Gardening situates you in a different kind of time, the antithesis of the agitating present of social media. Time becomes circular, not chronological; minutes stretch into hours; some actions don’t bear fruit for decades. The gardener is not immune to attrition and loss, but is daily confronted by the ongoing good news of fecundity.
— Olivia Laing, Funny Weather
About gardening, I first learnt from my grandmother. Together with my grandfather at their country house, they kept a kitchen garden with plenty of vegetables, fruit and flowers. In the early 2000s, as a child I would spend summer holidays with them nearly every year. My grandma who had also worked as a biology teacher at school taught me a lot about plants that she was growing. Unlike the yards of our neighbors, which all were made up with aligned garden beds and carefully designed green houses, my grandparents’ garden looked way more chaotic, even feral, from the first sight. You could see that it was taken care of, but this care did not seem to be interventional, it was following the affordances of that land, weather conditions, and existing ecosystems. Her garden in fact had a perfect order and structure that I could not see nor ever understand, as it was a very complex, thoughtful, and sensitive one. Each year we would gather a lot of vegetables and fruit, the ornamental garden was also always in bloom during the warm seasons, with various kinds of flowers blossoming each in their own time. She knew exactly where each flower and plant was, what the soil was like beneath it, what kind of care, light or shadow it required. Each time she went out to water the plants or check in on them, she would talk to them in a rather funny way, and had nicknames for some. And they actually responded to her, though I could never comprehend how, but my grandmother understood the messages she got. To weeds as well, she paid special attention, since some of them once being torn from the earth could actually be used for medical purposes, food, or as fertilizers. They were never invasive, nor extra, they were part of the ecosystem that she was so deeply engaged with not exclusively on the level of knowledge but also on the sensual level. As I would probably say now, that was an example of what sensual knowledge could be like. I used to believe that a garden must be clearly structured in sections and patches, for it to be beautiful and fertile, as if such rationally calculated organization looking more «civilized» would provide more pleasure and value. But could that really be the goal, if one stays in an intuitive, sensuous connection with land and one’s non-human counterparts?
Gardening as a practice opens up a wide array of potentials in which we as humans are able to form and reflect on our relationships with other species. Taking care of plants, cultivating them, helping them grow and flourish requires not only knowledge but also a special sensitivity, observance and participation. Intuitively following and being involved in such interaction may shed light on many diverse forms of relating and communicating with the non-human and contribute to the overcoming of anthropocentric perspective that has become expansively dominant in many spheres of life.
I have never been involved in gardening myself, but having had a childhood spent running around and exploring my grandmother’s garden makes me at times reflect on the role gardening might play for some communities today. Being a queer person myself I have heard from a lot of my queer friends about their small gardens in their apartments, tiny islands of care and direct contact with non-human beings that we often lack so much living in large cities. In a broader sense, maintaining a personal kitchen garden and growing one’s own food can also be a form of resistance against the global capitalist system with all the fragmentations, divisions, splits, and violence that appear as its consequence. All those are really crucial aspects, but what I would like to focus on in this essay is the anthropological view on this phenomenon, the correlation between gardening practiced in particular by queer people and the new cosmologies that might come out of this practice. What I would like to show is that queer gardening can serve as an illustration of the cosmopolitics, bringing into sight what Marisol de la Cadena calls the anthropo-not-seen, and the return to the female principle described by Vandana Shiva.
