Field Work, Prospekt: Femme–Butch in the Arctic Landscape
This fictional piece, extracted from the ore of truth, draws parallels between desire for the butch and the liminal spaces of Europe’s remote north. Beginning in a remote Arctic mining town, shifting to a space of attenuated desire closer to home, and finally confronting the landscape itself, I explore both the differences and the alignments that fire the femme-butch dynamic.
Woman and landscape have often been read together, but the butch woman in the landscape is not a woman, and not a man: she is irreducible to mother or destroyer, discoverer or coloniser. Her territory is always complicated, unknown, yet deeply familiar to me. In it I am uncomfortable, frustrated, excited, adventurous, restricted, brave, timid, awed, touched, overwhelmed, rejected, moved, held. These qualities always exist together: endlessly, pleasurably irresolvable.
Alongside the femme, the butch is both opposite and mirror, ultimately showing the same self-protection, the same subtleties of retreat and hunger and protection and passion, recast in the masculine. With her I stand in the threshold, right at the centre of knowing and not-knowing; in the midst of a landscape of intimacy and distance, emotion and physicality, love and separation.
Gender; Sexuality; Queer; Femme-Butch; Masculinity
Deine ausgeübten Kräfte spanne,
bis sie reichen, zwischen zwein
Widersprüchen… Denn in Manne
Will der Gott beraten sein.
Take your most practiced strengths
and stretch them till they reach
between two contradictions… For in you
the god is waiting to consult.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Muzot, mid-February 19241
Though mined from many experiences, these stories and characters are entirely fictional.
A place doesn’t – any more than a person might – give you what you want. And this place, with its promise of birch and tundra and gritty industry, is inhospitable, its messy wild skies fenced out above banks of concrete housing blocks. Clouds can only scramble away. This Arctic is no sublime scheme of aurora, ice and fjordland. It’s a mining town, far from the ocean. A blunt indentation scored against an endless plateau.
Prospekt is iron ore, stark streets, the high-rise workers’ quarters, a few shuttered country houses in rust-red and spruce-green, and then an undulating fervour of moss and lichen and forest that extends beyond every horizon. The town is defined by its sharp, cold edge. You can stand at its boundary with your back to the buildings and roads, and see a kind of nothing: only the wavering plain. The stunted birch trees, the mosquitoes, the sun circling the sky as though loosed from all logic, delivering unending days. Somewhere out there are the reindeer, the voles, the foxes tending their kits. A two-lane road meanders towards an indistinct, snow-capped range. A lonely line of rail track carries the ore to the sea.
Everywhere you look, when you are not balanced on that sharp perimeter, is the mine. You walk along any street, it seems, and at the end is the terraced mountain, B-berg, framed by buildings and pavement, cut by its stewards into neat levels. Or in the other direction, A-berg, overgrown and fallow but bearing the scars of older excavation. Literally carved in two to get at the vein, A-berg’s sides rest like thighs around the harsh cleft at its centre.
The ore seam extends from the tiered flanks of B-berg down into the earth, slanting directly under the town. Every day, 100,000 tonnes of iron rumble away on the trains. Every night, two thousand metres below my bed, there is an explosion. It can be felt everywhere: a faraway, tremendous heartbeat.
The Arctic summer sun wreaks havoc on the principles of dichotomy and line; slewing, dipping and circling the sky. East and west have lost all meaning. It does not draw an arc from A to B but moves in three dimensions, irreducible to trajectory. There is no more arrow’s flight, no here/there, no journey. You cannot think of going from one place to another: only of turning in all directions to make sense of where you are. Day and night are destroyed and what’s left are effects, relationships, presence. Persistent and banal, the sun swings freely round the cosmos. Even in the middle of the night, the grass lies green.
It’s 5° Celsius. Tattered pennants strain at their poles as I walk the cracked footpaths, which turn to gravel and peter out behind empty blocks and parking lots. Everything is ramshackle, utilitarian. The store windows are hermetic and grubby, decked with warping cardboard signs. Shop mannequins wear faded clothes, seasons out of date; a real estate agent’s office is decorated with pots of plastic flowers. Dotted around this town of steel bollards and thick-armed men are an incongruous cohort of ladies’ hair salons, all displaying faded posters and bewigged polystyrene heads.
