On Saturday, November 20th, it was my absolute delight to get to deliver the keynote speech for the Transcending Boundaries Conference, in Worcester, MA. This amazing conference was a three-day event with both academic and profoundly personal conversations ranging in topics from Asexuality to Bisexuality, Kinky to Polyamorous, Transgender to Intersex to Genderqueer… and all the spaces in-between and beyond. Their topic this year was “Intersections”, and thus, when I was invited to give the Keynote Speech, I had the delightful and somewhat terrifying opportunity to find a message that might meet them all… and thus I started with Organic Farming. No, really, it makes sense.
A video will be released on the speech down the road, by the amazing folks at Kink Academy, but for now, I wanted everyone who longed to hear it to get a chance to read or listen to it.
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The following was the original speech… the actual speech was minimally modified from the below written work.
Growing Beautiful Flowers at the Intersections:
From Complex Ecosystems to Interstitial Collaboration
By Lee Harrington
In his pivotal work Omnivore’s Dillema: A Natural History in Four Meals, Michael Pollan travelled around the united states examining how food gets to our table. He followed four major food chains in America today- the industrial food complex, organic industrial food, post-organic and foraging… the last one hard to do, but not impossible, his nails caked with dirt as he dug for morels.
As he was examining post-organic farming, he interviewed and spent some time working with the owner of PolyFarms Chicken, Joel Salatin on his farming practices and the psychology of sustainable farming. And yes, the irony of their company’s name does not escape me as I stand before you, a delightful array of poly, kinky, queer, academic, trans, and other fabulous individuals, a blessing to my eyes. Joel Salatin was describing to the intrepid explorer of the wilds of commercial farming that he had 550 acres of land, 100 or so of which was active farmland.
Michael Pollan asked how much production he had on 100 acres of farmland.
No, the man who raises chickens, hogs, cows, rabbits, tomatoes, sweet corn, berries and more said. No, I have 550 acres of land, 100 of which is –active- farmland.
As he explained, he pointed out that in sustainable agriculture, the whole 550 acres mattered. Without that forested land and space run wild, the system would fall apart. That land provided protection from winds. It acted as shade in the summer for his hogs. It was space for voles and other small animals to live, and in turn for foxes to hut them- instead of hunting his chickens. He was trying to reach out to a city dweller and explain that if all a farmer has is active farmland, the land is not as productive. There is no space for the real complexities of nature to take place.
Reading Omnivore’s Dillema, I was deeply taken in, examining in the chain of supply for our food chain the truths of the complex ecosystems at play. When we don’t work with the reality of what is present, with the –whole- of a system, we have to constantly compensate. Industrial food growers dump truckload upon truckload of fertilizers onto the land to compensate, to build up supposed peak efficiency, NPK based chemical fertilizers that wash downstream and have left large swaths of the gulf of mexico choked on overgrown algae that withholds the sunlight from the ocean and has killed much of the rest of the life in the area.
Sustainable farming is more work than opening up a bag of NPK and dumping it on the land. Every few days the cows are moved from area to area around the land, and after the cows are cycled out, a few days later the chickens are cycled in. They eat the larvae out of the cow patties, peck at different parts of the grass than the cows did, and the chicken scat is eventually crushed underfoot by the next round of cows that come through, adding nutrients back into the soil. Joel Salatin actually describes himself as a grass-farmer, not a raiser of chickens or cows.
It is more work, and it might seem to cost more, but that is because the price is up front. The price and time spent is there from the beginning, instead of being tacked on twenty years down the road in the form of land stripped bare, dust blowing across open Oklohoma soil and seas clogged with poison. The cost, it seems, can actually be less in the long run if we actually price it all out.
So here I am, curled up reading Omnivore’s Dillema, and it hit me. It hit me hard, square in the face, the reality of my own quest. It hit me that I too live in a complex ecosystem.
I, you, me, we- we all live in a complex ecosystem of being-ness. Just as Joel Salatin’s shade land and forest gave space for his active farmland to function, my connections with deity provide the space for me to do my work with my multiple loves. My polyamorous relationships provide me with the fuel and support to do my work as an author and educator. My work as an author and educator help me touch lives that inspire me to do activism both subtle and direct. My activism feeds space for me to connect in new and different ways with my biological family. My ties to my biological family help me find hope and faith- and bring me back to my conncection with divinity.
It’s not just a chain, but a series of lines that tie us all together, weaving a web that creativity and beauty has the capacity to get caught in. I realized that I live in a complex ecosystem of the heart.
If I were only a hedonist and sexual explorer, or if I were only a gender radical, or if I were only a believer in the fact that love is not a finite quantity… I would not be as rich a creature I am. I am not one label. I am not one thing. I am many things. I am the being living at the intersections of all of my identities and truths. And they are -all- me.
