The Environmental Histories of Desire

Greta LaFleur's book discusses the relationship between the natural world and sexuality. This painting depicts a fish skewered on a brach. The branch also holds a blue jay and many smaller purple, red, pink, blue, and yellow birds.

Greta LaFleur, The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018)

Is the history of sexuality an environmental history? And, if it is, what does an environmental history of sexuality have to do with race? How do glistening blossoms, muddy neighborhoods, or passenger pigeons transform understandings of human difference? Greta LaFleur’s new book The Natural History of Sexuality in Early America argues that prior to the advent of sexology in the nineteenth century, understandings of sex in the British colonial world were informed by pervasive environmental logics. Those logics are rooted in the natural history texts that shaped eighteenth-century British North American culture. As these texts examined plant and animal specimens and strove to produce taxonomic order, they also theorized the ways environmental factors could impact human appearance, character, and desire. The title of the book is in white font against a background of blue, brown, and orange birds. Some of the swarming bird wings cover the letters of the title.

Noting the absence of scholarly attention to “the historical specificity of environmental understandings of the human body,” LaFleur offers an analysis of natural history and a broad archive of related genres to “restore the environmental body to the center” of scholarship about sex in the eighteenth century. While many scholars have examined natural history’s role in the production of racial categories, LaFleur argues that these texts also “persistently” focus on “the question of sexual practices and inclinations.” The histories of both race and sex thus overlap in natural history’s theories of environmental influence.

Talking about sex and sexuality in the eighteenth century is tricky. Sexuality usually refers to a specific way of thinking about sex as linked to and constitutive of identity. Michel Foucault argues that “sexuality” in this sense emerged around 1800. LaFleur instead asks readers to consider the ways that ideas about sex and desire circulated before the advent of these disciplinary ways of thinking about sexuality. LaFleur asks readers to see sex and desire within a long history of racialized ideologies about environmental impact. When environmental factors are understood to change human characteristics and behaviors, scholars must reconsider what produces desire itself. Across her chapters, LaFleur develops an account of “sex without the subject” in order to track these ambient environmental renderings of desire in an era before sexology.

Botanical Sexuality

In some ways, eighteenth-century natural history’s investments in sex sit right at the surface. The Swedish botanist Carl von Linné, usually called Linnaeus, famously developed a taxonomic system classifying plants based on their stamens and pistils—their visible sex organs—in his Systema Naturae. First published in 1731, the text went through seemingly endless editions and was central to natural history and its colonial bioprospecting across the eighteenth century. Scholars have examined the surprising ways Linnaeus’s botany shaped popular understandings of sex, same-sex desire, and gender in the eighteenth century and how his work influenced the nineteenth century discourse of sex-education.

The histories of both race and sex overlap in natural history’s theories of environmental influence.

LaFleur is interested in Linneas’s botany, but she is more interested in his theory of human difference and its entwined accounts of race and sex. In a descriptive table, for example, Linnaeus systematically charts perceived racial difference and racial hierarchies among human beings. The four “types” of humans, according to Linnaeus, are delineated by facial features, dress, government, and sexual behavior. A supposed lack of passion among Native men, then, and the stereotypical racist trope of promiscuous Black women emerge together in Linnaeus’s account of human kinds. Focusing on Linnaeus’s table of human types brings histories of race back into the frame of Linnean theories of sexual difference. La Fleur’s focus on human typology and regional difference productively complicates botany’s dominance in considerations of natural history and sexuality in the eighteenth century.

The Natural History of Sexuality’s fourth chapter demonstrates the ways the logics of Linnaean sexuality—about sexual and about racial, ethnic, or regional difference—make their way into popular narrative. Erasmus Darwin’s popular 1793 poem Loves of the Plants (one of two poems that comprise The Botanic Garden) famously and explicitly speculates about the sex lives of plants. While Linnaeus and Darwin taxonomized existing plant forms, LaFleur also emphasizes the ways these texts invited speculation about unknown or undiscovered sexual possibilities, for both plants and humans.