Twenty minutes’ walk from Prospekt’s centre, I reach a clear demarcation, as rows of homes give way to the vast and indefinite wilderness. Thick with its lush tundra, inches deep, golden and grey: a horizontal landscape. There are birches, a few, in clusters, or dwarfed and standing alone. A few low bushes, but the core of this landscape is its thick moss blanket, spreading over the rocks in spongy mounds, dipping into puddles, climbing down the banks of trickling streams. It is a tenacious, rich response to the spartan physics of snow. Even at midsummer, the snow’s white swathes persist here and there, slowly setting their liquid free to feed the all-reaching biome.
I love the way a stream becomes a stream. At the top of a mountain or a rise, water trickles in muddy runnels, finding other drips and rivulets and joining with them. The creeks and rills run down towards lower gullies, and the rushing rivers come into being – it is all these tiny thoughts, combined, that become the thing you see, that travels, that communicates, garbling its message across rolling pebbles, across continents.
And then again a day later, in the Town Hall gallery, contemplating an enormous painting of B-berg. She stands in a shaft of light that falls through the atrium like a fiery conveyance from the gods. It brightens her neck and her shoulders, illuminates the down on her cheeks. Her hands are tucked into pockets. A discreet sliver of wrist shows, where sleeve and pocket meet.
Another woman steps into the light and greets her: it’s clear they’re meeting for the first time. What exchange is this, as the first leads the second to the upper galleries? They stroll around the balconies, viewing the artworks. The visitor is dressed well for Prospekt, rugged up and waterproofed, yet is not comfortable. There is both affinity and uncertainty in their gestures; their voices are low, their smiles polite. They face each other now and then, but never for long – quickly they exchange sentences, then turn from one another, back to the paintings and vitrines and tapestries. Theirs is the safe proximity of having an external object of focus: of being side-by-side. Each time they stop and speak together, it is as though – as though they have paused among the birches for a second, on a summer path, before the mosquitoes appear as they do from nowhere, their fragile, aggressive clouds demanding the walkers’ return to movement.
I begin to see her everywhere. In the supermarket, striding down a long aisle collecting her goods in her arms: an elbow clutches a packet, with another balanced on top, and one tight hand grabs the neck of a transparent pack of bread rolls. In the craft co-op she chats with familiarity to the artisans, whose silver pins and quilted purses lie calmly on plinths and glass shelves; whose hooks of forged iron adorn the walls with their tiny, swinging price tags. She is enigma in this town of enigma. She will not meet my eye. Leaving her behind, I walk each day to the edge of town, scanning the wilderness that I cannot reach. If I hired a car, where would I even go? I am uncomfortable, frustrated, restricted, but it feels like an adventure.
Every night, between 1.00 and 2.00am, I feel the explosion. Half-asleep, I register the blast in my body: the dynamite compressing and destroying, followed by a calamitous shower of rubble crashing to the base of the shaft. It is sense as much as sound wave, deep beneath the house.
Often I wake before it happens, some nerve anticipating this marker of days in a place with no sunrise or sunset. It’s the steady pulse of Prospekt, once every 24 hours, stretching into weeks and months and years. A day begins – explosion. Another day – explosion. Summer and winter – explosion. The subsequent rockfall like bloodrush after the heart’s contraction. I hanker for its uncomfortable pleasure. It’s so uncanny that I hope to be woken by it: to feel it again and again.
So the heart is ripped out while all at the surface remains pristine, tundra and tree and snow and long lakes the colour of fish-skin. What will it be like to be lifted up and set down elsewhere: a little away from that collapsing void, continuing as if nothing happened? The visitor mentions the blasting, including the subsonic boom that shook the town yesterday afternoon. Yes, you get used to it, says the butch. When you feel it at night it’s normal, but when it happens in the daytime you know something went wrong.
I imagine pushing her, hands to her soft frame, against the wall of tempered glass, till her store of local knowledge sticks in her throat; till her ribs flex and her breath loses its steadiness. To touch a finger to the living bones, pressing through and parting the muscles, pushing into places not meant to be breached. I would break through her, I think, creating a small chaotic hub for us both. Crossing the road between town and mine or mountain and town. I’d stand us in the battering rain; balance us on a trembling wire. Make monument of her restraint, refusal and vulnerability; grasping and releasing, plunging towards skin, then gone.
