A Discussion of a Queered Geography of the American West
Last fall I took 20 students on a camping trip in Utah’s west desert in the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area. We hiked through dry canyons and set up camp on the edge of a burn that had blackened nearly all of the vegetation and turned the desert soil to dust. A colleague described it as “camping on the moon.” But the burritos were warm, the stars were bright, and the campsite opened to unbroken views of the salt flats and the ranges West of Salt Lake City.
There is an old (and contested) truism in Geography that “Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.” It’s hard to remember that anything is close in the open, seemingly empty spaces of the American West where gas stations are few and far between, where “the vast loneliness of sky and earth” surround the campfire.
At our campsite in the Cedar Mountains, it would have been easy to feel alone, to get lost in the clear night and the bright Milky Way. But the lights from the Aragonite Hazardous Waste Incinerator just down the slope brought us back to earth. A line drawn on a map told us that we were in wilderness, on a mountain that was, at least legally, “untrammeled by man,” a place where we could escape the rest of the world. Half a mile away, the incinerator burned paint, chemicals and other hazardous wastes brought in from across the country. Places that are close to each other tend to be more related.
One of these places is a testament to our desire to leave parts of the natural landscape, the other a reminder of the danger we pose to ourselves and just one part of a toxic legacy. But these two places share a border and have more in common than it would first appear. Their value depends upon their place, their isolation. The incinerator is set apart, tied to cities, towns and factories by rail-lines and set in the middle of wide expanses of desert.
Before we left for the trip we asked students to read Alex Johnson’s Orion article How to Queer Ecology: One Goose at a Time. Johnson challenges us to “give a round of applause to the delicious complexity. Let us call this complexity the queer, and let us use it as a verb. Let us queer our ecology. Cranes can be ancient, but they can also be modern. Might their posterity extend past ours?” On the surface, Johnson is talking about sexuality; pushing us to see that the living world provides examples not only of monogamy, but examples of homosexual geese, transgendered deer, and, (as one student put it) “squirrel three-ways.” “What then is natural?” Johnson asks? “All of it. None of it.”
To queer ecology is to reassess our assumptions about the order of the natural world, to take our dualisms less seriously. Looking at the incineration plant, it occurred to me that queering our ecology we might also require us to queer our geography. Too often we establish bright lines between the pristine and the ruined, between the untrammelled and the abused. Yet, Aragonite Incineration Plant will border the Cedar Mountain Wilderness Area and we might find the lights in the desert beautiful. What might it mean to queer Tobler’s law. Such a conversation might mean queering the relationship between the incinerator and the Wilderness. It might consider that the two are not so different, that their proximity is not abnormal. A discussion of a queered geography of the American West asks us to understand these two places as necessary components of the same natural and cultural landscape, entwined in the history of the West and our own place in nature. “Nature is mysterious, and our part in the pageant is shrouded in mystery as well.” Johnson reminds us. “This means contradiction and paradox and irony.” It means that there will always be an exception. We might recognize the dangerous paradox of proximity and distance. We might wonder at it.
by Brent Olson
1. Tobler, W. 1969. A computer movie simulating urban growth in the Detroit region. Paper prepared for the meeting of the International Geographical Union, Commission on Quantitative Methods, Ann Arbor, Michigan, August.
Brent Olson is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Westminster College, in Salt Lake City.