Foremother: A review of Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Imagining a Permaculture life in 1916

by MJ Olsen


There is a small book called Herland, first published in 1915, that strangely (almost eerily) foreshadows permaculture. 

It was written by Charlotte Perkins Gilmore. She first serialized it in her magazine, The Forerunner, that she wrote and published herself from 1909 to 1916, and with which she supported herself and her daughter. 

Gilmore imagined a country of women (who had somehow learned to reproduce parthenogenetically), isolated from the rest of the world on a high equatorial plateau. It was about 10 or 12 thousand square miles and supported about 3 million women and girls. They live a communal life, and all the children are considered to be “our children”. Van, the narrator of the story, is one of a group of three men who have ‘discovered’ it. 

The culture of Herland is based solidly on the core values of permaculture: “Earth care, People care, and Fair Shares”, although they are of course stated in different words. 

Not only was their way of life based on principles any permaculturalist would recognize, the results were remarkably similar too. 

As Ellador, the main woman character put it, “This country will only support a certain number of people with standards of peace, comfort, health, beauty, and progress. Very well. That is all the people we shall make.” 

Since Herland was limited in quantity, the women concentrated on “continually improving in quality”. Their way of life corkscrewed through their history following the pattern familiar to us as the braided helix of the strands of DNA. They would survey, analyze, design, implement, maintain and re-evaluate, re-survey . . . and so continue. 

They worked in all the necessary fields, anatomy, nutrition, medicine, botany, chemistry, botany. They were seamstresses, gardeners, architects, carpenters, engineers, and so on; and of course artists and musicians. Their main work was done in about four hours, and they had plenty of time and energy to devote to other interests and social life. And all of them identified as mothers, not just for their own children, but for all of them.

Education was the most honored of all fields. Education was never confined to a school, but always a part of everyday life. As Ellador described it, “We work most earnestly for two powers: a clear, far-reaching judgment, and a 

strong, well-used will. We devise better and better games to provide the children with choices with obvious causes and consequences according to their level of understanding.” 

According to Van (the narrator and main male character), “With these women the most salient quality in all ways was reasonableness – always in a conscious effort to make better whatever they came to. Those who showed an early tendency to observe, to discriminate, to suggest, were given special training in those functions. When anyone detected a fault in any part of life, a whole corps of inventors was at hand to offer suggestions.” 

Herland is described as well-forested around the edges, with plains, fields, meadows, groves, and scattered towns and cities in the center. The forests were obviously well cared for – “like an enormous park. The trees were trimmed, the vines trained. Most were fruit or nut bearing, the rest fine hardwoods.” It seemed to be “tended as a florist cares for his finest orchids” and “functioned as an enormous garden”. 

Scattered throughout the forest were “small glades with carved stone seats and tables in the shade, beside clear fountains, all with shallow birdbaths added.” Everywhere one was delighted by birdsong from the millions of almost tame birds. 

Ellador explained that “We decided that trees were the best food plants, needing far less labor in tilling the land, and bearing a larger amount of food per ground area, while also doing much to preserve and enrich the soil.” 

The central areas, from forest edges to the cities or towns were connected by “good paved roads, sloped to shed the rain, and edged on each side by a double line of fruit and nut trees, providing shade for paths and a profusion of fruit bearing bushes and vines.” All traffic moved by foot, bike, or electric cars. Van was amazed to find “no dirt, smoke, or noise beyond birdsong and occasional quiet voices and laughter”. Flowers grew in abundance everywhere.

In addition to the birds and bees and other insects, there were a few cats “ruthlessly bred to kill mice and such enemies of the food supply, but to leave the birds untouched”. But there were no large animals at all. “We used to have them,” Ellador explained, “but they took up too much room. We need all our room to feed our people.” 

At the inner edges of the forest, the plains, fields, and gardens began, providing grain, fiber, and vegetables. “All the scraps and leavings of their food, plant waste from the lumber and textile industries, all sewage (properly treated and combined) – everything which came from the ground, went back into it. Thus, an increasingly valuable soil was continually being built.” 

