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The Pleasure Garden of the Living and Dead

If I dip my hand into the soil of my garden, bring my fingers together, narrowed, so they can do a better job at penetrating the earth, will I reach a place that responds to my touch?

It’s not that easy. There’s resistance, my hand doesn’t so much dip as it digs, and I don’t really know what kind of good that feels like. What are the chances that my fondling could make Earth blush? If it is in any way possible to register mutual pleasure between nature and me, could we, nature and I, desire one another, and in doing so, could we reimagine care?

Could we become as close as lovers?

This is what the ecosexual movement puts forth: a challenge to Earth being figured as mother, tired but benevolent in her giving giving giving, in favour of reimagining Earth as lover; ungendered, adored, desirous and necessarily demanding of recognition and reciprocity … lest you be dumped.

The work of Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens – artists and ecosexual pioneers – brings irreverence to environmentalism where wonderment is often the mandate for engagement. They turn up the volume on high camp to claim a mode of loving Earth that is different from other activism in as much as its energy is drawn from pleasure, eroticism, fun, feathers and glitter. Witness Sprinkle and Stephens bow down, faces planted, joined by electro-pop star Peaches, perform grassilingus on the lawn. This is activism. The ethos of ecosexuality challenges traditional conceptions of nature and the kind of attachments that sex supposes, heading way off-script from historical affiliations in which nature conforms to an ideal and sex is only reproductive.

Ecosexuality strays, queers and defies ‘proper’ affiliations of love and care for nature. Indeed, what does it look like to imagine the skin of Earth like the skin of our lover? We kiss. We delight. We care for one another ‘’til death brings us closer’, as reads Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens’ last vow in their marriage ceremony to Earth. And indeed, death looms.

There are some who have always been queering nature, pulled along by desire for what is sweet and what decays, their fists deep in the soil, reaching for the blushing point. One garden, one gardener knew to their bones the entanglement of things.

‘Oh, you’ve finally discovered nature,’ a friend says to this gardener, filmmaker Derek Jarman, when he tells them about his garden in Dungeness, England. But Jarman demurs. ‘I don’t think it’s quite like that,’ he says, turned off by the notion of the Romantics and their predilection for nature’s purity. ‘Ah, I understand completely,’ the friend corrects herself. ‘You’ve discovered modern nature.’ And whether travelling towards a future of care or its past, Jarman, who observed that a gardener doesn’t so much put their hands in soil as they do in time, devoted himself to a garden that grew between the contrary feelings of desire and destruction. At Dungeness, Jarman planted hardy foxgloves, chicory, California poppy, valerian and crambe. Water was brought to tiny delicate snowdrops, and they flowered too. Weeds crept in and were welcome to stay. All within a desolate landscape, across which a nuclear power station casts its long shadow. Yet Jarman and the devastation of this nature, the dry skin of Earth, cared for one another.

Diagnosed with HIV before he began the work of planting and tending his garden, Jarman died from its complications in 1994. His garden was a palliative labour, a testament to terminal beauty, to the dissolving solidity of form. In his garden diary, Modern Nature (1991), Jarman wrote, ‘Before I finish, I intend to celebrate our corner of Paradise, the part of the garden the Lord forgot to mention.’ He gardened, in that near desert, in anger and tenderness. Scavenged from ruins and with a sensual grit, he pulled together a memorial and celebration of exuberant sexuality and the unjust death of friends and lovers. Nature was not a place of retreat, not a mother’s breast, but where Jarman could see reflected in the soil the difficult beauty of living with dying lovers, his own wasting body, and caring all the more for it.

Prospect Cottage, the home of Derek Jarman (1942-1994). Photo: Faiz Balabil/Alamy Stock Photo

And this is what Jarman, his garden and a movement like ecosexuality bring to us now – the difficult beauty of living with a dying lover that could be Earth itself. The prospect is breathtaking, transcendental. Modern nature is a relationship of care in which maybe no-one survives. Pleasuring Earth as performance and commitment demonstrates loving care in the face of loss. Not only that, it also insists that desire be the expression of this care. Earth as lover undoes the opposition of active lover and passive loved one until it is impossible to know who is who.