Problems of Place: A (Visual) Diary on Queered Perspectives


Last September, after I returned from my first Camino walking into Santiago de Compostela with a close female friend and fellow medievalist, EHN approached me to see if I would be interested in submitting a piece of work. I eagerly accepted the invitation, and began sketching out a draft outline for the piece. I anticipated to incorporate details of the original Codex Calixtinus Bk V that includes the pilgrimage route for the Way of St James, and the various medieval women—actual and literary—whose texts would provide the key primary sources for my thesis and about whom, I could discuss in the wider context of inner spiritual journeying and physical pilgrimage, before finally, pivoting to my own contemporary walk. This, however, is not that piece. 

I wrote this creative piece of work during my temporary withdrawal from research to undergo surgery. It is a personal and critical reflection on the first year of my research, and the challenges I faced and subsequently had overcome by walking in and with the landscape. The work itself was prompted by a call for pictures for Queer Perspectives, and is due to be displayed as part of a virtual art exhibition to accompany a critical theory course of the same name to be held by David Carrillo-Rangel, across Europe next year.

I offer this visual diary to advocate for more openness around the challenges faced by researchers, of all genders—especially those who work on challenging issues within feminist and/or environmental research.

When I first began my feminist research journey the primary aim of my project was to “reclaim the lost voices of early medieval women through a concern for the environment” (My Confirmation Report, submitted November 24, 2020, 3). However, little did I know or realise at the time that my research journey, and my physical journeying with the modern environment, would recover and reconnect me to my own voice.

C/W (PTSD/Surgery/Trauma)

Queered Perspectives

My research examines gender and landscapes in early medieval texts written by, for, and about women at a time when female authorship or their participation in literary culture was largely elided and remains underestimated into the contemporary moment. Thankfully, change gathers apace (Watt, 2019). Taking Jack Halberstam’s reflections on Judie Bamber’s fragmentary series of seascapes which focus on horizons of simultaneous possibility and disappointment as a key feature of her landscapes, I have been reflecting on my first year of research (Halberstam, 2011). Together, Halberstam and Bamber’s sense of queered simultaneity came into sharp relief for both my research journey and for my physical journeying with a natural landscape queered by physical and psychic pain, and subsequently by COVID-19.

This visual diary is of the walks I took during my first year of research for my thesis, titled “Women, Landscape, and the Environment in Early Medieval Texts, c. 700-1000.”

These photographic images aim to show how my research journey, in and with the landscape was queered, initially by PTSD, triggered by themes of control in my research; especially extreme forms of control over and abuses of the female body, and subsequently, how this was coupled with the sudden onset and unexpected diagnosis of severe osteoarthritis in my right hip during the first week of my research. Each visual fragment embodies a separate temporal stratum of my journeying with the landscape, and time intersects each of these images and the narrative of trauma running through them. This includes the time differential between lived experience of trauma on the young female body and the natural spaces that afforded a sanctuary from it to me, and the time into which past trauma was triggered and reverberated into the present moment. Aside from walking far and wide throughout my life, in both green and seascape spaces, poetry is the thread that unifies all of these queered bodily spatial and temporal elements. As a child, I wrote poetry as a means of escape and defence, and in my adult life I wrote it to record both pleasure and pain. More recently, however, poetry has been a creative aid to my research which itself responds to early medieval poetic and female centric texts about the landscape. Consequently, I write into the future to both transcend and memorialise the past.

In recently discovering Audrey Lourde’s essay, “Poetry is not a Luxury,” I found her description of the function of poetry for women encapsulated perfectly what I always have felt about writing poetry as an aid to my thinking: “Poetry is the way we help to give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest external horizon of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives (Lourde, 1984, 371-373).

Starting research felt like unmooring myself from everything I had previously known and yet, at the same time arriving at the precise moment and place in which I needed to be. While the academic writing process seems to actively discourage any trace of emotionality, my initial research and personal experience concludes by suggesting that emotion is an inherent driver of our cognitive psyche and rationale for our decision-making in our research. Therefore, there are significant implications for feminist research where emotion, historically, has previously been dismissed as a negative marker of femininity and instability (Jaggar, 1989; VanEvery, 2016). Consequently, writing poetry is what I do to support my research when I don’t know what I need to write next and it helps me to think my way toward it.

