“I got tired of learning masculinity from humans, so I studied the male wren, building his nest twig by twig, singing a sweet song to attract a mate, feeding his young via beak. I studied the barred owl, solitary witness calling out to others from his perch high up in an old burr oak, his hoot more oxygen than my bound lungs are able to manage. I learned from three little dairy goat boys, castrated, never to be angry bucks. My masculinity is a cross-species “biomimicry,” cherry-picked day to day (Nature: There’s Something for Everyone), and whether this makes me natural or unnatural, I cannot say.”
So ends Oliver Baez Bendorf’s brief but thoughtful essay on his relation to the nature as a transgender man. This piece, a part of Transgender Studies Quarterly’s keywords anthology, doesn’t argue for anything: he simply observes. Though Bendorf observes nature, nature does not observe Bendorf. The birds and the goats he watches at a distant are surely aware of him, but they are not interested in coming to know him. They are too busy being birds and goats. Nature is comfortably indifferent.
Humans, however, are not indifferent. We are curious not only for sake of survival, but the sake of curiosity itself. I’m interested in how knowledge is so often its own reward; understanding comes with a form of pleasure. But when observation claims to be objective – to be infallible, to be one hundred percent true and inarguable – knowledge and subsequent understanding falter, become heavy, and the space for multiple understandings shrinks. From plants to fungi to fish, human beings – since Western science was developed and became too definitive, too absolute, and often too resistant to redefinition – have been unnecessarily gendering bodies in nature. Strict categories of “male” and “female” hardly concerns the tree that “changes” gender a thousand years into its life, or the dozens of “female” deer found with antlers, or the clown fish that shift back and forth between roles of mother and father depending on who is available to mate with. What we think of as queerness abounds in nature; it can come from nature; it is thus a part of nature. B.C.-based biologist and linguist, Bruce Bagemihl, listed over one hundred species of animals that have engaged in what is classified as gay and/or transgender behaviour in his 1999 book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. On this list are many familiar faces to those of us residing on this land known as Canada: red fox, grizzly bear, caribou, cottontail rabbit, grey squirrel, crane, loon, honeybee, killer whale, owl, and black-tailed deer, among others. Likewise, transgender biologist and former Stanford professor, Joan Roughgarden, challenges staunch and unbudging Darwinism and belief in gender and sexual binaries in her book Evolution’s Rainbow: Diversity, Gender and Sexuality in Nature and People. Science has had to backtrack, to re-examine, to redefine, and still, its work is not, will never be, done. The damage too hasty a definition or categorization has done, however, cannot be undone without intense, careful work.
We might wonder, now, what a poet like Bendorf — or any poet, really — can do to change our understanding of the world around us. Even Bendorf questions this himself:
“…my Google search for ‘‘transgender pastoral’’ yields only results about ministry care for transgender folks. Nature, transgender, and this idea of care: who is caring for whom? What will transgender studies do with the environment, pumped up with chemicals these days, its roof on fire?”
An addition to ever-developing ideas of environmental care and keeping might come to us not only from transgender studies and queer and gender studies as a whole, but from these fields’ potential intersections with ecopoetics. Mary Oliver, Dionne Brand, CA Conrad have had their work interpreted as ecopoetry, and many other poets beyond these three I mention here write towards a deeper understanding of the world around us through our being in the world, and the nature of the space we do (or don’t) take up. Two of these poets are Americans, and have written for decades, but Canadian poets like Dionne Brand writing on the environment have a long history, too. Much was and is written on the ecopoetry of Canadians like Don McKay and Margaret Atwood, for example — but their school of nature poetry is not mine. I’m writing here and always about a different kind of poetry, one that is linked to queerness and transness, concern about climate change, expresses the multifaceted efforts of environmental awareness and activism, and works toward a decolonized world.
However, it’s key to remember not all poets consider themselves nature poets – or are at all interested in an ecopoetic mode. However, almost all poets have written about nature and/or the non-human world in some capacity, invoking it metaphorically, literally, or, oftentimes, both. I think of poets I’ve read or revisited recently whose work makes mention of their immediate environments, or those they have encountered in their past, or even those they wish to see in the future, like Faith Arkorful, Jasper Avery, Milo Gallagher, Billy-Ray Belcourt, Ali Blythe, Cameron Awkward-Rich, Rasiqra Revulva, Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, and Kai Conradi, among dozens of others.
In poetry, representations of nature and/or the non-human world and what it means to the individual poet as written by 2SLGBTQ+ people vary greatly. Some condemn it; others celebrate it; others still focus on its obvious importance to a continuance, and others still look toward nature and/or the non-human world as a space where their queerness or transness remains unaffected by external judgement – if that is even possible, of course, given how nature, again, is subject to bigoted and binary ideals that emerge from ongoing violent, colonial, systemic beliefs that wrongfully claim there is a right and, subsequently, wrong way to be a body, and that that body should be molded to fit a status quo, to fit the norm, or not be allowed to exist at all.
While I was only beginning to develop this short piece, Mary Oliver passed away. I have thought of her often since. Her poetry is inexplicably linked to nature, but she recognized, in all her work, that she would forever be outside it. With no need to fully understand it, least of all dominate it, Oliver’s walk through this world was simply that: a walk, wherein the observations she made were anything but insignificant. They were careful, clear, illuminating. Though Oliver was open, all her life, about her experiences with nature, she kept her lesbian relationship with her life partner Molly Malone Cook relegated to a more private sphere, referring to her often with only a single initial – M. One can easily imagine why. Her writing, however, makes it clear that both she and Molly were here, extant, and lived and loved the world in whatever way they could before they left it.
Likewise, I recognize that my poetry, too, expresses what nature and/or the non-human world means to me. I write to assure myself that my queer and trans body is a part of this world in general – a permanent part of it, in fact. When, eventually, I am laid to rest, I will return to the earth. Though this is not an overtly spiritual note – it’s quite literal – I won’t deny I am definitely comforted by the thought. My poetry, like my physical body, is part of a forever-cycle, an always-return, an ongoing exploration of the ways in which I exist.
I look forward to seeing what grows from all of this.
Terrence Abrahams is a poet with two chapbooks and a MA degree forthcoming in 2019 from ZED Press, baseline press, and Ryerson University, respectively. Say hello to him on Twitter at @trabrahams.