In 1000 BC, the goddess Atargatis flung herself into the ocean, hoping to become a fish.
She had fallen in love with a shepherd but accidentally killed him, and was so ashamed that she banished herself to the deep dark sea, stripping away her ability to walk. I don’t deserve legs, she thought, the feeling of inflicting pain and loss on another as deep as a bone. Other women, ashamed, too, of themselves, flung their bodies into the water, their beauty so great, though, not completely forming into fish, but what is known as the first mermaids. Soon, there was trouble from the seas—news of men dying in shipwrecks, and floods, and drownings. Everyone whispered,
and so the fish-women swam deeper and deeper into exile, the way a wound inhales itself.
The first woman, Pandora, was molded out of the earth by the Greek gods, envisioned as a punishment for Prometheus, a thief who stole fire to give to humans. She was slinky, a slew of iridescent limbs capable of embarking great pain. Zeus created her as a body
meant to curse man—she could lure and deceive, she contained all the evils and diseases of the world, and she was defined by her own cursedness, trapped like a letter inside a name.
Aphrodite’s birth was summoned when Cronus sliced away Uranus’s genitals and threw them into the water like a dead apple core.
From the sea,
Aphrodite then emerged.
Aphrodite, from aphros,
meaning sea foam,
lopped out of man’s sea foam, a female body formed as consequence to castration.
After God created all the earth and heavens and creatures and seas, Adam was born first and out of the dust of the ground.
Eve was then born out of Adam’s rib, out of the male body, for the male body, an offering.
The Hebrew word for the body part is traditionally translated as “rib”, but even so,
there is another translation that conveys Eve was born out of Adam’s os baculum,
which is translated to his penis bone.
The myths of women begin in nature, upon their arrivals and deaths on earth—myths have been formed for women, shaped women into supplemental, dewy creatures of yore, secondary misnomers
capable of evil, of nothing at all, as dissolvable as sugar in water.
I have always been told or taught that nature is feminine and female, in the social construction that determines feminine and female as mutually exclusive. I think often about this exclusivity, why we bury women and nature into a hole together, why I feel almost predisposed to believing there is an inherent connection specifically between women and water.
We call our natural world mother nature. In seasons, women and nature both bleed. They consistently lose and consistently gain within their bodies. Women, like water, collect life and create life; a woman’s water literally must break for life on this planet to continue, in the same way that we must drink water every day to survive. Traditionally, it has been a woman’s responsibility to retrieve water for her family, while men enter urban environments for work. The relationship between women and nature has a price, naturally, as women are forced to buy into the spaces, often dangerously, offered to them.
When women carry water from wells for miles at a time, there is a literal and metaphorical weight burdened unto them as their departures also commence a departure from careers, education, the safety of their bodies in a world where exposure and solitude invites violence.
In Somalia, women have begun to dig lavatories for themselves in the evenings so they do not have to go to the bathroom exposed and in front of men. Men, though, are found waiting in the trees, waiting to take them.
In Chicago, some of the female CTA bus drivers have begun wearing diapers while they drive. Reports say that the porta potties offered to them are too unsanitary, but many of the women report having been attacked by homeless men waiting inside of them at night.
Men, waiting in the trees.
At a gas station in rural North Carolina, I see two men exit the building with grins the size of oranges. They open the back of their big-wheeled truck and I see a dead deer, female, her eyes still open and imprisoning me. The men lift heavy bags of ice from the gas station to cover her, presumably to preserve her, in the ironic way that we preserve dead bodies, and later, I assume they will eat her, and preserve yet again what’s left, in the cold, icy freezer of their own home. She enters my dreams that night like an ooze, the remains of a woman being weighed down by water and I can’t sleep imagining what female creature she isn’t.
When did the relationship between women and an unfair water become mutually exclusive?
Recently, I was caught in a rain storm and a man yelled at me on the sidewalk, in a big gulp laugh the size of a fish tank, hey, you’re all wet, and licked his lips. He said this to me as if I was not in on the joke, as if I had no idea that my body is often meant to be forcibly flooded, a mother of nature.
