Vol.18 No.1, 1997, Spring/ Printemps

"LIFE DOESN'T SEEM NATURAL:" ECOFEMINISM AND THE RECLAIMING OF THE FEMININE SPIRIT IN CINDY COWAN'S A WOMAN FROM THE SEA

ALANNA F. BONDAR

While critical reception of Cindy Cowan's A Woman from the Sea has typically valued its magical and fantasy elements, little critical attention has been given to its larger implications for ecofeminist spiritual revisioning. In what follows, the author considers Cowan's efforts to outline the liberating potential of ecofeminism and female spirituality. Drawing on textual evidence, the author examines how Cowan organizes a rediscovery of the sensual feminine through dramatic narrative.

Bien que les commentaires des critiques de A Woman from the Sea (Une femme de la mer) de Cindy Cowan aient beaucoup misé sur les éléments fantastique et magique du texte, peu d'attention a été porté à ses conséquences pour le révisionnisme spirituel ecoféministe. Dans ce qui suit, l'auteure évalue les efforts de Cowan de définir le potentiel libérateur de l'ecoféminisme et d'un spiritualisme féminin. Se basant sur une étude du texte, l'auteure examine la façon que Cowan développe l'idée d'une redécouverte de la sensualité féminine par l'intermédiaire d'un récit dramatique.

In A Woman from the Sea Cindy Cowan delves ambitiously into the spiritual and political crisis which lies at the heart of Western civilization's wasteful and self-destructive relationship with the natural environment. With a decidedly ecofeminist earnestness, Cowan identifies exploitation and destruction as fundamental characteristics of patriarchal society; thus she advocates the rediscovery of a pre-Christian goddess-centred understanding of the natural world as a strategy for reconnecting all human beings with the environment, and women with their instinctive power to survive, to create, and to sustain life on this planet. For Cowan, patriarchy has underestimated, ignored, and manipulated women's instinctive connection with nature; it has denied the power of the goddess and has shrouded female spirituality in silence and fear. Cowan's play looks deep into a repressed and forgotten matrilinear past to recover what is ultimately a bittersweet but hopeful vision of the future. Cowan's play invites audience members to consider the liberating potential of the world of female spirituality. Yet, Cowan's reviewers seem to have missed the message of her spiritual ecofeminist revisioning of a matrilinear past. They prefer to read the play as a "fantasy drama" where "Almira's despair is challenged by a wisdom of an almost forgotten age" (Deakin); but they never elaborate on what is not only a forgotten age but a silenced and forbidden one. Elissa Barnard, a reviewer for the Halifax Chronicle Herald, calls A Woman from the Sea a play which "transcends [the] rational for [an] irrational world," but we are never sure whether Barnard herself understands the ramifications of such a distinction. Clearly, she is not at all sympathetic with Almira's character; she describes her as an "embittered," "cold, irritable, and semi-hysterical woman who is pregnant, has given up on life, and has quit her job." Though Barnard calls A Woman from the Sea "a noble effort marred by a few flaws," her review fails to embrace the profoundly feminist nature of Almira's spiritual crisis.

Although "deep ecology" emerged nearly two decades ago from theorists who responded to Rachel Carson's ground-breaking text, Silent Spring (1962), only recently has literary writing responded "appropriately to the radical displacements accompanying ecological catastrophe" (Love 226). Cindy Cowan's A Woman from the Sea, as an ecofeminist play, hopes to establish attitudes that reconnect us with our environment and thus, in turn, inspire us to become activated by it. In this way, environmentally conscious literature emerges out of a growing "bioregionalism" in which we are "learning to become native to place, fitting ourselves to a particular place, not fitting a place to our predetermined tastes" (Plant 158). This "Green Movement" is one in which both deep ecologists and ecofeminists agree that we are currently committing ecocide. Yet ecofeminists, in particular, argue that "historical and causal links between the dominations of women and of nature are located in conceptual structures of domination and in the way women and nature have been conceptualized, particularly in the western intellectual tradition" (Warren xi). Our own arrogance with respect to the intrinsic value of Nature is culturally encoded by centuries of mainstream Western philosophies which speak of Truth in the myth of the mind/body split, the myth of the logic of dichotomy and the myth of hierarchy which must necessarily be reconceived if liberation from domination and ecological crisis is to be achieved. In the political battle to revamp the wanton habits of a culture that stands to annihilate the possibility of sustainable life on Earth, there are as many ecofeminisms as there are feminisms. Cowan's particular philosophy suggests what ecofeminists argue is a symbolic approach which employs controversial essentialist strategies. As a way of entering ecological politics, A Woman from the Sea examines how -- through a reconnection with earth-centred, matrilineal pre-Christian spirituality -- women are empowered through a connection with nature. "She" is no longer simply "the vessel" but is now the one capable of creating life and thus sustaining it on Earth.

