This is the edited text of a lecture that was given as part of the series ‘Writing, Gender and the Natural World’ on 18 August 2022 on Kaurna country, at the University of South Australia, not far from the banks of karrawirra pari, the river that gives the city of Adelaide its shape. I want to acknowledge the Kaurna people whose sovereignty was never ceded. I acknowledge Kaurna elders past and present, and the labour of all those who have cared for the land and its stories.
I am an unnatural being. When I was invited to speak on the subject of gender and nature, the overlap between these two terms initially made me quite nervous. It’s in my nature to be uncomfortable with the very idea of nature, the distinctions the term creates between acceptable and unacceptable behaviours and desires, the value systems it imposes and disguises. For me, nature and gender are both trouble.
Whether or not I address this directly, my writing about the natural world is always occurring within that trouble; a difficult, often damaging relationship between gender and nature. I exist in a culture where gender norms and essentialist feminisms, political agendas and religious beliefs, have sought to exclude people like me from the idea of the natural. There is always a discomfort with the structures at play, even before I am fully aware of those structures. Gender and nature aren’t terms I can use easily or lightly. But perhaps that unease, that feeling of looking askance or looking over one’s shoulder at nature, is interesting in itself.
I recently went hiking for five days along the first few sections of the Heysen trail. It’s been repackaged as a destination hike called the Wild South Coast Way. There are fancy new campgrounds dotted along it, artfully posed in pleasing locations.
Walking through the bush, my friends and I jokingly complimented the landscape’s ‘designer’ – a gardener could not have arranged the grasstrees and correas more beautifully than they had arranged themselves. But in the brand new campsites, that pleasantness became questionable; we were aware of the human agents behind the scenes. Someone had built these tent pads with a view; someone had made unnecessarily meandering curved paths into camp because they liked how it looked on their CAD, framing and delivering this staged wilderness experience to their liking, and for our benefit (although we could have done without those winding paths at the end of a twenty-kilometre day). It was interesting to notice how this relationship between nature and what is visually, aesthetically appealing is already culturally specific, organising our enjoyment of a so-called wild place, and turning it into a landscape.
How we see and experience landscape, nature, the wild, and we tend to use these terms casually, interchangeably, is often directly cultivated in this way. But so of course is the land itself, everywhere changed and organised by human work. In The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage showed that this continent was a cultivated landscape well before 1788, and Bruce Pascoe extends our understanding of land management in Dark Emu, arguing that every landscape on this continent has been marked and changed by a complex of practices that are best thought of as agriculture.
In her essay ‘What do we mean by wilderness?’ Marcia Langton pointed out that the valorisation of wilderness is a form of amnesia that erases Indigenous people, an extension of terra nullius. To call a place a wilderness is to seek to erase the Indigenous knowledge and history and labour that has shaped and continues to shape the environment. As a result, conservation movements have often been in conflict with movements for Aboriginal self-determination and land rights.
The impossibility of the idea of wilderness becomes even more apparent when we look at the effects of global shifts in climate and weather. The climate crisis has – or should have – erased any illusions we might have had about the purity of nature, or its infinite free gifts, or our own separation from it. Microplastics have now been found in fresh Antarctic snow. All rainwater on Earth now contains harmful per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS chemicals, from manufacturing. Bushfires reache ecosystems that have not evolved adaptation responses, including the Gondwana rainforest, home to nightcap oaks, a species that has survived for tens of millions of years but was severely damaged by fire in 2019. Nowhere is there a pristine wilderness.
Even the way some conservation movements talk about nature encloses it in a resource mentality. Ideas like ‘ecosystem services’ attempt to justify the preservation of our environment but also make nature subservient to capital. A recent article in the ABC about cuttlefish returning to the waters off Whyalla described this as ‘a boon for Spencer Gulf tourism operators’. We struggle to conceive of the importance of the natural world outside our limited systems of measuring market value. When Australia’s new Environment Minister becomes excited about the opportunity of ‘nature credits’ at the G20, we know we’re in trouble; our political culture is completely captivated by this conceptual error.
If we pause to observe the myriad ways in which human beings are destroying our own habitat, that destructiveness is so widespread that it can start to seem natural too: an animal impulse, inescapable. Using myths like ‘the Tragedy of the Commons’, capital has taught us that competitive resource extraction is human nature. But there’s nothing natural about it. It’s a historical reality, born of circumstances we changed and can now choose to change again.
