Q&A: LEAP Student Fellow Alice Courtright on Motherhood, Faith, and the Natural World

LEAP Student Fellow Alice Courtright
LEAP Student Fellow Alice Courtright writes about the connection between nonhuman animals, suffering, motherhood, longing, and the environment.

Alice Courtright (S.T.M. ’23, YC ’11) is a Law, Ethics & Animals Program (LEAP) Student Fellow who studies theology and literature at Yale Divinity School with a particular interest in the environmental humanities. She received her B.A. in English literature and creative writing from Yale and her M.Div. from Sewanee’s School of Theology in Tennessee. After seminary, Courtright served as an Episcopal priest in New Hampshire for five years. Her poetry and prose explore the connection between nonhuman animals, suffering, motherhood, longing, and the environment. Her work has been published in Sage Magazine and by The Institute for the Study of Birth, Breath, and Death.

LEAP Postgraduate Fellow Laurie Sellars spoke with Courtright about her work as a creative writer and poet. The conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

How did your writing practice develop? How did you become drawn to exploring themes of motherhood and nonhuman animals?
I always identified as a writer, but I hadn’t developed a consistent writing practice until recently. I stopped doing my own creative writing for about 10 years: when I went from college to seminary, much of my own writing and love of poetry got sublimated into sermons. I wondered where the writing went, but I was writing so much. I started a dedicated practice again in fall 2020 after coming back to Yale to do my Master of Sacred Theology degree and studying with my writing professor Verlyn Klinkenborg. It’s been an incredible time for me to be here. I’m studying theology and poetry at the Divinity School, but I’m drawn to the environmental humanities, which wasn’t here when I was an undergrad. I've spent a lot of time in the outdoors, and much of my writing as a college student and my love of scripture was around the themes of nature. When I came back to Yale, I had so many questions. I felt that I was supposed to be a fully formed adult, but I still had so much I needed to work out for myself. I still do!

Something happened when I was a new mother and ending my ministry that prompted this path. I was driving through Connecticut on my way to New Hampshire, and I saw a vegan propaganda billboard. It had a picture of a cow that said, “First we take her baby, then we take her milk, and then we take her life.” After seeing that billboard, I cried the whole way home to New Hampshire. I felt a longing for a harmony inside my spiritual life with the life of the world, but there was so much I didn’t look at, so much in my own life that I didn't see. As a new mom, I was struggling to be separated from my child at daycare for long hours each day. Then with my second daughter, I struggled with pumping and being attached to machines. So the cow became this symbol. I stopped eating meat. I went through all these experiences of deep communion with the cow and felt so much pain in my own mother body that I didn’t understand. And, at the same, time I love being a mother. I started looking into why we separate cows and their calves. I felt like this was wrong and had a lot of questions. The reason I came to spirituality is because I believe God loves us no matter what and brings us into communion through his Son in a way that rights our wrongs. I don’t expect perfectionism from people because God's been merciful to me in hard times. And yet, on the other hand, I also long for a world where we live our values and treat animals with respect. 

“I generally no longer want to ‘overcome’ nature. I want to see myself as an embodied part of nature and be with the earth and animals in a way that is much more about communion and cultivation than control. ” 
— LEAP Student Fellow Alice Courtright

Your work interweaves ideas of motherhood, the natural and nonhuman world, and faith. What is the significance of each of these ideas to you? In what ways do you see them as related?
I used to see the natural world more topographically. I had all of these goals around nature. For example, I grew up going to a wonderful camp in Colorado, where we would try to hike various peaks in Rocky Mountain National Park. But when I was in college and early seminary, I started realizing that there are different ways of talking about and being with nature. I realized that I’m a contemplative: I started to wonder why it was that I always wanted to just sit and basically make a hut on the side of a mountain and not climb it. There are so many ways that people see the natural world. 

As another example, I was in Nepal when I was 19, and these incredible sherpas were with us on this journey. At one point, one of the sherpas pointed to this mountain and said, “The people of that village will not let any mountaineers climb that mountain because it’s a sacred mountain.” I’ve been interested in what it means to see nature differently. I’ve always been interested in naturalists like Audubon. But in Professor Michael Warner’s literature class, I learned to read their work differently. What did it mean to inventory animals and document their behavior? How did it set the stage for an invented environment that sees the natural world at distance? I generally no longer want to “overcome” nature. I want to see myself as an embodied part of nature and be with the earth and animals in a way that is much more about communion and cultivation than control. 

I’m still working these ideas out, but I found motherhood so mesmerizing. It put me in such a different framework of time: I need to nurse, my baby needs to eat, my baby’s diaper needs to be changed, so when will I Zoom with my professor? I have to organize everything differently because the human animal needs hygiene, food, and exercise. Motherhood has forced me to be honest about what fits and what’s needed, and I think the natural world is asking us to be honest about what fits and what’s needed. And for me, when I see that God loves me and that I can come home to God and God will run to greet me — not punish or destroy me but welcome me — it puts me in a place where I don’t need to be more than I am. I can be a human. I can be a person.

Motherhood has been humbling and mysterious for me. It’s a very embodied topic. I think I’ve been writing about it a lot in part because I didn’t grow up with a lot of language for it. It’s passed down in ways that aren’t so verbal, like learning how to pull a blanket around a child: it's like, “No, tighter.” It’s physical. My biological experience has started to be what dominates my daily life, so it impacts my spirituality in ways that I used to be able to deny. 

