Opinion

A Very Queer Nature: On Queer Ecologies, Gardens, and Flourishing Multispecies Practices

SEI Key Researcher Astrida Neimanis recently caught up with Cate Sandilands to discuss how the field of queer ecologies continues to grow.

Image by Cate Sandilands.

Challenging the idea that queerness is somehow “against nature,” the field of queer ecologies investigates intersections and articulations of queerness and the natural world. Professor Cate Sandilands is a leading scholar in this field. She has long been examining how gay, lesbian and queer politics can learn from environmental matters, at the same time as queer studies can contribute in important and innovative ways to the growing field of environmental humanities. In 2010, Sandilands edited the field-defining text Queer Ecologies with Bruce Erickson. Below, SEI Key Researcher Astrida Neimanis talks to Cate Sandilands about how the field continues to grow.


Astrida Neimanis: What are your thoughts on how queer ecologies has developed as a field of study?

Cate Sandilands: The idea of “queer ecology” seems to have been very generative, sometimes in gloriously surprising ways! I can’t begin to name all of the scholars and artists and activists who have done exciting work in the field, but one of the most interesting directions, for me, concerns queering forms of ecological community.

AN: Can you say more about what that might look like?

CS: Humans often think about the future as something we are “leaving for our children.” Too often, supported by prevailing understandings of inheritance, generation, possessive individualism, and what [queer theorist Lee] Edelman calls “reproductive futurism,” we interpret what this could mean quite narrowly. Alternatively, a queer ecological perspective insists on the future as a matter of cultivating flourishing, multispecies relationships in the present, in order to leave behind a robust soil in which new possibilities may grow.

AN: Is this idea of cultivating a future right now, for all kinds of species and not only humans, a new development in queer ecological thinking?

CS: These ideas are not exactly new; ecofeminists have been saying such things for quite a while! But they resonate with on-the-ground queer politics in new ways. Importantly, they do not pursue homonormative strategies of nuclear family formation (in other words, where something like gay marriage would only be acceptable where it mirrors traditional family life and its associated forms of power and kinship, and where such forms of life are tied to consumerism, petrocapitalism, and possession). Rather, queer ecological politics are about relating in more generous and textured ways to the beings, including but definitely not only people, in whose company we live. Queer ecological politics seeks and finds pleasure and sustenance in these broader ecological communities, in which all of these beings give back thoughtfully to each other. Of course, queer ecology has also helped us see (hear, touch, taste, smell) the multiple universe of genders, desires, forms of erotic expression, and types of emotional connection that one can experience in community with others, in more complex ways.

AN: Much of your recent work in this field turns to gardening. Why is gardening a good metaphor and practice for contemporary times?

CS: Gardening is many things: it is a thoroughly compromised practice even as it affords aspirational possibilities for queer, feminist forms of multispecies community.

At one level, gardens — both decorative and food-producing ones — have been focal sites in the ongoing colonial, global trade in plants. For example, the “bioprospecting” of exotic species for private display and ownership (as well as for agricultural and other commercial uses) went hand in hand with European exploration and conquest, with the trans-Atlantic slave trade. It also accompanied the rise of the modern life sciences intent on systematizing (and also managing) biological knowledge: in other words, modern biopolitics (also what Sylvia Wynter calls “Man II”). (Trade in plants is much, much older than this, of course: plant movements have been key to many empires.)

At another level, many exotic species that are currently thriving in places where people don’t want them to thrive (that some call “invasive” exotics) are escapees from gardens: we may want plants to behave in the ways we want them to, and in the places we have designated for them, but they have other agendas that complicate modern biopolitics (and ideas of Man). In fact, as contemporary nature and science writer Michael Pollan pointed out some years ago, we have long been serving as globalizing conduits for plant desires, and not just the reverse.

On a much smaller scale, gardens can be places where long-term relations of reciprocity are cultivated, and in which attentiveness to changing relationships – between and among plants, soil, insects, weather, animals — in particular locations can give rise to really complex, resilient communities.

AN: How do your own experiences as a gardener contribute to how you think about climate change and queer ecological community?

CS: I know that I can sense climate change in particular ways because I am a caretaker of the plants — some brought by me, others arriving by other means — that inhabit my urban backyard. I see where they are and are not thriving; I can do things to help them along, but I can also think, from my situation within this multispecies community, about wider implications for the multispecies city.

AN: Does gardening necessarily make you a better citizen of the ecological communities you want to support?

CS: Of course, gardens are not always sites of reciprocal exchange and gardener attentiveness — neat rows of intensively hybridized petunias (which, perhaps a bit snobbily, I find hard to call a garden at all) are, I think, precisely about a forgetting of reciprocity under a bioengineered illusion of control. But the potential is always there, in the soil, in the sheer ferocity of plant lives as they reach out to us for relationship.

AN: You have also been a key figure and mentor within feminist environmental humanities. What about the links between gardening, queerness and feminism?

CS: Perhaps most importantly from a queer or feminist perspective, gardens can be places in which multispecies community is practised in the midst of all of these complicated relations of power and politics. Whatever his faults, Foucault considered gardens to be heterotopian spaces for good reason: “the garden is the smallest parcel of the world, and then it is the totality of the world.” Gardens are little worlds in which art and nature, control and resistance, utopia and dystopia, the whole and the part, all play out in an ongoing and improvisational dance in which, in order to be a good gardener, I must recognize that I am not always the lead choreographer.

Cate will be speaking at the HumanNature Series: ‘Feminist Botany for the Age of Man’ lecture. 

Drawing from diverse stories of relationships between women and plants, Sandilands’ lecture will outline a feminist botany that challenges the idea of the “Age of Man” as an epochal phenomenon, replacing the “Anthropocene” as the centre of attention with a more nuanced, feminist, multispecies understanding. For more details and to purchase tickets for ‘Feminist Botany for the Age of Man’click here.

The HumanNature series is jointly funded and coordinated by the Australian Museum, the University of New South Wales, Macquarie University, Western Sydney University, and the University of Sydney. The Series features leading international scholars in the Environmental Humanities and aims to highlight the key research and developments to come out of the environmental humanities and will feature environmental humanities scholars who are renowned in their fields. Stay tuned for more profiles on keynote speakers in the months to come.

Please note that tickets are available to staff and students at the four partner universities at the discounted rate of $8. These tickets must be booked in advance using the discount code: ENVHUM18.

Websitehttps://australianmuseum.net.au/landing/human-nature

6:00 – 6:30 Welcome, drinks and refreshments
6:30 – 7:30 Lecture


Catriona (Cate) Sandilands is a Professor of Environmental Studies at York University, Canada. Cate’s research focuses on environmental cultural studies; environmental/ecological literary criticism, environmental writing; sexuality, gender and environments: queer ecologies, ecological feminisms; and Nature and environment in social and political thought.

Astrida Neimanis is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney and Key Researcher at the Sydney Environment Institute. Her research is located at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental humanities, with a focus on water, weather and bodies. Her latest book Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology was published in 2017 (Bloomsbury). Astrida is also Associate Editor of the journal Environmental Humanities.