Masc Conceptions of Nature

Ellie Stephenson cautions against the dominant conception of the Australian landscape as a purely masculine pursuit.

Art by Jocelin Chan

People often claim that Australia is a nation with an outdoorsy ethos. Liking the outdoors is up there with enjoying vegemite and playing cricket – cheerfully exploited in advertisements and lazily employed as a rhetorical tool. When many people picture Australian life, they imagine camping, four-wheel-driving, days at the beach. All the same, in the Australian imagination, the bush is wild, waiting to be overcome. It’s routine for people to boast fearfully about our dangerous wildlife, constantly framing Australian nature as a hostile place. It’s rhetoric passed down from our colonial ancestors; nature is there to be conquered, to be tamed. Who, in this imagination, interacts with nature? Straight men.

The outdoors is framed as a traditionally masculine pursuit, from the stockmen in bush poetry to the stereotype of the camping-fishing-jetskiing bloke. In this framing, the environment exists as a tool with which to confirm one’s masculinity and a source of free adrenaline. The outdoors is there to be rough, to be in danger, and to be solitary. It is there to be overcome, by withstanding the elements and beating the terrain. 

By contrast, queerness and femininity are relegated to the urban and suburban. The traditional image of a woman is, of course, domestic. But even the cultural image of an empowered woman is city-based – found in corporate headquarters or on building sites. Queerness is still more localised – the collective mind packages it into rapidly gentrifying inner-city gaybourhoods and cultural scenes. 

This framing has two effects: it prevents our society from having a productive relationship with the environment, and it harms the people who are excluded from interacting with nature. 

The view of nature as a site for masculinity produces destructive attitudes towards it. Because the narratives about nature hyperbolise how it can be threatening and brutal, the way society responds to it reflects that. Australians, rather than being outdoorsy, have a pervasive and pathological fear of nature. That’s why it’s more common for people to take fearful pride in funnel web spiders and taipans than to direct joy and affection towards potoroos, numbats and pademelons – marsupials that many Australians would probably not recognise. That’s why, when many people speak about Australian ecosystems they emphasise “droughts and flooding rains”, not jewel beetles and hanging swamps and lagoons and bilbies. Perhaps it’s why people are so willing to cut down suburban trees and to cull sharks. 

I’ve heard people complain that the Australian landscape is brown, not lush and verdant and neatly European. It makes me sad. They’re missing the shimmer of heat on the horizon, the elegant amber trunks of angophoras, the vivid incandescent columns of banksia spinulosa, the glowing silhouettes of sunlit boulders, the glistening spine of a diamond python. We have internalised a vision of nature designed to be conquered and suppressed. A landscape which has been drained of colour, softness and variation is one which can be plundered by capitalism and colonialism. 

On an individual level, too, this framing of nature is dangerous. I remember enduring my commute listening to a guy talk in the quiet carriage – he was moving to a leafy new housing development and he was worried about snakes. He talked about buying a gun. I thought about how horrible it was that this man was brave enough to shoot a snake but not brave enough to let one live. His automatic assumption was to subdue and destroy intrusions of nature into his living space, not to attempt to coexist. The anger at laws restricting fishing or beach driving reveal a similar entitlement. The nests of endangered seabirds don’t stand a chance against vehicular thrill seeking. The monumental curves of sand dunes and the quivering of their plant life in the sea breeze become like enemies, to be subjected to roaring engines and thick tyres. Vivid marine biodiversity becomes just red tape to be torn away. 

This is not to suggest that these attitudes are inherently masculine nor that nature ought to be viewed as feminine. What I am arguing is that nature in Australia has been defined in reference to a colonial masculinity which justifies conquest and destruction and legitimises settling stolen land. The untameable and unrestrained characterisation of the bush and its sharp contrast to European countryside (which, by the way, is ahistorical and ignores primary evidence suggesting that the Australian landscape pre-1788 was carefully managed) is used to create a sense of nationhood hinged on terra nullius. In turn, Australian conceptions of masculinity have been shaped by a shared ethos – constructed through cultural myths and rights of passage – of extractive and destructive interactions with nature. This is partly why, I think, images of ‘the bush’ and rural areas have been reserved as a space for whiteness.

While obviously not preventing queer people and women from enjoying the environment, these narratives certainly make outdoors spaces less welcoming to us. Where outdoors pursuits are filled with heteronormative masculinity, it can be intimidating and make these experiences less accessible. If I hadn’t grown up being encouraged to explore nature, I’m not sure I’d know where to start: the cultural image of these adventures preserves them, by and large, for a particular set of people. 

All this means that it’s time to start reframing the way we think about the environment. Claiming the environment as a queer space is important: we should feel empowered to experience joy from nature. As a community, we can create opportunities to do that – hiking or camping or adventuring together. But on a broader level, we should attempt to reframe Australian conceptions of nature. We can do this by challenging destructive and exclusionary depictions of nature and by platforming more productive ones. 

I really admire the Instagram page @indigenouswomenhike, which explores the relationship of Indigenous women with the land (in this case the US) through hiking. The founder, Jolie, uses the page to reveal the Indigenous history of popular hiking trails and to unpack the ways in which nature can facilitate healing. Telling these stories is important – they add a dimension to the way people imagine the environment, evoking the rich histories and emotions of the landscape. Where we have previously imagined Australian nature to be hostile and unforgiving, we can see an intricate and beautiful ecosphere. And this can change our instincts about how to treat the environment: it is not there to be overcome or exploited – a one-sided relation of dominance – but to be lived with. 

We have been trained not to appreciate colonised nature. It’s bad for us as well as the environment. Cultural stereotypes about the environment are used to preserve restrictive and outdated views of gender, while perpetuating harmful attitudes towards nature. The pursuit to push back against these reductive narratives is an important one, which has the potential to revolutionise our relationship to our physical surroundings, culturally binding us to the land and driving us to refuse to accept its exploitation.