‘There is nothing unnatural about it’ is what Oscar Wilde said of homosexual desire. And he was right; if we look outside our own species, there are homosexual tendencies, relationships, behaviours and histories well documented in more than four hundred and fifty species, from bonobos to dragonflies.
Books such as Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (1999) and Joan Roughgarden’s Evolution’s Rainbow (2004) provide an overview and emphasise the various roles that sexuality can play outside of reproduction: maintaining social cohesion, building power, gaining or sharing pleasure, and so on.
During the difficult push for marriage equality a few years ago, I began to see memes about this everywhere: lists of species that might justify our human desires, based on their occurrence in the natural world. I came to think of these as gay penguin arguments, after the famous New York couple, Roy and Silo.
Roy and Silo were two chinstrap penguins who got together in Central Park Zoo in 1998. When zookeepers noticed the pair were exhibiting incubating behaviours and trying to steal eggs from other penguins, they gave them an egg-shaped rock and watched them. Pretty soon after that, they gave them a real egg, a spare that needed fostering, and Roy and Silo raised a chick who was named Tango.
There’s a children’s book about this penguin family, And Tango Makes Three, written by Peter Parnell and Justin Richardson and illustrated by Henry Cole.The book became a bestseller, but it’s also regularly been listed as one of the top ten most banned books in public libraries and schools across the United States. Absurdly contentious, given that it’s about penguins.
Animal behaviour is too diverse and strange to provide us with an easy definition of the natural; you only have to YouTube one octopus sex video to understand how weird the varieties of natural reproduction on Earth are, how useless it is to try to describe anything in that infinite diversity as normal. Cuttlefish flirt with their light-emitting skin. Some reptiles, like the north American whiptail lizard, are all-female species that reproduce through parthenogenesis. There are more than 500 species of fish that are known to change their sex in adulthood, including the sequentially hermaphroditic clownfish. Banana slugs grow penises the size of their entire bodies, so large that they sometimes get stuck inside their mate’s body; when this happens, the mate simply eats them. All this before you even ask about non-human sexual cultures or think beyond reproductive function.
Just as nature itself is always altered by human influence, our arguments about what is natural and unnatural are always really about cultural norms. Like the beautiful, the natural is a measure of its times. Nature has done a lot of work underwriting the gender binary, racism, eugenics, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. It’s a word that seeks to impose permanency and order on power structures that are contingent, temporary, and political. One rather dystopian illustration of this is happening in the United States right now, where the movement to set reproductive rights back half a century has been joined by wellness influencers proclaiming that contraception is ‘unnatural’.
Tango, a female penguin, went on to pair with another female penguin and raise young for several consecutive seasons. It’s interesting to note that the cultural legitimacy of gay penguins is based almost entirely on their ability to successfully raise chicks. Must gay penguins act like straight penguins in order to be fully penguin? For many, sexuality remains aligned with reproductive purpose, and human interpretations of nature serve human agendas.
So nature is a word that is often weaponised against us. It is a word that tries to claim belief as fact. It’s hard to think your way outside your own culture, and as a result, we are mostly capable of seeing what we are already looking for. I’m with Donna Haraway on this one; science has never been good at seeing outside its stories.
As a writer, I’ve always been interested in the way narratives structure our thought, in the phenomena of confabulation and self-delusion. In the face of an avalanche of evidence, it is still difficult to convince some people that the climate crisis is real, or that it requires systemic change. Patterns of seeing what we are already looking for are often stronger than facts.
These patterns of seeing are really what I am thinking about when I am writing about the climate crisis. There are deep, underlying narratives or myths about who we are and what we are for, what the earth is and what it is for, that are holding us in place – that are driving us off a cliff. Writing about nature, I am concerned mainly with cultural problems, social narratives, and issues of value and power and agency.
Five years ago, I wrote in an essay about art and landscape that ‘at one degree of warming, a catastrophic bushfire is still what we call a natural disaster.’ In a recent op-ed for Guardian Australia, former fire chief Greg Mullins, who has been very outspoken about the climate emergency, made the following observation:
We often hear politicians refer to “natural disasters”. There is nothing natural about what we’re going through now, and perhaps it’s time for us to instead be calling them unnatural disasters.
