Like many of us, James McDermott returned to the land of his roots over the lockdown of 2020. Gone were the bright lights of Soho and Shoreditch; the writer instead found himself contemplating the complexity of ecosystems within swaying reed beds, pondering the fluidity of water in the turn of the tide.
Away from urban communities, where many queer people finally experience belonging, James found belonging in nature - in waters which never stop moving, strawberries which reproduce asexually, and mushrooms which have 36,000 genders. He tells us how the pandemic prompted his move away from the city, and how lockdown walks helped him to see nature as 'loud and theatrical and camp.' Queerness, he realised, exists everywhere, beyond pride marches and isolated neighbourhoods - inside sea creatures and vegetables.
James is originally from rural Lincolnshire, but he often visited Norfolk on holiday as a child. 'It's always felt like a nostalgic place for me', he says, reminiscing over paddling and fish and chips, as well as the fact that 'it was a place that wasn't school! It wasn't buildings, or people, or being seen - nature was a safe space. It was a non-judgemental, empty space.' Whilst many of us can relate to the fear of embarrassment or social unpleasantness at school, some will feel this particularly poignantly; James had always identified as a gay man, something many will be able to relate to as a marker for exclusion.
Over this period in lockdown, however, James 'began to re-see nature, re-see [his] queerness, and see how queer nature is.' Walking along the beach, he noted that his body is made from water, and can change shape, like seas and rivers do. He started thinking about gender and sexuality moving and transforming like water. For James, the expectations that came with being a "Man" and being "gay" weren't applicable, or even very welcome.
This speaks to the power of inclusion and exclusion within social spaces, and the implications of who can and can't be there. James tells us, 'I feel very natural in the Norfolk countryside. I feel I belong here. It feels more homely here than in Soho, or in Manchester's Gay village. Nature is not ageist, not ableist, not constructed, not capitalist - there's no veneer of gayness covering straight ownership, as there often is in more commercialised spaces.'
In contrast, the writer also remembers growing up looking and sounding different to other birdwatchers, feeling that this excluded him from nature reserves. But when we have positive experiences in nature, we feel more passionate about protecting natural spaces - in other words, spending time in nature actually helps nature. Last year's periods of lockdown also showed us how spending time in nature helps us and our mental wellbeing. When we feel excluded from natural spaces, these foundational connections for environmental change and personal wellbeing are untapped. James knows that everyone should feel welcome and included in nature, so we can 'preserve rather than destroy the places we live in.'
This is why James is now working to help people in 'reclaiming those natural spaces and making people feel they belong there.' In his upcoming nature writing workshop, The Queerness of Nature
he'll be encouraging attendees to 're-see the natural world through a different lens; celebrating the richness, multiplicity, difference and fluidity of the natural world'.
This event will take place at NWT Cley and Salthouse Marshes on Saturday 11 December 2021 as part of the Cley Calling: Community Festival. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Cley Calling: Community
About the Guest Writer:
Molly Bernardin (She/They) is a nature-loving, queer creative. She has been published in local anthologies including Field Work - Nature Writing from East Anglia
and Like The Sea I Think
. Molly is also an RSPB Membership Fundraiser, securing funds for conservation, advocacy and education through public engagement.
Meg Watts is Communications Intern: Diversity at NWT. This role is part of NWT's Future Professionals Initiative, a project funded by the government's Green Recovery Challenge Fund
. The fund is being delivered by The National Lottery Heritage Fund
in partnership with Natural England
and the Environment Agency
Header image: Mark McKnight