Back to the Garden: Queer Ecology in Samuel Delany's Heavenly Breakfast
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Back to the Garden:
Queer Ecology in Samuel Delany's Heavenly Breakfast

Although Samuel Delany is best known, as a memoirist, for The Motion of Light in Water (1988) and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (2001), this essay considers his first work in this genre, Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love (1979). Named after the folk music group and commune to which Delany belonged from 1967 to 1968, the memoir intersperses notes taken from that tumultuous period with recollections composed a decade later. Reading the memoir today—amidst an ecological crisis and a stagnating mainstream LGBT politics—sets into play yet another circuit of memory and recollection. Although not nature writing, Delany's memoir supplies instructive instances of what Timothy Morton calls the "ambient poetics" of the counterculture's valorization of the pastoral (Ecology without Nature 32-54). Delany renders the environment of countercultural communal life, musicking, and polymorphous sexuality through literary techniques Morton identifies with ecomimesis, such as the medial, the timbral, and the Aeolian. These techniques offer the nascent interdisciplinary discourse of queer ecology a genealogy in music, sex, and alternative world-making.1 Delany's literary and sexual ecologies "without nature" provide a way of pursuing the utopian spirit of the musical and sexual subcultures of the sixties without necessarily seeking pathways "back to the garden" (Mitchell, Ladies). From within the milieu of free love often retrospectively associated with white middle-class heterosexuality, Delany developed literary strategies for estranging the romance with nature, supplying terms [End Page 747] for a more robust and inclusive contemporary ecological imagination. One consequence of this estrangement is a different orientation toward the rendering of race within ecological contexts, a difference that I argue is queer.

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"We are stardust. / We are golden," Joni Mitchell sang of the 1969 Woodstock festival. "And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden" (Ladies). Mitchell's naive couplet renders an indelible image of the counterculture's pastoral sublime, intensified by the song's copious use of the first-person plural and Mitchell's piercing melismatic scat that extends the penultimate "garden." "Rendering," Morton writes, "attempts to simulate reality itself: to tear to pieces the aesthetic screen that separates the perceiving subject from the object. The idea is that we obtain an immediate world, a directly perceived reality beyond our understanding" (35). "Woodstock" renders stardust into a figure for life beyond the limits of time and space, creed and color, and calls for an effort to restore Eden, or, in some versions of the song, its "semblance."2 That the lyric derives not from actual experience of Woodstock but only Mitchell's vicarious desire to have been there only adds further color and texture to how the song at once renders counter-cultural ecotopia and "re-marks" it, calling attaching to the song as itself only an echo (Morton 48). That vicariousness gives the song's ironical boast that "By the time we got to Woodstock, / We were half a million strong" a pointed significance that many a boxed set, documentary film, TV anniversary special, or 25th anniversary commemorative concert lacks, especially for those born too late to have been there. Like the echo of self-doubt on later versions of the song, in which Mitchell specifies our destination as some semblance of the garden, her composing the song in a hotel room in New York "glued to the media" (Ruhlman) coverage of an event that paternalistic sexism had prevented her from performing at, makes her Woodstock peculiarly ours, insofar as the "garden" that "we" have to find our way back to is as vicariously drawn to her as it to us (Mitchell, Miles). It remarks her original rendering as high camp, as a way of being in love with a perverse artifice it cannot stop mistaking for the real.

A camp reading of Mitchell's "Woodstock" affords an unexpectedly useful route into a reading of Delany's own perverse affinities for a literary artifice posing as naturalism. While Delany is not often associated with the Woodstock generation, during the heady years of 1967 and 1968 he was deeply involved in [End Page 748] countercultural experiments...