Cowan's play advocates a larger role for matrilineal spirituality both in the individual lives of women and in the manner in which society constructs itself. Harnessing the same energy that fuels the ecofeminists' cries for a return to a pagan relationship with nature, Cowan's play approaches the wanton environmental destruction which is so rampant in Western civilization as more a spiritual crisis and a patriarchal sickness than just another political/economic problem. She explores, through Almira and the selkie Sedna, a woman's power to revision cultural, literary, socio-political, and spiritual pasts and traditions as a method of reconnecting women with mother earth rather than with patriarchal hegemony. Breaking away from patriarchal imprisonment proves complex for Almira as she begins to identify more with the dying environment than her own male partner (ironically a professional environmentalist). Through a spiritual quest which constitutes the bulk of the play, aided and influenced by Sedna, Almira recovers her worth as creator, and as potential mother.

On first encounter, what is most noticeable about the play is the amount of repetition or mirroring of lines between characters -- conversations between George and Almira seem to circle each other in a web of meaninglessness. Although Almira and George seem to attempt to listen to each other they are unable initially to get beyond what Almira calls, quoting Hamlet, mere "Words. Words. Words" (351), void of expression, and empty of meaning. Cowan's exploration here extends beyond simple marital strife or communicative breakdown between the couple -- it examines how identities, especially female identities, are formed in patriarchal society. Almira's echoing of her husband and her reliance on quoting Hamlet -- another man's words -- to express even her frustration with her husband's inconsequential chattering is evidence of her submissive role; her inability to think or talk outside of the patriarchy demonstrates how her very language and identity are imposed on her.

The stagnant mirroring between Almira and her husband is undercut by Sedna who is Almira's other mirror-option. Almira's identification with this rare and dying sea creature is much more colourful and complex than her human partnership. Sedna is Almira's Medusa-in-the-mirror (Gallop and Cixous), an enantiomorph who does not simply reflect and perpetuate habitual discourse but rather moves, thinks, and changes. Sedna challenges Almira's more traditional ways of understanding women and a woman's relationship with the world. By forcing Almira to look at herself-as-nightmare, her own Medusa, and to see beyond her perpetually controlled image of self to a revisioning of the self through female restorative rituals, Sedna allows Almira to overcome the pessimism caused by her seeming ineffectualness in the face of environmental destruction and convinces her of her own creative and regenerative powers as Al mira --all sea -- "the mother of us all" (359). Sedna demonstrates to Almira that in the face of destruction, creation is essential.

In her depiction of Almira's own process of identification Cowan also explores new ways of understanding the needs of the earth. When we meet Almira at the beginning of the play she is alienated from herself. Almira is supposedly hysterical -- she has quit her job, has all but given up on her marriage, and has cut herself off from the world -- as she says "not caring feels very, very good" (347). With an embattled self-identity, everything Almira had formerly deeply cared about seems all but effaced by the patriarchy. Shattered, Almira is alienated from self and from mother; she is forced to confront the individual chaos in which she finds herself engulfed. In her despair Almira seems to have chosen a strategy of fleeing and disengagement from the problems confronting her. Yet Almira is not mad, she is "frightened" since "there's something going on and it's far more insidious than the seals and the fishermen. . . . Nesting females have their eggs smashed because, fools that they are, they just keep laying more eggs" (351). Despite her superficial hysteria, Almira finds a deeper sanity in Sedna; through this relationship Almira discovers the path of restructuring, rediscovery, and reconnecting with herself as a woman, which, for Cowan, is central for healing and self-recovery.

Sedna first attempts to reach Almira through her dreams, to get Almira to rediscover her emotional connection with the dying environment -- to look at her [Sedna's] "thick, crimson blood" (348). However, by initially rejecting her dream, Almira exposes the powerful resistance she has developed against changing or accepting change within her own safe house of experience and gender identity. Just as she refuses to accept Sedna's dream, associated with the environmental nightmare of extinction facing all living species, she denies her own powers of creation and further rejects her self. She dismisses Sedna's persistent and symbolic calling of her name and is continually revolted by the smell of death and rotting animal flesh that emanates from the beach. George believes he discovers the source of the smell -- a rotting seal corpse -- and quickly puts it out to sea to get rid of it. Of course the rotting seal is Sedna and the stench of death and blood and environmental nightmare she represents is not so easily removed.

