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Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents: Octavia Butler and Spiritual Ecofeminism Paloma Villamil Agraso

Abstract Ecofeminism or ecological feminism is a movement which emerged in the 1970s. Within the broad field of ecofeminism, there is a particular branch in which these two novels by Octavia E. Butler could be placed: spiritual ecofeminism. This branch of ecofeminism was mainly developed in the West Coast of the United States. In her 2011 work, Alicia Puleo links spiritual ecofeminism to a pantheistic and feminist vision of the deity which would also have a deep connection with Nature. She encourages theorists to propose new beliefs which would be in favor of both women and the environment. In the same way, Esther Rey in her 2010 article brings together the thoughts of Ynestra King on spiritual ecofeminism; she states that this spiritual approach has had more weight in ecofeminism (than other approaches such as a more radical socialist ecofeminism) because independently of the chosen point of view, all ecofeminist approaches have as a common ground: the view of nature as the object of analysis. Both Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are novels in which the environment plays a main role. Both books describe a future environmentally devastated; however, the novels were not only meant to describe a dystopian future, but also to make readers reconsider their behaviour towards Nature. Besides environment, religion and spirituality are also main themes in the novels. In Parable of the Sower the main character, Lauren Olamina, feels the need to create a new religion because she cannot believe in Christianity anymore (her fathers religion); thus, she creates Earthseed. This new religion is deeply connected to the idea of humans as seeds travelling around the world, creating new life wherever they land. It is also based on action (rather than faith), interdependence and responsibility. Key Words: Octavia Butler, ecofeminism, spirituality, Earthseed, Parable of the Talents, Parable of the Sower, Christianity. ***** 1. Ecofeminist Literary Criticism In 1974, Franoise dEaubonne marked the beginning of a new wave of feminist studies by being the first writer to coin the term ecofeminism in her book Le Fminisme ou la Mort. In it, dEaubonne highlighted the important role of women in environmentalism. As Esther Rey recalls, nature has suffered the same oppression at the hands of humanity than women at mens. 1 If feminists have come together to fight for womens rights, doing the same for n ature was the most logical step to follow. As Alicia Puleo explains, ecofeminism tries to approach

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents: Octavia Butler and Spiritual Ecofeminism

__________________________________________________________________ environmental issues from a feminist point of view: patriarchal structures, hierarchism, sexism, androcentrism, the ethic of the care and so on.2 By merging the two movements, ecofeminists try to understand more about the connection between natures and womens oppression. For Carolyn Merchant, womens ecological revolution would entail new gender relations be tween humans and nature.3 In the same manner as any other movement, very different branches have grown from the ecofeminist movement. Radical, social and liberal feminism have all been concerned with the relationship between humans and nature and have tried to find new ways to improve it. However, there are also differences among them: Liberal feminism is consistent with the objectives of reform environmentalism to alter human relations with nature through the passage of new laws and regulations. Radical ecofeminism analyzes environmental problems from within its critique of patriarchy and offers alternatives that could liberate both women and nature. Socialist ecofeminism grounds its analysis in capitalist patriarchy and would totally restructure, through a socialist revolution, the domination of women and nature inherent in the market economy's use of both as resources.4 Other branches of ecofeminism have deviated themselves from a more social or philosophical perspective to focus in different subjects. Parallel to ecofeminism an academic movement began its career in the late 1980s in the USA and at the beginning of the following decade in the UK. This movement was known as ecocriticism or green studies (specially in the United Kingdom) and it was devoted to the study of the links between literature and the environment. Simply defined, ecocritics approach major literary works from an ecocentric perspective to focus on the representation of the natural world. They also pay a particular attention to those works or authors who place nature as the main or one of the main subjects. Besides fictional works, ecocritics also set their sights in factual writings such as regional literature, essays or even memoirs. 5Authors like Patrick D. Murphy or Greta Gaard have taken the lead of this movement with such important works as Literature, Nature and Other: Ecofeminist Critiques (Murphy, 1995) or Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, Pedagogy co edited by Murphy and Gard and published in 1998. This article will approach to the two novels by Octavia Butler with a combination of an ecocritical study and an ecofeminist perspective. As Diamond and Orestein write in the introduction to Reweaving the World, spiritual ecofeminism consists of a search for a new spirituality:

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__________________________________________________________________ In their hope for the creation of new cultures that would live with the Earth, many women in the West were inspired by the myths and symbols of ancient Goddess cultures in which creation was imaged as female and the Earth was revered as sacred.6 Many spiritual feminists and ecofeminists share the conviction that a profound shift in consciousness was necessary to preserve the earth: they think we need to recover more ancient and traditional views that revere the connection of all beings in the web of life and a rethinking of the relation of humanity and divinity to nature.7 Alicia Puleo has shared her thoughts on the need of a new vision of the divine; a new ideology linked to pantheism and clearly feminist which would leave behind the patriarchal conceptions of God.8 While in the West ecofeminists turned to more ancient views and beliefs, in the Southern hemisphere they searched for ideologies which supported action and that could change the deplorable situation of both women and nature. Vandana Shiva in India and the theology of liberation in Latin America fought for environmental justice to develop sustainable, nondominating relations with nature and to supply all peoples (independently of their race, gender or social status) with a high quality o life. 9 As we have seen, ecofeminism cannot be seen as a monolithic, homogeneous ideology. Many branches grow from the same tree, but it is undoubtedly this diversity of though (and action) what have turned this new politics or ideology in a catalyst for change in these troubled times.10 2. Octavia Butlers novels Prodigy is, at its essence, adaptability and persistent, positive obsession. Without persistence, what remains is an enthusiasm of the moment. Without adaptability, what remains may be channelled into destructive fanaticism. Without positive obsession, there is nothing at all.11 These lines open Octavia Butlers science fiction novel, Parable of the Sower. The narrative begins in 2024, in California and it depicts a time when environmental and economic crises have leaded the country to a complete social chaos. Through the writings in her diary Lauren Olamina, the main protagonist of the novels, shows us the possible consequences of our current behaviour: extreme poverty, violence, environmental catastrophes, social unrest and so forth. Besides her comments on her everyday life, Lauren also writes down in her diaries verses or pieces of prose about her ideology, Earthseed. However, Lauren is not only an observer of this chaotic reality; she was born and brought up in it. Contrary to her parents and other adults who feel nostalgic for the past and look for a revival of the good old days; Lauren has never lived in the

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents: Octavia Butler and Spiritual Ecofeminism

__________________________________________________________________ world as we know it and, consequently, her sights are set on the creation of a prosperous future. For her, this prosperous future goes hand in hand with Earthseed, the religion she invented when her fathers God stopped being relevant to her.12 When her walled neighbourhood is attacked, Lauren is forced to live in the outside world, a place full of threats. Thanks to her belief and hope in what she calls Earthseed, and the help of many she find s (and picks) along the road, Lauren and her new friends reach the relatively safe area of North California. There they settle to create the first Earthseed community: Acorn. Parable of the Talents picks up the thread of the narrative in 2032, five years after the creation of Acorn. In this novel, Lauren must fight to keep her people and Earthseed alive. Christian America, a revival movement of an old ideology, will not only threaten their freedom, but their very survival. When Acorn is finally attacked all children are abducted, including Laurens daughter Larkin. After being adopted by a Christian American family, Larkins name is changed to Asha Vere and any notions about her mother or her past are kept away from her.13 Through her own writings we not only learn what happened to her, she also shares her thoughts on her mothers religion: Earthseed. If Parable of the Sower represents the beginning of a new ideology and a new religion, then Parable of the Talents symbolizes its growth and its exposure to the major hazards of that chaotic world. Lauren Oya Olamina is the main character and narrator of both stories. Although she is only a teenager when she is forced to live in the streets, it had not caught her unaware. All along the country walled communities were being assaulted or burned down; after some petty thieves had entered in Laurens own community, she decided to assemble a small survival pack in case she was forced to abandon her house. However, no emergency pack could ever hide her major weakness, her hyperempathy syndrome: I feel what I see others feeling or what I believe they feel. Hyperempathy is what the doctors call an organic delusional syndrome. Big shit. It hurts, thats all I know. Thanks to Paracetco, ... the particular drug my mother chose to abuse before my birth killed her, Im crazy. I get a lot of grief that doesnt belong to me, and that isnt real. But it hurts. 14 On the one hand, Laurens syndrome makes her a more vulnerable person because, even if she is able to survive unhurt in the outside world, she could collapse from other peoples pain. But, on the other hand, her syndrome also makes her a more compassionate person. She is not willing to hurt or kill anybody