Cosmopolitics is a term introduced by Isabelle Stengers, who uses it to, firstly, point at the fractures that can be found today in the field of science and knowledge production where the distance between the researcher and her objects of study creates large gaps between them as beings of a shared context and ecosystem. Secondly, she uses it to bridge these gaps taking into consideration the pluralism of positionalities that each living being might take in relation to the others within different environments. It is crucial to acknowledge «our participation in multiple, irreducible worlds—not just at the level of knowledge and concepts (epistemological pluralism) but at the level of being itself (ontological pluralism)» (Robbert, Mickey 2013, 1). Starting from approximately the 18th century and up until today, western scientific and technological discourse has been about categorizations, distinctions and typologies. Therefore, as the inheritors of this thinking we tend to as well generate knowledge about the world by disinterestedly distancing ourselves from it in an attempt to be objective, however this approach only causes more estrangement of us from what we are trying to explore. Applying cosmopolitical ways of seeing and learning implies taking into consideration the fact that non-human inhabitants of the world have their own ways of acquiring knowledge and play the same role of researchers, for instance, as we are. In turn, cosmopolitics indicates that humans are always an integral part of the environment, of communication with other beings, they are never detached, and thus, are always being influenced and transformed by them even if an artificial distance for the sake of scientific objectivity is established.
For Vandana Shiva, such aiming for categorization, fragmentation and splitting of ontologies is associated with the so-called male principle (1988, 44). Its emergence, she links to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and all the western philosophical ideas that preceded it and became extremely influential. Compared to the female principle that relies on locality, care, and sustaining life processes, the male one is based on the desire for growth, global expansion, and divisions. From Shiva’s perspective a solution to a more balanced living today, as well as in the future is the return to the female principle with acceptance and reinforcement of diversity of living beings as well as their ways of life, taking care of life in general, and healing the fractures generated by the previous mindset of the male principle. To me, this corresponds a lot with what the concept of cosmopolitics is aiming to convey. What matters in both cases is the principle of integration and rhizomatic entanglements between beings and their inner characteristics, not the distinctions between them.
When talking about the female principle and the environmental situation in India, Shiva speaks of women in rural areas as key figures in the transformations that ought to happen for a better future. These women grow food in the kitchen gardens, taking care of plants, domestic spaces, and the small ecosystems within which they all are placed. To her mind, women who are engaged in such small local production activities possess valuable skills and knowledge about how ecosystems function and how we as humans should treat them. Such way of knowing, to Shiva, is just as important and urgent the way of knowing developed by science. An engaged, sense- and experience-based knowledge comes into the forefront.
In his 2010 column Timothy Morton spoke of queer ecology, stating that if ecological and queer movements met, they could produce a «fantastic explosion» (2010, 273). Nowadays it seems more obvious how these two movements — even disciplines — meet, interact and learn from each other. He talks about nature being intrinsically queer meaning that many species can show many variable forms of gender sexualities. There are, for instance, many kinds of plants that can transition from one «gender» to another. Obviously, here again we face the problem of duality and juxtaposition of male and female, but the point here is that the same plant can change its reproductive organs during its lifetime. Some flowers combine within themselves both male and female parts, like, for instance, roses or lilies. So in that sense, there is a lot we can learn as well about our own sexualities and genders if we pay closer attention to our non-human counterparts. What I find a bit worrying here is that the very terms of sexuality and gender are projected from human beings onto the plants, but how relevant could they be for those species? What if we try to borrow the terminology of description of plants and flowers and try to apply it to describe our species? This may sound like a curious cognitive experiment, but such linguistic technique could shed light on the rigidness and inadaptability that some of our social conventions have when applied in real life. And besides that, doing that could as well help us build a closer link between us as researchers and the phenomena that we are trying to research, thus creating involvement and partially overcoming detachment.
When we discuss the subject of queerness an issue that comes in parallel with it is the one of visibility. Originally, the word queer refers to being strange, different, an outsider in relation to the majority. However, as we observe more and more manifestations of variability and the queerness in the living beings, is that actually the word that we would want to continue using? Once our imagination about what is possible is extended enough, we can perceive and reflect on a wider range of phenomena, behaviors and manifestations of living beings which in political terms implies engagement of more agents into participation in building a communal living within inter-species communities and ecosystems. In the context of such visibility and engagement, might be useful the notion of the anthropo-not-seen, coined by Marisol de la Cadena, that «mentions existents that are within a historically formulated hegemonic condition of impossibility: they simply cannot be— therefore they are not-seen, not-heard, not-felt, not-known» (2019, 478). There is always a range of phenomena that we can observe and analyze, however beyond those there are possibilities of other ones that we cannot see or build connections with for different reasons.