A drawing of deep read flower blooms downward. Its long green stem falls behind the bloom.

Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Gardens contains drawings and many glorious color plates, like this one of an amaryllis formosissima. Photo via Picryl.

Linking the histories of race and sex allows LaFleur to take existing analysis of popular botany in new directions, as she shows the ways this familiar set of botanical referents helped justify settler colonial ideologies in the U.S. For example, a Darwin-esque link between botany and human sexuality structures Herman Mann’s Female Review, or Memoirs of an American Young Lady (1797), which describes the life of Deborah Sampson, a white British colonial woman who dressed as a man to fight in the American Revolutionary War. In Mann’s work, Sampson’s life and particularly his/her gender and sexuality—dressing as a man and taking female lovers—are persistently “described within a botanical idiom” that renaturalizes Sampson’s behavior as an inevitable product of American soil and revolutionary environments. This “botanical idiom” is less about comparing people to types of plants than about foregrounding specific inclinations as natural products of a regional environment.

While botanical language becomes a way of defending Sampson’s queerness, or what in the eighteenth century would best be called sapphism, it is also inextricable from white settler claims to American lands and landscapes as their supposedly “natural” domain. By describing Sampson’s romantic attachments to women as products of “Columbia’s soil,” Mann is “defending the unusual, the unlikely, and the seemingly unnatural as, in fact, part of nature.” Sampson’s relationships with female lovers emerge like native plants from the land itself. But this “rhetoric of naturalization” is also closely related to the ways white settlers justified and described their violent colonization of Native land. Indeed, Mann’s work pairs this botanical sexual rhetoric with a description of Sampson’s murder of a Native man, which is described as an American act of passage. Mann deploys botanical comparisons to produce natural and Indigenous status for a queer settler, while sanctioning the murder of Native people. These botanical renderings ask readers to consider what LaFleur calls “settler sexuality”—the ways in which ideologies of sex and gender, including but also exceeding normative heterofamilial structures—become justification for settler colonialism.

Space, Race, and Sex

LaFleur’s examination of botanical sapphism offers new ways of thinking sex, botany, and settler colonialism, by focusing not just on the sexy plants of Darwin’s poems but on the ways close relationships to soil and landscape were used to describe unconventional desires. The rest of her chapters extend environmental thinking even further beyond the scope of the obviously environmental.

The bulk of LaFleur’s analysis considers the ways sexuality is linked to spaces and regions. For instance, LaFleur examines a range of Barbary captivity narratives by male British writers about their experiences of and fears about enslavement in the Barbary states along the coast of North Africa. These narratives revolve around the persistent fear of sodomy. The idea of “sodomy” applies, LaFleur shows, not to any one particular act or to particular individuals. Instead the “sodomitical” becomes a spatially located inclination, associated not with the desires of specific people but with the Barbary states as a region. The sodomitical, as LaFleur understands it, designates racial and religious difference and indexes “ways of life inimical to Christian habits of diet, comportment, government, and relation.” The sodomitical is thus less about “stand-alone behavior” than it is a feature of a region and a way of life.

LaFleur asks readers to see desire within a long history of racialized ideologies about environmental impact.

The linked sexualization and racialization of space is also the focus of LaFleur’s analysis of Boston’s West End, colloquially known as “‘the Hill,’ ‘Negro Hill,’ and ‘Mount Whoredom.’” As these names suggest, the Hill was a heavily racialized space associated with vice and prostitution, whose very atmosphere seemed to draw passerby into particular behaviors. LaFleur compellingly suggests that accounts of the Hill produce a meditation on “the sexuality of space, and especially urban space” itself. Rather than a closed site from which specific types of raced and sexed people spring, the Hill figures as a site of contagious blackness that destabilizes whiteness. White visitors to the Hill’s bars and brothels encountered a material environment that threatened to ensnare them and reshape their physical features and desires. The Hill is thus understood to propagate a set of racially inflected inclinations, which emanate from the space itself rather than from individual people.