The butch hands the visitor a key. I will leave on Monday night, she says, so you can go to the house on Tuesday. The visitor takes the key in her palm before reaching out both arms and hugging her effusively. The butch remains still, says nothing; perhaps she smiles. My memory is so fixed on the sudden twining of their bodies that only her perfect stillness is left clear in my mind. She is all mirror; is all me.
The hug is such a strange fulcrum, loaded with inconsistency. It is a formality, but is enacted through the tenderest planes of the body: the chest, the belly, the front of the pelvis. Our clothing presses between us; always the sudden warmth as we abut, frontier against frontier.
What lies in this space that is not fraught with danger?
The stasis when I want to leave the house: how I have to push myself. The sense of being an outsider, being watched, when I go out. Being the stranger: walking through the village that doesn’t know you, longing for the anonymity of the unfeeling forest. The butch seems nothing like me, yet the only thing perhaps like me. We cross paths repeatedly, but she betrays no recognition.
I contemplate the squared-off bastion of B-berg. The banality of all that blue rock penetrates my thinking: falling, solid, falling. Mapped between the anchor points of queerness and invisibility, I range from belonging to wandering to sexuality to solitude; from township to beyond. Yet I don’t leave. I feel acutely the choice to dwell in this tension; in the constant awareness of what lies beyond reach. I am both compelled and resistant: as subject to this landscape as a submissive to her top.
Her pressed shirts and lace-up boots stir me to confusion; her refusal to see me sets up a tightly ravelled attachment that cannot be broken. She differs, and yet I look for sameness. We exhibit the polar attraction and repulsion of magnets.
We go in and down, negotiating a steep gradient. Quickly the strip lighting along one dry wall comes to an end and we are in darkness apart from the headlights. Cars and trucks emerge intermittently from the depths, turning into or out of subsidiary tunnels marked with numbered reflective signs. The way narrows further, and the black weight intensifies.
Fifteen minutes in, we pull up at a purpose-built, underground tourist centre. Epic steel doors swing open and the dark walls are behind us; in their stead an expansive, glowing foyer where we gather around an illuminated plan of the mine. If the electricity fails – and it can, the guide says, it will be pitch black in here. We’re told to stay near her, and the lamp affixed to her belt. If there’s a fire, she says, we go to the cinema – it has its own ventilation system and we can stay there safely for quite a few hours. She points to the cinema on the backlit display. I try not to dwell on this possibility.
For two hours we’re captive to company propaganda, learning little about the mine itself. As well as the cinema and the museum and the interpretive displays, the café, the smoking area, the model mountain and a toilet block, the glittering cavern contains a small demonstration pit with an old crushing apparatus, not working; a couple of giant excavators, also not working; and a skip full of souvenir iron-ore pellets.
I forget to be afraid until we return to the bus. The drive back up reminds me where I am: fear prickles my neck hairs. These two quarter-hour journeys, into the depths of the mountain and out again, stay with me. Each time we float past a side road I gain a glimpse into utter darkness: it seems most profound when a car enters, its sweep of light quickly absorbed into the curving walls ahead. B-berg is riddled with these by-ways, hewn out in the hundreds of kilometres. It is a 3-D lattice of ascending and descending thoroughfares whose maze extends everywhere. The people working here must know them inside out, navigating their black threads not in two dimensions but in three.
Rain is in the air, and the tang of iron. Heavy gusts bash the sides of the buildings. You are seductive, Prospekt: all the fierce bluntness of the mining town and the desolate purity of the Arctic. You’re deep and spectacular: your wound is starkly obvious but your secrets stay well-hidden. I trudge up the hill past a park where children swing and slide and run in circles around an allocation of play equipment, ringed by peeling birch trees. Further along are neglected bench seats, a curious wooden hut with a sloping roof, a couple of small billboards covered in graff as though they’ve been set up for just that purpose, and the roadway that cordons the town from the mine.
After a time the road peels away to rim an emptied lake, its water sucked into 100 years of disused shafts. Nearby, a derelict train station boasts a lonely iron sculpture: a group of navvies hefting an enormous rail on their shoulders, styled in constructivist planes. Still further are a lonely bridge, a run-down tourist shelter, a weedy field of gravel and sand being raked by a rusted grader; and above, a hilltop studded with moaning wind turbines. The bitumen crumbles into the birches that blanket the hill, a boulder pushed onto the broken tarmac at the point of surrender. The track beyond is slight, dipping in and out of the moss.
