Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of posts considering the intersection between environmental history and gender history. The entire series is available here.
Jane Rule (1931-2007) was a novelist, essayist, and activist. Born in Plainfield, New Jersey, and educated at Mills College in California, she moved to Vancouver in 1956 where she taught at the University of British Columbia. (Her life partner, Helen Sonthoff, a talented literary critic, joined her shortly thereafter). Rule’s first published novel, Desert of the Heart (1964), was rejected by 22 publishers because of its overt lesbian content. Her subsequent novels This Is Not For You (1970), Against the Season (1971), and essay collection Lesbian Images (1975), propelled her into public view: as a result, as Rule often quipped, she “became for the media the only lesbian in Canada.” Rule’s writing, however, was never only for or about lesbians. Her novels, short stories, and essays represented and reached a variety of different communities, including the literary mainstream. Her novel The Young in One Another’s Arms won the Canadian Authors’ Award for best novel of 1978, and both Memory Board (1987) and After the Fire (1989) were nominated for the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. The Young in One Another’s Arms was also at the centre of Rule’s involvement in the so-called “Little Sister’s” case (2000), which protested Canada Customs’ seizure of books destined for lesbian and gay bookstores. For her many literary achievements, extensive lgbtq human rights activism, and support and advocacy for Canadian writers, she was awarded the Order of British Columbia (1998) and Order of Canada (2007).
In 1976, Jane and Helen moved from Vancouver to Galiano, a narrow, 27.5 kilometre-long island in the Salish Sea between the British Columbia mainland and Vancouver Island. Galiano Island is an extraordinarily beautiful place: part of the Coastal Douglas-fir Zone, it experiences mild winters and dry summers, and it is also home to some of Canada’s rarest species. As Rule herself acknowledges in some of her published work, however, it is no paradise. It includes multiple histories of dispossession (of the Penelakut people in the midst of British colonization, of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War) as well as protracted and ongoing conflicts over resource use, conservation, and development. Forests are, unsurprisingly, the prime sites of conflict. As with most of the BC South Coast, industrial forestry has profoundly changed both the physical and the social landscape, and Galiano is still dealing with the aftermath in 2016.
This post is part of a longer work entitled “Outlander: Jane Rule’s Public Lives.” It uses the book Outlander – a collection of stories and essays published by Rule for her fiftieth birthday in 1981 – to reflect on her activist involvements in four different communities: lesbian/feminist, gay liberationist, literary/publishing, and Galiano. Outlander includes stories reprinted from both lesbian-feminist and mainstream women’s magazines, from Sinister Wisdom to Chatelaine. It also includes several essays from her column “So’s Your Grandmother,” which she wrote for the gay liberationist magazine The Body Politic from 1979 to 1985 (including a response to the “Men Loving Boys Loving Men” controversy that saw the magazine’s offices raided and charges of obscenity laid in 1978). In addition, Outlander was published by Naiad Press, a small lesbian publishing house that was a partial answer to Rule’s frustration with larger presses, both in their reluctance to publish lesbian content and in their inability/refusal to keep her books in print. (Although Rule did publish her works with larger presses, Naiad kept them in print without interruption until the Press folded in 2003.) This post focuses on the essay “Stumps,” which was strongly shaped by her experiences of fractious forest and land use (and other) politics on Galiano in the 1970s. As the post indicates, her views on lesbian and gay politics were strongly affected by the island’s socio-natural landscape.
In the short essay “Stumps,” originally published in 1979 in The Body Politic, Jane Rule writes of her Galiano Island home that “all communities are … enemy territory for the individual, even those which profess concern for consensus, because none can accommodate comfortably all that anyone is. This community doesn’t try.”  Using life on her “cranky little island” as a metonym for larger questions of belonging, conformity, dissent, and visibility, Rule – by then a well-known novelist, essayist, and human rights champion – in this essay considers her community’s lack of solidarity as its “greatest virtue.” “Stumps” is an argument against the comforts of belonging: for Rule, “it is in just this climate, a microcosm of indifference, misunderstanding, and mistrust, [that] I like to learn how to live” (187). Perhaps especially for twenty-first-century readers accustomed to valuing (if not necessarily practicing) ideals of community and shared experience, this argument may seem counterintuitive: surely belonging is a good thing? Noting that she “once very much wanted to belong” (187), however, Rule recounts a childhood story in which she achieved belonging by being allowed to participate in bullying a girl who was slightly more awkward and disadvantaged than she was: Rule threw a boot at her as she ran, terrified, down the street. And then, Rule threw up: “I have never since,” she wrote, “met solidarity that didn’t sooner or later have to do with throwing galoshes or worse, and my stomach for it is no stronger than it was when I was ten” (188).
