Landdykes and Landscape: Reflections on Sex and Nature in Southern Oregon
Sandilands, Catriona, Women & Environments International Magazine
In the winter of 2000, I went to Oregon looking for sex and nature. Much as I wish I could report hot and heavy encounters in the cool mists of Coos Bay, what I mean is that I went to the University of Oregon on a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship to study sex and nature, specifically, to research the ways in which queer and ecological politics might have something to say to one another. In my proposal to the "Ecological Conversations" Fellowship Program that invited me to Eugene, I argued that there might be fruitful connections between lesbian/ gay/ bisexual/ transgender (l/g/b/t) struggles against modern regimes of bodily and sexual oppression, and environmental/ ecological struggles against modern regimes of bodily and nature oppression. In much the same way as ecofeminist and environmental justice movements have underscored the intersections of ecology with gender and race, I thought that ecological politics would be deepened and strengthened with the addition of some solid queer analysis.
What I found when I got to Oregon was a hotbed of l/g/b/t ecological activity. More accurately, southern Oregon is home to a number of rural lesbian separatist communities who have, since the early 1970s, connected their lesbian feminist philosophy with ecological politics in profound and complex ways. Although there aren't as many of them living communally on women's land as there were in separatism's 1970s and 80s heyday, there are still five or six (depending on who's counting) "core" collectively-maintained women's lands, and many, many more women in the surrounding counties whose lives continue to intersect with those vital, lesbian landscapes. These women are culturally active, politically committed, ecologically wise "land-dykes." For most of them, the intersection between lesbian philosophy and rural environmental practice is so much part of their everyday lives that it is difficult to talk about.
I interviewed eleven of these women at length, drinking herbal tea in their wonderful homes - some fabulously hand designed and built - and walking over their carefully-tended lands as they shared stories from nearly thirty years of living, as lesbians, in these rural places. These places that are not, I should add, always bucolically accepting. Rural Oregon is home to a considerable fundamentalist Christian population, complete with racist, anti-Semitic and anti-gay political initiatives. I also had access to an extraordinary wealth of archival material. Out of a growing concern that their contributions to lesbian feminist politics be remembered, many of the women had placed their personal and collective papers in the capable hands of the Special Collections librarian at the University of Oregon. Despite my own misgivings about lesbian separatist philosophies, I was bowled over with the richness of the women's analyses, the depth of their commitments, and the complexity of the tapestry they had woven of ecological and lesbian threads.
What I had originally considered to be a small part of a larger queer ecological project blossomed, and the Institute for Women's Studies and Gender Studies at the University of Toronto graciously published a long manuscript documenting this distinctly lesbian ecological research. 1 What follows here is a revised excerpt from the conclusion of that paper.
One of the most obvious insights one can draw from the Oregon lesbian separatists' experiences on the land is, that their mode of living as lesbians has had a definite impact on the way they know and experience nature, and that this relationship is neither simple nor fixed. In some dimensions, their consciously political and systemic understanding of lesbian identity has been instrumental in shaping the physical and social organization of the landscape. Technological, architectural, productive and reproductive relations on the lands have been clearly influenced by strands of thinking that are strongly tinged with lesbian separatist principles, even as these principles are shaped by the particularities of place and change and shift over time. …