If nature itself is becoming unnatural, what does that mean for us?
I was born at 333 parts per million atmospheric CO2. According to NASA’s Global Land-Ocean Temperature Index, the last year that Earth had a lower than average temperature was 1976, the year before I arrived. Australia’s fire season is now one full month longer than it was then.
I learned about the greenhouse effect in primary school. It was urgent then, and a neat catastrophist segue for me from childhood fears of nuclear war. I have never known a natural world that wasn’t in the process of being damaged by human extraction, human greed, or human conflict.
When I was eleven, author and activist Bill McKibben published a book called The End Of Nature, in which he claimed that ‘we live in a post-natural world’. McKibben argued that we could no longer rely on nature’s permanency – on the constancy of the seasons, or the existence of wilderness. We were losing ‘the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died.’ But if we listened to Marcia Langton, we would know that wilderness was never a world apart. It has always been a way of seeing that privileges a colonial agenda. A power relationship, not a place.
It is tempting to conclude that there is nothing natural about nature anymore. That there never has been. That because everything is cultivated, touched, or altered, then all is lost. Val Plumwood called this idea ‘nature scepticism’.
In her essay, ‘The Concept of a Cultural Landscape’, Plumwood argued that ‘nature scepticism’ is rightly difficult to untangle from post-colonial approaches to nature. While the idea of the cultural landscape seeks to redress the erasure Langton and others have identified, it also privileges human agency over the non-human agency of other species and actors: animals, mountains, natural systems. (And here it’s worth noting Plumwood’s position that consciousness is not a precondition of agency, which is extended in Bruno Latour’s more recent revival of the Gaia hypothesis.)
Plumwood argues that the idea of the end of nature generates a difficulty of speaking that weakens the political legitimacy of the concept of nature. If we’re not sure whether what we’re speaking about exists, how do we protect or care for or respect the needs of the non-human world?
As fires, floods and heatwaves appear with increasing frequency, unnatural disasters overlapping before our eyes, it’s becoming more difficult to deny the earth’s agency. In the Anthropocene, this planet behaves as an active force of mythical dimensions.
In his influential book The Great Derangement, Amitav Ghosh wrote that literature was struggling to depict the events of the climate emergency:
[C]limate change events [are] peculiarly resistant to the customary frames that literature has applied to “Nature”: they are too powerful, too grotesque, too dangerous, and too accusatory to be written about in a lyrical, or elegiac, or romantic vein. Indeed, in that these events are not entirely of Nature (whatever that might be), they confound the very idea of “Nature writing” or ecological writing: they are instances, rather, of the uncanny intimacy of our relationship with the non-human.
I disagree with Ghosh on a few things. But let’s stay with that term ‘uncanny intimacy’ for a moment.
In my novel Dyschronia, the sea abruptly and mysteriously retreats, leaving an enormous tideline of rotting corpses along the shore of the fictional town of Clapstone. The image was influenced by the shallows and smells of the Upper Spencer Gulf and surrounds, a landscape that had infiltrated my imagination even before I moved from Arrernte to Ngadjuri country in 2011; influenced, too, by a growing awareness of the rapidity and urgency of the climate crisis and the challenge of finding ways to depict nature as it was unravelling.
I wasn’t consciously looking for a way to make the climate crisis imaginable, let alone lyrical. At first I was interested in the image mostly because of its shocking quality. But as I kept circling back to it and admitting it was a novel, I saw more in that revealed shore than in the water. The smell is inescapable, it gets in your mouth and nose and house: this is an uncanny intimacy.
So much is being done to our oceans, through global heating, acidification and shifting wind patterns, that we can’t see, or that we can choose not to see. I read a news report of 90 per cent plankton loss in the Atlantic, then click through to the next item on the long list of catastrophes that now confront us daily. Tasmania has lost 95 per cent of its kelp forests in a few short decades. The harm absorbed by the ocean often stays hidden; we don’t have to watch it happen. I began to see it as an image of prophecy, the sea threatening to expose the damage that lay beneath its surface: a revelation of hidden consequences.
bell hooks spoke about queerness as something beyond the dimension of who you happen to be attracted to: she describes ‘queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live … the imagination is called forth in the reconstructing and re-envisioning of self and possibility.’