As a documentary material and a source of case-studies I decided to refer to a documentary film by Ella von der Haide, called Queer Gardening. Von der Haide is a queer person, and a documentary filmmaker who spent several years traveling around North America, filming and interviewing people who worked in community gardens. As she said, to her own surprise, many people she met there were queer people. So considering her own identity, she could relate to their experiences on a rather deep level and make an important step in the discovery of interconnectedness and manifestations of queerness in flora viewed from the perspective of queer individuals.
Many people in the film spoke about the ways in which gardening helped them on their journey to understanding, creating and accepting their identities. Not only the activity itself mattered, many gender non-conforming and trans-individuals said they learnt from the flowers they planted about gender fluidity, about numerous possibilities for self-identification, transformation and being in general. Gardening helped to generate communities and safer spaces where queer people could spend time together, exchange experiences with each other, but also with the plants. This practice provided a sense of belonging, care, attentiveness, and undoubtedly kinship between the queer communities and the plants. As it seems, queer-identifying individuals from the perspective of their gender or sexuality could see the plants as companions and be more engaged with them, since there actually was a lot for them to learn from the flora. And besides that, they treated the land and the ecosystems in an especially careful way, not aiming for extracting value and gaining profit from it, but getting sensitively and sensibly involved with it, accepting and observing various forms of the plants’ behaviors and taking care of them. Horticulture and kitchen gardens in these cases work in opposition to the industrial mass production and capitalist system that besides the industry and economic restrictions also imposes fractions and divisions between identities, species and communities. Therefore, we can view gardening also as a shift from the male (divisional, invasive, value-extracting) to the female (careful, uniting, respectful, non-violent) principle in Vandana Shiva’s terms.
The lifespan of many plants, and especially trees, exceeds that of humans significantly. So in a way, taking care of the plants and cultivating them means working on a project of the future. One of the most classic examples of a queer garden can be the one of Derek Jarman, a film-maker, artist, and gay rights activist. Although he never thought of his garden as something that would outlive himself and become a site deserving maintenance and preservation, his garden and house in Doungeness still live on and are taken care of by people who appreciated him and his legacy. So this kinship with plants can be evolving not only within spaces and communities, but also in time, being passed on even after someone is already gone. According to the memories of his partner Keith Collins, Jarman wanted to make a large rose garden near his house (Crowdy, 2021), the land, however, did not allow to do that and other flowers were planted. On a wasteland not too far from a nuclear plant, there were «gorse, broom, blackthorn, valerian, toadflax and restharrow» — the wild plants, local to this area. They came together in the same environment with sea kale, calendula, rue, and poppies that he sowed (Popova, 2021), so the weeds, usually considered hostile for the well-being of the garden, here were its inevitable part. The harsh conditions of the land shaped the way Jarman maintained his garden as an ecosystem having adapted to the specificities and challenges of land, and making the space a safe haven for himselfand his closest people, as well as for the plants that grew and flourished in it.
Speaking on the lifespan of plants compared with the one of people, several participants of von der Haide’s film ran gardens in the sites that previously in history were the American indigenous lands. Gordon Brent Brochu-Ingram, for instance, who works at Kexmin Field Station, British Columbia, talks about a pacific crab tree that they have in the garden which is one of the very few indigenous American tree species left in the country (Queer Gardening, 2022). Another interviewee, Rai, a transgender non-binary person, runs a project called queer intentional land in Tennessee. The project preserves and reflects on the legacy of the land it occupies, since it once was also a land inhabited by indigenous American peoples. For Rai and other members of the project, spirituality also becomes an important aspect in gardening and community-making. Rai places a rose quartz crystal in the center of the garden, emphasizing the importance of intention, care, and the energy accumulated and generated on this land. Through gardening he, together with his companions, are reclaiming the land and creating space for themselves and others who have been marginalized or made unseen in the course of history.
