Phoebe C. Godfrey
“Ecofeminist Cosmology” in Practice:
Genesis Farm and the Embodiment of Sustainable Solutions
Phoebe C. Godfrey
That the physical and spiritual life of man is tied up with nature is another
way of saying that nature is linked with itself, for man is part of nature.
—Karl Marx, 1844
The deepest crises experienced by any society are those moments of
change when the story becomes inadequate for meeting the survival
demands of a present situation. Such, it seems to me, is the situation we
must deal with in this late twentieth century.
—Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth
Perhaps the most poignant illustration of our current relationship to the Earth is Shel
Silverstein’s children’s classic, The Giving Tree.1 In the beginning of the story, a boy and a tree
love each other, the boy being content to merely climb and play in her branches. However, as
the boy grows up, he looses interest in her and leaves, only to return as a man seeking her
resources: selling her apples that she freely gives, then later her branches, and lastly her trunk.
Each time the man comes asking her to give to him of herself so that he might have wealth
and, she hopes, happiness. Finally, when the man is old, he comes and asks for more, but the
tree has nothing left to give except for her stump upon which he sits, as he is tired. And the
tree, so Silverstein says, “was happy.” Yet despite the presence of the man with the tree as a
stump, the reader is left wondering how the tree can possibly be happy having so little left of
her self. Her happiness, consequently, seems more like a human projection onto nature, a
self-comforting thought that “mother nature” is “happy” to serve our needs. For American
cultural historian and self-described “Earth scholar,” Father Thomas Berry,2 cultural stories
such as this are central to our ecological and social crisis.3
The Giving Tree has been challenged for its sexism—and indeed, it is in many ways an
accurate portrayal of many individual men’s exploitative relationships to women. It is,
however, an even more powerful metaphor for the exploitative Western capitalist patriarchal
Shel Silverstein, The Giving Tree (New York: Harper Collins, 1992).
Thomas Berry is a scholar of Western history, Asian culture and religions, indigenous religions, and a selfdescribed historian of the earth and its evolutionary processes. According to his biographer, Mary Evelyn
Tucker, Berry’s aim has been “to evoke the psychic and spiritual resources to establish a new reciprocity of
humans with the earth and of humans to one another.” This goal grew out of his observation of the emergence
of two significant developments. One was the development of a planetary civilization as cultures around the
world came in contact with each other, often for the first time. The second was the massive destruction of
ecological resources that are needed to support the emerging planetary civilization. See Mary Evelyn Tucker,
“Biography of Thomas Berry,” online at: http://www.thomasberry.org/Biography/tucker-bio.html, accessed
February 22, 2008.
3 Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999), p. xi.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
relationship to the Earth—the ultimate “giving tree.” This exploitation is based on what
Berry identifies as our cultural “pathology,” a collective disorder “manifest in the arrogance
with which we reject our role as an integral member of the Earth community in favor of a
radical anthropocentric life attitude.”4 For Berry, just as for ecological feminist thinkers and
activists,5 the development of the current cultural pathology is rooted in a system that at its
core is “antifeminist, antihuman and anti-Earth”6 in that it promotes and praises oppressive
hierarchical and profit-driven relationships in order to achieve its notions of progress. This
“pathology” is highlighted in Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, and numerous other
sources. One example is the Union of Concerned Scientists’ recent report on global
warming, which found that in order for the world to stay within the “prescribed atmospheric
concentration limit,” the United States must cut its carbon emissions by at least 80 percent
below 2000 levels by 2050.”7 Although the giving tree is reduced to a near-lifeless stump, the
Earth fortunately is still continuing to sprout new growth. But this may not always be the
case if global capitalism continues its profit-driven rampage.
Heather Eaton’s article, “Feminist or Functional Cosmology? Ecofeminist Musings
on Thomas Berry’s Functional Cosmology,”8 explores Berry’s notion of a functional
cosmology and questions some of its implications from an ecofeminist perspective.9 She
concludes that functional cosmology and ecofeminism are “incomplete” alone, but that
“[t]ogether these could be powerful allies in transforming the world, respecting the Earth,
and honoring the holy.”10 Thus, my objective here is to support Eaton’s assertion that
Berry’s functional cosmology and ecofeminism need each other. Further, I will propose that
Genesis Farm, a 140-acre farm and Learning Center for the Earth in northern New Jersey
founded by Dominican Sisters, is an example of “ecofeminist cosmology”11 in practice. As
such, I want to show how through their holistic solutions to the growing ecological crisis of
global capitalism, the Green Sisters12 at Genesis Farm, like others around the world,13 are
embodying Eaton’s notion of an ecofeminist cosmology, demonstrating that not only could
it play a part in “transforming the world, respecting the Earth and honoring the holy,” but
that it already is doing this in a locally based, yet globally focused way.
Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth (New York: Sierra Club Books, 1988), p. 208.
Rosemary Ruether, New Woman, New Earth (New York: Dove, 1975); Ynestra King, “The Ecology of
Feminism and the Feminism of Ecology,” in Judith Plant (ed.), Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism
(Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1989); Irene Diamond and Gloria Orenstein (eds.), Reweaving the World:
The Emergence of Ecofeminism (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990); Susan Griffin, Made from this Earth (New
York: Harper, 1982); Mary Mellor, Breaking the Boundaries (London: Virago, 1992); Ariel Salleh, Ecofeminism as
Politics (London: Zed Books, 1997); Noël Sturgeon, Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory, and Political
Action (New York: Routledge, 1997); Heather Eaton and Lois Ann Lorentzen (eds.), Ecofeminism and
Globalization: Exploring Culture, Context, and Religion (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).
6 Berry, 1999, op. cit., p. 160.
7 http://www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release/new-report-sets-target-for-0062.html.
8 Heather Eaton, “Feminist or Functional Cosmology? Ecofeminist Musings on Thomas Berry’s Functional
Cosmology,” Ecotheology, 5/6, 1998-99, pp. 73-94.