When queerness is considered a disorder, as it has been for most of my life and in many places and contexts still is, the queer experience becomes one of being at odds with; of existing in spite of the order of the world, and thus of having to create or remember other kinds of order: forms of social organisation, family, and coexistence that might make your existence possible. This can provoke a flourishing of creative solutions for survival, using the tools of salvage and reciprocity, building community across difference. It also encourages an affinity with other outsiders, including aliens, monsters, and the non-human world.
It’s hard to think your way outside your own culture, but an experience of queerness, of being odd and strange and outside the ‘natural’ order, can have benefits: it gives you ways of seeing differently, at an angle to the patterns of seeing that your culture takes for granted. Being queer has given me a scepticism about cultural norms which is quite useful in other contexts, including creatively.
I don’t mean to claim this experience is exclusive to gender-nonconforming non-heterosexuals. There are lots of ways of being pushed outside your culture, or learning to see through its illusions about itself. But for me, in my writing, in the development of my voice, the queer has always offered a critical point of view; it has contributed to my sense of distance, even exile from the culture I am in, and enhanced my sense of my own capacity to change it.
Queer is not just an identity. A queer position doesn’t strive to be welcomed into the mainstream’s idea of ‘normal variation’, but declares that there is no normal. Queer politics offers a set of strategies for living and thriving in a world which is trying to impose limitations and rules; it offers a way of opening portals to better or more survivable worlds. I think that’s where my interest in the power of the uncanny really comes from, from my own experience of being an unnatural being.
However, the uncanny is already very present in Australian literature. Horror, or apocalypse, or estrangement, are in so many of our stories that you could be forgiven for thinking that the weird is where settler Australia makes most sense to itself. Even the idea of Australia, the invention of Australia, coincides with a specific kind of weirdness: the colonial weird, the colonial uncanny.
The first royal visit ever made to Australia was by Prince Alfred in 1867-68, the second son of Victoria and Albert, who was in his early twenties at the time. When he went to Tasmania someone gave the young prince a wombat, which travelled home with him on board his ship.
It is likely to have been the same wombat who ended up in a second-hand exotic animal shop in London, where he was purchased by artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This wombat, named Top, was so loved by Rossetti that there are several illustrations of him, including one where the artist is weeping copiously into a handkerchief over the wombat’s dead body. Top didn’t live very long.
As settlers attempted to familiarise themselves with unfamiliar landscapes and species, a sense of appreciation for the perceived weirdness of Australia was married young to a very acquisitive colonial exoticism. Alistair Paton’s book Of Marsupials and Men describes a roaring trade in animals back and forth from Europe throughout Australia’s early years, with removal of animals such as Kangaroo Island’s dwarf emus to join menageries in France directly contributing to their extinction.
Winston Churchill was so taken with Australian wildlife that in 1943, with war raging across Europe, he telegrammed then Australian Prime Minister John Curtin to request six platypuses. In hindsight this seems like a bizarre test of loyalty. The scientist given charge of this demand talked him down to one platypus and shipped it off in a wooden crate. When the ship was approaching England, it came into the range of a German submarine, and the captain detonated depth charges in response. The human crew survived; the platypus died of concussion.
It’s tricky to work with the material of the uncanny or weird without simply reinforcing a settler-colonial exoticism, a fetishistic delight in otherness; or the equally acquisitive tendency to see ourselves as the lone saviours of dying species. Our emotional responses to living through the sixth extinction as its perpetrators are understandably complicated.
One response to the loss of non-human life is mourning. In Australia, mourning the natural world as it is being destroyed sometimes seems to come at the expense of doing anything about its loss. Mourning tends to be a performance that reinforces and even naturalises extinction. This too, has its roots in colonisation.
Patrick Brantlinger’s 2003 book Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930 described the literary phenomenon of extinction discourse as ‘a specific branch of the dual ideologies of imperialism and racism’ which positions the death of colonised peoples as inevitable.
Extinction narratives have been a part of upholding terra nullius from its beginnings. White settlers mourned the loss of Aboriginal people even as they stole from and murdered them. This phenomenon is starkest in Tasmanian literature, but it’s everywhere. In this model, the story of tragedy, the emotional affect, doesn’t absolve the perpetrators of violence – it enables them.
This function of extinction discourse also characterises settler approaches to the non-human world.
