She who is

The notion of nature or the world being feminine, as in the Doty poem just quoted, may be more deeply rooted in our thinking than we suspect. Students of Latin may have noticed a certain resemblance between the word for matter (materia) and mother (mater). This echoes the Greek precedent in part, though to be consistent the Romans should have chosen silva (forest).

Say what?!

“Aristotle’s conception of matter (hyle) contains the idea of embryonic genesis; it is elaborated, by Aristotle, through the analogy of motherhood, giving birth to what [Erich] Neumann [in The Great Mother] calls the ‘childbearing maternal significance of the tree.’ Hyle, maternal matter, means ‘forest’ in Greek. The Latin cognate is silva, which means much the same thing. Marcel Mauss, writing about the anthropological notions that preceded modern ideas about matter, described it as follows: ‘Silva is the generative power conceived as feminine, it is the forest. In the idea of the forest there is . . . something undisciplined, savage, and dangerous, but also animative and receptive’ [Oevres, 1968, translated by Sahlins]. It was this wild and disorderly, feminine quality of the forest that eventually disappeared from the cosmology of nature in the seventeenth centure, including in the work of Descartes.”
– Peter Sahlins, Forest Rites: The War of the Desmoiselles in Nineteenth-Century France (Harvard UP, 1994), 49.

All of which helps to explain why, in the early 19th century, bands of male peasants in the French Pyrenees dressed up as women for a series of night-time acts of “eco-terrorism” against charcoal makers and the newly appointed national foresters. To learn more about that, you’ll have to get hold of the book: a fascinating study of a rebellion against modernism that ought to be as well known as that of the English Luddites.

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