:: Article

Modern Nature and Queer Literature’s Yearning for the Sea

By Hannah Williams.

Derek Jarman, Modern Nature (1991, re-issue Penguin Books, 2017/2018)

The Dungeness coast is bleak. Two power stations, only one operational, rise out of the shingle. By day they are grimy, worn with age and the salt-wind that comes biting off the sea, but at night they are aglow with a futuristic brilliance, lights blaring like the stars that shine over the nearby ocean. It’s a confluence of the natural and the unnatural that could only occur at the sea, constant and yet ever-changing. In 1989, when he was forty-seven, artist, filmmaker and writer Derek Jarman bought a small tarred fisherman’s cottage on the shore. He set about fulfilling his life-long dream of cultivating a garden, planting flowers that loved the salt-filled soil, that would not be stripped by the sea-wind. He filled the space with driftwood, standing upright like fingers pointing to the sky, and planted, amongst others: poppies, lavender, borage, gorse, sea kelp. In the vast expanse of shore, curved like a gull’s wing, the garden is neon bright. At night, the sea reflects the moon off the shingle.

There is another cottage, thousands of miles away, that also stands beside the sea. Instead of the shale it is built upon rock, the salt air cut through by the scent of pine, the tidal pools full of crabs and barnacles. Built on an island off the coast of Maine, Silverledges was home to author and environmentalist Rachel Carson and, like Jarman’s Prospect Cottage, it was the culmination of a lifelong dream to leave beside the ocean. Decades apart, they both looked through windows at wheeling gulls and fishing boats and foaming waves, and cherished the freedom the sea had given them.

The sea and queerness have always been intertwined. The waves were a liminal space, not bound to the rules of the societies on land. It’s a place away from the eyes of family and friends, where desires can be explored away from the categorisation and labels of a conservative, heteronormative society. Allen Ginsberg, whose work Jarman describes reading in Modern Nature, wrote of his peers ‘who blew and were blown by those human seraphim, the sailors, caresses of / Atlantic and Caribbean love’. The marrying of the natural with queerness, for so long castigated as unnatural, is seen throughout the work of gay writers who take the ocean as their subject.

Photo: Geraint Lewis/Rex Features

In Derek Jarman’s film Blue there is one image: a vivid blue. It is a blue that shocks: the colour of the first dragonfly in the summer, of tufts of cornflowers, of a hot, metallic car door. When it was released there were four reels of colour – enough blue for 76 minutes. Water winds its way throughout via interwoven voices, the sea an open mouth. In one section, ‘Pearl Fishers in Azure Seas’, a voice breaks over us:

‘Pearl fishers
In azure seas
Deep waters
Lost Boys
Sleep forever
In a dear embrace
Salt lips touching’

For Jarman, the sea is an image of life and death, or the infinite possibilities of a boundless world. It is a place inextricable from queerness—the blue of the sky and the waves is as natural, as timeless as gay desire. ‘For Blue there are no boundaries or solutions.’  Queerness, so long coded by society as ‘unnatural’, is rendered an essential part of nature, as eternal and constant as the tide. Jarman situates the ocean as a place of queer lust, rather than palatable romance; it even plays a part in the kiss, open mouths covered in sea-salt. In a time of moral outrage and panic about HIV, he is not only presenting an image of sexualised queerness but showing its beauty – and the beauty of those lost, too. Throughout Modern Nature, Jarman receives phone calls telling him that another friend is dying, that another friend is dead. The ravage of AIDS is unceasing; a disease that did not care about love, about talent, about friendship.

The seclusion inherent in the Dungeness landscape exists as a kind of Eden: a paradise secluded from the demands of the world. Talking about his love for a semi-mythical medieval era of art, he talks about seeking ‘not William Morris’s journeyman Eden, but something subterranean, like the seaweed and coral that floats in the arcades of a jewelled reliquary.’ The landscape of Dungeness acts almost as a holy place for Jarman; the driftwood he found and placed in his paintings, the anchors and fishermen’s nets he placed like sculptures in his garden, were his relics. The objects he placed in tar—erotic magazines, seaside knick-knacks, mattresses—to form his Bed series took on a sacred aura: transformed, preserved against time. At the start of Modern Nature, we are told of the stretch of shale near his cottage and of the brick kutch, falling apart, where ‘the fishermen’s nets were boiled in amber preservative’; a parallel line drawn between his bold, overtly queer artwork and the traditions of seafarers long-gone. This idea of the shore as sacred ground, as a place of spirituality away from traditional religion, is seen throughout the book. Talking of his first love, and first sexual experience, Jarman again draws back to the concept of a paradise by the sea, in this case a patch of wild violets hidden near the cliffs. It becomes the spot where he brings his lover, ‘watched him slip out of his grey flannel suit and lie naked in the spring sunlight […] Our fingers touching in the purple’. This ecstatic wave of violets, washing over the hedgerow and over their intertwined hands, transforms the place into hallowed ground, recreated again and again by Jarman until he at last finds it in his seaside garden.