And yet, when I come into community after community, they ask me who I am, and they only want to know how much active farmland I have. When I open up and list my labels and identities, share the complexities of my truth beyond a few words, I often find that I am not giving them the easy answers they desire. I am faced instead with “yes, but are you a Top, or a Bottom? Are you a Man, or a Woman?” How can they box me, one way, only one way, in the truth that matters most for their current filter.
I am not 100 acres of farmland. I am 550 acres of land, 100 of which happens to be active farmland. The whole of me is needed to meet you at the table in my greatness, because the sum of my parts is of more value than slicing me apart and asking me to show up broken or hidden from you. The price of it may seem higher at first, having to reach outside comfort zones, learn new terms or truths or ways of being, see that no one on this planet is only one label, one truth, one way, one point of being. We are all complex ecosystems.
It might seem more expensive energetically, like more work to meet me as me instead of one dimension of my identity, but that is because the price comes up front. Like that whole organic chicken purchased at the farmer’s market, I may seem to take more- but that is because we don’t have to pay for the fallout down the road of my meltdown when I realize I can’t fit the one-dimensionality any more. So many folks I meet heap on the fertilizer into their life, cover up the bareness of the soil of their spirit with another bag of NPK, not realizing that someday, down the road, it will come to light how much they have killed downstream in their being. And the cleanup is expensive, hard work.
I would rather pay up front. I would rather, in my journey, acknowledge my complex ecosystem, and feed all sides of me, see all sides of me, even the sides I never expose to the neon light of analysis or offer up for the world to examine.
My richness comes from my ecosystem being in balance with itself. This does not mean that more complicated ecosystems are any better or worse that straight forward ones. This does not mean that all parts of the system need equal weight. Just as in nature, different parts of an ecosystem have more weight than others- based on the time of year, migratory patterns, temperature, outside influences, and so much more. But each day there is a possibility of balance, my balance, whatever works best for me and the ecosystem I live in.
Every year I spend anywhere from 2-5 weeks at a beautiful piece of land, a delightfully complex ecosystem in Maryland called Ramblewood Retreat. I started going there back in 2003 for an event called Leather Retreat, a human pony role player exploring that part of me in public for the first time, and the event was beautiful, painful, delightful, horribly sad, deliciously sensual, perfectly what it needed to be. And the next year I came back. I came back to Ramblewood. Not just for Leather Retreat, but for Sacred Sexuality Beltane, Free Spirit Gathering, Primal Arts Festival, Dark Odyssey.
Bordered up against the Susquehanna River, Ramblewood has a number of different types of land on the property. Thick woodlands. Open fields. Steep hilly terrain with thick roots and loose rocks. A lake. This is of course not counting the human-constructs on the site- cabins, swimming pools, barns, basketball courts, a labyrinth dedicated to a departed activist who gave so much.
I have a photograph of me taken by Barbara Nitke from an event I did at Ramblewood. I am on my knees with a huge field of orange flowers behind me, wearing boy shorts, leather boots, my breasts bare in the sun, long hair pulled back, tears streaming down my face. It was from one of those perfect moments, tears of suffering and bliss alike, a scene that continues to have ripples in my life each time I reexamine it. But when I looked at the photo recently, what caught my eye was the flowers.
Rich, deep, orange blooms. The orange of a summer sunset, the orange of a perfectly ripened tangerine dripping down my throat. Flowers blooming in a precarious area between the lake and the woods. On the edge of each identity, each label, each ecosystem. On the intersection between these two pieces of Ramblewood. Flowers that take my breath away, existing in an indefinable region –between-.
That same orange appeared recently in the form of a luscious corset insert on a friend of mine who appeared on stage, S.J. Tucker. Sooj, as she is affectionately known, is a folk singer, songstress, siren, priestess, and a complex ecosystem all her own. I met her through Author and creative being Catherynne M. Valente, at her birthday party in Cleveland. Cat, Sooj, Cellist and songwriter Betsey Tinney, Jewelry Artist Kythryne, Fire performer and organizer extraordinaire Kevin Wiley, Computer Programmer Dmitri Zagadulin… and so many others- we have become a group of ecosystems bumping up against one another. And just like those orange blossoms growing at the edge between ecosystems at Ramblewood, so many beautiful blossoms, impossible flowers, have grown because of the spaces between us, the areas we have overlapped, crossed paths, blended. Stepped outside ourselves and became more.
There is a notion in so much of the world that there is only so much to go around. So much love. So much money. So much intellectual property. So much beauty. So much potential. So much possibility. When we work with this notion, as I have done at various parts of my life, we fear the success of others. If they succeed, in a world with such finite qualities, I by definition must be failing, I must fail. If they are with, I must be without. For this reason I see artists, activists, community leaders, authors, business people, lovers, friends- all work from a place of fear. If I share my dreams, my ideas, my passions with you- what will I have? If there is only so much to go around, I’m sorry, I just can’t share.
But then I was reminded by my mad Palimpsest crew, my Strowler delights, this strange artistic cabal I am part of, of the concept of Interstitial Collaboration.
