After•Word: Jane Caputi’s Call Your Mutha: A Deliberately Dirty-Minded Manifesto for the Earth Mother in the Anthropocene (Oxford University Press, 2020)

At 3:00 pm EST on January 6, 2021, while hiking through the woods, and shortly after reading the final chapters of Jane Caputi’s new book, Call Your Mutha: A Deliberately Dirty-Minded Manifesto for the Earth Mother in the Anthropocene, the phone in my parka pocket beeped. I had just crested the secluded summit of a place I call “The Top of the World,” having snowshoed two miles up a trail that begins at my back door. On that particular afternoon, an absence of wind, a foot of good powder, and a low ceiling of cream-colored clouds made for a thick silence in the forest.

At the moment my phone beeped, I was at the only place for several miles in any direction from my house where there is cell reception. Just one tiny bar, enough to receive the following text: “Trump supporters hold U.S. capitol under siege.”

“Motherfuckers” slipped off my tongue and into the air.

My first instinct was to hurry home and check the news, which I couldn’t do with one bar of cell service. My urge to know what was going on was a sharp hunger, piqued by years of my own fear of insurrection, coup, or civil war.

I looked at the snow-covered ground, then to the long view of the mountains to the east, then behind me at the white spruce and sugar maple forest where on some days a barred owl flies in front of me in daylight, where deer, coyote, and rabbit carve designs with their tracks in the snow, where the occasional bobcat saunters up my driveway at night.

There I was, as I so often am, up to my calves in snow, feeling the Earth Mother’s cold air flow into me as I inhaled, feeling my breath flow back into Her as I exhaled. There I was, standing with my woodland siblings – spruce trees, thick clouds, owls, chickadees, hibernating bears, and dormant plants – fearing for our lives.

I resisted the urge to turn around. Honoring Mother Nature-Earth, as Caputi calls Her, being present with Her, would be a reasonable response to whatever was happening at the capitol. I continued on to the next hill, and while walking, thought more about Caputi’s manifesto, a dynamic work of scholarship that seeks nothing less than to reverse ecocide and halt the death march of the Anthropocene by gathering a chorus of diverse voices to speak on behalf of Mother Nature-Earth. In the opening line of her introduction, Caputi announces that, “this book turns on the word motherfucker,” a word that originates in “Black Talk” and is simultaneously the “very worst” and the “very best” thing you can call someone. Children of African slaves developed the word to refer to the slaveowners who raped, tortured and abused their mothers. Caputi says, “The master then, is the motherfucker, the model, the bad father, and his heinous motherfucking epitomizes an ongoing pattern of sexual taking, spirit breaking, profit making, and toxic wasting.”

In the Anthropocene, the Age of Man or Humans, the master has become “The Man” – Eurocentric, white, and authoritative – the most vicious of oppressors and exploiters,” the very worst of those fucking the Mother. At the same time, the word “Mutha” is the “force-source of continuous birth, growth, death, transformation, and renewal.” Caputi’s book convincingly links the most violent racial and misogynistic hatreds and crimes with the “all-around eco-apocalypse” instigated and carried out by “The Man,” and honors the potent, life-giving – and life-taking – force of the “Mutha.”

All that goes on in the Anthropocene, Caputi argues, is literal motherfucking: fracking, drilling, obliterating Mother Nature – Earth, and those humans, most often indigenous, poor, and non-white, who live in places violated and exploited for The Man’s gain. The story of the literal obliteration of a mountain in Rio de Janeiro in 1922 in order to create a site to hold the World’s Fair is a case in point. In addition to the mountain itself, four thousand “dirty,” homeless people, of indigenous and African descent, were removed, and along with them all knowledge of the people, animals, and plants who lived there. The World’s Fair became a macabre and prescient celebration of Brazil’s entry into modernity with its exhibitions of machines, technology, eugenics and a “cleansing campaign of people identified with nature.”  This story is one of many that Caputi tells about the colonization and genocide that characterize the Anthropocene.

In this book, a colloquy of voices calls out and responds to the violence, rape, genocide, and terrorism that created the Anthropocene, as Caputi offers an alternative path to the future and another way for humans to be with Mother Nature-Earth. She directs readers to “invoke the ‘Mutha,’ to call on…appeal to…summon…conjure…the ‘Mutha’s’ powers of ending one way and beginning another. Calling the ‘Mutha’ is to refuse to reproduce the Anthropocene and to create something new.”

That “something new” elevates ancient ways of knowing – instincts, dreams, and visions – and places them on a par with more rational ways of knowing such as scientific study, data gathering, and deduction. Caputi’s scholarship draws upon and celebrates the ancient ways, and she implores us to trust our dreams, perceptions, intuition, abuelita (grandmother) knowledge, experiences in nature, insights about the color green, and capacities for inter-species communication. Through these ways of knowing, we may interact with The Mother as the embodied, living presence that She is, may know Her as a being who reciprocates the love, devotion, and care we give to Her, and who, if we violate, rape, and murder Her, will likely, Caputi says, turn on us altogether, sealing our own self-destruction.

