Virginity is an untouchable metaphor

by Jeremy Cherfas on April 11, 2012

Nobody else seems to find the “800-year-old farmers” of a recent headline (and a Nibble) funny.1 And personally I don’t care that the authors seem to have misplaced the Amazon. What does concern me is the narrative that the Amazon is somehow an untouched wilderness, which remains dominant, and to a lesser extent the sub-dominant narrative that we have nothing (or everything) to learn from our farming forebears.

The point about the Amazon and other forests being untouched is examined in loving detail by Sharon Friedman in Face it: All forests are “sluts”. She blows a hole in the whole idea of “virgin” forests, for all sorts of reasons.

Calling anything involving forests “virgin” muddles the concepts of “old-growth,” “native forests” and “past practices,” promotes the notion of nature as female and humans as male, and slanders all the non-virgins in the world. It’s so sloppy a usage that it conveys a trifecta of trickiness: three bad ideas surreptitiously conveyed in one word.

Friedman makes many choice points, including the whole question of revirgination and whether “rape” is a good metaphor for what people do to landscapes. But might there, I wonder, be a sense in which biodiversity is a reasonable proxy for untouchedness? Not all biodiversity loss is going to be a bad thing, just as not all virginity loss is a bad thing either. Frankly, I don’t think Friedman’s plea — “to stop using any sexual terms in these kinds of discussions” — has a snowball’s chance in hell, not around here at any rate. And there has to be a bad-taste pun involving sluts, virgins and Amazons, but I’m blowed if I can find it now.

Footnotes:
  1. “Farmers 800 years ago” apparently is less enticing []

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Dave Wood April 11, 2012 at 2:22 pm

I had a go at this in my `Conserved to Death’ paper in Land Use Policy, 12, 115-135 (1995). One of many examples of conservationist special pleading:

“For example, the definition of ‘virgin forest’ as ‘forest not previously cleared by nonindigenous immigrants’ by Fearnside, P. M. ‘Fire in the tropical rain forest of the Amazon Basin’ in Goldhammer, J G (ed) Fire in the Tropical Biota: Ecosystem Processes and Global Challenges Springer-Verlag, Berlin (1990) 109. With this kind of definition anything is possible.”

The same paper makes fun of the conservationist claim that the medicinal species rosy periwinkle was `discovered in a Madagascan forest’: it is, in fact, a pantropical weed.

But this dodgy thinking and outright misrepresentation has brought millions of dollars to conservationist NGOs and resulted in probably millions of forest farmers being kicked off land they have managed for thousands of years. And don’t get me started on the gross maligning of shifting cultivation with its Jack-the-Ripper name `slash and burn’. They all got it badly wrong but no heads have rolled in the multi-million dollar conservation organizations.

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