skin. […] ricocheting inside my ribs and vibrating along my jawbone […] from her skin right through my hand. (Peterson 2001: 170)

26Whereas the human gaze has objectified animals as always being the ones who are observed, Peterson’s description upturns this objectification by placing the whale into the active role. The author describes herself as being submitted to the whale’s touch: she is not the one who has initiated contact and has no active participation in it, except receiving what the beluga has to “offer”: “I was in a state of complete surrender and wonder, my palm still singing with sound” (idem: 171). When told to put her hand inside the beluga’s mouth, Peterson does so fearlessly. Here, the passage of both emotions and physical sensibility from one to another are pushed even further:

[…] when she held my hand, it felt like she had the whole world of me inside her body. Sensations on the soft underside of my palm told me there was something else extraordinary going on —something I’d never felt before. […] It was as if Mauyak was taking a reading of my very soul —that’s how deep her tactile scrutiny of tongue and echolocation felt. I found myself weeping, tears streaming down my face. Perhaps I was also registering her heartbreak in my open hand. This was […] true grief. (Ibid.)

27The author then closes her eyes and goes on:

Sightless, I was suddenly much more aware of my body. My outstretched arm felt endless, a physical bridge between mammal kin, as Mauyak’s soft tongue clasped my palm. I was swallowed whole inside her and with my eyes closed, the darkness seemed to expand and I was back inside some great belly-womb where there was no time, only the watery pulse of my own surrounding sea-placenta. (Idem: 172)

28The lack of sight allows the author to fully take in the extent of the connection she feels with the whale, enhancing her impression of belonging to the same world. This allows for an empowerment of the body in which the human form of the author is no longer something with limits but becomes “a physical bridge between mammal kin”, sending the author back to a timeless pre-birth period (“placenta”) after which the inversion of positions becomes complete. Indeed, Peterson as the human being no longer stands on a pedestal, apart from other animals but feels as a child, ready to learn from them:

I let this great, broken-hearted whale mother me. I felt safer like this, eyes closed, arm and being swallowed up by a great whale’s mouth and belly, […]. And I realized that this was profoundly familiar, this mirror of myself in an animal’s gaze. […] This was a two-way vision, and I only hoped I was equal to it. (Idem: 172-173)

29Here, the skin and body disintegrate, dissolving a distinctly human or animal identity, and give way to a new identity, extended beyond what both the human being and the animal know of themselves. The mirror image sent back to the author through the whale’s gaze and touch help the author transform into a new embodied self: Peterson has lost nothing of her own identity but has acquired a new extended vision. The skin-dreaming that has operated between the two has enriched Peterson’s worldview and sense of responsibility and agency towards the non-human world. Brenda Peterson transforms the skin from a border that restrains the human form into an in-between zone that connects across and dissolves the purely human into corporeal connections between living beings.

30One single human hand becomes “the whole world of me” and one single whale mouth becomes a “surrounding sea-placenta”. Through the narrative, these bodies stray away from traditional physical boundaries and categories of animal, human, touch, feeling, emotion, reason, etc. thus calling into question all these divisions. This passage illustrates the way Peterson rewrites bodily sensations and embodiment in what Stacy Alaimo describes as “a liminal, indeterminate space that disrupts the opposition between nature and culture” (Alaimo 1998: 126). This mystical moment of unity, a psychological and literary shape-shifting, enables the author to put aside the human-animal divide and to create a non-hierarchical horizontal link between them, thus challenging the official narrative which conceptualizes humans as beings superior to all other living creatures, standing at the top of a conceptual vertical hierarchical ladder.

31This reference to a common place, outside of the realm of traditional bodily inhabitation of the world, allows Peterson to reaffirm that in order for humans and non-human beings to be able to listen to one another and live in a manner more respectful of the planet’s diversity, humans as fellow animal creatures need to step out of our human-centered gaze, out of the classical way of thinking our bodies and thus, by extension, our relationship to the world in order to regain the rapture lost in neglecting our bodily investment to the environment humans inhabit. This encourages the reader to become aware of what Bakhtin qualifies as “the fact of my non-alibi in Being” (Bakhtin 1981: 16). This non-alibi is fundamental for ecofeminists in the relationship to language and to literature, given that language conveys “outmoded and inaccurate ways of thinking about the world” (Murphy 2000: 16) which ecofeminism tries to change:

Because each entity is unique, not just human beings but also all other organisms and all other material formations […], every entity plays an irreplaceable and nonsubstitutable role in events at the level of maximum particularity. That is not to exclude significant similarities or to deny that we have nearly identical entities existing synchronically and diachronically together, but rather to observe that no one substitutes perfectly or totally for another one. Once someone has been informed and educated about ecological realities, particularly impending crises, […], that person has no alibi for inaction, no excuse for retaining outmoded and inaccurate ways of thinking about the world on the basis that someone else will take care of it. (Ibid.)