9 Ibid., p. 73.
10 Ibid., p. 94.
11 Ibid., p. 92.
12 Sarah McFarland Taylor, Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
13 Another example is the decentralized network called Sisters of the Earth, founded by Sister Mary Sutherland.
See: http://www.sistersofearth.org/.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
In articulating the link between ecology and spirituality, Genesis Farm is part of an
emerging trend within the world’s major religions that sees global warming and increased
environmental destruction as, to quote Pope John Paul II in 1990, “a moral issue.”14 In
taking this perspective to heart, Genesis Farm is a highly successful example of the
movement among Roman Catholic sisters to integrate ecology—and in this particular case,
Berry’s notion of a functional cosmology—into their spiritual practice.
Genesis Farm has been discussed in a number of books and articles, such as Sarah
McFarland Taylor’s “Reinhabiting Religion: Green Sisters, Ecological Renewal, and the
Biography of Religious Landscape,”15 her recent book, Green Sisters: A Spiritual Ecology,16 and
Marjorie Hope and James Young’s Voices of Hope in the Struggle to Save the Planet.17 However,
none of these works has explored in-depth the connections between ecofeminism, the
Green Sisters, or Genesis Farm. Thus, I see this research as contributing a small but
significant piece to the vast and multifaceted mosaic of ecofeminist scholarship,18 particularly
those ecofeminist works that focus on the ways in which women around the world are
putting solutions into practice.19 Furthermore, I argue that although ecofeminist spirituality20
(as in the celebration of Mother Earth/Goddess/the Divine Feminine) has been the branch
of ecofeminism most critiqued by many social/ist ecofeminists21 for the “sin of
essentialism,”22 it has been just such works that have been the most influential, not only to
Berry, but also to the Green Sisters themselves, despite their connections with patriarchal
Judeo-Christianity.23 In fact, it has been through their collective understanding of a living,
life-giving planet that Green Sisters have within the Roman Catholic organizational structure
reshaped their ministerial priorities and even reconfigured their conceptions of God. They
have taken the writings of Thomas Berry, as well as the influences of ecofeminism and many
Drew Christiansen and Walter Grazer, “And God Saw that it was Good,” in Catholic Theology and the
Environment (Washington, D.C.: United States Catholic Conference, 1996), p. 1. See also Sally McFague, Life
Abundant: Rethinking Theology and Economy for Planet in Peril (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000) and Mary Evelyn
Tucker, Worldly Wonder: Religions Enter their Ecological Phase (Chicago: Open Court, 2002).
15 Sarah McFarland Taylor “Reinhabiting Religion: Green Sisters, Ecological Renewal, and the Biography of
Religious Landscape,” Worldviews, Vol. 6, No. 3, 2002, pp. 227-252.
16 Taylor, 2007, op. cit.
17 Marjorie Hope and James Young, Voices of Hope in the Struggle to Save the Planet (New York: The Apex Press,
18 Sturgeon, op. cit.
19 Phoebe C. Godfrey, “Diane Wilson v. Union Carbide: Ecofeminism and the Elitist Charge of ‘Essentialism,’”
Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 16, No. 4, 2005, pp. 37-66. For examples of ecofeminism in action see: Joni
Seager, “‘Hysterical Housewives’ and Other Mad Women: Grassroots Environmental Organizing in the United
States,” in Diane Rocheleau, Barbara Thomas-Slayter, and Esther Wangari (eds.), Feminist Political Ecology: Global
Issues and Local Experiences (New York: Routledge, 1996); Temma Kaplan, Crazy for Democracy: Women in Grassroots
Movements (New York: Routledge, 1997).
20 Starhawk, “Power, Authority, and Mystery: Ecofeminism and Earth-based Spirituality,” in Diamond and
Orenstein, op. cit. Also, critiqued for being “essentialist” are the cultural ecofeminist texts of Susan Griffin,
Women and Nature: The Roaring Inside Her (New York: Harper and Row, 1978) and Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology: The
Meta–Ethics of Radical Feminism (Boston: Beacon Press, 1978). See Elizabeth Carlassare “Destabilizing the
Criticism of Essentialism in Ecofeminist Discourse,” Capitalism Nature Socialism, Vol. 5, No. 3, 1994, pp. 50-66.
21 Janet Biehl, Rethinking Ecofeminist Politics (Boston: South End Press, 1991); Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics
and Human Nature (Totowa, NJ: Rowman and Allanheld, 1983).
22 For my rebuttal of “the sin of essentialism,” see Godfrey, op. cit. Also, see Carlassare, op. cit.
23 Rosemary Radford Ruether, Gia and God: An Ecofeminist Theology of Earth Healing (San Francisco: Harper
Collins, 1992).
Phoebe C. Godfrey
other sources, and turned them into an ecologically based spiritual and material “call to
Thomas Berry’s Functional Cosmology
Since the 1970s, Thomas Berry’s work,25 inspired by the French Jesuit paleontologist
and theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955),26 has been devoted to solving the
ecological crisis. Berry sees this crisis as rooted in the lack of a “functional cosmology,” an
ecologically sound cultural narrative, or story, of how the Universe, the Earth, life, human
life and human consciousness came to be. He argues that a functional cosmology is
fundamental to dealing with the ecological crisis, because it would give us an ecologically
sound direction for our future, moving us from a relationship of dominating and devastating
the Earth to one that is mutually enhancing. It is a theme developed in his books, The Dream
of the Earth, mentioned above, The Universe Story, co-authored with cosmologist Brian
Swimme, and more recently, The Great Work.
Berry says that all human communities develop stories that create “the macrocontext” for “personal and communal self-understanding.”27 Creation stories, religions,
mythologies, and even ideologies play such a role. Such beliefs in their myriad manifestations
form, as Peter Berger argues, a society’s “nomos” from which meaning is derived and
actively maintained.28 Religion has been the most powerful and comprehensive nomos,
serving to place humans in a divinely inspired Universe and translate some notion of the
sacredness of the natural world. Western Christianity, the religion of the world’s currently
Heather Eaton, “Response to Rosemary Radford Ruether: Ecofeminism and Theology—Challenges,
Confrontations, and Reconstructions,” in Dieter T. Hessel and Rosemary Radford Ruether (eds.), Christianity
and Ecology: Seeking the Well-Being of Earth and Humans (Harvard Center for the Study of World Religions, 2000).
