how to Queer ecoLogy:
A lesson plan
Ionce thought I knew what nature writing was: the pretty, sublime stu= minus the parking lot. The mountain majesty and the soaring eagle and the ancient forest without
the human footprint, the humans themselves, the mess.
Slowly, fortunately, that definition has fallen flat. Where is the
line between what is Nature and what is Human? Do I spend
equal times in the parking lot and the forest? Can I really say the
parking lot is separate from the forest? What if I end up staying
in the parking lot the whole time? What if it has been a long drive
and I really have to pee?
The problem is, the Nature/Human split is not a split. It is a
dualism. It is false.
I propose messing it up. I propose queering Nature.
As it would happen, I’m queer. What I mean is this: A) I am
a man attracted to men. B) Popular culture has told me that men
who are attracted to men are unnatural, and so C) if my culture
is right, then I am unnatural. But D) I don’t feel unnatural at all.
In fact, the love I share with another man is one of the most comfortable, honest, real feelings I have ever felt. And so E) I can’t
help but believe that Nature, and the corresponding definition of
“natural,” betray reality. From my end of the rainbow, this thing
we call Nature is in need of a good queering.
Step #1: Let go of ecoLogIcaL mandateS.
Not so long ago, I read David Quammen’s essay “The Miracle of
the Geese.” In the essay, Quammen says this: “wild geese, not
angels, are the images of humanity’s own highest self.” By humanity, I can only assume that he means all humans, collectively,
over all of time. “They show us the apogee of our own potential,”
Quammen says. “They live by the same principles that we, too
often, only espouse. They embody liberty, grace, and devotion,
combining those three contradictory virtues with a seamless elegance that leaves us shamed and inspired.” Quammen seems
to be on to something. Who could possibly be against liberty,
grace, or devotion? But then he starts talking about sex. How
geese are monogamous. How a male goose will in fact do better
evolutionarily if he is loyal to his mate. “They need one another
there, male and female, each its chosen mate, at all times,” he
says. “The evolutionary struggle, it turns out, is somewhat more
complicated than a singles’ bar.” I’m a little concerned about the
evolutionary struggle thing, but I’m still tracking. Life sure is
complicated. And then he says this: “I was glad to find an eco-
logical mandate for permanent partnership among animals so
estimable as Branta canadensis.”
Boom. There it is. Geese are wild. Geese are pure. They aren’t
all mixed up with the problems of civilization and humanity.
What we really need is to behave more like geese. If you are a
male, then you must find a female. You must partner with that
female, provide for that female, fertilize that female, and love
that female for the rest of your life. If you are a female, well,
you’ll know what to do.
When I first read about Quammen’s geese, I’d been out as
bisexual for a year. It was around the second Bush election, and I
was writing very serious letters to my conservative grandparents
about my sexuality and politics. Now I know why his essay, so
considerate, so passionate, so genteel, hit me in the gut. I was
Step #2: Stop generaLIzIng.
My instinct is to give Quammen the benefit of the doubt; it
was the late ’80s after all. Regardless of his intentions though,
Quammen’s notion that Canada geese o=er humans an ecological
mandate not only reinforces a Nature-as-purity mythos (against
which humans act), but at an even more basic level, his assumptions are simply inaccurate: plenty of geese aren’t straight.
In 1999, Bruce Bagemihl published Biological Exuberance, an
impressive compendium of thousands of observed nonheteronormative sexual behaviors and gender nonconformity
among animals. Besides gira=es and warthogs and hummingbirds, there’s a section on geese. Researchers have observed that