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__________________________________________________________________ unless it is absolutely necessary, a life or death situation. Lauren herself wonders how the world would be if everybody suffered from her disease: [People] could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone elses pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? Ive never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. 15 This particular weakness is what makes Lauren a more inspiring spiritual leader and also, more accountable to her community. When Acorn is nothing but a group of people struggling to survive along the roads of California, Lauren is the one who seems more reliable and prepared: she has maps and her survival pack and she knows how the group must move or act; she proposes night watches and urges the group to steal only from the dead or from their attackers; even though she is 18 years old, she takes care of everybody in the group because she knows their pain is also her pain. Her compassion combined with her intelligence and her education makes her the powerful leader people were searching for. Nevertheless, her role as the spiritual leader is Laurens mos t important facet. She is the prophet who seeks to lead her people to salvation. For Lauren, this salvation not only implies finding a place to live safely; she wants to spread her ideology. Born in a time of social and environmental chaos, Lauren saw religion and Christianity in particular as one of the root causes of the crisis. It did not offer solutions to any of the problems of the moment; moreover, those in power claimed that God was the only responsible one for the poverty and suffering. If this was Gods desire, what could they do to improve their terrible conditions? Lauren did not agree with this widespread thinking. She believed a new spirituality could emerge from the ashes of American society, a system of belief which would inspire action. And thus, she discovered Earthseed: I didnt make it up. It was something I had been thinking about since I was 12. It was is a collection of truths. It isnt the whole truth. It isnt the only truth. Its just one collection of thoughts that are true.16 In the novels she states very clearly that does not understand why people believe in the Christian God because, in her opinion, He behaves like a kid playing with his toys: Bang! Bang! Seven toys fall dead. If theyre yours, you make the rules. Who cares what the toys think.17 She indeed feels that people have excused their actions saying it was the desires of the Christian God, instead of taking the blame. Lauren believes it is time for a new ideology, a new religion based on interdependence, responsibility and action: Chaos / Is Gods most dangerous face

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents: Octavia Butler and Spiritual Ecofeminism

__________________________________________________________________ / Amorphous, roiling, hungry. / Shape Chaos / Shape God. / Act. 18 And, through both Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, she draughts this new religion through pieces of prose or verses like that one which reflect her thoughts on Earthseed. However, she does not intend to preach her religious beliefs; instead, she considers it as teaching: If it happens that there are other people outside somewhere preaching my truth, Ill join them. Otherwise, Ill adap t where I must, take what opportunities I can find or make, hang on, gather students and teach [my italics].19 Through Parable of the Sower Lauren gathers people to create the first Earthseed community, Acorn. However, she does not consider herself as their spiritual leader. In Parable of the Talents we learn that once a week the community had a Gathering session. They used these weekly sessions to discuss and try to solve any problem the community had to face; moreover, they were times of planning, healing, learning, creating, times of focusing, and reshaping. 20 What is really important about these meetings is that anyone could preach: any person from the Acorn community could choose a topic of discussion and stand in front of the others to talk about it. Later, they would have to face questions from the audience. It was through these back and forth discussions when they truly learned about Earthseed. Like Socrates and Plato, they reached the truth through questions. All that she [Lauren] did, she did for Earthseed. I [Asha Vere] did see her again occasionally, but Earthseed was her first child, and in some ways her only child.21 Asha Vere is not exaggerating when she affirms that Earthseed was Laurens truly child. She devoted her whole life to Earthseed; she did not give up on it for a second. Even when her daughter was abducted and she and all her friends were kept captive by the American Christian Crusaders, she kept herself focused on Earthseed. Every time Lauren has to describe Earthseed to people, she claims she did not make it up from scratch: discovery rather than invention, exploration rather than creation.22 Thanks to her education, she had access to several books. It was through those readings on history, philosophy, religions and even physics that she was able to put some sense in her ongoing thoughts. For Lauren, God is Change, and in the end, God prevails. But God exists to be shaped. It isnt enough for us to just survive, limping along, playing business as usual while things get worse and worse. If thats the shape we give to God, then someday we must become

Paloma Villamil Agraso too weak too poor, too hungry, too sick to defend ourselves. Then well be wiped out.23

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Earthseed claims that through action we can shape God and thus, we can shape our lives and our future. However, the set their aim in a particular future: the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars. 24 In other words, the destiny of Laurens religion is the conquest of other planets and other solar systems. Lauren believes humans are like seeds: we can travel anywhere and plant ourselves to grow. However, the Earth is rotting away as a consequence of our abusive behaviour towards nature. Thus, our destiny is in outer space; well have to seed ourselves farther and farther fro m this dying place.25 To fulfil Earthseeds destiny, Lauren rescues an old idea from her history books and begins to form missioners who, like seeds, will spread the words of Earthseed all along the country. Finally, 60 years after Lauren started compelling her thoughts on Earthseed in The Books of the Living, her most passionate desire became true: the first space shuttles left the Earth loaded with people, frozen human and animal embryos, plant seeds, tools, equipment, memories, dreams and hopes 26 to colonize other planets and solar systems and thus, spread Laurens ideology in the hope of creating better worlds for the next generations to live in. 3. Conclusion Ive seen religious passion in other people, though love for a compassionate God, fear of an angry God, fulsome praise and desperate pleading for a God that rewards and punishes. All that makes me wonder how a belief system like Earthseed very demanding but offering so little comfort from such an utterly indifferent God should inspire any loyalty at all.27 With these words, Asha Vere summarizeds what most readers could think about Earthseed. However, we must think on Earthseed within the context of the novels: in a time when poverty and violence were an everyday issue, Earthseed offered people immediate rewards. It offered the emotional satisfaction of belonging to a team that stood together to meet challenge when challenge came.28 It not only offered help but also knowledge, which was as valuable at that time as money. Whether all its members, especially at the beginning, firmly believed in Earthseeds destiny (colonizing the outer space ) is uncertain. What is clear is that Earthseed represented a more reasonable option than what American Christian Crusaders offered, particularly for women: the former was based on action and equality, while the later was rooted on passiveness and hierarchy. The fact that Lauren, an African American woman, was the leader of this religion helped greatly Earthseed. She was the image of a brand new future in