25 Thomas Berry is the author of eight books: Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, edited by
Mary Evelyn Tucker (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books and University of California Press, 2006); The Great
Work: Our Way Into the Future (New York: Random House, 1999); with Brian Swimme, The Universe Story: From
the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era: A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco:
HarperSanFrancisco, 1992); The Dream of the Earth (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1988, reissued 2006);
Befriending the Earth (Mystic, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 1991); The Religions of India (New York: BruceMacmillan, 1971); Buddhism (New York: Hawthorne Books, 1966); and The Historical Theory of Giambattista Vico
(Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1951). He has also authored numerous pamphlets and essays.
Between 1970 and 1995, Berry was director of the Riverdale Center of Religious Research along the Hudson
River in New York City, and many of his articles, speeches and presentations have been collected in “The
Riverdale Papers,” which is available from the Riverdale Center for Religious Research, 5801 Palisades Ave.,
Bronx, NY 10471, USA.
In Hope and Young, op cit., p. 17, Berry cites Teilhard as “the first great thinker in the modern scientific
tradition to describe the universe as having a psychic-spiritual as well as a physical material dimension.”
However, he emphasizes that “his framework had limitations. …The challenge is to extend Teilhard’s principal
concerns, to help light the way toward an Ecozoic Age.” [p.18.] Mary Evelyn Tucker, in her essay, “Thomas
Berry and the New Story: An Introduction to the Work of Thomas Berry,” writes that Berry is indebted to
Teilhard for his concept of “developmental time,” his “understanding of the psychic-physical character of the
unfolding universe,” and for his “appreciation for his law of complexity-consciousness.” Thus, for both
Teilhard and Berry, “the perspective of evolution provides the most comprehensive context for understanding
the human phenomenon in relation to other life forms.” See http://ecoethics.net/ops/tucker.htm. Similarly
Brian Swimme was also influenced by Teilhard both before he met Berry and through working with him. See
27 Eaton, 1998-99, op. cit., p. 77.
28 Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1966).
Phoebe C. Godfrey
ruling elite is, as Lynn White argues, “the most anthropocentric religion in the world” and is
used to provide Western society its moral authority to conquer nature and relegate
environmental concerns to the secular realm.29 Thus, for White, since the roots of our
ecological crisis are religious—or as Berry would say, cosmological, even before they are
epistemological—then likewise our “response…must have a religious grounding.”30
Berry maintains that we must foster “a sense of the New Story of the Universe as the
context for understanding the diversity and unity of religions … in order to maintain their
ultimate values and orientation towards reality yet also assist in the transformation to an
ecological era.”31 In other words, world religions must come together to not only rewrite our
cultural “giving tree” story, but also put that new story into practice. We humans need to see
ourselves not as the sole purpose of an inanimate Universe, but as merely one part of a vastly
complex living Universe. Currently, Berry points out, “we think of the Earth more as the
background for economic purposes or as the object of scientific research rather than as a
world of wonder, magnificence, and mystery for the unending delight of the human mind
and imagination.”32
Ecofeminist Rosemary Ruether finds fault in Berry’s emphasis on “consciousness
and culture” for not sufficiently recognizing the “socioeconomic, legal and political relations
of humans to each other …[and] to the air, water, land, plants and animals of the planet.”33
Likewise, Eaton says Berry “does not deal with agency”34 nor say who is doing what to
whom under a global capitalist system fueled by U.S. corporate and military hegemony.
Eaton contends that “Without a sophisticated knowledge of how the dominant paradigm
actually works, [Berry’s] functional cosmology will not be enough to motivate or energize
people for the immense transformation ahead.”35
Miriam MacGillis strongly disagrees with this critique, both in terms of her
interpretation and application of Berry’s work at Genesis Farm.36 For every aspect of
Genesis Farm’s structure—both physical and social—addresses and attempts to counter
issues of domination and exploitation. MacGillis’ work and that of many others through
Genesis Farm is not a direct confrontation of global capitalism; nevertheless, this inspiring
model of progressive change clearly links consciousness and culture to material relations
through its ecologically sustainable and spiritually based communal practices. As MacGillis
describes it, “everything we do here in our ecological work stems from Berry’s clear
articulation of the cosmological principles of differentiation, subjectivity and communion,
and the implications [are] that these same values embedded in the Earth/Universe show up
as the golden rule within the world’s cultures (including matricentric and patricentric
Lynn White, “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis Science,” Science, 155, 1967, pp. 1203-1207.
Laurel Kearns, “Saving the Creation: Christian Environmentalism in the United States,” Sociology of Religion,
Vol. 57, No. 1, 1996, pp. 55-70.