32Language and literature are no longer solely a manner of describing the world, but become tools used to challenge dominant discourses because “though the separation of nature from language and culture is a fiction, it is one which culture and language have authored. […] In Western culture, language continuously bears forth a conceit […] that it can master nature” (Griffin 1997: 117). Consequently, Peterson’s narrative puts the emphasis on modes of thinking that differ from those dictated by dominant discourses and seizes language in a way that reinstates its belonging to the natural sphere by insisting on “the simple truth that human existence is immersed in nature, dependent on nature, inseparable from it” (Griffin 1978: xi).

This heterarchical way of describing suggests a way of knowing that sees animal and human bodies as active, signifying forces, not as passive resources. Out of this way of knowing dawns a realization:

What I knew that day when a whale held the whole of me with her eye, in her mouth, as if I were deep within her recently abandoned belly, was that I was not alone here on this Earth. That I was connected to a larger kinship system that I’d ever really understood physically. […] Now, I understood that my very body was connected to these other creatures by a mammal umbilical cord: we were warm-blooded, we breathed air, we nursed our young, we were both born from the primal seas. (Peterson 2001: 173)

33The “we” here is all-inclusive and refers to the “larger kinship system” mentioned by the author. There operates a shift as if from a microcosm to a macrocosm: the interspecies duet in which the whale and the author are locked becomes, through the way the author describes this bodily connection, this bodily feeling of belonging, the interwoven web of living things. Peterson refers to a physical understanding analogous to the semiotic side of language described by Kristeva given that it is an understanding which is prior to language. Although this passage might seem heavily gendered because of the mention of the “umbilical cord”, it is not. It is about bodily connection for, if we come to think about it, this cord is what sustains all living things before birth, regardless of species, race, or gender. The reference to common ancestors (“born from the primal seas”) holds the same message of bodily remembrance of commonalities. What Peterson points to is a change in order, a heterarchy (the opposite of a hierarchy) between living things via bodily memory. Her narrative does not advocate humans being downgraded to the levels of beasts or non-human animals being upgraded, but a shift in consciousness and sense of belonging, the means of which is bodily recollection, via the skin.

  • 9 See Hogan Linda, Metzger Deena & Peterson Brenda (eds.), 1997, Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Wo (...)
  • 10 As writes Judith Plant in her introduction to Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, Phila (...)
  • 11 See MONTAGU, Ashley, 1971, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, New York, Columbia Univers (...)

34It is important to note that the author’s general use of skin as studied here is also genderless. In other works, Peterson theorizes on gender and the different intertwined relationships of oppression such as speciesism, race, and class. This shows that the gender question is central to Brenda Peterson’s thought9. But the skin to which she refers in the narrative studied here is not a woman’s skin. Traditionally, skin has an important gendered symbolical meaning in western societies. The characteristics traditionally (that is to say by the social construction of gender) assigned to the female sex (softness, fragility, sensitivity…) or the male sex (toughness, brutality, sensibility…) are mirrored on the skin10. This conveys the idea of a well-cared-for skin, soft, without callosities, nice to the touch, of greater sensitivity than male skin11 because it is thought of as being more submitted to touch. Again, Peterson curtails this binary opposition and rehabilitates skin as a “threshold or borderline concept that hovers perilously and undecidably at the pivotal point of binary pairs” (Grosz 1994: 126). In doing so, Peterson erases the way in which skin can be used to mirror distinct characteristics. Furthermore, she blurs boundaries and manages to restore skin as a gender-neutral universal container of all living things, a commonality between humans and other living creatures.

35Another example which illustrates the author’s desire to blur boundaries is found in her encounters with wolves who are considered as shape-shifters themselves, since the author reminds her readers of the Nootka Indians who thought wolves and orcas were the same spirit, in different skin forms. Peterson recalls a visit to Montana’s Yellowstone Park in 1995, where after an observation of wild wolves, a ranger shows her a wolf skin from a wolf that has died naturally in the wild. As a parting gesture, he drapes the skin around the author saying: “You’ll never forget how this feels […] Biologists and other scientists don’t talk much about spiritual matters. But the wolf is a most spiritual creature and you’ve earned this moment” (Peterson 2001: 212):

