I’m writing in the lobby bar of the J.W. Marriott in the L.A. Live complex getting ready for the BlogHer annual conference to commence tonight, Thursday, August 4th. I arrived here in LA on Tuesday night, but went to Long Beach via the metro and a bus on Wednesday to catch a ferry to one of the Channel Islands, Santa Catalina Island.
Yesterday was a personal pilgrimage to a place where a woman who influenced my understanding of what how a woman, a writer and a scientist could combine these constraints. She was a writer of simple, and sometimes saccharine tales of the midwest of her childhood in the mid-late 1800s. Gene Stratton-Porter wrote best-selling novels between 1904 and 1924. She also leveraged her celebrity and ability to sell books with her publishers so that she was able to write and publish an amateur science nonfiction book between each novel.
I grew up knowing about her forays into swampy and wetland areas where she used ethological practices to document the hatching of birds and other previously undocumented behaviors. The techniques she used would not be put into common practice until the likes of Jane Goodall began using non-intrusive methods to document animal behavior. Stratton-Porter also influenced Rachel Carson to work non-destructively within the living systems she loved and documented. Without the generations of influence of women who understood the world in different ways than the male-dominated science and governmental systems that controlled science and our understanding well into this century, we would live in a poorer world for lack of the nuanced understanding they brought to us and interjected about living systems. Their influence is still unfolding. They are all with us still.
I grew up amid remnant bits of swamp in the waterlogged mid-west, I know the settings of Stratton-Porter’s books. I grew up in them. I wanted to see the island she grew to love later in her life. So I took an afternoon trip the day before the conference started to Catalina Island in the Channel Islands off the California Coast.
I whole-heartedly recommend taking the ferry from Long Beach to Catalina. Here is a brief overview of my all too brief of a trip.
This trip oriented me in an unanticipated way for the largely female attended conference I attended over the next three days. For me, and perhaps through me, the past all the way back to the 1800s touched the future of women’s communications throughout the 21st Century. Gene would be proud.
Mothers are probably the most influential people in the world. I am not sure that it was always this way for every culture in the world. In Sparta, mothers gave their sons over to the state to begin training as warriors at age seven. In upper class, historic, European families mothers did not nurse or breastfeed their children, were largely reared by wet nurses, nannies, and governesses , then sent away to school at an early age. In earlier times children older than toddlers essentially were treated as small adults, worked in the fields alongside adults, and had hard lives with no special treatment by mothers and others.
Other things that could have impacted motherly behavior and attitude was the very high rate of infant and child death, a large number of pregnancies, and older siblings providing most of the care for younger siblings. The mother of today was not the mother of yesterday, but we will never really know the full story, as home life and women’s roles were often ignored, diminished or mischaracterized in documents that mentioned them as all.
And The Others
Not all women are mothers, but all women can, theoretically, mentor, influence and love. When you consider the people who have shaped your life in unexpected ways, mentors, role models, heroines from history might all have nourished the spark of an idea within you, or nurtured an aspect of yourself when no one else cared to do so. There is no reason to believe that earlier times were different, although the communities and information bases to which girls had access were quite small compared to the size and number of spheres of interaction in today’s world.
Teachers are probably the most often mentioned persons that have significant influence on children and young adults. Those influences can be recalled fondly by adults who took encouragement from the attention and guidance of someone who took the time to help, instruct, or just talk to them when they were children in a way or at a time that was critical in their lives.
Surrogate grandmothers and neighbor ladies are undervalued in their influence. The women who offer the alternative views to the status quo, eccentrics, old maids, crazy cat ladies, pigeon feeders, and other women who have born labels such as witches, the outliers to so-called appropriate society hold a wealth of knowledge to which mainstream society would prefer go away or be suppressed. These are the secrets of folk medicine, underground railways, speakers of truth to power, and of life based on what really happens when you break the rules.
Nearly forgotten family women, the women behind the old lockets, letters, and handkerchieves tied with ribbons in boxes and attics, can capture our imaginations with the small details remembered through decades and even centuries passed. These women, known perhaps only by first names and husbands’ family names become iconic nails in the wall of a hallway of memories and stories through which we walk when we need to gather up and draw upon the meanings we may have layered over them and which we cannot find among our current experiences. They allow us to claim family or genetic origins for the strength, inspiration, and traits we need to summon up in ourselves.
The image below is of Gene Stratton-Porter. She was one of the early amateur science writers and photographers who employed ethological methods unheard of in the scientific literature until half a century later when Jane Goodall made time-intensive, nonaggressive acclimation standard procedure in her studies of chimpanzees.
Women involved in natural sciences, travel, and documentary production often received sparks of inspiration from women like Goodall and Gene Stratton-Porter. Rachel Carson drew inspiration from Gene Stratton-Porter’s best selling fiction, such as Song of the Cardinal, the method through which Porter financed her amateur science publications. These oft unknown influences and role-models shapes the behavior of women at the very highest levels of societal organization.
There are so many ways that women through time support those women who come after them. We only know the stories of some of these women. Many stories of influence just are not preserved. It is not only good, it is world-changing when we acknowledge our inspirational foremothers.