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What Does Queer Ecological Resistance to the Mountain Valley Pipeline Look Like?

A new book explores the reclamation of Appalachian identity and interrogates settler colonialism in the region.

Nola and Ella of the Cherokee Eastern Band in North Carolina demonstrate with other Appalachian and Indigenous climate advocates against the Mountain Valley Pipeline project approved as part of the Inflation Reduction Act in Washington, D.C., on September 8, 2022.

In fall 2018, I twice visited an arboreal blockade site, Yellow Finch, constructed in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP) project in Southwest Virginia. The arboreal blockade site comprised a cluster of hardwood trees holding wooden tree-sit platforms built high in the canopy, where eco-activists lived in tents with a base camp that supported the tree sitters, or “arboreal blockaders,” with food, medical care, and communication with friends and family. The visit was prompted by an invitational fine art exhibition at the Hicks Art Center in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The exhibition, And This Is How You Are a Citizen…, highlighted intersectional feminist themes inspired by the book Citizen: An American Lyric, by Claudia Rankine. My purpose in visiting Yellow Finch was to record video and audio portraits regarding experiences of activism on the ground to block natural gas infrastructure, including arboreal blockading (tree sitting), locking down on equipment, and walking onto active construction sites to slow the progression of pipeline construction in Appalachia. My particular interest was the impact of blockading on the activists’ sense of embodied knowledge. I wanted to learn how their physical bodies sensed, reacted, felt, changed, or potentially experienced trauma during blockading and how this might provide personal insight or intelligence to share with others witnessing or engaged in this direct activist work.

To visit the Yellow Finch camp, I was completely reliant on a guide who drove me through Southwest Virginia to the unmarked site. This constituted a novel embodied orientation for me while performing creative research. I sensed a loss of control and a feeling of vulnerability, perhaps preparing me for the perspective of the activists.

I patiently observed as my perspective evolved from surveyed, sited, and engineered roadways to the rolling geography of a private landowner and then onto a path into the forest. As I traversed the Appalachian hill terrain so familiar to me, my sight lines were lost in steep hollows, where perspectival horizons blur into complex iterations of flora, both alive and dead, displacing one’s gaze into the network of forest limbs, the dense rhododendron thickets, the shifting ground cover, the refracted light, the flicker of animal movement, the fungi, and the loam. For some, including myself, this sensual experience connects deeply to my embodiment as “my safe home.” My body relaxed, my senses opened, and I felt more focused.

As we moved up a steep hill to the blockading site, I climbed and slipped on the muddy path while clutching my gear. When we reached the camp, I wandered around before finally asking where the blockades actually were. A helpful activist pointed toward the sky, and I realized I had been standing beneath the tree sits the entire time. I craned my head back uncomfortably to see the sites far above. My hike through the tangles of a forest ridge without clear figure or ground gave way to a new horizon peering awkwardly directly above my head, momentarily lost in the gentle oscillation of the canopy leaves marked by the tree-sit planks, tents, and banners over fifty feet above.

I write as a queer and male transgender person who spent my formative years outdoors with five siblings engaging in imaginative play or doing chores in contact with rural Appalachian land, forests, streams, rivers, and mountains. Our bodies took shape in reach of, proximity to, and daily skin contact with the natural elements of a particular local ecosystem and region. Our reality was constructed through these intertwined networks of sensual contact, complex sibling relationships, and the sense of a stable, well-traversed ecosystem frequently accessed for me as a source of solace and recuperation from a physically abusive mother, gender dysphoria, and a simple need for peaceful, meditative alone time. Being alone in nature for me was “queer time and space,” a lacuna for a nonnormative child to seek hours of solace and connection with my human senses to commune with nonhuman life and the material contours of path, ridge, valley, and stream in resistance to the power dynamic of a particular Christian patriarchal family structure that was difficult and often traumatic to navigate. When I use the term queer, I am describing positions that resist normative patriarchal gender binary power structures as well as a sexual identity that is not heterosexual. As with many people, these qualities of “queerness” can ebb and flow over time and personal development. For me, my queer trans identity is inextricable from my Appalachian identity I formed in deep embodied contact with my immediate natural surroundings. As I completed my creative research in the Yellow Finch camp, I found female/nonbinary/trans activists who expressed queerness in terms of identity and also in terms of resistance to normative power structures. The activists further articulated their experience grappling with how to express their personal relationship to the protection of land, forests, water, and wildlife, which felt so queer, so subversive, and so unacceptable to economic planning and the fossil fuel industry as to provoke threats with chain saws and forcible extraction by law enforcement and private security. Not only do queer eco-activists cope with the stress inherent in disorienting social marginalization but their blockading activities additionally point to a novel embodied queer/trans eco-phenomenology. I posit through analysis of my creative research that the desire, impulse, and bodily orientation to protect Appalachian ecosystems through embodied blockading activities appear to constitute a notably productive queer response to phenomenological disorientation from climate change, ecological trauma, and nonconsensual large-scale industrial fossil fuel extraction.