My research examines two early medieval elegies in Old English, Wulf And Eadwacer and The Wife’s Lament, and the heroic poem, Beowulf. I argue that both modes of poetry are mediated, or rather are queered, by the gendered temporalities of the land or seascapes prescribed to the women in each of the poems. The lexical wealth of language shared by the poems binds them together into an archive that memorialises women and their natural landscapes and cultural environments, and yet does so through lithic landscapes that may predate my walks but not the journeying of others. The power of contemporary activism invested in a combination of walking and sharing tales is exemplified by the Refugee Tales group who for the last twenty-five years have provided support for the Gatwick Detainees Welfare Group. I add my words to the footsteps I trod alongside them, just “as past elegies, once fell from lips, and were caught by fleeting skies” (taken from poetry in my MA dissertation, 2018, 36).

Each image reflects a space newly queered by my presence in and with the landscape. Though I walked the same routes many, many times, each day, each week, and over the months during and after lockdown, my experience of these natural spaces was never the same. My mood varied and my pain levels increased rapidly from chronic to acute pain. Walking at speed initially meant I had to walk through the pain, but once I did so it helped even out my increasingly irregular gait and allowed me to achieve control of my body in each of the spaces. Refusing prescription painkillers to continue with my research and ensure my surgery was not delayed, I used regular, daily speed walking over long distances to help produce natural endorphins which enabled me to combat PTSD and maintain an increasing sense of control as my hip deteriorated—which it did, rapidly. I used only meditative breathing techniques and a TENS machine. As my PTSD improved and became more manageable, I completed my first chapter of my thesis and subsequently the draft of my confirmation report. However, in the weeks prior to surgery, my ability to walk rapidly decreased, and it became difficult and then impossible for me to leave the house. I had surgery on September 24, 2020 in a hospital with a “green” route designated for surgery during the pandemic. I was lucky. 

Taken together, then, my ecofeminist research and poetry frame this personal photographic memoir that memorialise trauma past and present, and manifests its transformation in and with a queered but agential natural landscape. The land is and has never been a passive agent to the human gaze. Its effect can be experienced conceptually in image and text, and for ourselves in real time. Therefore, the personal ecofeminist archive of bodily and literary traces I have accrued thus far throughout my research, as conceived by Julietta Singh in No Archive Will Restore You, have been distilled into my photographic journey which also functions itself as an archive (Singh, 2018). Health-wise, it has been a brutal first year for my research. Yet, in terms of academic and personal growth, it has probably been one of the most transformative and positive years of my life. This is in no small part due to the support I have received throughout from my family and the incredible women whose compassion has sustained me. However, the landscape has also played a significant part due to its powerful affective agency, its ability to act, in and with my journeying across a landscape queered by trauma.

April, an early morning walk up through fields of expectant ewes.
[Image description: A grassy hillside with expectant ewes sleeping beneath the trees in the early morning mist]

April, a gently sloping field with a crop of rapeseed flowers.
[Image description: Two adjacent sloping fields; one of yellow rapeseed flower and the other is fallow and full of grass. There is an old wooden pathway sign.]

April, exiting Lower Park Lane onto Castle Hill and heading to walk along the avenue of trees in the park.
[Image description: a tarmac road leading up to steps and onto a tree lined pathway overflowing with white flowers.]