It was as if an other-worldly or distinctly different energy surrounded me, an electricity running from head to foot. […] I let the wolf skin’s primal strength run through my body. Closing my eyes, I saw flickering images: snowdrifts and the long efficient stride of the wolf, paws splayed like snowshoes, breath hot and visible in the cold, fur so warm that snow melted along its lengths. Inside this wolf skin I felt profoundly protected, even though this wolf had not been able to outrun death. When I opened my eyes it was as if I sensed the world around me with a double vision —my own and the wild wolf’s. The embracing circle of dark summer woods was my home as it once had been in my first forest; my ears were pricked and alert, like the fur-lined ears of the head atop my own. And the luxurious smells of summer flooded my senses with sudden scents: mountain lupine, spicy sage, delicate lavender […]. (Idem: 214)

36Again, boundaries between one being and the other are blurred by the touch of their skin. The description of the author’s own ears as “pricked and alert” is distinctly animal and the images conjured up by the touch of human skin and wolf skin seem to create in the author an awareness, bodily gained from the wolf.

37The reverence of Brenda Peterson for communication via the skin, and her probable knowledge of the concept of skin dreaming then become explicit as she goes on thinking about the wolf:

This wolf felt truly like the most supernatural of all creatures, able to hunt and slip between the worlds of skin, of dream, of afterlife. Inside the skin of this wild wolf, I knew again that primitive conviction of my childhood bond with those deer guardians: some of an animal’s spirit stays forever with its skin, and teeth, and bones. Skin does walk between worlds. (Idem: 216)

38In a 1998 essay, Stacy Alaimo talks about bodily transgressions in Linda Hogan’s and Octavia Butler’s work. What she describes could also apply to Brenda Peterson’s work:

They invoke the body not as a mute, passive space that signifies the inferior part of our natures but as a place of vibrant connection, historical memory, and knowledge. […] Instead of peering down at other creatures, they look across, from within, and — importantly — away from. As the paths of humans and animals intersect, the body becomes a threshold, a site of elemental connections, and a space for “skin dreaming.” (Alaimo 1998: 126)

39Indeed within Peterson’s narrative, embodiment functions as a method of being-in-the-world. For example, the episode with the dolphins of Key Largo gives way to an introspection in which she blurs even the boundaries of her own human self, describing her way of being-in-the-world as a manner of not only building literary bridges, but being a bridge’ herself:

And then I remembered what I had either forgotten long ago or never quite fully realized. This feeling of being carried along by other animals was familiar. Animals had carried me all my life. I was a crossover — carried along in the generous and instructive slipstream of other species. And I had always navigated my life with them in mind, going between the human and animal worlds — a crossover myself. By including animals in my life I was always engaging with the Other, imagining the animal mind and life. For almost half a century, my bond with animals has shaped my character and revealed the world to me. At every turning point in my life an animal had mirrored or influenced my fate. Mine was not simply a life with other animals, but a life because of animals. (2001: 35, emphasis in original)


40Brenda Peterson’s representations of corporeal experiences are reminiscent of the work of philosopher Moira Gatens when she explains the importance of affect in change. In Imaginary Bodies: Ethics, Power and Corporeality, Gatens demonstrates that in order to change the way people experience the world; it is not enough to just present them with a different opinion. What Gatens deems necessary is supplying people with new images which make sensitive sense in order for them to be adopted.

41Peterson’s writing and her emotionally charged body images serve to build emotional bridges with a natural world from which ecofeminists claim humans are severed. This becomes explicit in Singing to the Sound when she says that: “it is a connection that, once lost, can be restored. And perhaps in a way, all of my animal stories are about restoring that connection.” (Peterson 2000: 42). This idea is echoed in Build Me an Ark when she writes that she feels: “A yearning to restore some part of my kind who have been too long separated from their forests, their kinship with other animals — too long lonely, like lost souls seeking their bodies.” (Peterson 2001: 215)

42By invoking the body as a threshold for connection not only between species, but also between humans, Brenda Peterson aims at creating emotional resonance. This intention is clearly stated in Build Me an Ark: “[it] is simply a vibrational resonance so sophisticated that it works like a tuning fork. Another tuning fork held near a tuning fork that is struck will begin to vibrate at the exact same pitch as the struck one” (Peterson 2001: 25) and later: “[…] and we were just little tuning forks struck to vibrate alongside this exact and grand chord” (idem: 252). In doing so, Peterson presents her readers with corporeal experiences which broaden the feminist debate around corporeity because they relate to the human and non-human beings that develop outside of conceptual hetero-patriarchal thinking. Because of this, Peterson’s narrative is in a way reminiscent of Carol Bigwood’s theories. Inspired by the works of Merleau-Ponty and Audre Lorde, Bigwood concentrates on an aestheticism and an epistemology that would be rooted in the material body: “This body that is sensitive and in deep communion with its environment is not the biological object body that science describes but is the ‘living body’ or the ‘phenomenological body’” (Bigwood 1993: 50).