That biological experience informs my feeling of connection with other animals. I drive past a farm on the way to Vermont to see my parents, and there are these cows who look miserable. It looks disgusting on that little farm. I don’t know if they’re beef livestock or dairy cows, but I wouldn't want anything to eat from them. It’s hard to think about them; it’s painful. And yet I have found that thinking about them has changed me and how I see what it means to be human. We have so much in common with animals. The milk a mother creates is one example. My youngest daughter is drinking cow’s milk now, and I find it very problematic. I remember what it was like when my daughter was in daycare and when we were separated for the day, so the separation of a cow from her calf really bothers me.

Another way in which I feel kinship through the cows is through my experience nursing. I had mastitis when I was nursing all three of my daughters, which is where you get milk blockages that can lead to infection. I also had oversupply, so if I or the baby didn't drain the milk fully, I would get blockages. It’s extremely painful, and you get terrible fevers like you have the flu. You could go to bed one night and by the next morning have a 100- or 102-degree fever. It was such a learning experience. It’s also part of what connects me to animal mothers: I became interested in animals with mastitis and how farmers address it. It took so much care for me to manage myself, and I started thinking, “Wow, so many cows must be in so much pain.” Who is looking after each cow? It seems like a world of pain to me. I do believe there are farmers, livestock owners, dairy producers who care about their animals, certainly. But what they represent in terms of the big picture is another story.

Your thesis sits right at the intersection of many of the themes we’ve been discussing. Could you describe that project and any other pieces you’re currently working on?
My thesis is about reading the poet Marie Howe in early motherhood. The first part introduces the project. The second essay, “Aubade” explores the biological reality of mothering alongside the life of biblical women like Mary Magdalene. The third piece works with Howe’s poetry through Holy Week and the experience of being a mother inside of this liturgical week. I used to experience this time as a priest and am now experiencing it as a mother at my husband's church. I write about going down to the creek in the middle of Holy Week with my children and wondering about how we think about watersheds and how we think about ourselves. Is this creek an individual creek or separated by markers of private property? For me, these questions were initiated by my theology professor the Rev. Dr. Willie James Jennings. Do we think about ourselves in terms of communities, about the fact that this watershed is feeding this whole area? I write about the creatures living inside the Hudson River and how mysterious it is. How is it all sustained? What’s going on down there at the bottom of the Hudson River? It’s another piece in which mothering, the natural world, and faith and movements of faith are bound up together. 

“I don’t have a big agenda with my work, but I want to be part of the good work that people are doing to transform this world.” — LEAP Student Fellow Alice Courtright

For my next project, I’m working on a poetry manuscript focusing on motherhood, touch, and water. I’m not sure exactly what I’m writing yet; it feels very intuitive, it’s coming to me in images, and it will be a long process. I’m interested in an approach that is tender, unfolding, and not trying to map out a book but instead letting it come in a way that is nurturing and honors me as a writer in terms of my animal needs and what I’m called to do as a mother. I want to have a writing process that is part of my life instead of a place where I need to remove myself from this family project: instead, I want to write from within it. 

I want to be in a world where there are children, older people, and animals, and we have a sense of honoring what each of us needs. I want to live in a world where human society works hard to keep mammalian families  — human and nonhuman — together and sees those bonds as sacred and inviolable. Safety and gentleness are so important to me, especially after serving in a ministry context where there was a long history of sexual abuse. I think people write these qualities off, especially gentleness, but gentleness is such an unseen power. Gentleness can secure an infant; gentleness and strength together can secure an infant for their life. Gentleness is being held and cared for and made to giggle. I’m thinking about creating scenes in poetry, prose, and fiction where I can talk about gentleness and grace and how when we’re gentle with each other, we take time to look and see and protect. What is happening all around us? Look at the ground. How does this grass look so green? Is this real? Is this an organic process? I'm trying to be curious without judgment so that I can learn and rebuild. Gentleness allows for processes where I can explore ideas that seem insurmountable.

What do you hope people will come away with after reading your work?
I hope that it’s another offering of love. I hope that when you read my work you can sink into it, come out the other side having been inside art, and feel that you’ve touched something beautiful and restorative. I hope it helps the reader to be seen because I hope that I’m seeing carefully and in a way that allows for moments of reflection. I don’t  have a big agenda with my work, but I want to be part of the good work that people are doing to transform this world. I would like to be a voice like Rebecca Giggs, Ed Yong, or mother writers like Doireann Ní Ghríofa who have offered me a sense of wonder. Overall, I want everyone who reads my work to feel safe. I believe everyone should feel held in their own life by their community. This is such a violent, violent world: we should be holding each other. I long for a world of peace and nurture. 

There’s a great quote by Jacques Maritain, a Catholic theologian who writes about the responsibility of the artist. He talks about how art can be a powerful weapon because it touches people in the place of intuition and beauty and can access their deepest longings. I’m not saying that I can do that, but it’s my hope that one day God will do that through me, so that others can experience the grace and peace of God and the treasure of this earth we live on. I feel that that’s what art and spirituality at their best do for me: they can speak to gentle and beautiful ways of being in the world.