As already mentioned above, communicating and being sensually involved with plants is a crucial component for gardening, and seen from the queer perspective such communication takes an especially important place. Nik Rapier, a trans-man working on his community garden in Vancouver, Washington, defines gardening as an «interrogative process» (Queer Gardening, 2022). He insists that being in contact and communication with the flora is a necessity for the harmonious coexistence of species. This interaction requires one to constantly learn, grow and develop on only within oneself but also in relation to other non-human beings. Such approach takes us back to the concept of cosmopolitics described earlier — a situation where both living and nonliving, human and non-human species can be a valid, admitted part within the formation of cosmology and knowledge production. When such communication is indeed taken into consideration, the fractures and gaps between ontologies of various species are gradually being bridged. Such reasoning also resonates with Tim Ingold’s call to take others seriously (Ingold, 2018), so once this interaction is truly acknowledged and practiced, a new way of building connections and mutual learning may be adopted.
In these examples of gardens, we can see how space and time overlap, extend and vary in relation to different species. These pieces of land can thus be, and are, great locations of memory and history that keep the score of activity of each being that once was present within this ecosystem. So as its participants, we should be aware of what trace our activity leaves — the one of care, or the one of destruction. Queer gardening challenges the traditional understanding of horticulture by creating a space for queer individuals to connect with the earth and engage in a dialogue with each other and the plants. Unlike the patriarchal matrix of values that seems to have been fixated after the Industrial Revolution and that persists also today, gardening done in the queer communities is a way of creating a new narrative that values diversity, inclusivity, social and environmental justice.
This practice of gardening can be seen through the lens of the concept of anthropo-not-seen, as proposed by Marisol de la Cadena (2019). Queer practice of gardening allows space for non-human entities, such as plants and the environment, where they cannot not be seen or heard. When an identity of a human is felt to be reflected in one of a non-human, the connection is definitely more likely to be established. However, it is important to also find ways of recognizing agencies of the non-humans in shaping the world we all inhabit beyond the cases of queer interaction. If we expand our range of understanding of what is possible among various living beings, perhaps even the word queer itself would change its meaning or become irrelevant.
It might seem from my writing so far that the way queer people interact with horticulture is slightly idealized. Of course, there really can be found great examples of harmonious interspecies communication, however being aware of the same tendencies for extractivism and human-dominance is also crucial. It would be valuable to watch out for instances where cultivation of plants becomes a tool for achieving the very personal goals of human beings without really taking in regard to other members of the process.
To me, personally, looking at these examples of horticulture and its role for queer communities has opened up new ways of inter-species sensitivity, communication, collaboration and correspondence. With all things I know now that I could not fully comprehend from my grandmother’s words as a child, I can see that perhaps her approach to gardening was rather queer in a way. But those times did not use this term at all and such an approach for her, was natural and came without a second thought. So perhaps, a further study into gardening practices in different times and regions can later on grant more insight into how interspecies communication can function, how and what we can learn from each other and how we can reshape our language and scientific methods in order to be more adequate for today’s reality.
Crowdy, Joe. «Queer Growth: Peace and Refuge in the Garden.» Architectural Review, January 26, 2021.
De la Cadena, Marisol. «An Invitation to Live Together, Making the 'Complex We'.» Environmental Humanities 11, no. 2 (November 2019).
Ingold, T. (2018). Anthropology: Why it Matters. John Wiley & Sons.
Morton, Timothy. «Guest Column: Queer Ecology.» PMLA 125, no. 2 (2010): 273-282.
Popova, M. (2021). Growing Through Grief: Derek Jarman on Gardening as Creative Redemption, Consecration of Time, and Training Ground for Presence. The Marginalian Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/04/04/derek-jarman-modern-nature-gardening/
Queer Gardening. (2022). [HD Stereo]. Directed by Ella von der Haide.
Robbert, Adam and Sam Mickey. «Cosmopolitics: An Ongoing Question.» Paper delivered at The Center for Process Studies, Claremont, CA Political Theory and Entanglement: Politics at the Overlap of Race, Class, and Gender, October 25, 2013.