Okay so let’s start by going back to the very beginning – women and wild food. Because once upon a time all food was wild – and it was the women who gathered it. But what many “rewilders” have forgotten today was that no aspect of food, from harvest to preparation to consumption, was left untouched by magical ritual. And because the banning of magic, the subjugation of women, the domination of the earth – and the capitalist overtaking of agriculture – all went hand in hand, I see rewilding and food foraging as a site for ecofeminist intervention.
Many rewilders seek to return to a more undomesticated state, a time when prehistoric hunter-gatherers lived “in harmony” with the earth. Roaming over the land, our ancestors foraged the food freely provided by the fields and woodlands, rivers and oceans. Men were mostly in charge of hunting and women were largely responsible for the harvesting and cultivation of plant foods as well the processes that accompanied it, cooking, baking, food processing, and food storage (basketry, pottery, and granaries).
These early cultures were very different from ours. Women were not yet second class citizens and had control over the food they harvested, which granted them economic autonomy. These early food economies often referred to as “gift-giving” meaning food is not “sold” for profit or personal material gain but freely distributed to all. Typically, a gift economy assumes an identity of connectedness with both the natural world and fulfills a purpose that benefits the whole society. But it was with the shift to ownership of crop and land, that food went from being a ‘gift’ of mother nature to a ‘product’ of human labour to be bought, sold and earned by the sweat of our brow.
While agriculture is believed to have been a boon, providing more food for all on a predictable basis – back then, this was hardly the case. Early farming was estimated to produce only about three-fifths of the food gained from foraging— and it took way more work too! So why farm?
The answer is still not clear. But Jacob L. Weisdorf of the Institute of Economics, University of Copenhagen, believes it was all about money. Agriculture left the food supply in fewer and wealthier hands and its continued control was “ultimately necessary to the rise of modern civilisation by creating the foundation for the later process of industrialisation and sustained economic growth.”
And according to feminist Silvia Federici, what this meant for women was removing them from the centre of food production which fed families and communities and replacing them with a ‘labour force’ that created food for profit. They no longer had access to land, and control over the crops they cultivated (which ensured their economic independence.) Now “their work and their sexual and reproductive powers were placed under the control of the State and transformed into economic resources”.
And it brought an end to egalitarian societies (long before food and property were hoarded by the wealthy through imperialistic conquest) when war was virtually unknown. So as a rewilder and an ecofeminist, I see foraging the free “wild” food that nature provides each season, as deeply subversive to the patriarchy (and by this I do not mean men in particular but a political and economic system that benefits the 1% off the backs of many).
But the point of this post is recognising that “woman’s work” in early gift giving societies was about waaay more than production. Far more than just labour in the way we define it today (as an economic measurement) it was a religious activity considered vital to the well-being of community. Harvesting, cooking, baking were spiritual rituals honouring the great mother of all, the earth.
For them “magic” meant knowledge of the workings of nature. Every plant, tree and flower had a purpose and the earth was alive. Women wove magical symbols into gathering baskets and carved them into pots to promote her fertility, and ritual foods were consumed in communal celebrations. Today we still still enjoy these holiday (holy day) foods but they were one part of a powerful “sympathetic” magic intended to honour and nourish the earth – thus providing prosperity and abundance for all.
Today de-toothed today as folklore, wives tales and quaint superstition, we’ve forgotten this food magic once formed the basis of a ‘women’s religion’ that sought to harmonise with the life-giving powers of nature. Many ecofeminists see the oppression of women and the exploitation of nature as fundamentally connected, but the destruction of their earth-based food magic was critical for the new capitalist order to succeed. And severing women’s connection to the goddess, land and food became priority number one for the Church and the State.
By the middle ages, women’s magic was designated as witchcraft and punishable by burning. No longer could they paint or carve magical symbols on their hearths, pots and dishes. No more weaving corn dollies for fertility, or offering honey mead, milk, or eggs to fruit trees in wassailing rituals – or else! In her book Caliban and the Witch Federici asks us to consider why this war was waged against magic and women? “Just what is supposed to be eliminated when these women are condemned to the stake?”
The persecution of women’s ‘old ways’ as witchcraft not only contributed to the desacralization of nature (paving the way for its transformation into a “resource”) but as Federici argues, it set the stage for “the “housewifization of women”. Now reduced to second-class status they were confined to the unpaid labour of raising children, caring for the elderly and sick, and maintaining the home. This process was repeated with the colonisation of indigenous peoples whose land was appropriated as they too became second class citizens.
Reclaiming magic is about recognising who those “witches” actually were – yes, some were healers, herbalists and midwives, but many were just everyday women who stubbornly clung to the old ways. They observed the old nature holidays, left food offerings for their goddesses (personifications of the earth), created magical crafts and baked sacred foods. They were women, who Alex Knight writes in “Who Were the Witches? – Patriarchal Terror and the Creation of Capitalism “represented a whole world that Europe’s new masters were anxious to destroy: a world with strong female leadership, a world rooted in local communities and knowledge, a world alive with magical possibilities…”
Today the rewilding movement is reviving many traditional female activities such as wild food harvesting, pit cooking, basket weaving, fermenting, herbal medicines– but what is still largely neglected is the ancient connection to women’s magic. (I want to acknowledge that there was also men’s hunting magic and rituals, but these too seem to be overlooked).
The rewilding focus on “primitive skills”, “ancestral skills”, “survival skills”, or “bushcraft” so rarely acknowledges their original spiritual/magical context. Where are the basket weaving workshops that focuses on the magical history of patterns and motifs originally intended to enhance the fertility of the land and promote a plentiful harvest?
While it may seem like a bit of fun at best and primitive superstition at worst, I believe reclaiming women’s magic has a great deal to teach us about living in balance with the earth. If rewilding means returning to a time when we lived in harmony with mother nature (and each other) can we really ignore what was a fundamental spiritual understanding of these early gift giving societies? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors saw no division between themselves and nature, between spirit and the material world. Seeking balance with nature may be the goal of many rewilders, but that means more than just living sustainably, it means ritually acknowledging and thanking nature for her life-giving gifts.