Animal Sexualities?

In its conclusion, The Natural History of Sexuality lingers on what survives of the eighteenth century’s environmental logics for understanding sexuality, race, and the body. LaFleur’s work encourages readers to trace legacies of the environmental logics of sexuality in ways that she clearly demonstrates might be both positive and negative, full of possibility and nevertheless linked to settler colonial and white supremacist violence. It’s at this moment that book’s cover becomes especially interesting. The cover, a close up of a 2002 painting by Walton Ford, depicts a severed tree branch held creepily aloft by a flock of passenger pigeons. This image invites readers to extend LaFleur’s work, both by bringing birds into the analytical frame and by pushing the time frame of the project into the present.

A severed tree branch fills the frame. It is covered by thousands of brown and blue passenger pigeons. They seem to be carrying the branch with them into the distance.

The cover image of LaFleur’s book comes from this larger painting by Walton Ford. Falling Bough, 2002. Image via Flickr.

Passenger pigeon flocks, in their overwhelming multiplicity, were a mainstay in the natural historical tradition at the heart of LaFleur’s book, but they only appear on the cover, as a visual reminder of natural history’s many animals and their legacies. Scholars interested in animal studies and histories of extinction will be familiar with the iconography of the passenger pigeon. The cover image invites readers to imagine a new convergence between the history of the animal and the natural history of sexuality.

Despite the cover, animals are almost completely absent in LaFleur’s book, which unsettled me as a reader. The botanic gets rich attention in LaFleur’s analysis, and the discourses of race and human difference that root her study are very much about the status of the human and its parameters. But no sustained attention to animals appears in LaFleur’s chapters. Ford’s pigeons open a door for thinking about this absence in LaFleur’s analysis. As coordinated units lifting a branch hazily through midair, they certainly evince coordinated inhuman power. But LaFleur’s work also invites us to ask: what atmospheric, racializing, or sexual impacts might animals have? In what ways might their atmospheric disruption have registered alongside, say, the botanic idioms of Herman Mann, the regional sodomy of the Barbary captives tales, or the agentic atmospheres of “Negro Hill”? And how might the porous bodies and emanating desires of the British colonial world LaFleur describes inhere in the rainbowed feathers of a twenty-first century depiction of birds?

A portrait of a person with short brown hair wearing a black and white floral shirt.

Greta LaFleur. Photo by Karen Tongson.

To ask these questions from the perspective of the spatialized understanding of sex that The Natural History of Sexuality examines might lead us to understand the regional migration of birds and the ambient material and sonic impacts of their flocks as the most important aspects of their influence. These factors might alter the bodies of humans and the contours of desire in turn. Following LaFleur’s emphasis leads to considering the diffuse impacts of animal specimens, rather than their taxonomic specificity.

As LaFleur acknowledges, this book is limited by its focus on British colonial perspectives. Its concepts and methods, however, usefully complicate accounts of natural history in British colonial North America and the early United States. In many ways, LaFleur’s argument is oriented as an intervention in the history of sexuality, rethinking core terms like sodomy and analyzing sex prior to the advent of sexuality as a disciplinary rubric. Shifting attention to the sexual logics of natural history and the entangled histories of race and sex, she also proposes a rethinking of what might count as environmental literature and what might be valuable about it. For scholars interested in the overlapping histories of race, sex, and environment, LaFleur offers useful frameworks for considering eighteenth-century British colonial North America and its aftermath.

Featured Image: Detail of Walton Ford’s Baba (1997). Image via Flickr

Julia Dauer is completing her Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she studies early and nineteenth-century American literature. You can read her writing at Avidly and Entropy. Her writing is forthcoming in Early American Literature and Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers. Her last contribution to Edge Effects was “Creationism, Mastodons, and Natural History in Kentucky” (March 2017). Contact.