Caputi’s ideas are buoyed by a plethora of works inspired by scholarly, personal, artistic, and primeval ways of knowing. Her book includes seventy-two pages of endnotes and the average chapter contains well over one hundred references. To say that Caputi’s knowledge is vast feels like understatement, but the catalog of BIPOC, trans, femme, and differently-abled thinkers, writers, artists, academics and scientists whose study, research, art, political action, and writing counter the Anthropocene by invoking the “Mutha” herself is cause to celebrate.

Caputi’s scholarly priorities are “…cultivating empathy, honoring relationship, attending to intuition and meaningful synchronicities, listening to ancestors, learning from other-than-human beings (if they are willing to teach you), (and) hearing the call of what Emily Bronte calls ‘queer’ dreams,” each of which is needed in this time. “I attend to these alternative ways of knowing, including consulting some of my own dreams,” Caputi says, “in order to surface an otherwise unavailable awareness about what’s going on.”

The voices who impart that knowing are both canonical and new – from Paula Gunn Allen, Leslie Marmon Silko, Ntozake Shange, Susan Griffin, bell hooks, Alice Walker, Barbara Mor, Mary Daly, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, and Starhawk to contemporary artists, scholars, and visionaries such as Avinash Chak, Patrisse Cullors, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Amalia Mesa Bains, Wangechi Mutu, Alison Saar, Wangari Maathai, and Amir Khadar.

These voices call out the genocidal, ecocidal, and misogynistic legacy of “The Man,” who has dishonored and “made dirty” anything not white, including the green muddy earth, the blood shed by women, and the knowledge women store and source in their bodies. They rise in unison to celebrate and validate the multiple non-rational ways human beings know – dreams, visions, intuition – as they condemn centuries of failure on the part of “The Man” to connect racial justice and rape culture with environmental catastrophe and destruction.

But words evolve, scripts flip, cultures shape-shift. Motherfucker is now a term with dual meanings – The Mother who Fucks: the sentient Mother Nature-Earth who responds to ecocide and genocide by fucking back. This also flips the Anthropocene ethos; the “Mutha” is not the “dirty” victim of oppression, but a “copula,” a force that conjoins. In light of this evolution, Caputi introduces yet another way of knowing—“cunctipotence”—an ancient word that connotes female knowledge, and whose etymology relates to “cunt as well as country, kin, kind, cunning, and ken.”

Cunctipotence is knowing in its multiplicity, found when we feel and understand that we are of the “Mutha” and not separate from Her. This is the heart knowledge that can reverse the Anthropocene. By way of example, Caputi offers us Shug’s memorable, cunctipotent epiphany as narrated by her female lover Celie, in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple: “…one day I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and cried and I runned around the house. I knew just what it was. In fact, when it happen, you can’t miss it. It sort of like you know what, she say, grinning and rubbing high up on my thigh.”

Call on that knowledge and call on The Mutha, Caputi says, as you would call on your human mother, and call on the Mutha in you.

In a fitting Coda, Caputi shares a dream that she says led her to write the book. In her dream a foot-high black stone transformed into a green leprechaun who allowed her to ask a question. “I asked what could be done in these dire times,” she said. His response: “Gather and vote.”  Then, he dropped into a hole in the ground. Caputi was puzzled. Gathering made sense, but certainly there was more to the solution than going to the polls. She consulted the Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that the word “vote” derives from “vow” and “desire,” the same root as the word “devotion.” To be devoted to someone or something is to be “deeply attached,” to “gift” them with your reverence. To gather and vote, Caputi concludes, is “to be devoted—vowing love, allegiance, and attachment by returning gifts, to the person and cause who is Mother Nature-Earth, our planet/ourselves.” 

At a time when crisis is layered upon crisis, the gift of Caputi’s Call Your Mutha is offered in the gathering of voices, multiple ways of knowing, resurrected traditions and rituals, and in the messages of dreams. If we pay attention to them collectively, if we invoke the Mother we all share and call Her by Her name, we can, she says, flip the script of the Anthropocene, and turn ourselves, with Mother Nature-Earth, into something new. 

About the Author

Anne Bergeron, M.A., I.M.A., is a writer and teacher who lives in the woods of eastern Vermont on a handmade homestead with her husband. She is grateful for the companionship of beloved dogs, sheep, chickens, wild animals, birds, trees, and gardens, and tries her best to integrate all that they teach her daily. Anne has been recognized with a Rowland Foundation fellowship for her transformative curricular work in wellness and diversity in public schools. Her essays and poems focus on the experiences of rural living amidst the climate catastrophe and appear in Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, Blueline, The Hopper, and Dark Mountain. Her poems will beforthcoming in Flyway in the spring.

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