31 Eaton, 1998-99, op. cit., p. 80.
32 Berry, 1999, op. cit., p. 22.
33 Ruether, 2001, op. cit., p. 171.
34 Eaton, 1998-99, op. cit., p. 92.
35 Ibid.
36 MacGillis, email exchange with the author, 2008.
37 Ibid.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
MacGillis’ personal promotion and individual interpretation of Berry’s “New Story”
has been very influential within the Green Sisters movement, more so than Berry’s own
speaking and writing has been.38 The spiritual branch of ecofeminism that sees the Earth as
alive is very much in sync with Berry’s and Swimme’s view that the “fundamental role that
we should be fulfilling—the role of enabling the Earth and the universe entire to reflect on
and celebrate themselves and the deep mysteries they bear within them”39—is one in which
we are failing. This parallel is not coincidental. Berry’s work is strongly influenced by seminal
North American ecofeminist writing, such as Susan Griffin’s Woman and Nature and Charlene
Spretnak’s essay, “Ecofeminism: Our Roots and Flowering.”40 He states that these authors
have “established the basis not only for a new historical period, but also for a new
interpretation of history itself.”41 Thus, he believes the ecological feminist movement is “the
greatest ally to his functional cosmology.”42 He calls for the “wisdom of women”43 to bring
about what he refers to as the Ecozoic era, “the period when humans will be present to the
planet as participating members of the comprehensive Earth community.”44 For Berry, as for
many ecofeminists and the Green Sisters, this “women’s wisdom” harks back to an ancient
cosmology rooted in “a creative and nurturing principle” that was the signature of the
Goddess, independent of any male influence.45 Furthermore, for Berry, it is the ecological
feminist movement that provides us with the means to move forward to a
“postpatriarchical” era that he correlates with the “emerging ecological or ecofeminist
period.”46 This is vital for Berry, since he defines patriarchy as “the deepest and most
destructive level of determination in the Western perception of reality and value.”47 Thus, he
says “the earth seems to be rising in defense of herself and her children after this long period
of patriarchial domination.”48 Despite Eaton’s view that Berry’s critique of patriarchy and his
analysis of ecological feminism lacks detail and thus that “he will not find many allies in the
ecofeminist movement,”49 he has successfully inspired women religious thinkers to put their
version of ecofeminism into practice within the context of his new cosmology. However,
there are questions about how Berry’s admittedly “essentialist” notions of women’s wisdom
play out for ecofeminism and for the Green Sisters associated with Genesis Farm.
Ecological Feminism
In combining the social justice concerns of feminism with the environmental
sustainability concerns of the environmental movement, ecofeminists attempt “to
understand and resist the interrelated dominations of women and nature”50 through
Taylor, 2007, op. cit.
Berry & Swimme, op. cit., p. 1.
40 Griffin, op. cit.; Spretnak, in Diamond and Orenstein, op. cit.
41 Berry, 1988, op. cit., p. 161.
42 Eaton, 1998-99, op. cit., p. 86.
43 Berry, 1999, op. cit., p. 180.
44 Ibid., p. 8.
45 Ibid., p. 180.
46 Berry, 1988, op. cit., p. 161.
47 Ibid., p. 141.
48 Ibid., p. 162.
49 Eaton, 1998-99, op. cit., p. 91.
50 Eaton and Lorentzen, op. cit., p. 1.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
“analysis, critique, vision and praxis.”51 As Susan Griffin, an early and influential ecofeminist
author, states: “From the beginning this movement involved personal transformation as part
of a recognition of political circumstance,”52 directly linking the lived personal with the
abstract political, the human with the natural, the local with the global. Ecofeminism is an
historically grounded practice, and the diversity of voices within ecofeminism is so great,
that, as Eaton points out, it is better “represented as a lens through which all disciplines are
examined and refocused”53 than as a discipline in its own right. Its practitioners range from
housewives radicalized in fighting pollution in neighborhood or global contexts, to
academics researching and writing in universities, to the spiritual and agricultural work of
Green Sisters around the world. Unsurprisingly, such diversity inevitably leads to dissent.
According to Charlene Spretnak, three main paths led to ecofeminism. The first path
was taken by women reacting to Marxist political theory, which, although strong on class
oppression, was criticized by radical socialist and cultural feminists for its weak articulation
of patriarchal relations and the exploitation of nature.54 A second path to ecofeminism was
through nature-based religion, in particular the re-discovery of the ancient Earth Mother
Goddess through such works as Merlin Stone’s When God Was a Woman, Starhawk’s The
Spiral Dance, and Riane Eisler’s The Chalice and the Blade.55 The third path was through the
liberal environmental movement that gained popularity globally, but which many women
found to be lacking in a systemic analysis of both capitalism and patriarchy, leading them to
critique both environmentalism and deep ecology.56 Yet despite these different paths, each
conceptualization of ecofeminism addresses the notion that there is a unique connection
between women and nature. At the same time, ecofeminists are aware that this culturally
gendered connection has been a source of oppression for women in different ways,
depending on their social, political, and economic positions. Thus, for poor women, the
ideological connection of women to nature has served to rationalize their menial labors,
while the Western association of racial hierarchies with nature has compounded the
oppressions experienced by women of color. Yet despite the various layers of oppression,
woman-nature links have been a source of empowerment through women’s embodied
experiences in childbearing and nursing, as well as in the social, economic, and culturally
reproductive labor that they do. Many women express this unique sense of power through
the Goddess allusions found in women-centered spirituality.
Ibid., p. 87.
Griffin, op. cit., p. 220.
53 Eaton, op. cit., p. 87.
54 Spretnak, 1990, op. cit., p. 5-6.
55 Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman (New York: Harvest Books, 1978); Starhawk, The Spiral Dance (New
York: Harper and Row, 1979), see also Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority and Mystery (New York:
HarperOne, 1989); and Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987). Other
examples are Charlene Spretnak, The Politics of Women’s Spirituality (New York: Anchor, 1982); and Carol Christ,
Laughter of Aphrodite (San Francisco: Harper, 1987).
56 Spretnak, 1990, op. cit., pp. 5-6.
For more on the relationship between deep ecology and ecofeminism, see: Deborah Slicer, “Is There an
Ecofeminism-Deep Ecology Debate?,” Environmental Ethics, Vol. 17, No. 2, 1995, pp. 151-69; Christine Cuomo,
“Ecofeminism, Deep Ecology and Human Population,” in Karen Warren (ed.), Ecological Feminism (New York:
Routledge, 1994). Also, Charlene Spretnak, “Gaia, Green Politics, and the Great Transformation,” in Patricia
Wynne (ed.), The Womanspirit Sourcebook (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988).
