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“Virgin” Forests and the Sexist Language of Land Use

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Sharon Friedman makes a very good point about the language of environmentalism, particularly the use of the term “virgin forests.”

Calling anything involving forests “virgin” muddles the concepts of “old-growth,” “native forests” and “past practices,” promotes the notion of nature as female and humans as male, and slanders all the non-virgins in the world. It’s so sloppy a usage that it conveys a trifecta of trickiness: three bad ideas surreptitiously conveyed in one word.

Perhaps even worse than talking about “virgin forests” is describing some human activities in forests as “rape.” The key difference between the sacred act of union and the crime of rape is mutual consent. At this point in human and forest development, we cannot ask the forests permission and hear them say, “No.” Using the term inappropriately demeans the word itself, which should remain powerful and specific about a brutal violation.”

The gendering of forests has multiple problems, as Friedman points out. Not only does it reinforce sexism in society, equating sexual intercourse and the destruction of resources, but it also creates real problems in land management. While the Wilderness Act of 1964 doesn’t use the term “virgin,” it does say this:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.

This language avoids the sexist language of thinking about forests as women to despoil, but it assumes that changed land is like a sexually active woman–of less value and not worth preserving. In fact, the language of the Wilderness Act became an incentive for developers and agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to speed up development of certain areas, such as building random roads, just to exclude lands from wilderness consideration.

Like a sexually active woman, a forest changed by people is not ruined. Human activity should not change the status of land any more than sex should change how society treats women.

As Friedman points out, it would be nice if after forty or more years of an active environmental movement, we could use different language to describe the land. But then again, I’d argue that environmentalism has some major gender problems to overcome, as do scholars of the environment. I had a wonderful time at the American Society for Environmental History conference last weekend in Madison, but there wasn’t squat on the program about gender and nature. And that’s a big problem in its own right.

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