A faint rainbow shines in the light of a waterfall.

Unearthing Queer Joy

words by riley black

photograph by Louisiana Mei Gelpi

In a cultural moment where people like me are coming out into a world of pain, it can feel easier to center our hurts rather than our joy, writes Atmos contributor Riley Black. 

I had to be loud. I’m not sure I could have kept the sound in even if I tried. With the scaly form of a 220 million year old fish cradled in my hand and the heat of the midday sun driving drops of sweat down the back of my neck, I practically cackled with joy and heard the sound reverberate back at me off the canyon walls. The feeling was almost post-orgasmic, making me grin like Geena Davis walking into the diner midway through Thelma & Louise. I couldn’t keep it in and had no desire to try.


“What’s it like to find a fossil?” is a question I field fairly often. 


I always feel a little bit gagged in the kind of answer I can provide. Paleontology is often presented as an intellectual pursuit meant to piece together lost worlds we can touch but never visit. The stock answer is to say how wonderful it is to be the first person to see something that hasn’t lived on this Earth for however many thousands or millions of years, a framing that edges up to the notion of conquest through discovery. Reputations are built on a “bring ‘em back petrified” mindset with the names of prominent researchers honored in binomials as if that ancient organism becomes an avatar of the person. Uncovering a life from another time is expressed as a description of a feeling that lives only in the mind, detached from the body, in the service of a never-ending academic quest.


But I know what I felt on that late August afternoon. I’d been hiking, bouldering, and clambering around the juniper-dotted desert of southeastern Utah for hours, following the path of the dry streambed that once funneled the water down through stacks of stone turned to canyons. Left to my own devices, solitary as an alleycat, I like to walk for as long as my intuition tells me to, getting deep into the backcountry before stopping for a snack and then slowly picking my way over the stacked rocks as I inch back towards the truck. I knew there were fossils among the orange and maroon rocks. A few years earlier I’d hauled myself up onto a ledge dotted with an aquarium’s-worth of Triassic fish and the chunky bones of a crocodile-like phytosaur. I knew I likely missed more than I found, so I stepped briskly to return to the rocks that looked most likely to share.


Slowly scuffing and stepping along a lip of rock just below a towering wall of Jurassic sandstone, threading what remained of an ancient stream, I spotted scales–scalloped patterns of ghostly white and the delicate indentations of tiny fin rays that flicked in primordial waters. Fish. I put my pack down by the first, then spotted another and another. It was like a geological Magic Eye, a small collection of perch-sized swimmers coming into focus against the rock. I started to chuckle, the most pleasant lightness radiating out from my belly, through my chest and abdomen as if slowly traveling along any available nerve ending. The tension of the search was broken by the most pleasant shock—a pulse that sharpened my senses to the mingled scents of dust and juniper, the ensconcing quiet of the canyon, the feel of the stone beneath the treads of my boots. Had I a tail, I would have happily lashed it like a cat fixated on a bird. It was too much feeling to keep in. The soft spoken woman, where no one could hear her, cheering the joy of an unexpected meeting that had been set in stone hundreds of millions of years earlier.

The desert is the place where I learned that even stone changes, given enough time; the Earth reworked through transition just as I have been.

Of course my attempts to convey the burst of endorphins that kept me happily taking notes and carefully wrapping up fossils will fall short of conveying the depth of the emotional current. But I feel it’s important to try. Time in nature is so often expressed in terms of what we do and what we see; our thoughts but not as often our feelings. And even as queer writers like myself try to strip away the traditionally cisgender and straight overlays on nature, it can feel easier to center our hurts rather than our joy.


It’s not difficult to visualize our pain through nature. An excruciating breakup might be embodied in bad taxidermy, loneliness in the isolation of the wind-swept desert. The sorrow feels more real, more grounded when given a biological or earthen stratum to live in. And especially in a cultural moment where people like me are coming out into a world of pain—when we can be punished for even speaking our true names in public—we often connect to others through hurt. Perhaps by projecting the pain we carry onto nature, it can be recontextualized, understood, and transmuted back into something human that signals we ache, bruise, and bleed like anyone else. Exuberance feels too personal, too close to the erotic in the way it grounds us back into our bodies. What does it mean to tell you that I feel happy, alive, aroused when those expressions are treated as fleeting, fluffy, or even suspect? Compersion can feel like too much to ask.


But if we are to un-straighten and queer our conceptions of nature, we must bring our whole bodies to the endeavor. What we find in the wild comes to us through where our skin meets the stone, the tree bark, the wind of an impending thunderstorm. To be in the wild is to go a little wild, reconnected to something that slumbers beyond our rote behaviors in home and office. We become vulnerable, not just to the biting bugs and sunburn but to living in bodies that contain their own unique galaxies of emotion—largely invisible but detectable through resonance. 


To share our elated experience with other people feels like inviting them into our flesh during a time when bodies like mine are foisted up for public opinion and debate, the structure of my skeleton, the particulars of my hormones, and even the zones usually marked “private” being treated as prompts for everyone else’s opinion before my own. But that riotous body is where I feel the ecstatic pull back to the sunburnt stone, a fleeting mass of flesh and bone separate from the Earth but also made from it. The desert is the place where I learned that even stone changes, given enough time; the Earth reworked through transition just as I have been. 


When I see a wall of sandstone slowly being buffed by the wind or a hillside of broken, lichen-covered boulders that fell before I was even born, I can’t help but happily ask “What will you become?” My blood, sweat, and tears have all spattered the stone, but I keep returning because of the lively vibration between my body and the ever-changing rock.  

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