How can we interact with a nature in which we are taught we’re not ‘natural?’
Images by Hannah Morgan.
Being in nature should come naturally to us. A soothing salve to the strictures of society, it provides us an escape from the chaos of culture. Yet for many, the outdoors is an alien place. A history of exclusion has left nature heavily codified by heteronormative ideals of what is ‘natural’ or not. In this article we stray from the path to take a queer walk through the woods. On our imaginary wander, we’ll have a theoretical ponder, and wonder why our perceptions of the natural world are what they are.
Through Hannah’s photos and my words, we hope you might learn ways in which all of us - queer or not - can appreciate nature differently. For Hannah and I, our queerness isn’t solely about our sexual identity, but also how we interact with natural environments. We’re ‘queer’ in the antiquated sense: we’re ‘odd’. We speak to plants and inspect their cankers; we dive through hedges to forage their leaves; we peek under logs and peer into trees; we stray from the paths and trespass.
Passers-by often see our activities as unusual, and we will find ourselves justifying our acts. Whether it is someone stumbling across me half-way through a hedge, or finding Hannah inspecting the underside of a log; we have, on numerous occasions, found ourselves the subject of curious yet cautious scrutiny. In this, our ‘non-normative’ activities—and our endeavours to justify them—find parities with queerness’ sexual connotations. Having to justify oneself is, after all, inherent to being queer—an unnatural act that comes naturally to us.
Before we stray from this path, I would first like to clarify my use of punctuation. When I write ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ in inverted commas, I refer to the normative human notion thereof, as in: “Queerness has historically been thought of as ‘unnatural.’” Conversely, when I write natural, without inverted commas, I refer to perceptions of nature unbounded by normativity; similarly, I call normative human constructs of nature unnatural, sans punctuation.
Back to our meandre. Queerness has historically been thought of as ‘unnatural,’ an argument that leans heavily on a discourse around biological reproductivity. Societally, this has distanced us from nature by making us feel like we do not belong there. Many of us thus find safety in cities, flocking to find similarly inclined people, and to immerse ourselves in queer culture. I would like to stress that this article is not a challenge to the comfort of our communities. For many of us, these are our chosen families, having been forsaken by our own and often, when surrounded by like-minded people, we can finally find ourselves. Yet we have also been heavily conditioned into this urban predisposition.
This is examined by the queer theorists Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erikson in Queer Ecologies (2010). They identify the 19th and 20th centuries as a period when the ‘wilderness’ became popularised as a space for heteromasculine performativity, away from the homosexual taint of urbanism. “Both historically and in the present [...] sexual politics has had a distinctly environmental-spatial dimension, and landscapes have been organised to produce and promote (and prohibit) particular kinds of sexual identity and practice” (ibid: 12). The queer theorist Jonathan Dollimore believes this to be perpetuated by the natural/unnatural divide. In Sexual Dissidence (1991), he writes that the “binary opposition between nature and the unnatural is literally what makes perversion and deviation conceivable, both as demonized categories, and as forms of cultural resistance” (ibid: 108). Dollimore calls this form of cultural resistance “straying” (ibid: 106). Presenting the norm as a predefined path, he suggests that ‘straying’ “reveals [the path’s] coercive ‘nature'”, and how “The path we thought we were on naturally, or by choice, we are in fact on by arrangement.” ‘Straying’ becomes a radical act that enlightens the ‘stray’ to alternative ways of being.
According to Dollimore, queerness therefore stands opposed to cultural notions of what is ‘natural,’ making it inherently natural. The academic Jack Halberstam builds on this by examining what ‘wildness’ means. In his Wild Things (2020), he suggests that wildness “flees from possessive strictures of governance and remain[s] opposed to so-called normal humanity” (ibid: 4) Halberstam presents ‘wildness’ as the unbounded antithesis of social order. According to his definition, wildness can identify anything that is non-normative. Queerness is thus wild for its ‘unnaturalness.’
Sexual Dissidence, Queer Ecologies, and Wild Things go to great lengths to theoretically analyse normativity from both social and ecological perspectives. We need not throw ourselves in the deep end of this pool with Sandilands et al, Dollimore and Halberstam, but by dipping a toe at the shore we might better understand some of the fundamentals they address. Before our straying gets us further lost, let us remind ourselves of my specific use of punctuation. By identifying what is ‘natural,’ normativity delineates that which is ‘unnatural.’ However, by being a human construct, the ‘natural’ is actually inherently unnatural, just as the ‘unnatural’ becomes inherently natural. So, to make short work of what are three incredibly astute theoretical texts: queerness is, by definition, natural.
Here, I turn to another queer theorist-cum-icon, and self proclaimed anarchist, Oscar Wilde. In the 19th century he experienced societal pressures that were far more constricting to his identity than many of us have to suffer today, yet his perceptions remain nonetheless prevalent. In his 1889 essay, The Decay of Lying, a fictional Socratic takes place between Cyril and Vivian, who question contemporary perceptions of nature from an artistic perspective.
One well known line of the essay reads “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life:” What we see in nature is not what is actually there, but instead what we have been taught to see. Their conversation promotes Wilde’s own view of Romanticism over Realism: “Life goes faster than Realism, but Romanticism is always in front of Life.” Realism, being limited to what we already know, is a normative perspective which holds us back. Romanticism, by contrast, imagines new forms and inspirations that draw on what already exists, and build on it. Wilde’s presentation of new aesthetics breaks away from the traditions of classicism, promoting non-normative perspectives of the world.
How then can we interact with a nature in which we are taught we’re not ‘natural?’ Here, we return to Hannah’s photography and my foraging. Both of us have sought to see nature with non-normative eyes. Hannah wanders the woods, seeking unusual wonders. I search my surroundings to identify what is edible and what is not. Both of us seek what might otherwise be overlooked, looking past what we have been taught to see.
I believe there is little more natural than foraging. When we are seeking sustenance from our surroundings we are at our most primary. It teaches us to notice the differences in everything; to spot the oddities that we might otherwise overlook. Similarly, Hannah has trained herself to see nature's naturalness: to find beauty in a rotting log; or the curve of a branch. Looking through her images we see world’s that we might not have noticed with our own eyes, had she not seen them and shown them to us. Foraging is no longer essential to our survival. Yet, despite its deficit of nutritional sustenance, it provides an abundance of mental nourishment. Whether it be scanning the same patch of woodland a third time, just in case you missed a mushroom; or painstakingly studying the leaves of two plants to distinguish their differences: it reveals the oddities of nature, and helps us learn to appreciate it in all its naturalness.
Hannah, through her photography, and I, through my foraging, have taught ourselves to see that nature is completely ‘unnatural,’ and, in its naturalness, is inherently queer. Nature is infinite changeability; boundless expression; limitless potentiality. It is nonconformity that denies human regulation, and habitually strays from human paths. In spite of human subjugation and manipulation; nature persistently resists and denies submission, working its way out of human constraints whenever it gets the chance. Thus, as we near the end of our walk, I urge you not to rejoin the path, but instead continue on your own trespass, and see nature anew.