In a thought-provoking example of Talamantez’ urging to learn from indigenous peoples, East Asian scholar and religious professor Jordan Paper’s 1997 Through the Earth Darkly is a deliberately cross-cultural comparison of multiple non-Western, indigenous perspectives and reflections on women as the embodiment of the sacred, and the ensuing cultural “meaning and significance to females of being female” (11). Paper believes the overwhelming male bias within Western epistemology has rendered women’s spirituality invisible, blinding the predominantly-male academics to existing and past matrifocal cultural traditions — such that the scholars go to sometimes astonishing lengths to trivialize, erase, misrepresent, or ignore religious beliefs which are neither misogynist nor monotheistically androcentric. Consequently, in a radical step for the time, Paper has made great effort to ensure all the collected articles in the anthology are either written by women participating in the cultures in question, or with their direct input.
The widely chronologically- and geographically-varied cultures include two pre-Christian religions, traditional and contemporary Chinese religion (as well as two religions which it strongly influenced), two Sub-Saharan African religions (including the syncretic Candomblé), and a large number of indigenous religions from the Americas. The articles (re)examine old research materials and new anthropological data, and include the testimony of living women, to explore female spirits and deities, specific gender-based rituals and ritual roles (such as menarche or menstruation ceremonies), and women’s self-understanding within these cultures. In vivid contrast to the modern Western dogma of the supposedly universal subjugation of the female by the male, this research demonstrates a diversity of cultural symbolic representations of the sacred and complementary female-male relationship.
Paper compares numerous examples of common elements within female spirituality — such as their numinous, reciprocal, and community-oriented view of the world — then concludes with some fascinating speculations based upon his research. These include some possible cultural motivations (such as the perceived need for a professional warrior class) for the emergence of patriarchy, and the obvious-in-retrospect discernment that not all patriarchies are equal — he mentions, for example, that dogmatic dualism and misogyny, rather than gender complementarity and patrilineage, ideologically characterize the predominantly Christian Eurocentric form of patriarchy.
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The modern formulation of permaculture was originated in the 1970s by two Australian men: teacher-researcher Bill Mollison and ecological design engineer David Holmgren. At that time their writings on the subject consisted solely of their theorizing and some potential applications (xxiii). It would take until 2002 for Holmgren to fill the conceptual gap this left by attempting to finally and conclusively re-define permaculture, and write down twelve “universal” (xxv) design principles in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. The book is written in a lecturing, somewhat pedantic style which often gives a rather paternalistic tone, and the impression I received is that Holmgren felt he was writing an epistemologically postpositive textbook for students.
Curiously, while he is clearly quite conversant with the damage created by patriarchal domination and exploitation of the natural world, and the importance of understanding that humans are simply one more interrelated element in the world’s energetic cycles, his forays into a more (eco)feminist perspective are — at best — tentative. For example, Holmgren repeatedly emphasizes the scientific basis, logical rationality, and broad applicability of permaculture in what appears to be a fallacious argument to authority — as there is still wide lack of consensus amongst experts on the subject, to the point that the issue of claiming expertise is itself still in question (xxi). More disturbingly, Holmgren admits sustainable living is an integral element in the worldview of many indigenous cultures, but then immediately disparages them, following with a glowing reference to the “great spiritual and philosophical traditions of literate civilisations [sic] or the great thinkers of the European Enlightenment” (1) — even though (unlike the situation with indigenous peoples) it is not clear how these apply to permaculture.
Despite this unfortunate presentation style, I believe the principles themselves are, if not actually universal for all humankind as Holmgren claims, at least of definite value — especially when Holmgren sticks to applying them to the natural world. Each of the twelve principles is expressed with an easy-to-remember descriptive slogan, coupled with a warning aphorism and followed by extensive exploration of the concept. Plentiful examples and (where applicable) related theories are examined and interpreted through the lens of the principle, revealing both positive and negative potential use. While the examples lean more towards academic analysis than actual “how to” suggestions, I believe this is the most useful and creative section of each chapter. However, once the author has examined how the principle relates to permaculture’s more agricultural aspects, he often concludes the chapter by attempting to (too) broadly apply the principle to both modern society and possible futures in an effort to convince the reader of the superiority of his theories on sustainable and potentially egalitarian living. While this is a laudable goal, it is at this point that his explanations often become forced, overextended, or somewhat self-congratulatory, which I believe lessens his credibility. Consequently Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability is best read as an extremely useful primer on permaculture as initially conceived for environmental use.