When I first began to write about women and water for my Master’s thesis, I wrote an essay for workshop about North Carolina oceans and the dreamy quality of southern spaces I have always romanticized and yearned for when I am away. The essay was not free of error, it had many of them, but it was, I think, trying to imagine human’s love affair with water and the earth, my love affair with water and the earth. I wrote about imagining I was ice inside of the ocean, what it might be like to melt inside of a body so large and simultaneously become it, speculating whether I would shrink or become stronger. My professor said that the language in the essay was “precious.” He didn’t explain what he meant by the word at first, but in the context, I assumed he felt I was holding too closely to my language as I sometimes do, trying to stuff the page with unnecessary detail. The next workshop I wrote an essay about breasts, the ways in which women’s breasts create for them many kinds of cancers, how the body can often feel like a plucked orchard. I wrote, in detail, about the corners of shame a body experiences, and again my professor said the language was too precious, he said too much here and here and here. I realized that by precious, my professor did not mean there was too much language, but too much feminine language. He later wrote a long handwritten note on my essay apologizing for coming down so hard on me, but the apology was lost in the hairy language we use to talk about certain kinds of writing and bodies. I had lingered, for many moments, on the ways in which my body felt in the context of spaces, and writing about the body, of course, often becomes decidedly female, indulgent, and weak. And we have begun to use feminine or coded language for feminine perhaps for the inherent way in which many objects are feminized in the pursuit to belittle them or definitively shape them. Or, to reinforce the myth that feminine equates insult, as most of what lives under the word’s umbrella is tampered with, never heroic or foundational, but on the verge of infringement. The fact of bodies in seasons is what allows us to destroy them in the first place—they are already in flux, vulnerable to change like a taste. It is no wonder that we have taken so much from the planet already.
The poet Mary Oliver has often been critiqued for her leaning so deeply into nature and its worlds. Her writing has been called flowery and un-feminist, as women cannot empower themselves through nature, that her alliance with nature echoes male writers like Thoreau and Whitman. She writes in her book Blue Iris, But if I were a lily/I think I would wait all day/for the green face/of the hummingbird/to touch me. She appears, to me, to be familiarly seduced by the planet. Somewhere, to be seduced by nature became feminine, perhaps because being seduced is so often equated to submissiveness rather than awe, and that the opposite of that is to indulge in nothing, but instead to be an intruder, an owner, one who dwarfs nature.
It is possible that we do not want to say that women writing about nature is feminist because the natural world is almost everything, the foundation that holds our bodies, feeds our bodies, that gives us light and breath and meaning, and we cannot accept that a woman is capable, too, of holding within her writing so much power, that this power is designated for men or someone not willing to submit to its forceful body. I have begun to think about how nature continues to survive despite our trampling over it. It carries us still, it refuses to obliterate for the very idea that it is stronger than destruction, it is trying, because it must, to stay. To carry so much is to survive with an arsenal and if I imagine the trajectory of myth, women’s bodies have been carrying generations of weight. We should not be so audacious as to make ourselves into gods, but what about men waiting in the trees is not a person making themselves into a powerful god, how is not the carrying of so many things rather than the eradication of them, not an accepted god-like-ness.
I try to remember my own beginning, how I began in woman’s water, tugged from the pool of my mother’s body. I waded inside of her until I somehow knew, instinctually, it was time to flee, flee her, but also, inherit her, and other women, too.
Recently, my sisters and I were swimming in the Chesapeake Bay and we knew that there were other bodies alive and other bodies dead beneath us. Creatures were among us, came before us, will stay after us, a body of water existing in a perpetual state of repetition.
We looked like three lily pad angels maybe about to be reborn, or die so that we can be reborn after that in a luscious, blue soup. We were each in our own water nests, but connected, too, in the same way that bodies of water lead to other bodies of water, how they are all different bodies and the same. The water oozed us, like an egg, and it kept us for captive, it abandoned us but also stayed and I was never surprised of its power, nor would I dare to challenge it. I would not wish to destroy the origin of life simply because I was afraid of its strength.
We can hardly admire ourselves, then, Amy Leach writes, when we stop to accommodate nature’s needs: we are dubious heroes who create a peril and then save its victims, we who rescue the animals and the trees from ourselves.