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Finding Strength in the Forest: Art, Identity and the Outdoors

by James on September 14th, 2011

I went to Savernake Forest this morning, I felt the need. Its been an intense couple of weeks since my last post, and I seem to go to woodland especially when I need peace and fresh air and a sense of calm. It got me thinking why I have always had this relationship with the outdoors and with natural history, one which feeds and relaxes me, which inspires ideas and allows thoughts to naturally bubble up to the surface.

I made a piece of work that you may have seen on my website or blogs a couple of years ago called Belonging. It was made in the Forest and sums up my need to feel a part of the natural world and strip away some of the social constructs that I fall between or become restricted by.

I mention ‘Belonging’ because of an article that I read the other day called ‘Getting Out‘ by Alex Johnson. It’s about the role that time spent in the outdoors, and especially in wild places, can play for gay/Queer people. It really chimed with my own experiences of growing up as a child and young gay man and struggling to find a place in society that I fitted into, or an image that reflected who I felt I was inside.

“homophobia… encloses thousands of people in this country. As an out, queer man in my twenties, that cage is all-too-familiar. It is the fear of others’ hate and meanness. It is the loneliness of being different. It is the anger of feeling weakness. Fortunately, I have escaped. How I got out was by literally getting out: connecting with nature, being outside, recognizing that there’s a whole world that accepts me for who I am. It is a world that I like to call the “more-than-human.”

The general overview of the article is that as someone who is excluded from mainstream society and pushed into a little side pocket of ‘otherness’, the natural world provides an opportunity to belong, to directly experience your interconnected nature with the rest of the world, something that is sorely missing when you are growing up gay.

I’m also reading ‘The Men with the Pink Triangle‘ at the moment by Heinz Heger, it’s an autobiographical account of his experiences at the hands of the Nazis during the second world war. In it he fills in the gaps of what we are taught at school and by many history books, by recounting how thousands of gay men (alongside Jews, Gypsies, Disabled people and others) were imprisoned, tortured and experimented on in concentration camps, and how unlike some of the other groups this persecution continued after the war. As the laws criminalising homosexuality were kept in place after ‘liberation’ the few gay survivors of the camps were either imprisoned or went into hiding. There was no reparation or compensation for gay prisoners, and few testemonies to contribute to those history books or to museum archives.

All these interconnecting issues of exclusion, belonging, and the presence or lack of a voice to express such experiences, really connect with me and my experiences of school as a boy and as an artist/consultant working with schools. As a child I went to a secondary school which was very much about authoritarianism, about exerting control and promoting competition – I kept my head down, kept myself to myself and waited for the day when I could get out and go on to college.

So my priority when working with schools, or with families, is always to support children and young people (and teachers/parents) to develop their creativity, and to apply that to exploring their environment in such a way that enables the development of a sense of identity which is uniquely theirs, and which develops through relationship with the world around them. I hope that because it is all about that relationship, and because it comes from working with their innate creativity, that it is something which once awakened, can never be taken away. My worry is that with everything that Michael Gove is doing to encourage a return to ‘sit down, shut up, and do what you are told’ style teaching, that the situation for such children (and indeed all children) can only get worse.

This week I’ve read still further accounts of the persecution of gay people around the world, this time in the present day, where in over 80 countries it is still against the law and often punishable by death to be born gay (see here for Zoe Williams’ Guardian article).

I’m left wondering what more I can do about this in my own small way, and what examples of creative projects are out there that have supported LGBT young people to explore their identity and their relationship to the world around them. If you know of any interesting models of working creatively or in the outdoors with LGBT young people, please do get in touch.

This all in turn also connects with the areas of Ecopsychology and Ecotherapy, on which I won’t go into here, but can recommend Ecopsychology – Restoring the Earth and Healing the Mind as an interesting introduction to exploring the interrelationship between the health of the mind and the development of a healthy relationship with the rest of the natural world.

In the meantime, my own time in the woods gives me strength when I need it, whether I’m crawling under fallen trees to photograph beautifully layered and structured funghi, or walking slowly down wooded trackway, listening for the crack of branches that might signal the presence of deer. It reminds me that there is a world that is constant, cyclical, that is about everything being connected and everything working together to create a whole, and that it is a world that we are all an equally important part of, whatever anyone else might tell you.

  1. James,

    a wonderful and heartfelt article – I learned alot and will pass the post on. I loved the image of you with the animal mask too


    ps I have a new site for my forest artfilm research – its going slow, just like a forest 😉

    • Thank you Cathy, its always good to hear that a post has connected with someone, otherwise it just goes out ‘there’ and seems to vanish into the ether…

      Will take a look at your new site.

  2. Alannah Fitzgerald permalink

    Great post, James. I, too, find so much life support when I enter the forest nearby – it literally boosts my creativity and helps me to see clearly where I need to go with things. This is a really useful reflection on the natural world and feeling at home as someone who is queer when the world of people’s opinions becomes tiresome and troublesome.

    I’m going to forward this to friends of mine in Vancouver who are working in the area of LGBT education for elementary school students.

    All the best,


    • Hi Alannah,
      I appreciate you getting in touch and am pleased that you could connect with the post. I’m also really pleased that it could help inspire the work that your friends are doing with school children – thanks for passing it on.
      Warm wishes,

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