In mourning, nature is set against modernity. We revere the natural world with nostalgia; we’re sorry to see it go, but really, its time has come. In Australia, we have the highest rate of extinction in the OECD. Thirty-eight per cent of mammalian extinctions worldwide have occurred here. The latest State of the Environment report tells a heartbreaking, horrifying story of habitat destruction and ecosystem collapse.
But extinction is so normalised here that we often discount its significance. Sure, it’s sad, but the show of productivity, development and extraction must go on. In a recent illustration of this, Gold Coast theme park Dreamworld was given $2.7 million dollars by the Queensland government to fund koala conservation, but was later allowed to spend the money on a rollercoaster. I’d edit a story like this out of my fiction; the satire’s much too heavy-handed.
Can we mourn the loss of nature without reinforcing these ideas, without speaking of natural loss as inevitable? Well, yes. Mourning is an important part of accepting the need to change. It is also a key arc of feeling which can motivate us to make that change. The potential for mourning to fuel movements for justice is amply illustrated by social movements like ACT UP, the struggle against Black deaths in custody, and Black Lives Matter. Grief can lead us to realise the injustice of loss, find solidarity, and take action.
But writers who are settlers here need to ask ourselves: who is our mourning for? Are we mourning nature itself, or the old configuration of a relationship from which we benefited? What can we learn from grief, and what needs to change? In part, what we are losing is an idea of ourselves, a relationship, a particular hierarchy, a way of telling the story.
The climate crisis is bringing about a huge and necessary shift in the way that we operate within nature, the way we conceive of the natural, the relationships that we are able to form with place. Of course this reconfiguration is occurring in literature too. It’s comparable to the modernist transformation that happened alongside the trauma of world war. The Anthropocene is perhaps an even more traumatic turn. Just as once unimaginable disasters are bleeding into daily life, we’re increasingly seeing these uncanny, or science-fictional, or dystopian elements bleeding into realist literature. Realism is having to expand quickly to include reality.
All fiction is Anthropocene fiction now. As James Ley wrote in a recent essay about Robbie Arnott for the Sydney Review of Books, ‘Even the simplest human stories are implicated in catastrophic structural conditions … These days even the pastoral is millenarian.’ Everyday conversations can end at the precipice of existential doubt and terror. Speaking to a stranger about the weather recently, the conversation quickly moved to flooding in Seoul, and my interlocutor concluded: ‘everything’s going haywire.’ We live, as historian Tom Griffiths has said, in uncanny times.
‘Behind all of the manifestations of the eerie,’ writes Mark Fisher in The Weird and the Eerie, ‘the central enigma at its core is the problem of agency.’
Fisher is writing about the way the birds in Daphne Du Maurier’s story ‘The Birds’, on which Hitchcock’s film was based, disturb readers’ expectations of nature: ‘What the birds threaten is the very structures of explanation that had previously made sense of the world.’ The agency of birds disturbs not only the human characters’ safety, but their sense of their place in the world, their whole logic of being, and ours as readers too.
This idea of nature as an agentic, disturbing force has always been present in Australian writing, but it has taken various guises. There is the gothic representation of nature as a haunting, the reckoning with ghosts, colonisation and illegitimate occupation; a horror of nature, as in Wake in Fright, or Picnic at Hanging Rock, horror that is always mixed with desire.
There is a longing to draw spiritual force from the land, that comes through in Randolph Stowe’s To the Islands, or Patrick White’s Voss, or Eve Langley’s book The Pea-Pickers: Langley’s alter ego Steve directly conflates romanticism with extinction discourse thus: ‘I raised a handful of the dust to my nostrils and smelt it. “Ah, that aboriginal smell! We tread on the soft black dust of lost Gippsland tribes”’
But something is shifting now in these representations of the agentic landscape in fiction, in representations of the non-human. There is evidence of a stronger awareness of entanglement, hybridity, and exchange. I see this in the work of writers like Evelyn Araluen, Robbie Arnott, James Bradley, Krissy Kneen, Laura Jean McKay, Jane Rawson, Ellen van Neerven, Ben Walter, Alexis Wright.
These shifts aren’t happening in a linear fashion; all these forms of agentic nature reappear in Australian fiction in different eras and in different guises and moods. But it’s noticeable that in Australian fiction – and particularly in contemporary, Anthropocene fiction – the natural world is often trying to disrupt normality, trying to interrupt us and tell us something. Perhaps the uncanny is not a presence that should not be there (as Fisher proposed) but a presence that was always there and refuses to be forgotten or ignored.