So their food producing life combined a kind of foraging with horticulture, instead of agriculture. 

As you may know, horticulture has now been shown to be the most efficient method for producing food, measured by the return on energy invested. And foragers likewise have been proven to be the most healthy in terms of nutrition, variety of foods, and enjoyable exercise. Such a system also offers more personal daily freedom and less structural elitism – all in all a more permacultural way of life. 

The roads wound their ways to the towns throughout this more open area. The houses were made from “a dull rose-colored stone, with here and there a larger white public building, all grouped among the green groves and gardens like a broken rosary of pink coral”, and with a broad paved area acting as a central square. 

The women and children of Herland lived a communal life, while still providing for privacy. Beginning in childhood, each had a separate bedroom and bathroom of their own. Coming of age, each got the addition of another room in which to receive friends. And despite the overall equity of form, exquisite variety proliferated as each person designed and decorated her own space. For meals “they either went to any of the convenient public eating houses, brought food back to their own rooms, or took it with them to the woods and fields”.

The dining halls were “large and furnished with long tables, and many small ones, sturdy chairs, and long couches against the walls. All were not only solid, strong, and comfortable, but also beautiful, with beautiful lines and finishes”. The professionally prepared food was “plentiful but not excessive – including several fruits, nuts, delicious little cakes, water, and a drink resembling cocoa” available at every meal. 

Another well-used public building offered “gymnasiums for indoor exercise, which was mostly running, jumping, a kind of postural movement [like yoga or tai chi], and group dances, all done to music, as well as a plenitude of strange non-competative games”. They also had many swimming pools, most outdoors. 

The entire cultivated and built environment of Herland was planned to support the life they wanted to live. They made of their country a garden. It was their “nursery, playground, and workshop”. As Van, the visiting narrator put it: “All the work and devotion our women put into their own children these women put into their whole society and country”. The children knew “the whole country was all theirs, waiting for them to learn, to love, to use, to serve”. 

As for ethics and religion, the women of Herland “felt beneath and behind them an upholding, unfailing, and serviceable love – a power of life at one with them, and the whole world”. They decided that “such an inward power as their God should have outward expression. So patience, gentleness, courtesy, motherly care and love for all, health, peace, beauty, the happiness of the children, and the constant improvements they made – all this was their religion.” As education was never confined in a school, religion was never confined in a church or temple. 

Consequently, “they had no theory of good versus evil. Life was simply to be lived in continual change for the better. Shortcomings and misdeeds were not seen as sins, but as errors to be owned, and corrected as well as possible. Mistakes have consequences, not punishments – thus all is learning”. 

Van asked, “How do you worship?” 

“What is that?” Ellador replied.

Van explained, “I mean rituals, done to show honor, reverence, and obedience.” 

“Oh no,” Ellador answered. “We don’t do things for God. There is nothing needed, you know. We are able to love splendidly because of God and our mothers. So we do.” 

Van was also confounded to learn that they had little respect for the past, or for the beliefs of their foremothers. “Why should we?” Ellador asked. “They knew less than we do. If we are not beyond them we are unworthy of them – and unworthy of the children, who must go beyond us.” All past knowledge was regarded as simply a base, to be continually questioned, corrected as needed, and built upon wherever possible. 

So that was Herland, a country where the physical design of the land and culture was produced by women living their values, produced from their ethical beliefs, and out of their constant dedication to reason and practicality. As Ann J. Lane put it in her introduction to the 1979 reprinted edition, “Gilmore’s concern is with changing human consciousness. Her technology doesn’t dominate, but serves human needs.” 

As permaculturalists we would add “and environmental needs”. I can’t help but wonder if Bill Mollison, (or his mother), read Charlotte Perkins Gilmore’s Herland.

30354794 beautiful closeup of the face of a female statue holding a bowl garden decorations and architecture
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