In Cowan's play, Sedna's nightmare -- the horrific vision of the environment she chooses to share with Almira -- is a manifestation of the Dreamer's duty (in North American First Nations' philosophy) to translate messages from the natural/spiritual worlds. Because "anything and everything comes to them through dreams or vision-based concourse with the world of the spirit people, the divinities and deities, the Grandmothers, and the other exotic powers" (Allen 205), the dream, ritual, or ceremony is essentially the foundation of comm(unity). Paula Gunn Allen, a leading First Nations' critic, explains:

The Dreamer is the person responsible for the continued existence of the people as a psychic (that is, tribal) entity. It is through her dreams that the people have being; it is through her dreams that they find ways to function in whatever reality they find. It is through her dreams that . . . healings are made possible, and that children are assured a safe passage through life. . . she is the mother of the people not because she gives physical birth . . . but because she gives them life through her powers of dreaming -- that is, she en-livens them. (204)

Thus Sedna's dream both links her to Almira in a spiritual awakening of her-self and connects her to the "vast, living sphere" (22), the universal systems of interdependence. Though Almira is relieved to discover that Sedna's flowing "crimson blood" (348) and Sedna's death by drowning will not necessarily constitute her own fate she also recognizes how delicately her destiny is linked to the natural world. Sedna's environmental nightmare passes to Almira, as does the immediacy and intimate nature of her concern for the dying planet.

The smells and the sounds of a dying planet create, for Cowan, a setting-as-character which is part of the mirror reflection of Almira. Cowan rejects the notion of a two-dimensional feminine image (the hysteric, the mother, the romantic interest etc.) all too common in traditional theatre, and instead seeks to include all six senses in her way of getting to know the feminine self. In Cowan's production this idea of the sensual feminine experience (largely ignored or misunderstood in a male literary tradition) manifests itself in the lighting, music, and sounds which are simultaneously the environment, the female psyche, the goddess, and the "fourth character" (341). Almira's misunderstanding of herself is in part a failure to confront the sights, sounds, and smells that surround her and that are so much a part of who she is as a woman.

Cowan's theatrical attempt to rediscover the sensual feminine begs the larger question of what happens and has happened to a society where the reflection of the goddess, earth mother Gaia, and an entire world image has been denied and alienated from itself. Almira's psychological quest explores the consequences of such a question. The setting of A Woman from the Sea is not artificial stage atmosphere but instead, a powerful fourth character, the environment. Sound and music are not merely devices created by the playwright and experienced by a viewing audience, but are actually part of a living, breathing, speaking and too long ignored marginalized Earth-other. Ultimately, Cowan questions how much we actually value life and the living when human comfort and consumption are privileged above all else, no matter what the cost to the environment. Cowan seems to be asking -- are we leading ourselves towards our own destruction? -- when George says to Almira "I certainly don't want to die," and Almira significantly responds "Don't you?" (353). Almira connects George with that system of exploitation and control -- the patriarchy -- which seems hell-bent on the destruction of itself, the planet, and everything else, including her.

Rich in symbols and rituals from goddess cultures which pre-date Judeo-Christianity, A Woman from the Sea dives deep and surfaces as a sacred story; sacred because "[a woman's] sense of self and world is created through them" (Crites qtd in Christ 9). Though we are conditioned to look for a central figure-on-quest in literature such an identification is decentred in this play. Almira herself no longer identifies with the powers that be in patriarchal social spheres symbolically represented by George, but moves instead towards marginalized creating figures such as Eve (355), nesting female sea turtles (351), and Sedna who is half seal/half human. Though aligning herself with Eve and mother turtles is obviously symbolic, Sedna's role in Almira's psyche is curious. Clearly, Almira is gradually moving away from being male-identified and further from being identified by a male-inscribed power structure as female, and therefore a powerless other. However, because patriarchal cultural and social conditions are deeply buried in the conscious and sub-conscious minds of all Westerners, radical methods of self-discovery are necessary for women-on-spiritual-quest (Christ). The presence of the selkie Sedna stimulates Almira's own knowledge of power and female privilege.

Such knowledge of feminine power and radical self-discovery come to Almira through Cowan's use of ceremony in scene nine. Sedna and Almira celebrate both the birth of Almira's spiritual self, and her new-found acceptance of her pregnancy, in a ceremony of both birth and rebirth that is part baby shower, part baptism, and part mystical communion. Here Sedna plays the role of priestess leading Almira through various rituals and describing and presenting the sacred story of both her personal history and the history of the selkies, of which she is the last. These stories function for Almira as parables of what Sedna describes as "the nightmare you humans have spewed on this earth" (380), and as a powerful reminder of what happens when women relinquish their power as women, as mothers, and as goddesses to the patriarchy.