Interstitial is a fabulous word, rich on my tongue. It means “between genres” or “between comfortable, known, boundaries.” Interstitial fiction is a piece of fiction that falls between easy labels like horror or fantasy. It is vampires in faerieland, brutality in deep space. In the visual arts, interstitial art is things that are –both- or –neither- on categories- paintings wrapped in three dimensions through space, violin players dancing with slide shows projecting upon their flesh. Interstitial architecture is pieces of a building that are neither -inside- or -outside- – vaulted awnings with outside access and decorated for living in.
To work interstitially means to work at the intersections of possibility. Not only can a single artist create interstitial work, poetry woven into rugs, but two or more artists can engage in interstitial inspiration. Cat Valente was writing her novel The Labyrinth while listening to Sooj’s song Come to the Labyrinth. My thoughts earlier about complex ecosystems of the heart are an interstitial inspiration from Michael Pollan’s work. My performance later, Creature on a Quest, is an interstitial inspiration from a line in Valente’s work Under In The Mere:
Funny how “question” contains the word quest inside it, as though any small question asked is a journey through briars.
The difference between interstitial inspiration and stealing of intellectual copyright is about everyone coming out richer for the interaction. What one of us does inspires the next, credit is given where credit is due- and all of us are greater for it. Interstitial inspiration is about working creatively and with honor, about owning our integrity and where we got that idea from, as compared to “stealing” an idea. It is me, telling you, to go out and buy Cat and Michael’s books, Sooj’s music. Go out, and make us all better for it- emotionally, socially, physically, energetically and to be transparent- financially.
Interstitial collaboration, however, is when we directly work with the other artist of another genre to create something that would have never existed before. When strange and beautiful flowers are bloomed in the space between the expected and definable. When Catherynne’s book In the Night Garden was set to come out, she and Sooj worked together to release an album of music and readings from the book- songs that would not have been birthed into the world without being interstitially inspired by Cat’s work.
Two years ago I did an interstitial collaboration with Morpheus NYC for the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, AASECT. We both wanted to do something for them, but did not know what. So we came together without expectation, and started putting stuff on the table. His passion is the Pleasure Positive movement, and mine is all things Passion and Soul. But as we both started putting ideas out on the table, we both realized we had a history of being profoundly affected by self-injury. This would never have come out as a common point if we had stuck to our easy labels. With his passion for conversation and interviews, and mine for bringing information to light after analysis, we embarked on a qualitative study of the intersections, similarities and differences between self-injurious practices, kink desires, and body modification.
Oftentimes, in our varied alt-sex, kink, queer, poly, trans, bi, gender radical, faerie, and otherwise fabulous populations, I often see us working from a starvation mentality, a fear mentality. If the gay community gets a one up, then obviously they will and have to throw the leather community under the bus. But I wonder- what would happen if we worked towards a greater use of interstitial inspiration and collaboration? Can we somehow think interstitially, with each of our movements as a genre, and create new works we might have never dreamed up?
Just as each of us are complex ecosystems, so our each of our communities. And just as each of our communities is a complex ecosystem, so is the health of all of our communities, together. The health and wellbeing of the kink community affects the health and wellbeing of the queer community, which affects the health and wellbeing of the polyamory community.
Together we can grow beautiful, unexpected flowers, between the lake and the shade, between personal and global, between queer and trans and every other identity. Deep rich orange blossoms, the color of enthusiasm, creativity, determination, success. Orange is one of the healing colors, a color of vitality and endurance. And we have endured, so long we have endured… I think it was time we started talking more about thriving, of succeeding- with enthusiasm and joy.
Together we have the opportunity to become grass farmers. We are not raising chickens or cows or tomatoes. We are not growing a richer single community. We can work together to create a richer soil, for all of us, instead of dumping another bag of chemical fertilizer of the spirit onto the challenges we face, a quick fix for our needs, politely ignoring the toxins that are washing downstream from our logic of “just helping our own” or “they can fend for themselves.”
When we oppress our fellows on the fringe, we may meet our needs in the short term, but we add fuel to the fire of hate for the next generation, a layer of algae growing in our world fueled by our own hate and rage.
And there is enough of that already.
It is time to fully acknowledge our complex ecosystems, both individually and within our communities.
It is time to come to the table with an open heart and be inspired by the work others are doing, instead of being scared of it.
It is time to rise together, having laid a rich soil for us all to work from.
It is time for our greatness.
Together, we can grow beautiful flowers at the intersections. At the intersections of our own internal identities. At the intersections between individuals. At the intersections of the communities we are part of. At the intersections with the world at large, and beyond.
Because I see before me a field of possibility. I see before me hearts and minds ready to grow. And together, together we can create a garden that can bloom, year after year, into a greatness we have not yet dreamed of.
Go out and dream.
Go out and collaborate.
Go out and build, with sustainability in mind.
Go out… and bloom.
It is time for our greatness.