There is something timeless and mythical about queerness that we deserve to see reflected in our origin stories. A contemporary wave of religious scholars have their work cut out for them situating queerness in biblical texts: they write that the spear of Longinus left Jesus both wounded and genderfluid, that Eve was a trans woman born from a masculine body, that this or that saint would have been transmasculine if only they had the language to say it. The point is not to assign 21st century identity labels to characters in ancient stories, but rather to say, look: there have been people like us since the very beginning, so it is only right that we are here now. And, because so many religious tales promise a return to an earlier, purer state of humanity some day, the existence of queers in these stories promises their continued existence. In other words: finding queerness in the past validates our place in the present and gives us hope for the future.
I remember the Sunday school stories the best, foremost among them the story of the fall of mankind. When Adam and Eve first came to Eden, there was already something slithering in the garden: a cunning, talking, queer serpent who would tempt Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Of course, at this point in Genesis, God was busy creating mankind and had not yet gotten around to creating queer discourse, so some might disagree that the snake was queer. If you’ll give me the benefit of doubt, though: in Genesis, the serpent leads Eve to disobey God, inhabiting the role of a trickster, an archetype based on marginalization and rebellion against conventions1—a role that is “characteristically queer,” according to artist-theologist Michael Dudeck.2 This reading is reinforced in contemporary retellings, where the snake is often queer-coded (with a campy lisp, like in my Sunday School play) or explicitly homosexual (like in the biblically-inspired Montero music video, where a snake-demon makes homoerotic advances on Lil Nas X).3 When I take a holistic view of the Fall of Man story, combining the principle Genesis text together with its contemporary offspring, the serpent’s queerness is a constant throughout.
When we imagine the serpent as queer, it allows us to imagine queerness as a trait that belonged in and influenced the Garden of Eden. I say queerness influenced the garden because the snake was the only animal in the Old Testament that could speak its will,4 an ability which was later given to humans so that they might have dominion over the beasts. I want to imagine the moment before God created mankind, when Eden was a paradise under the influence of a strange little snake—Eden as a queer garden.
Approaching Eden as a queer garden is a jumping off point for exploring the possibilities of a contemporary, queer botanical practice. Ethnobotanist Richard Harry Drayton explains the connection between religious stories, like that of Eden, and present-day botanical science in his book Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the ‘Improvement’ of the World. He writes that the predecessors to modern botanical gardens in 16th century Italy aimed to “gather together all the creations scattered at the fall of man,”5 a task which would recreate the Garden of Eden on Earth, thereby reversing the damage caused by the original sin and bringing humanity closer to divinity. Specimens in later herbariums would be named (re-named) according to the strict Linnaean system of binomial classification, which aimed to create a singular system for plant cataloguing, thereby solving the “Tower of Babel” confusion that would arise from using multiple naming systems.6 Early naturalists valued “scientific progress” that repaired humanity’s Biblical sins, thereby bringing mankind closer to the divine.
However, scientific pursuits of these early botanists were influenced not only by religion, but by the new colonial age unfolding around them. The first botanical garden, the Orto Botanico di Padua, opened during the “Age of Discovery,”7 and expanded its plant collection through trade with colonizing nations. Ships from these countries set sail with the express purpose of “bioprospecting,” exploring with the goal of finding new natural resources, especially spices and medicinal plants, which could earn a colonizer wealth and fame back in Europe. In turn, botany supported colonization efforts as newly discovered medicinal plants enabled colonizers to survive previously deadly diseases (the cinchona tree alone, whose bark helped reduce malarial fever, made colonizing the tropics in the New World much less dangerous).8 With religion as both motivation and excuse, botanical sciences and colonial expansion went forth together to conquer the New World and its plant life.
Looking at the religious justifications for botanical science and its entanglement with colonial practices, it becomes clear that early naturalist’s interpretations of biblical stories set the stage for a botanical practice that thrived off of and enabled colonialism. Perhaps we could reimagine botany away from its colonial entanglements by reinterpreting these biblical stories, starting with Eden. Instead of focusing on the completeness of Eden’s flora, its unchallengeable, divine status as a complete catalogue of all plant life, let’s make room for gaps and holes and multiple, slippery ways of knowing. I chose queerness as the defining trait of Eden for this reason: it submits the possibility of a botanical practice that does not go forth to dominate and colonize and collect, but to nurture and create space for the knowledges that already exists. A queer Eden begets a queer botanical practice.
