Rebecca Peterson walked through the door of the cafe where we were meeting, and she was radiant. I didn’t know then that, at 53 years of age, she is surviving breast cancer. I saw only the welcoming glow that seemed to reach out to everyone in the room.
She’s a psychologist, an associate professor in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University, and I wanted to speak with her about ecofeminism. Her main focus of interest at the university is the linking of women, environments, and health.
I had been reading Ecofeminism, a collection of essays by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva (Fernwood Publications, $25.95). Shiva is the Indian physicist who has spearheaded the fight on the subcontinent against the plans of Monsanto Inc., the biotechnology giant, to control the ownership of agricultural seeds.
What caught my eye is the following passage from the authors’ introduction: « As women in various movements — ecology, peace, feminist, and especially health — rediscovered the interdependence and connectedness of everything, they also rediscovered what was called the spiritual dimension of life — the realization that this interconnectedness was itself sometimes called spirituality….’’
Spirituality in this sense doesn’t refer to a split between nature and the other-worldly, they say. « The spirit is inherent in everything, and in particular our sensuous experience, because we, ourselves, with our bodies, cannot separate the material from the spiritual.
« The spiritual is the love without which no life can blossom, it is the magic which is contained within everything.
« The ecological relevance of this emphasis on spirituality lies in the rediscovery of the sacredness of life, according to which life on earth can be preserved only if people begin to perceive all life forms as sacred, and respect them as such.
« This quality is located…in everyday life — our work, the things that surround us, in our immanence. And from time to time there should be celebrations of this sacredness in rituals, in dance and song.’’
These are thoughts we need to hear, because so many are so close to despairing over the enormity of the damage we are inflicting on the planet. But despair, as Rebecca Peterson will tell you from her own harrowing experience with breast cancer, can be immobilizing.
« When you face the catastrophe head on, you have to find new ways to live,’’ she says. « to learn how to develop the personal energy, the power to hope. And that requires a deep sense of spirituality.’’ In her case, hope also flowed from concrete action. She became « an environmental detective,’’ involved in a local issue.
One of her criticisms of the environmental movement is that in the past, it has spent too much of its energies on decrying problems. « So despair becomes individualized and personal.’’ We need to find our hope, and share it, she says.
When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, fear was overwhelming. « I was swamped in it.’’ To cope, « I developed my own meditation. I breathed out fear, and I breathed in love…. Love is the epitome of connection. Breast cancer is a terrible state of disconnection.’’
Having grown up in a farming community in Kansas, she always felt connected to the land. Her experience with breast cancer emphasized the « importance of really finding my centre and my focus.’’ It lay in reaffirming her connection with nature, and with her husband, home, children, and career. « Most women have multiple centres,’’ she added with a grin.
« Now that I’m well, I feel a greater sense of the urgency of exploring the links between health and the environment.’’ It’s something we all need to do, she says, « to protect ourselves in the heavily polluted environment we now live in.’’
Peterson has been, and still is, on a tumultuous journey that confirms what I suspect most of us yearn to believe — that there is hope. If we are to learn from her, it will be to honour connections. To see the sacred in living things. To participate. And to hold to our centres.