Phoebe C. Godfrey
Given that patriarchal narratives have used the association of women with nature as
a form of gender diminishment, some readers of ecofeminism have objected to what they
see as a political contradiction in this talk of a “special connection.” But in doing so, they fail
to recognize the categorical difference between women’s material embeddedness in natural
relations as distinct from capitalist patriarchal depictions or representations of that material
relationship. Again, theorists and ecofeminists like Biehl57 who view ecofeminism as
essentialist overlook the fact that all articulations of feminisms are fundamentally based on
the conviction that gender identities and roles are socially constructed ideologies.58
I have previously reviewed this debate in depth and have argued that it abounds in
misrepresentations and superficial analyses.59 However, it is important to revisit it briefly
here, for there is no doubt that Berry’s text—with its symbolic rather than material causes—
does in many ways appear to be pre-feminist and essentialist. Nevertheless, his conception of
a functional cosmology resonates strongly with the work of both Spretnak and Starhawk,
who each use woman-spirit imagery and metaphor to make “story” out of daily experiences.
What is most important is not the origin of this “special connection” but rather the ways in
which it is articulated practically, such that women’s lives become daily testimonies—that is,
”women’s wisdom” is not of “woman born” but of “woman made.”
To further this point, Taylor recognizes that the “recurrent prophetic narrative that a
positive outcome for the Earth depends on the return of the wisdom that women bear—
because of their special connectedness to the Earth and their capacity for greater
connectedness with others—finds ideal conditions for nurturance and growth within the
Green Sisters movement.”60 In other words, through this nurturance, many women,
including the Green Sisters—who believe that they do have a special connection with nature,
the Earth, and the Universe—soon create one, because as MacGillis says “the very structure
and function of the Earth/Universe as observed by science confirms this unity.”61 In this
manner, ecofeminist theories, when put into practice by Green Sisters, have real “material”
consequences in terms of new ways of working with the Earth (ecological), with each other
(sociological), and in modeling a future based on solidarity economies (politico-economic).
The influence of ecofeminism on Green Sisters is deeply significant. “Whether or
not individual Green Sisters choose to identify themselves as feminist, ecofeminist, both or
neither, the Green Sisters movement itself has foundationally benefited from the
infrastructure, sensibilities, pathways for questioning, and language introduced into women’s
congregations through both the renewal process and the women’s movement,” Taylor
observes.62 Charlene Spretnak, who was the keynote speaker at the 2002 “Sisters of the
Earth” conference, uses language and imagery that links women and their wisdom directly
with the Earth, in a spiritual and transformative way. For example, she writes “Woman’s
transformative wisdom and energy are absolutely necessary in the struggle for ecological
Biehl, op. cit. Biehl, as part of her critique, no longer identifies as an ecofeminist.
Regarding women-nature links, materialist ecofeminists today recognize that it is quite possible to describe
women’s empowerment through labor using an historical (even Marxist) framework, one which certainly does
not impute essential biological or inborn wisdoms to women.
59 Godfrey, op. cit.
60 Taylor, 2007, op. cit., p. 74.
61 MacGillis, email exchange with the author, 2008.
62 Taylor, 2007, op. cit., pp. 34-35.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
sanity, peace and social justice.”63 It is just this kind of sentiment that has been held up as
essentialist for its claim of women’s “special connection” to nature that is then seen as the
reason behind Seager’s claim that “women are the backbone of virtually all environmental
organizations in the United States.”64
Two studies done between 1990 and 1993 in both the United States and Europe
reveal that the link between women and environmental activism is not their biological role as
women nor mothers but rather their “support [of] feminist goals” that makes them, as well
as men who support feminist goals, “more likely to be concerned about the environment.”65
And although “women may be more likely than men to embrace feminist orientations or to
even identify as feminist, this is no way means that men cannot do the same thing.”66 Thus,
it is not an “essential” quality within women that brings them (and a growing number of
men) to environmental activism; rather it is “that feminism exposes one to an alternative
analysis of environmental problems”67 that makes them willing to create a “special
connection.” Within the traditionally male-dominated Roman Catholic Church, it should
therefore be no surprise that it is religious women, open to and inspired by feminism, who
are living and thus leading the way to sustainable solutions, thereby actively creating their own
“special connections” to the Earth as well as to each other.
The notion that for the Green Sisters and many other ecofeminists, the fulfillment of
their woman-centered spiritual inspiration is manifest in their materially ecological practices
is supported by Rosemary Ruether’s conceptualization of “ecofeminist theology.”68 Ruether
rejects the primarily Western cultural ideology of dualism, as in “soul and body,” good and
evil, right and wrong, human and nature.69 Likewise, as Vandana Shiva affirms, it is logically
impossible to essentialize anything, since all entities are interconnected.70 Such relational
thinking promotes fluidity between identities, subjects and objects; it characterizes most
Eastern and Indigenous People’s philosophies; and it is central to Berry’s and Swimme’s
conception of the Universe as a dynamic living totality. In fact, as Swimme argues in his
essay, “How to Heal a Lobotomy” in Reweaving the World, a seminal collection of early
ecofeminist writing,
nothing is more obvious than Spretnak’s assertion that weaving is a fundamental dynamic of
this Universe. Picture it: From a single fireball the galaxies and stars were all woven ... Our
lives in truth are nothing less than a further unfurling of this primordial ordering activity. 71
Spretnak, 1988, op. cit., p. 90.
Seager, 1996, op. cit., p. 275.
Mark Somma and Sue Tolleson-Rinehart, “Tracking the Elusive Green Women: Sex, Environmentalism and
Feminism in the United States and Europe,” Political Research Quarterly, Vol. 50, No. 1, 1997, pp. 153-169, p.
Ibid., p. 163.
Ibid., p. 163.
68 Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Ecofeminism: The Challenge to Theology,” in Dieter and Ruether, op. cit., p.