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents: Octavia Butler and Spiritual Ecofeminism

__________________________________________________________________ which gender, race and class did not longer matter. Moreover, her hyperempathy syndrome represented the need to infuse the ideas of caring and interdependence in society to create a more united group which would be able to confront any challenge. As I see it, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents can be considered and consequently, analyzed as an ecocritical work because both novels shows the reader a dystopian future when the planet has almost been destroyed and the human kind is condemned. The future proposed by Butler is not very far from our reality (the book is settled near two decades from now). I think we can affirm that Butler presented both novels as a wake-up call for our generation: we are not longer connected to the Earth, to nature; we dont feel the necessity to heal its wounds. Lauren had to set her aim on the stars precisely because she felt the Earth could not be saved. Butler has showed us not only the consequences on our behaviour towards natural resources; she has also depicted a new religion based on action which could help people change their view on the environment. As Carol P. Christ wisely states, the crisis that threatens the destruction of the earth is not only social, political, economic, and technological, but is at root spiritual. 29 This particular detail of the novels can be clearly connected to spiritual ecofeminism as Earthseed not only leaves behind a hierarchical or patriarchal conception of God and religion, but also depicts the importance of the principle of caring. This idea is most clearly represented by Lauren and her hyperempathy syndrome.

Notes
1

Esther Rey Torrijos, Por qu ellas, por qu ahora? La Mujer y el Medio Natural in Ecocrticas: Literatura y Medio Ambiente, ed. Carmen Flys Junquera, Jos Manuel Marrero Henrquez and Julia Barella Vigal (Madrid: Iberoamericana; Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert, 2010): 135. 2 Alicia Puleo, Ecofeminismo Para Otro Mundo Posible (Universitat de Valncia: Ediciones Ctedra, 2011), 405. 3 Carolyn Merchant, Ecofeminism and Feminist Theory in Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990), 100. 4 Ibid. 5 Peter Barry, Ecocriticism in Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory, 3rd edition (Manchester New York: Manchester University Press, 2009), 254 255.

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6

Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orestein, Introduction to Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990), xi. 7 Carol P. Christ, Rethinking Theology and Nature in Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, ed. Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 314. 8 Puleo, Ecofeminismo, 411. 9 Merchant, Ecofeminism Theory, 105. 10 Diamond and Feman Orestein, Introduction to Reweaving the World, xii. 11 Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000), 1. 12 Ibid., 7. 13 I will refer to Laurens daughter as Asha Vere from now on because she only lived a few months with the name of Larkin. 14 Butler, Parable of the Sower, 12. 15 Ibid., 115. 16 Ibid., 126. 17 Ibid., 16. 18 Ibid., 110. 19 Ibid., 125. 20 Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000), 66. 21 Ibid., 404. 22 Butler, Sower, 78. 23 Ibid., 76. 24 Ibid., 77. 25 Ibid., 78. 26 Butler, Talents, 406. 27 Ibid., 47. 28 Ibid., 63. 29 Christ, Rethinking Theology and Nature, 314.

Bibliography
Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory , 3rd edition. Manchester New York: Manchester University Press, 2009. Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000. ------------. Parable of the Talents. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000.

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Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents: Octavia Butler and Spiritual Ecofeminism

__________________________________________________________________ Christ, Carol P. Rethinking Theology and Nature. In Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality, edited by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow, 314 325. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989. Diamond, Irene and Gloria Feman Orestein, (eds). Introduction to Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, ix xv. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990. Merchant, Carolyn. Ecofeminism and Feminist Theory. In Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism, edited by Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orestein, 100 105. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990. Rey Torrijos, Esther. Por qu ellas, por qu ahora? La Mujer y el Medio Natural . In Ecocrticas: Literatura y Medio Ambiente, ed. Carmen Flys Junquera, Jos Manuel Marrero Henrquez and Julia Barella Vigal, 135 166. Madrid: Iberoamericana; Frankfurt am Main: Vervuert, 2010. Puleo, Alicia. Ecofeminismo Para Otro Mundo Posible. Universitat de Valncia: Ediciones Ctedra, 2011.