Sections Survival and Other Utopias
Chicago, United States

Queer Prairie Land Allegories

Aislin Neufeldt

Queer prairie land allegories are not about essence. They are not about claiming productive communing relationships with land. Not for me. They arguably cannot be for white settler colonists like me. Queer prairie land allegories cannot be about little houses and good-hearted homesteaders, nor are they about collective recollections of midwest childhood summer evenings regarding dusk and fireflies. They are not stories of quests for boys and girls that bring me back to the ‘inherent’ goodness of ‘home.’ Queer prairie land allegories are about making inappropriate and insufficient allegories: ones that fall apart and fail to be truly allegorical. They cannot be about home, because I never return to such a place: home. And how can queer prairie land allegories be a site for stories of boys and girls, when I enter as one, and leave as neither? They are selfish, maybe pitiful, and surely a way to use the land, but hopefully with less harm done, and inhabited with make-believe. At least, all of this is how I see them for me.

“Indeed the present is replete with beasts that need to be vanquished, which is to say that investing in a fairy tale need not be a retreat from reality but can be a certain way of facing it.”

– José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity

I ran… It was cold, but not too cold, but cold enough where breathing the chilled air was harsh on my lungs… still marred by the smoke of 2 Marlboros…Gravel trails, a bridge or 2, and plenty of stone steps guiding the gentle curve of the incline. With summiting comes the expansion of land and sky. Pulsing hills; significant… integrated with consonance, all under the large and heavy above.

‘Home’ is a conceptual struggle. The concept is cloying for me, forcibly sweet with its remnants of beginnings, beginnings that cling to supposed essence. Such essence attempts to speak to who we were at our biological conception, implying that we cannot leave the ties to nuclear families and the genealogies that often try to claim us.

Biological genealogies can be fraught for queer writers. Sara Ahmed discusses such genealogies as phenomenologically constructed spaces, in which the well-worn and expected path of existence is one of elementary (think school) family trees, in which our path is defined by those who conceived and birthed us, and it is contingent on our ability to socially reproduce reproduction: conceiving and birthing humans of our own. Essence is then the point where egg and sperm converge, and is completed with a subsequent convergence that occurs with one’s participation: one that is literally seminal, but figuratively, not so much. Somehow childhood is the first consciousness of this experience: the essence in which one is often supposed to say of such phenomenological bio-family trees, ‘this is good.’

a prairie scene with distant roads and a silhouetted figure

All photos in this piece are courtesy of the author.

What if one forgets one’s childhood, or, at least for me, renders it as insignificant? Not that it did not have an impact, but maybe it was not essentially me. Maybe essence can be found in the ways we exist, the ways we change. Maybe I can forget there are mothers and fathers, parents and guardians, and maybe I can pretend that there are other ways to establish ‘essence.’ I often do think that essence can never exist outside of mocking quotations, because such a concept seems presumptuous at the least, and perhaps arrogant. What if ‘essence’ could be played with, experimented, tried on? What if pretending it is real could make something meaningful, outside of midwest childhood summer evenings regarding dusk and fireflies? What if essence could begin where one so wished, and at a time one so chose? An essence forgoing bio-family trees, more concerned with tall grass roots into flint marbled earth.

“For women and queer people, forgetfulness can be a useful tool for jamming the smooth operations of the normal and the ordinary.”

– Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

It is interesting how liturgically tracing the well-worn paths of prairie land can dissolve the well-worn phenomenological paths of which Ahmed speaks. Adding to the wear of prairie trails obscures bio-family trees and paths until I forget how to name such paths, forgetting how to find them.

the life of the prairie does not care… just leaving me to be a being Being. I am being, and the grasses, deers, turkeys, and hopefully mountain lions do not give a shit.

a prairie scene with bushes

“The pairing of sensuousness and reason is relevant as we consider the allegorical nature of queer utopian expression.”

– José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Futurity

Building or discovering an essence is a fiction. It is still something I do. It may indeed “…not be a retreat from reality but can be a certain way of facing it.” I am not entirely convinced though that it is not a retreat from reality, nor that it is a way of facing such. Maybe it is strictly make-believe, but make-believe is still something that requires making and now exists, and maybe that reaffirms Munoz’s statement of facing reality. That is something I will take.

Constructing and claiming allegories appears to be haughty, seems limited in thought, and feels almost as problematic as I can get. Still, it does not stop me. I want the allegory, damn it. I will fucking construct it. I will fucking claim it.

‘Allegory’ might be a conceptual placeholder. Remembering a stint where I would run those flint prairie hills and write in stream-of-conscious, ‘allegories’ is a theme I latched onto. When I reread those jottings, there are few allegories mentioned, and most feel insufficient now. Allegories might be a conceptual placeholder: a way to discuss a phenomenology of queer prairie land. One that is imaginative, personifying, and make-believe: a place that can be molded, fabled; a phenomenon that follows me. Rife with queer failures, as I also seem unsatisfied in attempting to name it, queer prairie land allegories are my queer motif.

“To live is to fail, to bungle, to disappoint, and ultimately to die; rather than searching for ways around death and disappointment, the queer art of failure involves the acceptance of the finite, the embrace of the absurd, the silly, and the hopelessly goofy. Rather than resisting endings and limits, let us instead revel in and cleave to all of our inevitable fantastic failures.”

– Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

a prairie scene with a big sky

“Sometimes it is tears or laughter that makes me realize that I have been pulled to another place and another time.”

– Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

Queer prairie land allegories are residual spectres: haunting wherever I go, whenever. I consider spectres, ghosts, because of Munoz’s “Ghosts in Public Sex: Utopian Longings, Queer Memories” from Cruising Utopia. What it means for queerness to hang in the air, in space, in us is evermore palatable. They do not necessarily need explanations. Ghost-matter never seems to be what is questioned: rather, inquiries of their existence, the spaces they hold, and the impacts they have. This is more a statement of existence than one of purpose: a teleology, maybe. It is not a question of why it makes me forget childhood, forget home, forget bio-family trees, and forge new essences. It is that all those things happened through a welcomed haunting that is queer prairie land; its haunting, an allegory.

As is the way with most things, queer prairie land allegories are now experienced in recollections, where I am visited by and visiting a time and place, but from the future with hindsight through flashbacks ushered in through haunting spectres. I live in Chicago now, a metropolis. I work in ‘the loop’ in an esoteric building, surrounded with more of the like: corporate US of A. Even in such a place, a city, I am visited and visiting. Drunkenly walking between our apartments, I enter my friend’s place, my friend gives me a frosted handle of nearly-finished, months-old tequila, pulls out turntables, and starts mixing EDM tracks. “Visceral memories… Sweat, dirt, and KS sunshine heat manifest…” I start writing in that particular moment. “…My body, though in the city, is reminisced in the valleys of those fucking Flint Hills.” I am trying to trace new paths of late and am doing so with spectre-companions.

“Or you might feel homesick; estranged from your present location and long for a space that you once inhabited as home.”

– Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

But it is not home. It is better than home. Remember, I seek the essences that are fabricated through the phenomenology of queer self to land: a rejection of the prescripted essence that would doom me to take part in stories of boys and girls.

a prairie scene with rolling hills

“Space then becomes a question of ‘turning,’ of directions taken, which not only allow things to appear, but also enable us to find our way through the world by situating ourselves in relation to such things.”

– Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

I am trying to trace new paths of late. I trace paths from my bed to my kitchen every morning with a precedent that coffee comes first, my medications following shortly after. If I time things well enough, I can start brewing the coffee, have a glass of water with pills to be swallowed, and let the sublingual hormones dissolve under my tongue before my days’ mundane liturgies begin. For me, hormones take time in a multiplicative way; ~15 minutes to slowly melt into the blood vessels of my mouth, years to fully manifest in my body. Halsted is my path these days. It carries the Chicago Boystown gay bars, my bus ride to the office, and my 4 mile there-and-back running route to Oz Park. I am waiting to see what liturgically tracing the trails of Chicago can do for me.

I know damn well that allegories are problematic, but I still construct them…

Oz Park has a singular hill. I remember the first time I saw it. It was the first hill I had seen in Chicago, seen by me nearly a year after I moved to the adjacent neighborhood. Hills are something I forget, and this hill is nothing like those of my queer prairie land allegories. It is not steep enough, not tall enough, nor taunting like those riddled with flint. If queer prairie land allegories are a motif, than the motif of hills are the omen. A singular hill is more haunting to me among these crosswalks and esoteric buildings than when it has accompanying hills — an out-of-place instantiation, an ink drop on the page, the thing that should have been removed, but stayed.

The omen is the pith of a concept: actually emblematic. A hill is not the highest summit, not the sea level, nor the subterranean trench. For me, the hill is the limbo between ascension and descension. It is a haunting pull-apart whose paths might provide forgetfulness and new and affective phenomenology. Maybe old and new paths are all inextricably connected for me at this purgatorial elevation. The elevation that allows for the composition of the body and inner being to morph, react, and distinguish, pulling the inner being from a grounded body, not yet claimed by the ether. Maybe the omen of the spectre that walks with me to coffee and hormones is the same spectre of my queer prairie land allegories. Whether we follow the path given to us, christen new ones, or tread those that are just beginning to whisper their ruts, the pulling apart is also holding me. It is my omen, precisely because it feels out of place. It is almost a question of how such an omen came about, and why it is there. A question of how I came to be through my paths in prairie lands, Chicago streets, and in my path to my kitchen — the omen hills with me, potentially pulling me apart in a way that allows me to continue to discover more nonprescription essences.

“Orientations are about the direction we take that puts some things and not others in our reach.”

– Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

The hill was the hill, but the hill was the weight of existing marginalized in this shitty society. The run was the run, but the run was endurance in fighting the society that hated us. That was the allegory. That experience was that experience, but that experience was every experience of hardship and rigorous triumph over hardship. That was the allegory. That was my coalition. That hill and that run, in all the allegorical ways it existed, was the nuance and existential power shared in the allegory. I fucking killed that run.

rocks and grasses

Queer prairie land allegories are under-worn ways of being experienced on well-worn prairie trails, and ghosts that possess the inner-person and accompany the charting of new trails bring their omens too. They are memories of the past, before and after a forgotten childhood. Queer prairie land allegories are selfish, maybe pitiful, and surely a way to use the land, but hopefully with less harm done, and inhabited with make-believe. At least, all of this is how I see them for me.

“Queerness should and could be about a desire for another way of being in both the world and time, a desire that resists mandates to accept that which is not enough.”

– José Esteban Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: the Then and There of Queer Phenomenology

I am finding new paths of late. I wonder if I could climb all the hills I encounter, and what it would mean to do so, whether I take the well-worn paths, or ascend the omen through a different course, knowing that any choice might say something about an omen, an allegory, or me all of which ostensibly accompany the embodiment of which I traverse.

Maybe there is an allegory in that…