6 min

The persistence of pansies

Growing up queer is part of nature's grand mystery

Credit: Xtra West files

On Fannie Kiefer’s TV talk show in Vancouver, I chatted about the intricacies of girl-boys mating with boy-girls, the spirituality of SM, proper prison etiquette and other adventures in queer family life that I explore in my new book, Eating Fire. Fannie is a skillful, engaging interviewer, and she actually seemed to have read the book, at least enough to get its drift. We were humming along in overdrive.

Suddenly, Fannie leaned forward and narrowed her eyes. “Alright,” she said, in a crisp tone that put me on higher alert. “What do you say to fundamentalists?” Talk show hosts like to toss loaded questions at their guests now and then-it keeps things cooking. To the guest it can be a grenade, or a gift.

When I repeated the question later to my partner Brian, he answered without hesitation, “What would I say to fundamentalists? Fuck off!” Inclined to be more circumspect, I told Fannie that I wondered why fundamentalists are so resistant to living larger, freer, more open lives, but instead choose to remain locked in the suffocating prison of their own ignorance and fear. Why?

A month later, as our gardens erupt into full orgasmic bloom, it occurs to me I’d also like to tell fundamentalists about the persistence of pansies.

Our gardens tend toward the Canadian ideal: peace, order and good government. Orderly rows in orderly beds, like school children, quiet and attentive, with hands folded nicely on their desks. A bit on the Prussian side, one friend said. In the flower department I plan minutely, for many contingencies-drought, soil, height, colour, fragrance, blooming season. I study gardening books, cruise nurseries, draw maps, make lists. To my latest list, Things To Do, Spring 2003, I added early this morning: “Divide heliopsis; Move shastas from main garden to-?” Diligence is my substitute for instinct.

Some years back we planted a few poppies and pansies, here and there. Both are annuals. Neither made the A-list; they were pretty enough, but never really thrived. As often as not I would pull and discard them; they were in the way of other plants that I favoured more. Then last summer we suffered the worst drought in decades. I watched the pansies struggle through weeks without rain, their poor leaves yellowed and withering. The few poppies that survived looked terminally ill. Reserving our scarce water for vegetables, herbs and other flowers, I consigned the pansies and poppies to the compost bin of history.

Yet here they are, magically, back from the grave. Hundreds of dazzling red poppies sweep riotously through the June gardens, and dance solo in the tall wild grasses beyond, flashes of crimson fire. And pansies too, their vibrant multi-hued faces have showed up even in the most ungenerous of our soils. How sweetly ironic-in our culture pansy has come to denote a weak thing, not well equipped for the hardships of life!

So there it is. Despite all my lists and maps and well-laid plans, these two improbable survivors are among the stars in this year’s garden. Not one of them was planted by us. Normally they scatter their seed well before the killing frosts of winter. It’s what they do, to get by, and each spring a few of their offspring appear in the garden. I suspect that last summer, under the withering assault of drought, they produced more seed than usual. That way, even if the individuals were decimated, at least the line would carry on. Spring this year was wet and cool, conditions apparently ideal for poppies and pansies. Who would have thought?

So, given the opportunity, this is what I would say to fundamentalists: As I see it, their approach to life is rooted in a desperate search for security in a dangerous, chaotic universe. They yearn for simple answers to unfathomably hard questions. They want to believe that the answers they choose are clear, uniquely correct, and absolute. There is only one true God, it is a He, and He is on my side. Marriage is good, homos are bad, and so on.

Attached as they are to the idea of one deity, fundamentalists love a good monoculture. This term, derived from industrial agriculture, describes a method of producing single crops-specific strains of corn, wheat, soybeans-to the exclusion of all others. Every plant must look the same and perform the same. Any which does not is designated a weed, to be eliminated by any means necessary.