I want to consider how a queer botanical practice would fulfill, or resist, specific functions of traditional botanical practice. Uriel Orlow’s Theatrum Botanicum serves as my guide to the possibilities of meaning-making through botany and gardening. Based on one of Orlow’s expansive art projects (also called Theatrum Botanicum), the book combines fragments of Orlow’s film work with essays that situate their projects within the intersecting spaces of colonialism, Indigeneity, Blackness, and ecology in South Africa. The resulting work “seeks to demonstrate processes of botanical cultivation, modification, and representation, as means of oppression, discrimination, and dispossession—and, conversely, as tools for resistance, sustainability, and self-determination.”9 This framing of botany as an ambivalent actor, capable of both oppressive and liberatory outcomes, makes Theatrum Botanicum an ideal companion for thinking through the wide-ranging possibilities of a queer botanical practice.
Let’s begin our investigation by considering positive outcomes of traditional botanical practices. Botanical practices can be revolutionary: Orlow describes how a tiny, prisoner-run garden at the Robben Island Maximum Security Prison was for many years a hiding place for manuscript pages for Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.10 Botany can also be a marker of identity, as Nomusa Makhubu outlines in their essay “A Strange and Bitter Crop,” which features the personal gardens of Sebokeng as a point of pride and regional identity for Black South Africans.11 Finally, botanical practice can create idyllic sites or paradises (the concepts of paradise and botany are so intertwined that our word paradise comes from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza, meaning “enclosed garden”). Understanding the positive aspects of traditional botanical practice creates a laundry list of principles we wish to replicate or preserve through our queer practice: we aspire to a queer botany that functions as a nexus of revolution, identity formation, and a paradise for our communities.
Having envisioned the liberational possibilities of a queer botanical practice, I also have to imagine how it might inherit the repressive qualities of traditional botanical practice. Back in the pages of Theatrum Botanicum, Melanie Boehi lays out how the Kirstenbosch Botanical Garden in Capetown was used as a tool for building white national identity in apartheid South Africa.12 Makhubu calls the garden “a chaotic space that conceals violence (and represents racial discord),”13 and notes that “displacement is the real sin of the garden.”14 These words constitute a reminder that botanical practices, including queer ones, operate under larger hegemonic frameworks of colonialism, white supremacy, and nation-statehood. As such, we must position ourselves in solidarity with and in community with movements that seek to dismantle these systems. Our botanical practice must resist the epistemic legacy of violence and displacement by adhering to Land Back principles, implementing processes of accountability and transformational justice, and relying on consensus-led decision making under BIPOC leadership in order to steer our practice towards a liberatory, revolutionary, and utopian model.
Now that we understand the motivation for and desired outcomes of a queer botanical practice, I want to envision this practice coming to life through an experimental, queer, botanical garden.
I propose that we create a queer botanical garden at Windywalls, an old farm acreage on the Anglo-Scottish border. In order to understand the revolutionary potential of this site, we can consider it in relation to the decidedly un-revolutionary Kirstenbosch botanical garden. Kirstenbosch was built by Dutch settlers on stolen Indigenous land, and enclosed with sweet almond hedges in the 17th century to prevent Indigenous people from trespassing.15 Windywalls has a similar history of enclosure: it was a communal farming settlement until the Lowland Clearances, orchestrated by the British, enclosed common land and drove Scottish peasant-farmers from the area in the 1790s. On the surface, it seems like a botanical garden at Windywalls would replicate the same displacement as took place at Kirstenbosch. However, my great-grandmother’s family was among those who left Windywalls under the Clearances. They returned to the area to work as tenant farmers half a century later, and eventually bought a small parcel of land nearby, where they lived until a fire destroyed their farmhouse in the mid-20th century. Their land, unoccupied and unkempt, returned to the vernacular commons, and is now primarily maintained by local sheep. Unlike Kirstenbosch, which displaced Indigenous residents of the area, using a portion of the Windywalls acreage for a botanical garden would actually enable the return of the traditional land stewards to the area.