It’s not that queerness does not thrive in cities; on the contrary, Jarman tells us of sex at house parties, of bringing boys back to his flat, of the pulsing lights and bulging crotches of old Soho gay clubs. He describes intimate fumblings on Hampstead Heath, detailing the sheer joy that cruising used to bring—of the delicate choreography of finding a stranger in the dark. But the city is a place of danger too, in a way that the storms of Dungeness cannot compare to. We are told of the beatings, from police and from groups of homophobes. London is a city bristling with violence towards gay men, a beer bottle in the face only one errant word away. Alongside the overt violence, the gay clubs are being gentrified, turned into overpriced restaurants and flats. The places in society explicitly for gay people are shrinking, fading into a London that is societally-approved and commodifiable. The sea represents something else. By aligning gayness with the ocean, Jarman is able to depict it as something eternal, as much a part of the world as the wave or the sky or the sun. It is something that cannot be destroyed by capitalism or AIDS or laws. Like Prospect Cottage, queerness will stand forever, undestroyed by any storm.

The sea as a place for queerness to flourish, unhindered, is also seen in the writings of Rachel Carson. Best known as the author of Silent Spring, Carson wrote extensively on marine life, exploring the depths of the ocean and its inhabitants. In her article ‘Undersea’, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1937, Carson presents her very own ‘pearl fishers in azure seas’, asking her readers to consider:

Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earth-bound senses, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home; or the lilt of the long, slow swells of mid-ocean, where shoals of wandering fish prey and are preyed upon, and the dolphin breaks the waves to breathe the upper atmosphere.

The sea becomes a place of alien rituals and codes, a landscape unintelligible except to the creatures that live there.

Carson’s words invite us further into the deep: ‘To sense this world of waters known to the creatures of the sea we must shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place, and enter vicariously into a universe of all-pervading water.’ It’s easy to read her words on these hidden worlds—vibrant, vital, yet utterly unknown—as symbolic: Carson was in love with another woman, Dorothy Freeman. Their relationship was kept hidden and they regularly destroyed their correspondence to each other; burnt letters that swelled full of tenderness, warmth and passion. The two had a code for when the letters needed destroying, with one telling the other that the ‘strong box’ should be used.  When communicating, they would send two letters – one to read aloud in public, and the other personal and intimate. The public letters were addressed ‘dearest’, talked of everyday activities; in private they called each other ‘darling’, quoted Keats’ ‘Endymion’, talked of their anguish at being parted.

Carson and Freeman met by the sea, on the rocky shore of the island where Carson built her cottage and where Freeman holidayed with her family, falling in love to the rhythm of the waves, the smell of sea salt. ‘My love is boundless as the sea’, Freeman wrote in one letter, a paean to a love so inextricable from the ocean that the only way it could be described was by aligning it to the infinite possibility, the eternality of the tides. It was only Freeman whom Carson told about her inoperable cancer, and it was Freeman who scattered Carson’s ashes in the sea by her house in Maine. The sea once again becomes consecrated ground, a holy place. Before she died, Carson talked of how she wanted to live with Freeman, despite her illness: ‘We are going to be happy, and go on enjoying all the lovely things that give life meaning—sunrise and sunset, moonlight on the bay, music and good books, the song of thrushes and the wild cries of geese passing over.’ The sea wasn’t just a backdrop for their love, but its locus. It was a place where they could be together in seclusion, away from an outside world that might be ‘looking for ideas’, as Freeman wrote.

‘My mind keeps floating back to Dungeness’, wrote Jarman during one of his frequent stays in hospital. During his delirium he would picture himself planting flowers in his seaside garden, ‘sowing fennel and calendula’. Planting fragrant herbs to scent the sea air. For Carson, returning to her cottage amongst the tidal pools and the lobster-pots became ‘a dream—a lovely dream.’ At the end of their lives, both Jarman and Carson yearned for their homes by the shore. They wanted to be in a landscape that stands eternal through pain and illness. To return to the place where they were both free to love.


Hannah Williams is a freelance writer and editor based in south-east London. She is one-half of Offord Road Books, and enjoys herbal-flavoured drinks and the Kenwood Ladies Pond. Follow her on Twitter @hkatewilliams

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 23rd, 2018.