43From an ecofeminist point of view, the study of these works may increase the number of alternatives at our disposal at a time when the reality of the ecological crisis is well established. By opening up academic circles to studies that appeal to the reader’s responsibility, ecofeminists like Peterson hope to create an awareness which would spur creative answers to the deterioration of our ennatured cultures. In this sense, the study of nature-oriented literature should be seen as “a critical method that both evokes the responsibility of the critic and reinstates referentiality as a crucial and primary activity of literature” (Murphy 2009: 1). This referentiality could lead to a particular attention towards local writings which, in turn, would enrich the feeling of belonging which is necessary to the protection of a place and the attention one has for human and non-human relations, while being respectful of the cultural particularities of that same place. Given that the body is the vessel through which humans experience the world they inhabit, Peterson’s narrative urges the reader to take a stand towards what is described and narrated. Ultimately, her use of bodily images aims at restoring human beings as a body of vibrating living beings-in-the-world by creating new myths that explain the human place on an earth they might learn to bodily and spiritually inhabit again.

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Bigwood, Carol, 1993, Earth Muse: Feminism, Nature, and Art, Philadelphia, Temple University Press.

Brown, Paul, 1985, “‘This Thing of Darkness I acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,” in J. Dollimore & A. Sinfield (eds.), Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, New York, Cornell University Press, p. 48-71.

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1 Anthropocentrism is the term used to designate the human-centered gaze. Androcentrism is the term used to refer to a male-centered worldview.

2 See, for instance, LAUWERS, Margot, 2014, Amazones de la plume : les manifestations littéraires de l’écoféminisme contemporain, PhD Thesis, University of Perpignan Via Domitia, 44-51.

3 See, for instance, GRAVLIN, Bevie, 1994, Chakka: My Wolfchild, Arlington, Knightsbridge Pub Co. Trade.

4 This argument is supported by important ecofeminist figures such as Greta Gaard, Karen Warren, Patrick D. Murphy and Catriona Sandilands, among others.

5 Literature can indeed play an important part in this ecological awakening, if one looks at the effects of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty or Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

6 BROWN, Paul, 1985, “‘This Thing of Darkness I acknowledge Mine’: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism”, eds. Dollimore J. & Sinfield A, Political Shakespeare: New Essays in Cultural Materialism, New York, Cornell University Press, p. 48-71.

7 Directed by James Isaac in 2006.

8 See BIERI, Aurore, 2012, “A sense of place: ‘Skin dreaming’ in Brenda Peterson’s writing. Blurring the boundaries between urban and natural, human and animal.” (not published)

9 See Hogan Linda, Metzger Deena & Peterson Brenda (eds.), 1997, Intimate Nature: The Bond Between Women and Animals, New York, Ballantine Books.

10 As writes Judith Plant in her introduction to Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism, Philadelphia, New Society Publishers, 1989.

11 See MONTAGU, Ashley, 1971, Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin, New York, Columbia University Press.


Université de Perpignan Via Domitia, CRESEM EA 7397, Docteure (CRESEM, UPVD),

Margot Lauwers teaches at University of Perpignan Via Domitia. She defended her Ph.D in American studies (under the supervision of Jonathan Pollock) in 2014. She is the author of several articles on the subject of ecofeminism, including “L’écoféminisme transnational ? Multiethnicités, influences et enjeux” (Traverse n° 2016/2). Her work concentrates on the literary forms of contemporary ecofeminism.

Margot Lauwers enseigne à l’université de Perpignan Via Domitia. Elle a soutenu une thèse en études américaines en 2014 (sous la direction de Jonathan Pollock). Elle est l’auteure de plusieurs articles sur l’écoféminisme, notamment « L’écoféminisme transnational ? Multiethnicités, influences et enjeux » (Traverse n° 2016/2). Son travail porte sur les formes littéraires de l’écoféminisme contemporain.

Margot Lauwers enseña en la Universidad de Perpiñán Via Domitia. Defendió una tesis en estudios norteamericanos en 2014 (bajo la dirección de Jonathan Pollock). Es autora de varios artículos sobre ecofeminismo, en particular de « L’écoféminisme transnational ? Multiethnicités, influences et enjeux » (
Traverse n° 2016/2). Su trabajo se centra en las formas literarias del ecofeminismo contemporáneo.

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