What is queer ecology?

The Black Beacon on Orford Ness

Although it remains a derogatory term in some contexts, the word ‘queer’ has acquired two more positive senses. Firstly, it’s a flexible term for all people who are not heterosexual, or who do not identify strictly as male or female. Secondly, it describes broader ways of imagining the world which relate these identities to other kinds of fixed category, in order to disrupt the idea of categorisation itself. On the latter terms, we can describe apparently non-human spaces as queer.

Running wild or feeling broody

When we build or visit a country estate, we appreciate being 'amid nature', but a version of nature that’s framed and made safe by human interventions: from art and architecture to toilets and telephones.

Nature and culture are allowed to interact with each other in a pleasing and productive way without their identities becoming blurred – like, in a heteronormative world, male and female organisms.

We tend to imagine nature in gendered terms, whether as 'Mother Nature' or the rugged masculinity of being in the wild. Constructing an idea of 'nature' to live in allows both of these characteristics to exist in a way that is recognisable. 

Other sites, other stories

We can look to artists and writers to find alternative ways of imagining nature. In his book 'The Rings of Saturn' published in 1995, the Anglo-German author W.G. Sebald recounts a walking tour of East Anglia in which he passes through the Orford Ness Nature Reserve.

Sebald's writing is influenced by the reserve’s previous role as a site for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.

The place becomes associated with material which will last longer than any organisms currently living, and which could generate lethally rapid (and non-sexual) reproduction within their bodies. In a world like this, 'nature' can never be isolated.

For Sebald, Orford Ness is not merely "an isle of the dead" but a place where he can imagine being "amidst the ruins of our civilization after its extinction" – and yet can still be "at once, at home".

Living in a queer ecology

The environments in 'The Rings of Saturn’ are full of dying animals and homosexual or family-less figures. As presented by Sebald, "the brink of dissolution" that these populations face feels like a more natural state than one of picturesque preservation.

We increasingly recognise that climate change has progressed to a scale which humans will struggle to control imaginatively. In another sphere, justice is being won for groups whose identities or relationships have been imagined as 'unnatural' or unproductive.

Queer ecology invites us to bring these causes together, and to rethink who – or what – gets to make themselves at home in the places we call ours.