69 Ibid.
70 Vandana Shiva, Closer to Home (Philadelphia: New Society, 1994); Salleh, op. cit., p. 95.
71 Swimme, 1990, op. cit., p. 21.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
Swimme’s objective is to humor the scientific community’s continual failure to see the whole
beyond its fixation with analysis, computation, and categorization. Therefore, he proposes
“we learn to interpret the data provided by the fragmented scientific mind within the holistic
poetic vision alive in ecofeminism.”72 Ruether argues that what is needed to inspire such “a
new global consciousness” as a means of addressing our current ecological crisis is not just
one version of ecofeminism but rather “a plurality of ecofeminist perspectives [that] must
arise from many cultural backgrounds,”73—including Genesis Farm. As Miriam MacGillis
During the 25 years of Genesis Farm, I see women emerging as a vital force for life ...
because they are choosing to be that vital force. I’m not excluding men, rather I see it as a
capacity we all have as in the feminine and the masculine, and it is a case of which aspect we
nurture or suppress in any culture at any particular time.74
In other words, she recognizes the need for both balance and unity by being a steadfast force
of the “feminine” present within the “masculine” Roman Catholic hierarchy.75
Genesis Farm and the Earth Literacy Center
Genesis Farm was left as an inheritance to the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New
Jersey in 1978. Sister Miriam Therese MacGillis, founded the project in 1980, inspired by the
work of Father Thomas Berry. MacGillis had come from ten years of social justice and peace
work and says she “was used to being engaged in ... major issues, such as world hunger and
what was happening to farmers around the world [as a result of the] corporate takeover of
our food system.”76 From the beginning, she visualized Genesis Farm as a “farm and
reflection center”77 that would address these issues locally and globally. MacGillis states that
it was to be a place to “experiment in ‘re-inhabiting’ these 140 acres in the Delaware Valley, a
center where the search for alternative global systems, global spirituality, simplicity of life,
land, stewardship and sustainable, ecological agriculture all come together.”78 And that is
exactly what it has become, a place where she and others have developed “viable models,
practical plans, and concrete tools for applying the philosophical insights of Thomas Berry’s
work.”79 In short, MacGillis says, Genesis Farm has become a place where “the two primary
dimensions of our work ... learning and agriculture”80 are put into daily practice.
The learning side of the operation is facilitated by the Earth Literacy Center, which
was established in 1990 to offer programs “to awaken our capacity to ‘read’ the book of the
Ibid., p. 17.
Ruether, 1992, op. cit., p. 11.
74 MacGillis, interview with the author, 2006.
75 Taylor, 2002, op. cit.
76 MacGillis, interview with the author, 2006.
77 Miriam MacGillis, “Re-Inhabiting Genesis Farm: A Center for Bioregional and World Order Education,”
Breakthrough, Spring/Summer, 1985, pp. 10-13.
78 Ibid., p. 10.
79 Ibid., p. 11.
80 Miriam MacGillis, “Food as Sacrament,” in F. Hull (ed.), Earth and Spirit: The Spiritual Dimension of the
Environmental Crisis (New York: Continuum, 1993), p. 163.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
natural world and to ‘hear’ the voices of its community life.”81 Its programs and workshops
are “designed to help us experience ourselves as a dimension of the Earth, and to expand our
conception of self to include our Earth self, our Universe self, as one single reality.”82 The goal
of the Earth Literacy Center is to inspire and teach individuals and groups how to become a
part of this great work, by seeing themselves—humans—as part of nature. It has an
extensive library, teaching center and accommodations for up to nine long-term guests.
Furthermore, a twelve-week Earth Literacy program is available at Genesis Farm for 15
graduate credits through a linkage with the Florida-based St. Thomas University or 10 credits
at St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana. Thus, following Berry’s call for a “new
ecological role for colleges,”83 Genesis Farm has helped to bring the work of Earth Literacy
to universities.
In addition to the teaching side of Genesis Farm, there is, of course, the farming
side—“sacred agriculture”84—which, MacGillis emphasizes, is done “with a deep spiritual
commitment and love.”85 Genesis Farm employs Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic method,
which requires “preparing the seed with reverence, sowing [it] according to cosmic forces
like the alignment of the stars, and setting the seed out in terms of ‘companion planting.’”86
Genesis Farm also engages in “the exploration of the Earth as a self-nourishing organism,”
“through microbes, nutrients, water and sunlight” which are, as Berry asserts, the growers of
the food, as opposed to farmers who only enter into that prior process.87 This approach
recognizes the Earth as “a living being whose activities are to nourish, govern, learn, heal, regenerate
and transform itself.”88 It is also a way to engage with “the mystery at the heart of human
existence that open[s] up and draw[s] us into the sacramental aspect of our lives through the
most ordinary and familiar ways.”89
Genesis Farm puts this concept into practice in the community with a Community
Supported Garden (CSG, also known by its more common acronym, CSA, or Community
Supported Agriculture). The CSA is incorporated separately, though it is consistent with the
mission of Genesis Farm. More than 300 families are members, which enables them to
participate in securing the economic viability of the farm as pre-paid “share-holders” in its
seasonal production. They are also welcome to plant and harvest some crops, as well as tend
the plants and help with other cooperative activities. The farm is part of the Foodshed
Alliance of the Ridge and Valley, “a grassroots effort to sustain farmers, agricultural lands,
and [a] rural way of life in the Ridge and Valley area of Northwestern New Jersey, ...
enabl[ing] farmers to make a viable living and stay on the land.”90 Thus, bucking national
economic and social trends, Genesis Farm serves a twofold purpose: being politically active
in teaching members of the community, and also feeding, nurturing and supporting them.
MacGillis, 1993, op. cit., p. 162. Original italics.