During a ritual that culminates in Almira being renamed, Sedna endeavours to get Almira to look into a mirror she produces from amongst her skins, in an attempt to force Almira to confront her self. At first Almira resists insisting that the mirror reflects her own fears -- "there's the dark. . . ghosts. . . senility. . . losing someone . . . . I'm afraid of making friends. . . . I'm afraid of dreaming. I'm afraid of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. I'm losing my mind" (372). The mirror reflects her Medusa as feminine power thus illuminating those fears that the patriarchy has etched into Almira's everyday life. Conditioned to fear the unknown, Almira resists growing old, dying, the power of her own dreams, and connecting deeply with other people, since the patriarchy as a conditioning system functions on selfishness and reason and fears decisions based on caring, loving, and other such selfless emotions. She fears using language which seeks meaning outside of the patriarchy -- "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" is another quote from Shakespeare -- and has deep anxieties about losing her mind, a reflection of her fear of being labelled an hysterical woman. Finally, when Sedna makes Almira look in the mirror she forces her to rediscover the essential basis of all her other fears, the one that connects her with all living creatures: she is afraid of being alone. She wants release from her isolation and her silence and is now ready to rediscover the power of her self which is also the power of the community of womanhood and of nature. Thus Sedna baptizes Almira "Pearl"; Cowan again uses this name to point to yet another ancient belief. Barbara Walker, a leading researcher on matrilineal mythology and symbolism, tells us that pearls were "made of two female powers, the moon and water" (779); symbolically then, this pearl represents the union of Almira (moon associated with pregnancy) and Sedna (sea-goddess). From the cult of Aphrodite Marina, or the Sea-mother Mari, we know her body as an "early gate. . . through which all men [sic] passed at birth (outward) and again at death (inward)" (779). In this way, pearls were associated with rebirth and regeneration.

A major part of what Sedna is trying to impart to Almira through her rituals and stories is that the power of being a woman is full of both great pleasure and discovery but also entails great burdens and suffering. One of the central descriptions Cowan provides for Sedna's and Almira's ceremony can be found in the following lines:

Sedna: Women of the sea believe that this is a time for rejoicing.

Almira: And sorrow.

Sedna: That too.

Almira: For what?

Sedna: For the great mystery that is ours. (375)

The most obvious example of women's power for Cowan seems to be a woman's power to give birth. Almira, disgusted by human beings' seemingly endless capacity for destruction and death, sees her pregnancy as nothing more than the perpetuation of "a deformed and demented race" (378). Cursing what she calls "desire and the lunacy of love" (376), Almira, too caught up with the burdens of motherhood, has lost sight of the power and pleasure involved in giving birth. Alienated from her own power to create life, and afraid of her own desire and love, Almira must be reminded of the consequences of such reckless disregard for her feminine power and the dangers of choosing destruction over union and life. The ritual communion that follows is Cowan's most powerful, clear, and provocative image of her strong belief in the interconnectedness of a woman's struggle for self and liberation and the environmental struggle against extinction, destruction, and death.

This particular part of their ceremony is a ritual borrowed in Western culture from the Catholic belief in consubstantiation and significantly joins Sedna and Almira into one spiritual whole; it centres on an invocation that calls for a time when

The Earth Spirit was everything

That walked, swam, crawled

On her surface.

The bond is broken.

And once. . .

Fishermen and the creatures of the sea

Believed

That the Spirit of Man

And the Spirit of Animal was one. (378-9)

However, now, "that bond is more than broken,/ It is forgotten./ Why?" (379). During her chant Sedna and Almira magically become one, both completing Almira's return to her connection with the world, and suggesting the larger possibilities of rediscovering, through self-discovery and the reclaiming of the bond, not necessarily between man and animals, but between the Spirit of Woman and the Spirit of Nature. Sedna and Almira, together assuming the form and movements of a seal, constitute the central ecofeminist image of hope in the play.

The bond between humanity and nature has been broken partly because women have failed to heed the message of George's admonishment when, brandishing a harpoon and an axe and in the midst of cutting up Sedna he says laughingly, "never leave nothing to the devil" (379). Sedna's lesson for Almira and Cowan's message to woman is a strategic one: do not "ignore what little power you have been given. The power to create life" (381). Ultimately Cowan's ecofeminist insight calls for a caring relationship amongst all members -- human and nonhuman -- of an eco-community. After all, as Sedna wisely points out, "union is a gift. We are always alone" (383).

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