To fundamentalists past and present, we queerfolk are weeds, mortal offences to the monoculture. They’ve tried every which way to be rid of us. They’ve crucified, tortured, drowned, burned, poisoned, stoned, impaled, shot, imprisoned, beaten, starved, shocked, shunned, drugged, and exiled us. In some places they still do. Yet here we are, magically, the persistent pansies.

How have we managed it?

Fortunately, it’s not clear at birth who we are, or may become. We don’t get left on a hillside to die as girl babies do in some cultures, or aborted when the “wrong” sex is revealed in utero. A student in New Brunswick asked me what I thought about the search for a “gay gene.” Not much, I replied. I don’t care whether we are born queer, or become queer, or whether it’s by circumstance or choice. This is not the important question.

What matters to me is that as long as anyone or anything (state, church, revolution) assumes the right to punish us for who we are, we are not safe. For that reason I do fear the search for a gay gene, or at least its fate should they happen to find one. Fundamentalists don’t have such a good record in these matters.

Though they claim to live by God’s will or plan, history suggests that they also assume the right to tinker freely, to say the least, with details of The Plan. They separate the universe conveniently into two parts: good (God and his agents, which tend to be men) and evil (the Devil and his agents, which tend to be women). Then they cite the handy biblical verse in which God apparently grants to men “dominion over all the earth.” Carte blanche, the world is our sandbox. This approach to life, the engineering approach, assumes that the universe is nothing more than a series of problems to be solved, or mysterious, often malevolent forces to be mastered. It is our right and destiny to conquer nature, to bend it to our will, to make it our servant. The results are plain to see in what’s left of the lakes, the rainforests, the Antarctic, the ozone layer.

On a warm afternoon in late June I’m sitting at the back to our garden, in the broad shade of an elm. Over the past few years we’ve lost many elms to disease; why this beauty continues to thrive-knock on wood-I have no idea. This is what I see in our garden, and in the wilder spaces that surround it-the meadows, the unplowed fields now returning to cedar bush, and the shadowed forest:

When I pause long enough to pay attention, to watch and listen, one of the things I can’t help noticing is that nature abhors the monoculture that fundamentalists revere. What we call weeds are actually species well suited to survive in particular habitats. Everywhere and always, nature strives to maintain diversity. Survival of the fittest is the rule, certainly, but in the natural world fitness often means knowing your place.

Predators that wipe out their prey, or creatures that soil their nests don’t have much of a future. Plants and insects need each other, as do insects and birds. All of them, including us, need the microbes in the soil. Survival is rooted in connection, and interdependence. As we drive one whole species after another to oblivion, we shred the fabric of life that sustains us.

“If human beings were to disappear tomorrow, the world would go on,” says acclaimed Harvard biologist Edward O Wilson. “But if invertebrates were to disappear, I doubt that the human species could last more than a few months.” Wilson specializes in the study of ants, invertebrates, who seem to have buckets more sense than we do.

At this point in my own story, and so late in the human saga, I’m inclined to favour what might be called an ecological approach to life. I’m more concerned with asking the right questions than having the right answers. The ecological approach is not afraid of mystery, and respects the unknown. Accidental poppies, for example. It assumes, with a little humility, that we are capable of knowing only enough about nature to let us live more fully within it, in deeper harmony with its rhythms and patterns.

Persistent pansies.

While fundamentalists crave security, and build themselves vast fortresses in a vain attempt to achieve it, an ecological approach assumes that, in this universe, security is an illusion, so we might just as well live out in the open. Security implies stasis, the arresting of dynamic life processes, without which, guess what-no life. Living by ecological principles is a balancing act. It is also a courtesy. We are a guest here. It’s about time we learned to behave like one.

All of this I would tell the fundamentalists. And at the end of it, this: We are here, we are queer, and we are a force of nature. Pay attention. Your own survival may well depend on the persistence of pansies.

* Michael Riordan is the author of Eating Fire: Family Life on the Queer Side. The book is a celebration of the diversity of relationships found in the queer community across Canada.