83 Ibid.
84 MacGillis, 1993, op. cit., p. 162.
85 Ibid.
86 Hope and Young, op. cit., p. 82.
87 MacGillis, 1993, op. cit., p. 162.
88 Ibid. Original italics.
89 Ibid.
90 http://www.genesisfarm.org/.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
Genesis Farm’s “conscious effort in healing and restoring the Earth’s life support
systems”91 reinforces a positive, harmonious, respectful relationship with the existing
bioregion as well as the planet at large. This dedication manifests in concrete ways, such as
putting the farm’s community lands into land trusts, using solar panels and composting
toilets, and constructing some buildings with straw bales and mud. It is also expressed in
spiritually symbolic ways by observing Celtic planting rituals, recognizing sacred pagan
holidays, and by “honoring the wisdom and practices of the Native American Peoples who
once occupied the land by celebrating the sacred seasonal times of the solstices and
equinoxes, as well as central moments in the sacred traditions of most religions.”92
In addition, MacGillis created a cosmic walk, that “like the stations of the cross,
invites the walker to engage in a contemplation ‘pilgrimage.’” In this case, the focus is to
“reflect on the birth of the Universe through significant stages of its emergence into Earth,
into life, and into the present moment.”93 The walk begins with reciting Berry’s adaptation of
the first lines of the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the dream ... Through the dream
all things came to be …”94 The walker takes a candle, which signifies the dawning of the
universe 13.7 billion years ago. The walker then proceeds to follow a spiral rope, which
symbolizes the time-line of the universe, passing through cosmic events like the emergence
of the solar system 5 billion years ago; of oxygen 2 billion years ago; the first birds, 180
million years ago; modern Homo sapiens, 40,000 years ago; and the splitting of the atom, 50
years ago. And at each point the walker lights a vigil candle.95 MacGillis’ intention is for the
walk to help people experience “the awesomeness of the time-space of the Universe,”96
something that is often beyond intellectual understanding.
The commitment to honor the spiritual “threads of the Earth’s diverse religions”97 at
Genesis Farm reflects MacGillis’ belief that the solution to our ecological crisis does not lie
in “one version [of truth] or the other; it’s the wisdom of them all that gives us
perspective.”98 She elaborates on this by pointing out that with all the new
insight provided by our scientific discovery of deep time and deep space, we need to change
our response … There is no one way that has a single wisdom or a single answer of how to
proceed into the future … No one has all the truth to the exclusion of the others. 99
The openness displayed at Genesis Farm to other religions, philosophies, beliefs, and
“wisdoms,” challenges most people’s perception of traditional church doctrine. However,
according to MacGillis, it reflects the lesser known yet “immense work in ecumenism and
interfaith dialogue”100 that has been going on since the Second Ecumenical Council of the
Taylor, 2002, op. cit., p. 227.
MacGillis, email exchange with the author, 2008.
93 Ibid.
94 Hope and Young, op. cit., p. 82.
95 Ibid.
96 Ibid.
97 MacGillis, email exchange with the author, 2008.
98 MacGillis, interview with the author, 2006.
99 Ibid.
100 MacGillis, email exchange with the author, 2008.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
Vatican, or Vatican II, 1962-65,101 which advocated restoring unity between all Christians
and opening dialog with the modern world. In 1965, His Holiness Pope Paul VI stated that
“in [the Church’s] task of promoting unity and love among men, indeed among nations, she
considers above all in this declaration what men have in common and what draws them to
fellowship.”102 In this vein, Genesis Farm’s inclusion of a multiplicity of faiths is also central
to the Church’s ethos of “promoting unity and love” and includes all sentient and nonsentient beings. Thus, not surprisingly, when I asked MacGillis about her views on
ecofeminism, she responded by saying that ecofeminism was part of “the wisdom of them
all,”103 indicating that for her, one theoretical perspective is not enough.
Perhaps the best testimony to the success of Genesis Farm is the extent to which it
has inspired other sisters to embark on their own part of “the great work.” Sister Margaret
Galiardi recounts that she began her “foray into this experience of Earth cosmology and the
Universe story through reading and studying the works of Thomas Berry and Miriam
MacGillis.”104 After years of study, she went on a vision quest, which gave her what she
refers to as “Earth-based spirituality.” For Galiardi, this combination of Earth literacy with
Earth spirituality produces an understanding of the “experience of oneness.” As she puts it:
We know the story of the Universe empirically; the mystics knew it intuitively. The new
cosmology doesn’t wipe out all the different religious traditions rather it opens up the depth
of meaning.105
For Galiardi, the idea of “opening up the depth of meaning” is very much linked
with finding connections between “the feminine, the Earth, ecofeminism, and the new
cosmology.” Prior to this discovery, Galiardi says that she “experienced a sense of alienation
within myself, within my own body and realiz[ed] that I wanted a piece of my soul back.” It
was “like coming out of a certain kind of amnesia to recover, if you will, [and] the recovery
was the discovery of a much bigger God.”106 Thus, through her connection with the Earth,
the sacred feminine, ecofeminism, and the new functional cosmology, Galiardi found what
she had been looking for.
When people ask her why she doesn’t leave the church with its patriarchal hierarchy,
she says “I am not going to leave it to them,” expressing that she feels it is the role and
responsibility of women like herself and MacGillis to transform the institutional church into
being more ecologically conscious and thus more committed to bringing forth “this
Vatican II attempted to address the challenges of the modern world in terms of political, social, economical
and technological changes. See also Cardinal Walter Kasper, “Nature and Purpose of Ecumenical Dialogue,”
online at: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/pontifical_councils/chrstuni/card-kasperdocs/rc_pc_chrstuni_doc_20030227_ecumenical-dialogue_en.html.
