What is Queer Ecology?

What is Queer Ecology?

By Sophie Strand

A recent post from Sophie Strand's Substack

I’m deep in the process of revising and weaving together my upcoming memoir The Body is a Doorway: Healing Beyond Hope, Healing Beyond the Human. I’m sharing an older essay that I’m expanding into a longer chapter below.

The past month has been a whirlwind of audiobook recording, book-writing, and a life-threatening allergic reaction to a yellow-jacket sting. I’ll be mostly offline and on vacation starting tomorrow until July 1st but after I return I plan on hosting my next online Storytelling Gathering for paid subscribers on Encounters with Animals. If you have a day or time of day that works better for you feel free to shout out in the comments as I decide when to schedule it.

Queer Ecology seeks to disrupt heteronormative projections onto nature. Queerness, it turns out, isn’t a rarity inside ecosystems. It is ubiquitous from flowers to insects to fungi. Queer Ecology seeks to trouble how cultural dualisms get grafted onto entangled, complex ecosystems. It “interrupts” the tired monologue of hegemonic heterosexuality and the sterile fiction that we are, in fact, differentiated from the natural world. It encourages thinking erotically outside of extractive eroticisms. It melts power dynamics and pulls the rug of linearity from underneath the “narrative” of sex. What does nature have to teach us about queerness? If we are fruitings of our ecosystems, densities of mineral and meaning erupting from the forest floor, how is our individual queerness an echo of larger tentacular sexualities?

The above is an attempt to answer a question that I think should have a different answer every day. And a different answer from anyone you ask. Heteronormativity as wedded to patriarchal-capitalism wants singular answers. It wants to locate and commodify disciplines, to banish radical paradigms to academia where they whither inside tautological arguments between like-minded, similarly privileged people. Yes, nature is profoundly, rambunctiously queer.  In some fox populations, 95 % of females do not reproduce and, instead form monogamous, homosexual pairs. Red squirrels alternate sexualities seasonally and rotate between multiple partners. Bonobo monkeys are typically bisexual and studies have show that homosexual mating between females establishes social connections between different populations.

(Read about female bonobo “friendship” here )

Queer Botany gets even weirder. Orchids imitate the shape of female bee sex organs and sometimes male bees even preferentially pick mating with Orchid flowers over mating with real female bees. Parasitic plants, myco-heterotrophs, and mutualistic arrangements between fungi and plants blur the boundaries between pairs. When a being constituted by other beings mates, where does the sex end and begin? Does it flow over the species line? Do sexual partnerships bloom into and involve the mutualistic and parasitic components?

split gill mushroom friend and collaborator Patricia Kaishian’s work on Queer Mycology is a huge inspiration.

Fungi, for me, are a delightfully messy, fertile place to investigate Queer Ecology. Fungi have over 36,000 forms of embodiment and an orchestra of sexual strategies. Lichen, the product of symbiogenesis, are composed of algae, fungi, yeasts, and countless other bacterial populations, are universes that explode individuality. I am most interested in what I’ve been thinking of as Deep Queerness in ecology. How our understanding of horizontal transfer of genes, the evolution of the cell through the lens of symbiogenesis, complex system theory, emergence, gut microflora, and virology explode more than just heterosexuality. They destroy individuality as a bounded, discrete object. Quantum theory takes it one step farther, telling us that we are processes of energy, wave-fields flowing through space-time and through alternate universes. And we are almost completely made up of dark matter. And we are almost completely made up of empty space.  

            In air sparkling with pollen and dust seeds, two skin-silhouetted swarms of fireflies and bacteria dance across soil pulsing with rootlets and mycorrhizae. Each footstep presses the ground sending signals through miles of mycelium. Each breath passed between lovers is chock full of smell and the ecosystem’s particular biome. How many beings constitute a romance? This isn’t so much a question of polyamory. It is a question of self. How many Is am I? How many nested beings live within my gut, my breath, my eyelashes? Can I love you with all of them? 

            But Queerness, in its oldest etymology, means off-center, strange, or oblique. And the root of Ecology is Oikos or home. Let us keep Queer Ecology outside of definition. Let us keep it in its off-center, strange home. Outdoors. And in that profoundly intimate and interstitial space between your own subjective experience and the erotic ecosystem that constitutes you.  

Queer Ecology for me has been an off-center home that has saved my life and re-gifted me my sexuality. As the survivor of early sexual abuse, it was very hard for me to view human sexuality without cynicism and wariness. This was difficult as I was also a profoundly sensual, romantic person. I felt as if I had been robbed of my own sexuality by human beings. It was always contaminated by other people’s desires.

            I will never forget, eleven years old, sitting in the window seat on a plane ride home from seeing family in the deep south. It was late in the day, and we were passing over a series of mountain ranges. I grew up in the shadow of a mountain. I know their smell, their weather, their moods. But, in that moment, I realized I’d never seen them from this vantage point. They swelled like flesh, they rolled like low-tide waves relaxing from the shoreline, they were electric blue in the dusk. Clouds crowned a few summits, milkweed fluff of liquidity. I felt my breath hitch, my senses prickle. A flush of honey warmth bloomed from my belly. I came back to life. 

            It was the first time I had a sexual experience that I felt like belonged to me. And it belonged to me because it belonged to the earth, the ecosystem itself. I leaned into these experiences as I came into my sexuality. Standing in a field during a thunderstorm. Piercing cold lake water with the sword of my body. Bare feet tattooed with river stones. When I read the amazing memoir The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, I recognized myself in her voice, “Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body”. Symbiogenesis for me was the moment when, having been walking or hiking for so long, I felt myself slip into and merge into the landscape. Like water in water. A horizontal intimacy. A melted romance. As someone who felt their senses, and their sensuality had been hijacked early on, I found a way to reclaim these parts of myself through a slow courtship with the natural world. I was delighted to find that my ecosystem was even queerer, stranger than I was; and as my relationship with plants, fungi, animals, and place healed me, I was able to lean into and accept my own queerness. My off-center desires and ways of loving.

Resources on Queer Ecology:

Mycology as a Queer Discpline by Patricia Kaishian

The work of Queer Nature

Queer Ecologies: Sex Nature Politics Desire Anthology

Biological Exuberance by Bruce Baghemil

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I am overwhelmed with gratitude by how many of you have showed up here. As someone struggling to balance chronic illness (and just how expensive it is to be sick in America) with writing, know that you are very practically keeping me alive, keeping me afloat. Thank you deeply. I love you all so much.

Sophie Strand

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