“Stumps” is, for its brevity, quite a complex essay. In it, Rule writes specifically of and to a gay and lesbian audience. She advocates a politics of visibility so that people who would “rather not know” that they share their islands and cities with queers cannot be comfortable in their ignorance: “only when a community knows that everywhere in all circumstances it is shared by gay people does it learn … that it must accept us as part of the political reality” (189). Here, she insists pointedly that “if we stay invisible or withdraw into protective communities, we are dangerously disturbing the political balance on which we need to depend” (189). She is critical of a politics that focuses more on the establishment of “safe” gay and lesbian institutions than it does on the insertion of gay and lesbian perspectives into the polyphony of mainstream public discussion. Rule also expresses disdain for the idea that “community” is the most important aspiration for any group: “if I ever did find myself in an artists’ colony or lesbian community, I’d move” (187). She is, then, not so much living with diversity in some sort of understanding that queers have to figure out how to be a visible ten percent for the sake of recognition and acceptance, as she is living for diversity, considering herself to be a lesbian not only in relation to the gay community, but especially in relation to people who do not share her identity and views.
That Rule considers relational diversity and understanding as a public goal in and of itself is also illustrated in her thinking, in “Stumps,” about trees. Rule likes trees and, like many Galiano-ites, would prefer to see them stand rather than fall, imagining their flourishing as both an end in itself and as a metaphor for a broader, fecund futurity: “the only fantasy I have about a takeover of this island,” she writes, “is by the trees” (188). But even this fantasy of future community is brought up short by her recognition that others view the trees differently: “there are enough loggers to prevent that. They are visible, too. ‘The forest is our garden,’ they say. ‘Trees are weeds’” (188). Although one of the premises of the essay is that the one thing upon which Galiano-ites agree is that “no matter what conflicting uses we put our forests to, we know we don’t want to burn it down” (189), the larger message is clear: the conflicts among interests and perspectives are necessary, and “it is as clear what it would cost [the] island economy to kill me as to kill a logger, real estate agent, fisherman, schoolteacher” (189). In other words: living together publicly requires an orientation to diversity, and the acceptance of diversity requires a willingness to live together publicly, for both Galiano and the gay community.
I dwell on “Stumps” because Rule’s argument in the essay precisely illustrates many of the currents that run through her other essays, in addition to her novels, short stories, and interviews. Rule understood herself not only as a public intellectual, but also as an intellectual with a deep commitment to publicity. Her fiction and nonfiction are both strongly oriented – albeit quite differently – to asking questions about what it means to live together with people with whom we disagree, about the need to engage these disagreements rather than retreat into enclaves of like-mindedness when opinions get strong, and about the importance of cultivating dissent based on the fact that, for all our diversity, we still need to be able to talk together about the world we share: although we expect to disagree, we still need to talk about fire. In this respect, Rule not only writes against the grain of many lesbian and gay political currents of the 1970s and 1980s, but also presages very current queer critiques of a mainstream lgbt agenda that focuses primarily on gay marriage, on the “normalization” of queer lives and bodies in a heteronormative register, and on the widespread marginalization of dissenting queer voices. Although Rule is, perhaps, an unlikely poster figure for a politics of radical lgbtq public dissent, some of her writings are much queerer than meets the eye. And perhaps even more interestingly, her particular queer sensibility was clearly cultivated in the midst of the very specific environment of Galiano Island. The trees, and the stumps, are very much part of the conversation.
 Jane Rule, “Stumps,” in Outlander (Tallahassee, FL; Naiad Press, 1981), 187. All quotations in the post are from this essay; page numbers are included in the text.
Latest posts by Catriona Sandilands (see all)
- “Stumps”: Jane Rule on Galiano - April 18, 2016
- Dog Stranglers in the National Park? National and Vegetal Politics in Ontario’s Rouge Valley - May 19, 2014