Tag Archives: Pollution

The Queer Ecology of Derek Jarman’s Garden

– François Olivier

Derek Jarman was an independent filmmaker in Britain during a period which stretched from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. His films express a decidedly queer sensibility and depict homoeroticism on screen during a period marked by the homophobia of Thatcherite politics. In a review of one of his films, the noted film critic, B. Ruby Rich, fondly describes Jarman as the “King of Queer” and explains that “as an artist and activist, Jarman has a life history that seems to encompass the very development of modern gay culture” (49). In 1986, Jarman was diagnosed as HIV positive, and discussed his condition in public. His illness prompted him to move to Prospect Cottage, Dungeness in Kent, near the nuclear power station. In 1994, he died of an AIDS-related illness in London, aged 52.

With the humble Prospect cottage as the central feature, Jarman filled his garden with drought-resistant native plants, rusted and weathered debris found around the shingle beach, and traditional English flora (which include an impressive number of rose variations). In his garden, flotsam and jetsam compliment the forms and shapes of the exquisite plant life, and vice versa. Michael Charlesworth describes Jarman’s found objects as “things that most people would see no beauty in, or would see their value exhausted. They bring a connotation of collage, of art brut or arte povera, of a garden made by an ‘Outsider’” (136).

Recently two ecocritics have written about Jarman, and the garden he created at Prospect Cottage in Dungeness. In a recent anthology of essays on “Queer Ecologies,” Mortimer-Sandilands chooses Jarman alongside Zita Grover to demonstrate a queer ecological approach to environmental politics. Mortimer-Sandilands sees the relation between Jarman’s gardening, his sexual politics and the mourning of friends lost to AIDS as an example or a template for a radically alternative approach to environmental politics. Mortimer-Sandilands reworks Judith Butler’s theory of gender melancholia and she describes certain forms of ecotourism and present-day wildlife documentaries as “nature spectacles” that phantasmagorically preserve the ‘lost’ object of ‘Nature’ in the present to avert its complete destruction. For Mortimer this melancholic process hinders any real engagement with the environmental crisis, thus environmentalists “exist in … a condition of melancholia, a state of suspended mourning in which the object of loss is very real but psychically “ungrievable” within the confines of a society that cannot acknowledge nonhuman beings, natural environments, and ecological processes as appropriate objects for genuine grief (Mortimer-Sandilands and Erickson 332).

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The value of waste

– Dr Tilla Slabbert

Ten years ago I moved to a small coastal village in the Western Cape where I now live within walking distance from the beach. One of the rituals that came to form part of my life is a diligent gathering of washed-up and discarded garbage whenever I walk the dogs. For most of these years, my immediate neighbour was a seventy something Dutch man who immigrated to South Africa in the late 1950s. I say was, because he sadly passed away less than a year ago. Jan was a real character; a positive and vibrant man who managed to banish one’s own fears of growing older. A true raconteur, he could capture his audience with colourful anecdotes, always ending on a humorous note. He used to laugh heartily at his own jokes. Two years ago, Jan and his wife sold their house and moved to another part of town. In packing up—and to my great disgust—he promptly dumped a load of unwanted waste across the road amongst the fynbos; in the vicinity of one of the footpaths leading to the beach. Broken garden tools, old buckets, a huge fifty gallon drum, and other junk littered the area. My partner and I later removed most of the garbage, but the drum, filled with bags of dog poop, we left behind for the time being, intending to collect it at a later stage, once the stench has faded a little.

Life carries on, one postpones, and after a few months the drum was covered by the resilient vegetation.  Two weeks after his birthday, and the day before his death, I had the honour of hugging Jan’s tall but faded body for the final time.

Recently the municipality removed some of the rooikrans in the neighbourhood and the hacking once again exposed the drum. It now lay rusted and eroded. Walking past it the other day, I thought: Jan is gone, the drum remains. I suddenly realised how self-righteous and selfish one can be when you become selective about what seems precious. Inorganic waste supposedly outlives humans, but could it not serve a purpose when it unearths nostalgia about those no longer visible? Or does it merely become valuable because it has been aestheticized by time? Once it has acquired a kind of weathered appearance, faintly resembling its previous form, like the murky outlines of a memory. The reflection brought another of Jan’s tales to mind.

During his youth on their farm in Holland, he was kicked in the face by a horse, losing all his teeth; he ended up wearing dentures before he turned twenty. On his arrival in South Africa (by ship), he was so pleased with the sight of Cape Town in the distance that he cheered madly, knocking his own dentures from his mouth. The set promptly plonked overboard and disappeared beneath the waters of Table Bay. As I stood staring at the rusty drum, I imagined hearing the teeth clicking with muffled laughter, lolling about somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic. I envisaged them covered with nettle and sea slugs or swaying gently beneath the flux of oceanic silt: out of sight. On the other hand, perhaps there is a sea nymph somewhere on a rock, grinning widely and knowingly at those huge fishing trawlers, harvesting their loot.


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