In Signs and Wonders, Delia Falconer observes that Australian writing about nature has always had a feral quality. It’s partly because we are unsettled here: whether colonists or migrants or First Nations people, what we have in common is some degree of displacement. We share a history that is interrupted and disordered – a series of broken transmissions – a process of estrangement. On Kaurna country, I am a semi-naturalised Irish weed. It’s little wonder that a desire to unsettle ourselves is emergent in our fiction.
Falconer also mentions that the climate crisis has made her suspicious of nature, ‘suspicious of beauty itself.’ As an unnatural being, I have always been suspicious of nature; when I think with my queer imagination about nature in crisis, it’s not necessarily conceived as a loss. Our relationship with the natural has needed a radical transformation for some time. We can’t protect or care for the natural world using myths that enclose or devalue it. We can’t protect or care for nature unless we are open to changing ourselves.
‘The weird generates a kind of cognitive estrangement: the weird de-naturalises all worlds, by exposing their instability, their openness to the outside,’ Mark Fisher writes. The weird offers an escape from what is, into what could be. In literature, weird nature can be a queer strategy in Sara Ahmed’s sense of queer use as a kind of repurposing: ‘Queer uses, when things are used for purposes other than the ones for which they were intended, still reference the qualities of a thing; queer uses may linger on those qualities, rendering them all the more lively.’
If the first thing any artist learns is attention to what is there – attention to nature – then what follows is the art of turning our attention to what is hidden, to the forces and intangible structures and disguises that operate beneath our world views. To foundational myths, sustaining narratives and habitual ways of seeing. That is my material. I am interested in writing that is attentive to what is missing, what is not there but should be, what is definitely there but goes habitually unseen. I am interested in revelations, and in ghosts.
The novel as a form is only about as old as capitalism: five hundred years or so, depending on who you ask. In that time, the form has reinforced certain habits of thought. It has helped us to see ourselves as protagonists, as isolated individuals on linear journeys. If, as Plumwood and Haraway have argued, we should aim to decentre the human, this means rethinking the idea of the novel as a linear journey, as a single human story. It means breaking with the form. In Dyschronia I tried this with a disrupted temporality. In The Airways, I attempted to rethink the borders, the boundaries between self and other.
Ghosts defy nature in the most fundamental way: they cheat death. The ghost is an unnatural being. But there’s an element of fantasy in leaving one’s body behind, with its pesky gender presentations and problems of visibility, and being able to possess or inhabit or interfere with other bodies. The ghost’s capacity to move outward from the self, through shared breath, shared atmosphere, gave me a tool for examining the power dynamics of boundaries and borders and what happens to us when they break down.
The coronavirus pandemic of course made all these concerns about shared breath and shared atmosphere more urgent and visible in daily life. As I edited The Airways in an apartment in northern Italy, sirens were sounding all around me. Death was everywhere. There was suddenly visible evidence of a shared microbiome, a shared immune system, a shared vulnerability. I was more aware than ever of the startling fact that we all live together in a single fragile bubble of atmosphere. I even dared to hope that this virus would become transformative, that we would take from it a lesson in our interdependence and kinship with all life. That maybe it would help to save us.
Around 8 per cent of human DNA is made of viruses, to be specific endogenous retroviruses, which alter the DNA in ways that are passed on to offspring. Some scientists say that this 8 per cent figure is an understatement: when you factor in the 45 per cent of the human genome that is made up of pre-viral transpose elements, it turns out that we are not very much ourselves at all. These elements used to be thought of as ‘junk DNA’ but it turns out they are essential to evolution. Viruses help us mutate. Viruses might be what made us human.
Maybe I’m just trying to make meaning out of grief, but there’s something powerful in that uncanny intimacy, in what moves between bodies. Queer ecology can bear witness to these kinds of intimacies; can work to reveal our permeability, blur the boundaries between self and other, human and non-human, life and non-life.
These ideas are incomplete by nature. There’s much more to be said about the politics of writing about nature from a settler position, the responsibilities of queer ecology to work alongside decolonisation, the impossibility of writing simultaneously for and against nature, as an unnatural being who is also very much part of nature. Negative capability is an important part of queer strategy. It sometimes means allowing yourself to be unreasonable, allowing the text to make no sense, accepting indeterminacy and doubt. The need for negative capability extends into the relationship between theory and practice.
