canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Lesbian National Parks and Services Field Guide to North America

by Ranger Shawna Dempsey and Ranger Lorri Millan
Pedlar Press, 2002

Reviewed by Anne Borden

"The essence of biological exuberance" writes biologist Bruce Bagemihl, "is that natural systems are driven as much by abundance and excess as they are by limitation and practicality." Bagemihlís 1999 Biological Exuberance reflects a new openness among natural scientists to publish uncensored accounts of "nonreproductive and alternative sexualities" in the animal world, including homosexuality, polyamory and transgenderism. While these practices have been recorded in observational notebooks for centuries, only recently has it become acceptable for scientists to suggest that sexual activity is more than a function of reproduction and that diverse sexual acts have facilitating the survival of species on every continent. In the literature of natural sciences, the animals have come thundering out of the closet.

A paeon to this exuberance, Shawna Dempsey and Lorri Millanís Field Guide is a witty, indelibly Canadian exploration of a variety of species, including, of course, our own. It is designed to mimic the field guides of the 1950s and 1960s, with rounded corners, pen-and-ink illustrations and a lilting, Audubon parlance. Through their double-voiced narration, the authors urge readers to protect not only the Atlantic Ridley Sea Turtle and other rare creatures, but the endangered beauty and diversity of queer culture, which is constantly under threat due to "unnatural disasters such as religious fundamentalism and assimilation."

The Lesbian Rangers were conceived by Dempsey and Millan as part of a residency through the Walter Phillips Gallery at the Banff Center, in which they donned uniforms and established an onsite information centre for the preservation of "lesbian wildlife." The reaction from guests at the provincial park was overwhelmingly positive, in part because of Dempsey and Millanís adept humour, steeped in double-entendre that manages to fall far short of mockery, and never stoops to mean-spiritedness. "Busy Hands, Happy Heart" goes the Rangersí motto, but this work ethic expands beyond the work of preserving North American wildlife to advocating for LGBT visibility and establishing the important role that queers play in society, in a voice that alternates between authoritative fact and radical cheek.

In some senses, itís the perfect read-aloud-on-the-road-trip book, particularly its field guide entries. "The American Robin is quite comfortable in suburbia. Her sunny good nature and small bird brain enjoy the comforts and convenience and her highly developed navigational sense keeps her from getting lost, despite a preponderance of cul de sacs and architectural homogeneity." Dempsey and Millan instruct readers in such survival skills as "essential knots for consensual camping", chic, impervious rain-gear and "orientation." Based significantly in fact, the guide is infused with whimsy; the rangers write that North American grizzly bears "have stalked and killed apparently for no reason. Fortunately, the introduction of antidepressants has ameliorated this situation." While providing factual information, such as physical identifiers, the authors use colourful language that is self-consciously anthropomorphising. For example, the male Ruby-throated Hummingbird is characterised by his "affected red cravat" and the yellow warbler is known for her "smartly-decorated, milkweed lined nest."

The guide also draws upon the natural world as a metaphor for community-building that resists unnatural, alienating social conventions. A discussion of treesí extended root systems moves into an exposition on the extended chosen-family tree of one ranger, which includes girlfriends, ex-girlfriends, girlfriendís ex-girlfriends and ex-girlfriendsí ex-girlfriends "not to mention their pets." This type of community structure defies the model of contract-based economic partnerships that are broken when the sexual contract is broken. Positioned as part of the natural world, this trend towards extended community between friends, intimates and ex-intimates is one feature of gay life thatís being adopted by the broader culture, and the book suggests that this is because serial monogamy is natural for many people; and the patriarchal alternative, and its accompanying isolation, is really the abberation.

Ultimately, the Rangers critique the social construction of gender as they break down the shame with which we approach the natural world. "A plantís flower is its showy genital", write Rangers Dempsey and Millan, yet "no one could accuse the cheery daisy of being hell spawn, sick or willfully perverse." Itís hard to argue with this type of gently-in-your-face assertion. Indeed, if we canít in our right minds label the ox-eyed daisy a strumpet for her proclivities, why should we persist in calling the girl with two lovers a slut? Why canít we just be happy for the lesbian seagulls, the transgendered garter snake, the gay barber or the bisexual bus driver? Through its examination of the continentís flora and fauna, the Field Guide calls upon us to recognize the fragility of the human ecosystem, and to work towards protecting the diversity which is our strength. To ensure our survival as an enlightened society, we need to keep our hands busy at this task; as the field guide illustrates, weíll all have a lot more fun if we do.

Anne Borden lives in Toronto, where she works as a writer and editor.







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