A photographer with a wonderful eye travelled to the remote Estonian islands of Kihru and Manja in the Baltic Sea, where she spent time with a community of women, who collectively kept things together while their men went to fish. All elderly, all strong, they inhabited a world that had remained the same for ages. The photographer is Anne Helene Gjelstad, and her book is Big Heart, Strong Hands (published by Dewi Lewis).
This female stronghold is sometimes pestered by tourists, but Vahtia Helju does not mind posing with her favorite cow.
We all know that the Amazons of Rome were mythical, and the same could be said of the women who dominated Basque culture at one point, Celtic, various indigenous peoples — well, all over the world, actually. But if you’re so sure it’s all fantasy, go to Estonia.
Jarsumae Vive at the age of 81 decided to take up skydiving. At that age, men have often already died. Women persist, to conduct their lives as they always have. When they pass away, here in Estonia, they are grieved by their sisters, and carried out the door feet first.
Do you have mothers or grandmothers who have gone on past the point when anyone thought they would? The difference here is community, the love that keeps them going. And a favorite dairy cow.
Probably for a lot of people reading Richard Powers’ powerful, Pulitzer-winning novel The Overstory, the term tree hugger might come to mind. Some of the book is set during the Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest, and a few of the characters actually spend days, weeks, months (as I recall) at the top of one of the giants out there.
It’s funny, the longer it’s been since I put the book down, the more I like it. It’s got some indelible characters and a shattering ending, and if you haven’t read it go do so now.
One thing the novel is short on is history, deep history. I think this being Women’s History Month it’s only right to honor the original tree huggers, 294 men and 69 women belonging to the Bishnois branch of Hinduism who took it upon themselves to protect the trees in their village from being carved up for a palace and were massacred by foresters. They literally clung to the trees, and died for their bravery. Happy ending, the government decreed there would be no tree cutting in any Bishnoi village, and now the place is a happy green oasis amid an otherwise barren landscape.
That story sounds like it might be a little burnished by time. But the next chapter of tree huggerism is indisputable.
A group of peasant women in the 1970’s in the Himalayan hills of northern India took inspiration from those earlier tree huggers when they fought to have the trees in the vicinity preserved, throwing their arms around the trunks to do so. This was the Chipko movement. “Chipko” means “to cling” in Hindi. They had success; before long there was a tree felling moratorium in Himalaya. The tactic, called tree satyagraha, had spread across India and forced reforms.
Women did it. It worked. It happened to be trees they were protecting, but that smart, vigilant, protective, determined spirit can be admired throughout history and up to the present as we celebrate Women’s History Month. Let’s make it Women’s History Year. Or why put any boundaries on it? Let’s just say History and always highlight the achievements of women.