I say a portion, because I would like to retain the outer fields at Windywalls for their current vernacular use of livestock grazing. There is no reason for us to diminish the community’s current use of the land—in fact, I think the presence of a queer, publicly accessible botanical garden in the centre of the acreage will enrich it by mimicking the pre-enclosure rural landscape of the area, which was predicated on community prosperity. Traditionally, the families in a settlement, or fermtoun, would jointly steward a parcel of land, growing crops on the central croft land, and keeping the outer tracts for livestock pasture. The system was beneficial for both crop and livestock farming, as manure from the outer pasture could be transported in to fertilize crops, and livestock could eat the gleanings from the croft after harvest. Placing a queer botanical garden at the centre of Windywalls will revive a type of traditional communal farming that is increasingly scarce in Scotland—nurturing existing plant knowledge, rather than contributing to its extermination as traditional botanical gardens have done.
Choosing plants that fill the garden is a complicated question. At the moment, Windywalls is overgrown, with hazel and whitethorn and dog’s mercury tumbling out of the hedgerow and into the sward. My first urge is to gather queer plants (whatever that means) from far and wide. But the very idea of collecting plants is closely tied to colonial theft—at Kirstenbosch, as was the case throughout 17th century Europe, naturalists joined colonial voyages to search out novel plant species, moving specimens from each new colony to the metropole and out to the farthest reaches of the empire. Two possibilities arise to subvert this system: first, instead of taking plants, we could distribute them, harvesting small gifts of the lichen, gorse, and bluebells at Windywalls and giving them away without expectation of return. Perhaps some new plants will find their way to us, but they will arrive through the mutually respectful relationships we build rather than oppressive, colonial ones. Another possibility is to simply let our garden grow however it likes, cultivating the seeds that drift into Windy Walls through natural process, tending to the burn scar at the old house site, letting our weeds and grasses and wild plants grow into a garden. Perhaps we do a little of both; I leave this choice, for now, undecided.
Of course, no garden will grow without someone to cultivate it, and the decision of who does the work in a garden is yet another fraught question. In Orlow’s preface to Theatrum Botanicum, he recounted how prison staff at the Robben Island Maximum Security Prison made political prisoners tend to a garden during a press visit, rather than perform their usual hard labour in a stone quarry, reminding me that garden work can be used as a tool of oppression.16 Considering this question from a North American perspective, Black and Indigenous folks carry diverse histories of tending to the land, and while I find the idea of “getting back to the land” through garden work joyful, the concept doesn’t carry the same sentiments for communities who have been removed from their traditional territory, or enslaved for the purpose of agricultural labour. I don’t know how these identities and relationships to land emerge in Scotland—I expect this question demands embodied investigations. For now, I propose that we are each responsible for tending to the land in ways that bring us joy, and those whose land relationships have not been harmed as deeply by colonialism can shoulder the more burdensome work.
So there: my proposal for a garden at Windywalls, a plan for queer botanical practice inspired by the paradise of a queer Eden and guided by the decolonial analyses of Theatricum Botanicum. Whether or not the garden ever comes to fruition (pardan the pun), speculative exercises like this one are a useful tool for envisioning the spaces and community networks we desire for a queer future. We can dream up a garden that queers botanical practice by empowering traditional land stewards, nurturing traditional plant knowledge, rejecting colonial collection methods, and acknowledging that plant-human relationships are never straightforward in colonial and post-colonial worlds. I believe we can plant ourselves a queer paradise some day, and when a site arises that has the potential to be everything we want— revolutionary, liberational, comfortable, joyful—we will have the blueprints to the garden in hand.
by Kitt Peacock // for the Land + Place project // Or Gallery curatorial residency // funded by the BC Arts Council // 2021
The road alongside Windywalls—note how the hedgerow extends into the field, providing habitats for wildlife and foraging plants for human and animal residents.