Monday, March 28, 2011

Alex Johnson: How To Queer Ecology

How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time
by Alex Johnson

I ONCE THOUGHT I KNEW what nature writing was: the pretty, sublime stuff 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.


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 ecological 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 not natural.


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 offer 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 giraffes and warthogs and hummingbirds, there’s a section on geese. Researchers have observed that up to 12 percent of pairs were homosexual in populations of Branta canadensis. And it’s not because of a lack of potential mates of the opposite gender. “In one case,” says Bagemihl, “a male harassed a female who was part of a long-lasting lesbian pair and separated her from her companion, mating with her. However, the next year, she returned to her female partner and their pairbond resumed.”

To Read the Rest of the Essay

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