Natural women

The most common complaint about any anthology is that it’s not comprehensive enough. That’s not a complaint that can be made of this second edition of Sisters of the Earth, which could only be more inclusive if it added male writers, thereby defeating the purpose of its editor.

Editor Lorraine Anderson, a Davis resident, has solved this most common problem of anthologizing by embracing instead the second-most-common one: Each writer has only a small amount of her work represented. Because, short of a collection of several volumes, there’s no way around this conundrum, Anderson has made the wiser choice.

Although the selections from each writer are short, the thematic arrangement of the collection as a whole lets each piece stand in relationship to the surrounding selections, rather than relying on its place within the individual writer’s larger body of work. Anderson has included brief introductions to each piece that provide thumbnail biographies and bibliographies for each writer, a useful addition for those readers who’d like to read more.

Her stated goal with this book is to invite readers “into a more attentive relationship with nature as it moves through our bodies, as it moves through the land and the weather and the seasons and the creatures.” Such a relationship is necessary, Anderson writes, if, as humans, “we’re to slow or stop our accelerating dash to destruction.” Given this sense of impending doom, both for the human race and for the planet we occupy, many of the selections she’s included are elegiac in nature, infused with a sense of loss.

This is particularly true in the last two sections of the book, “Her Rape” and “Healing Her.” Several of these selections reflect the difficulty of personifying a planet, especially in their attempt to connect the individual to an entire ecosystem. Though it’s quite possible to believe that the Earth needs assistance without over-identifying to the point of sentimentality, unfortunately, some pieces—including the excerpt from Adrienne Rich’s poem “Contradictions” and Barbara Mor’s “Bitter Root Rituals"—do just that. There’s also a tendency on the part of some of the writers to slight the connections that the male half of the human race might make with the Earth, such as in the poem that opens the section “Her Rape,” Judith McCombs’ “The Man.”

Fortunately, such oversimplification is the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of the selections are examples of the very best from the bodies of work of the included writers. This anthology is, first and foremost, a collection of high-quality writing that happens to be about the natural world.

There are selections from expected sources—Terry Tempest Williams, Barbara Kingsolver, Diane Ackerman and Rachel Carson, to name a few—writers who often take the natural world as a subject. But there also are some very surprising inclusions. It was delightful to stumble across the lovely poem “Come into Animal Presence” by Denise Levertov, with its invocation of joy in wildlife. Also a nice surprise was a fairly long piece by the oft-neglected Meridel Le Sueur, “Annunciation.”

And one of the most moving inclusions is “The Storm,” a first-person narrative about riding out a coastal storm in the high branches of a Northern Californian redwood tree by a youthful tree-sitter, Julia Butterfly Hill.

This is definitely the kind of book to keep close for those occasions when there’s only a moment to read, because Anderson has compiled selections that will help readers to slow down and remember the natural world. The only thing better would be to be out in that natural world.