April, looking upwards on the Blind Bishop’s Steps on Castle Hill.
[Image description: a set of red brick and grey cobbles steps leading up to the castle, with grass to the right and trees on the lefthand side.]
April, the avenue of trees in Farnham Park.
[Image description: a straight path with a line of trees and grass running along each side.]
April, looking down from just above the top of the Blind Bishop’s Steps on Castle Hill.
[Image description: a set of red brick and grey cobbled steps leading downhill, with a grassy bank to the left and trees on the righthand side.]
April, path side hedgerow of cow parsley, leading from the top of the Blind Bishop’s Steps towards the road crossing into Lower Park Lane.
[Image description: a pathway leading uphill, with white and green foliage over flowing on to the path and green leafy trees overhead.]
April, the River Wey in dappled shade, running through the Bishop’s Meadow.
[Image description: a river running beneath a willow tree, with the sun shining through it.]
May, sitting in the sun beside the River Wey in Bishop’s Meadow.
[Image description: an overgrowing grassy bank by the riverbank, with my bare feet just visible in the grass.]
June, red poppies in the Bishop’s Meadow.
[Image description: an overflowing area of mostly green vegetation with red poppies in the forefront.]
June, heading home across fallow fields of wild grass
[Image description: a sun dried and worn grassy footpath down through fields of grass, with summery blue skies and white clouds overhead.]
July, graffiti comment on a rusting combine harvester laying beside the fields.
[Image description: a rusty green combine harvester with ‘time eats everything’ written in graffiti on its front side. There are green fields behind it.]
August, teasels in Bishop’s Meadow, beneath a sky full of cumulus nimbus clouds.
[Image description: a grassy summer meadow with an army of drying seedbeds in the foreground and vast clouds in the blue sky overhead.]
August, sunset walk through fields of wild grass.
[Image description: a summer’s sunset views through grasses in the foreground and trees in the shadows just beyond.]
September 3rd, the Maltings in Red Lion Lane; I could walk no further.
[Image description: a tarmac road leading away between a tall old brick wall, opposite a red brick building.]
September 9th, a short late night walk.
[Image description: a pedestrian pathway lit up with knee-high lamps either side, with grass and trees just visible in the darkening evening sky.]
September 13th, the early morning view from my first floor bedroom window, towards the fields beyond.
[Image description: a view across a road to an old red brick house and garage, with a heat haze in the blue sky just beyond.]
September pre-op X-ray; pink imagery is the software used to choose the size of a hip replacement
[Image description: a greyed out partial X-ray of a hip and pelvis with bright pink digital images overlaid onto it for preparation of hip replacement surgery.]
September 26th, two days post operative, an X-ray of the actual, larger hip replacement.
[Image description: a grey and white X-ray image of newly replaced hip joints, placed into the femur and pelvis.]
September 30th, six days post operative; a rainy day viewed from my first floor bedroom window.
[Image description: a repeat image of the view across the road of an old red brick house and garage, but in this image it is raining.]

All pictures by author. For a playlist for Teresa’s walks, see here.

*Bibliography & Suggested Further Reading

Ahmed, Sara. (2004, 2014) The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 2d edn. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Bessel A. Van der Kolk. (2015) The Body keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, NY: Penguin.

Blakely, Kirstin. (2007) “Reflections on the Role of Emotion in Feminist Research,” in International Institute for Qualitative Methodology. Chicago, IL: Loyola University of Chicago.

Dahvana Headley, Maria. (2020) Beowulf: A New Translation. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Halberstam, Jack. (2010) The Queer Art of Failure. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Jaggar, Alison. (2008) “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology,” in Inquiry, 32:2, 151-176.

Klink, Anne L. (1992) The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press.

Lourde, Audre. (1984) “Poetry is not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 371-373.

Lutz, Catherine. (2002) “Emotion and Feminist Theories,” in Querelles: Jahrbuch für Frauenforschung 2002: Kulturen er Gefühle in Mittelalter und FrüherNeuzeit, 104-122.

Ruppert, Franz; Harald Banzhaf; Dagmar Strauss; Juila Stuben; Rick Hosburn, Vivian Broughton. (2018) My Body, My Trauma, My I: Setting up Intentions – Exiting our Traumabiography. Steyning Green: Balloon Publishing.

Singh, Julietta. (2018) No Archive Will Restore You. Open Access: Punctum books.

VanEvery, Jo. (2018) A Short Guide: The Scholarly Writing Process. (2d edn) High Peak: UK: Jo VanEvery Publishing. [See for links between emotion and scholarly writing.]

Watt, Diane. (2019) Women, Writing and Religion and Beyond, 650-1100. London: Bloomsbury Academic Publishing.

*Cover image: Picture by author.

[Cover image description: a straight path with a line of trees and grass running along each side.]