In Queer Phenomenology, Sarah Ahmed states that she aims to put queer studies in closer dialogue with phenomenology. She discusses how the concept of “orientation” is central to both those marginalized by sexual orientation / identity and also the general philosophy of phenomenology. The centralizing of orientation in both cases brings up questions about how groups made different by their identity orientation via sexual orientation, gender, or race might pose important questions to the history and understanding of phenomenology.

Ahmed describes how phenomenological theories explain that our bodies take shape while tending toward material objects that are in reach or within our bodily horizon. She further explains how phenomenology can offer a resource to queer studies “insofar as it emphasizes the importance of lived experience, the intentionality of consciousness, the significance of nearness or what is ready- to-hand, and the role of repeated and habitual actions in shaping bodies and worlds.”

Ahmed introduces Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s additional interest in disorientation as a potentially productive event that she posits can queer phenomenology. Phenomenological orientations address the “intimacy of bodies and their dwelling places.” The body is the place where central perspective begins within our most immediate dwelling, our home. Our visual and sensual horizons connect back with our bodily senses, constructing our foremost reality, which is deeply influenced by what is within our touch, what we can seek or reach for, what eludes our grasp, and what is kept from our immediate horizon.

Appalachians have historically grappled with ongoing environmental and human catastrophes induced by fossil fuel (coal and natural gas) extraction, industrial chemical production, and legacy infrastructure failures that have caused long-term health problems as well as water, air, and soil contamination. Narratives regarding citizens’ sensory experiences of these ecological abuses or traumas may be officially recorded through the health-care system if there are symptoms to report or evidence of physiological disease from toxicity. In reaction to the stress, citizens may also present mental health and substance abuse symptoms for traditional medical intervention. In my experience as a documentarian, citizens frequently use very personal ways to describe how they feel in their mind, body, and being when immediate ecological contexts are put into danger or threatened with destruction. These ecological perspectives wrought first from the private, personal, and body senses carry a primary knowledge, as Merleau-Ponty might say, that perceptually constitute the world for this person. This would be an alternative view to the idea that our personal senses or feelings are subjective and always fallible and that thus we must seek to find objective reason through scientific study and engagement with civil law to assert a valid perspective of objective reality to protect ourselves. When an immediate natural ecosystem is experiencing or being threatened by industrial harm, a person’s feeling of interconnection with the sensed world can seem to be under a devastating assault. The denial of what a citizen’s body or senses are saying in terms of environmental harm to their health and well-being can be weaponized through portrayal of these reactions as overly emotional or false. Meanwhile, extractive industries greatly harm citizens as they wait for months or years for normative research or civil lawsuits to “prove” their personal experience of a traumatizing loss of home that is interlocked with family, land, forest, animals, and ecological context.

I want to posit as an inclusive statement that for any Appalachian person the queerness of a particular phenomenological felt sense of ecological place (largely unrecognized by governmental economic planning and extractive industries), when under assault, can become the queer disorientation that leads average citizens to engage in recuperative radical embodied activism they would never have considered before. Scientific practices have a critical role in environmental justice, but when a local citizen says that she is blockading because the trees scheduled for a clear-cut for a pipeline on her property against her will are actually her family just as her children are, normative strategies fall short. By turning to the work of Ahmed, Merleau-Ponty, and Gayle Salamon, I will relate discussions of queer and trans phenomenology to my creative research at Yellow Finch. I hope to contribute clarification and additional understanding of the activists’ ineffable, difficult-to-express perceptions and feelings, along with their context in Appalachian queer/feminist/trans radical ecological activism.

Queer Activism and Appalachian Eco-Connections

Queer activism and histories have notably been movements centered on or led by people with identities considered at the fringe of gay or lesbian rights movements from the Stonewall Uprising to ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), Queer Nation, Lesbian Avengers, and currently the queer female Black activism central to the Black Lives Matter movement. These movements feature direct activism in which somatic bodies are discussed, defended, and frequently placed in the direct path of power via civil disobedience or in-person protests. These organizations address not only marginalization but also direct violence against Black bodies, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) bodies, and openly queer bodies in the form of bar raids and incarceration; AIDS and HIV illness and death; police violence toward AIDS activism; violence, murder, and damaging invisibility targeting lesbians; and police, state, and institutional violence toward trans bodies and particularly trans Black bodies. Embodiment is inevitably tangled in queer activist resistance as the literal physical survival of contested bodies is frequently at play.

LGBTQIA+ ecological activism in rural areas has spanned from lesbian movements to purchase and live collectively in peace on communal land to LGBTQIA+ representation in rural environmental movements. Recent activism by Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle celebrates “ecosexuality” as a queer-embodied and sex-affirming approach with focused goals such as saving Gauley Mountain, West Virginia, from mountaintop-removal coal mining. Cynthia Belmont lauds Stephens and Sprinkle’s work in which nature “is seen as an active agent and erotic partner for humans, who are likewise drawn emotionally, physically, spiritually, and politically to its eroticism, which they celebrate and work to protect through diverse activist and educational endeavors, including performance and other art, such as street theater, photography, and pornography.” Belmont makes a strong case for the subversive power of this work generally focused on the coal industry while also briefly questioning the anthropomorphizing of the earth if this work’s thrust is to emphasize the nonhuman as an active and empowered partner to move toward a radical queer ecological position.

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