See “Declaration on the Relations of the Church to Non-Christian Religions Nostra Aetate Proclaimed by
His Holiness Pope Paul VI on October 28th, 1965,” online at:
103 Ibid.
104 Galiardi, interview with the author, 2006.
105 Ibid.
106 Ibid.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
message.”107 However, she recognizes the need to still “fly under the radar,” because “the
work is too important to risk misunderstanding by those within the institutional church who
have not had the opportunity to study all of this more clearly.”108
Another sister influenced by the work of Berry, MacGillis and Genesis Farm is
Patricia Siemen, the director of the Center for Earth Jurisprudence (CEJ), which is cosponsored by the law schools of both St. Thomas University and Barry University in
Florida.109 Siemen’s journey into Earth literacy came out of her involvement with social
justice, exposure to the writings of Berry, as well as time spent at Genesis Farm and the
Sophia Center at Holy Names University in Oakland. Siemen told me:
I was so focused on human injustices that I never considered the linkages between systems
of domination and the anthropocentric way of being human. My movement into Earth
literacy, eco-justice and ecofeminism from a cosmological perspective is for me a
continuation of my own evolution of consciousness. 110
Her shift of consciousness has entailed a major shift in her understanding of
who the mystery of God is, and what and who belongs to “the community of life.” Realizing
that inclusive community means including all the other species and kinds—sentient and nonsentient together. Realizing that there is a holy or Divine Mystery beyond the Universe. 111
Such an evolution of consciousness differs from traditional Catholic doctrine. For Siemen it
is her Adrian Dominican congregation “of vowed women religious” who live collectively
and in the spirit of Jesus that keeps her most connected and committed to her Catholic
roots. Like Galiardi, she also recognizes the need to make the connections of her ministry to
that of the deep essence of the Gospel and to do her part in the great work.
Siemen says “ecofeminism opened my world to a larger sense of the Earth
community and the critiques that ecofeminists offer. Seeing the parallel in the domination of
women and the domination of Earth opened my eyes to other linkages.”112 However, she
sees limits in what ecofeminism offers:
While the ecofeminist lens is important, we also need a cosmological perspective that
recognizes that we humans are just one part of this larger whole, the larger Earth
community. I’m not sure ecofeminism includes the concept that all beings have a certain
purpose to fulfill.113
Like MacGillis, Siemen views ecofeminism as just one perspective and calls for an
emphasis on “the wisdom of them all.” However, for many ecofeminists, the notion of a
plural living Universe is central, as Starhawk illustrates:
109 http://www.earthjuris.org/home.htm.
110 Siemen, interview with the author, 2006.
111 Ibid.
112 Ibid.
113 Ibid.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
Living with the knowledge that the cosmos is alive causes us to do something. That is, when
we start to understand that the Earth is alive, she calls us to act to preserve her life. When we
understand that everything is interconnected, we are called to a politics and set of actions
that come from compassion, from the ability to literally feel with all living beings on the
Earth. That feeling is ground upon which we can build community and come together and
take action and find direction.114
And this, in fact, is exactly what Genesis Farm has done: developed a direction, built
community, come together, and taken action in a manner that is simultaneously spiritual,
political, and material, in that it is created on the understanding that “everything is
What is perhaps most significant for Sisters Galiardi and Siemen is that as a result of
their exposures to ecofeminism, Berry’s and Swimme’s The Universe Story, and teachings from
MacGillis and the Earth Literacy Center, their concepts of “our story” have dramatically
expanded, as have their spiritual practices, and more fundamentally, their concept of God.
Thus, all three sisters, MacGillis, Galiardi, and Siemen, have moved beyond “categories” into
what MacGillis describes as a “more inclusive cosmology, which draws from the wisdom of
science, the wisdom of classical religions, the wisdom of women, and the wisdom of
indigenous peoples,” which Berry writes about in both The Fourfold Wisdom and The Great
Work.115 Taken together, it is these fourfold wisdoms that give rise to these Green Sisters’
ecologically based daily practices, which are an articulation of an ecofeminist cosmology.
Thus as Berry recognizes, it is from new stories that new actions begin. MacGillis
characterizes it this way:
If religious leaders could look with open eyes at the revelations of what God has been up to
all these billion years, they’d realize the images they use to convey the mysteries of their
traditions are not large enough. That’s why I believe the new cosmology is so important. 116
In her essay “The Evolution of an Ecofeminist,” Julia Scofield Russell writes:
As we transform ourselves, we transform our world. Not later. Now. Simultaneously. How
can this be so? The practice of the politics of lifestyle springs from an understanding of how
things actually happen rather than a linear, cause-and-effect model. As we align ourselves
with the regenerative powers of the Earth and the evolutionary thrust of our species, we tap
abilities beyond the ordinary.117
This is an excellent description of Genesis Farm and what it and the Green Sisters have
accomplished by being “aligned” with the regenerative powers of the Earth, by enacting
Berry’s call for a new story, and by incorporating key aspects of ecofeminism. As a result,
Genesis Farm embodies Eaton’s call for an “ecofeminist cosmology” that is integrated with
Starhawk, in Diamond and Orenstein, op. cit., p. 73.
MacGillis, email exchange with the author, 2008.
116 Hope and Young, op. cit., p. 83. Edited by MacGillis, in email exchange with the author, 2008.
117 Julia Scofield Russell, “The Evolution of an Ecofeminist,” in Diamond and Orenstein, op. cit., p. 75.
Phoebe C. Godfrey
Berry’s “functional cosmology.” It is, as MacGillis recognizes, “a fledgling experiment … a
small spark that creates other sparks and lights within people who are searching for new
visions and meanings as they strive to choose life.”118 And by choosing life, we can hope that
many more of us will “dream,” will get off our giving-tree stump, and work collectively
towards rewriting and living a new cultural story. As MacGillis states, “We … [can] no
longer propagandize the lie of separation,”119 but rather live the truth that all is one.
Moreover, we can no longer propagandize the lie that there is nothing to be done, but rather,
as shown by Genesis Farm, live the truth that there is everything to be done and done, ‘Not
later. Now!’
And I said to the almond tree:
‘Sister, speak to me of God!’
And the almond tree blossomed.120
Miriam MacGillis, “Genesis Farm Experiment Seeks Transforming Vision in Values, Community,” Catholic
Rural Life, June, 1988, p. 11.
119 MacGillis, 2001, op. cit., p. 27.
120 Nikos Kazantsakis, quoted in Mary Grey, Sacred Longings: Ecofeminist Theology and Globalization (N/A: SCM
Press, 2003), p. 121. However, I have also seen this poem attributed to St. Francis of Assisi.
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