The natural world itself has a more profound influence on my work than I can easily express in language. It is much deeper than my capacity to intellectualise it. I understand that stories come from places. All my work, my very being, is connected to the landscapes where I have lived and breathed. The imagination is bigger than I am, the work of it much longer than my lifetime. And the agency of the natural world is not a literary conceit for me to play with; it’s an experienced truth.
Maybe nature’s not a place, but I still love to go there. Being in nature has always provided solace. It’s a respite from labour, and from society. It’s not a backdrop to imaginative work, but its strongest source. Time spent in nature is often fugitive, hours or days taken back from working life or public visibility. In nature, time and the attention change. The mind is allowed to relax, become diffuse, unfocused, but it is also open and receptive, aware of detail in a different way.
Queer nature can flourish in marginal places: a city park, a ruined building, a weed-strewn yard. I can walk around the corner from my house and touch the trunk of the enormous lemon-scented gum outside the cleaning chemical factory and feel its strength for a moment against my hand, like that of an enormous horse. The tree is not there for me, it is not mine, I cannot measure its worth.
When I am stuck, or running out of energy, I walk. Sometimes it’s a multi-day hike, and sometimes it’s a stroll around my neighbourhood, past the factories and townhouse renovations, warehouses and gyms, down to the river, to karrawirra pari.
At my desk I might think about narrative structure, deadlines, or my finances, but in nature I can remember other kinds of order: forms of cohabitation and organisation that I might not otherwise encounter. There’s a flourishing of creativity and diversity in the exchanges of weeds and native species, a messy disharmony in the sounds of birds and frogs and people; a feeling of being with other beings, of belonging to something greater than yourself. Marginal places resist human order and commodification.
I have always disliked the idea that fiction’s purpose is to build empathy between people. It is a worthy goal, I suppose, but it seems so lacking in ambition. Because fiction can go much further, can help us to dissolve the borders between self and other, human and non-human; can help us to reshape ourselves and our ways of living together, to think our way past the limitations of our culture.
There’s a similar kind of moral instrumentalism in many of our discussions about nature – trees are good for our mental health, or time outdoors has educational outcomes – worthy, but so limiting in the way they position the natural world in the service of social order. The myth of domination endures.
Uncanny work that seeks to haunt or disturb or unsettle can act in opposition to the myths that might comfort, reassure, and calm us. I want to read literature that concerns itself with the entanglements and estrangements inherent in all our relationships with nature, including the unnatural; writing that allows for mystery and indeterminacy. I am encouraged by the many transgressions and hybridities and transformations now emerging in this country’s stories, and I see all of them as part of a bigger project to expand the imagination. I don’t work with weirdness or the uncanny for the sake of titillation, but in the service of possibility, because I think it can help us to make our way out of the mess we’ve found ourselves in.
Beyond conservation, beyond the necessary operations of salvage and restoration and mourning, decolonisation and reparation and justice, there is also mutation, diversification, collaboration, interdependence, reciprocity. These aren’t new ideas – politically, they are at least as old as the human presence on this continent, and all of them are processes in nature. I hesitate to use terms like post-natural or post-human. The obsession with novelty is part of the problem, the way we so often confuse creativity with innovation. It’s important to know that some of this is memory-work. Remembering that the tendency of the natural world is to flourish, mutate, multiply and diversify. It is only our interpretations, our value systems, that have been preventing us from seeing these processes as natural. You don’t have to reinvent the universe, just learn to look at it sideways.
Karrawirra pari still gives this place its shape. Adelaide’s west used to flood every year. Where I live there were grasslands, sedges; now it’s semi-industrial. The river’s course has been changed and manipulated, its banks built up, but its power endures. There are always people walking there, or standing near the water. Once I came across someone singing to it.
Writing about nature can be that simple, too. A way of returning to a place you love, and offering it your song.
Sara Ahmed, ‘Queer Use’. feministkilljoys: 2018.
Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. Stonewall Inn editions: 1999.
Patrick Brantlinger, Dark Vanishings: Discourse on the Extinction of Primitive Races, 1800-1930. Cornell University Press: 2003.
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