As I round a bend in the path, we come face to face. There is no ignoring me here: we say good day to one other and briefly speak. She comments on the weather, on the view back towards the mine – things anyone might exchange with a stranger – and nothing in her words betrays her. She is utterly clear to me, and I to her, but the elision is absolute: boots over wet rock could not slip more easily.
I want to touch her, simply to reach in and shatter the thing that closes both of us. But she obfuscates desire, opting instead to collaborate in this state of relational tension. What is her skin like, what secrets would come from her mouth if there were no more guardedness? She is consummate at deflection, and I am so good at pointing away to the landscape, to anything that isn’t me. I say, I’m going to go all the way up to the turbines. She tells me, In fact, you won’t be able to, it will be impassable.
The birch forest is thick and airy at once, new leaves trembling yellow in the sun, and whenever I stop, the mosquitoes find me in droves. There is also a heavier insect; when I slow down, I hear it coming. It circles me invisibly, droning, and when I move away it follows – does it bite? The path ascends, pierced with sharp stones. I go a long way, sure of myself because I can see the turbines in front of me, and B-berg and A-berg behind, and Prospekt nestled between. Birds crackle in the scrub.
I arrive at a fence, beside a massive power pylon. The fence stands between me and the turbines, circling a tract of collapsed quarry with water gathering at its base. There is no other route. I walk back the way I came.
To really transgress, in Prospekt, would have been to slide my finger into her mouth. Like sliding a finger into the depths of the mine, making it wet, stopping the pumps, letting the water table rise.
There was she and now there is you. We are defined by what doesn’t happen: you don’t kiss me; don’t, don’t kiss me. Again and again, you don’t kiss me, pressing my want against a wall, a door frame, a weathered tree. You breathe me in but my scent doesn’t quite catch in your throat; you touch me for just so long, and never long enough. What’s in the air is all down to me – careening molecules excited and rare, pressurised and without confirmation. The energy stored, rolled over for the next time.
You do not click the door quietly behind you; nor kick off your shoes in the dark as my chest rises with the fear and unknown of what’s next. You do not pound me sore nor tip your head back / mouth ecstatic / open. You do not rest your gaze too long, though once or twice I caught you watching as I spoke with someone else. I ride the sling of our web of resistance, in which our hands never quite touch, and our eyes meet and unmeet. The call rattles from my interior to yours: our bond exists, our spheres touch. The spheres are charged: it is the charge of attraction. Yet, being spheres, they can only meet at that one point.
The erotic is conserved and reified in our relation – as dormant and definite as winter grass that’s rooted to the ground, endlessly turning in the wipe of the wind, flexing and sure of itself. Every encounter pulls taut my feeling against the conundrum. Connection and aloofness form a dyad: this mix of wonder and disturbance that names itself as intimacy.
I’d kiss you in the dark, the terrified skin of my lips pressed radically to the mystery of yours. Do I want to wake to the weight of your hips in the sheets, so near; and the flesh-coated breadth of your shoulders and chest? I covet your hands, those shoulders, your mouth, your eyes, even your hair, and your firmly strapped breasts. With you, I never know where I stand. And yet, always, I do know: with you I stand in the threshold, right at the centre of knowing and not-knowing; in the midst of intimacy and distance, emotion and physicality, love and separation.
The golden grass and a blackened log led us on towards slabs of granite that broke the surface like glittering bergs. Beyond the rocks the terrain could only be clambered up, so we settled on a ledge and basked in the tail of the day. The desert, I knew, was beyond, over the rise. I wanted to reach it: to see the rusted earth on its march to infinity, the rain-shadow plains full of death and hidden life.
We didn’t touch, and our gaze held fast to the valley below. My legs dangled over the edge, feeling the air in the space under my feet. I wanted so much to scramble higher, to reach the summit before it got dark – but you became unsure, saying we’d come far enough, it was already too late, the road and our car were a long way away.
In Prospekt a tenuous thread had kept me to the town, and, plucked by longing, had played a note suggesting danger and thrill while drawing me ever safely home. The note of fear that the tundra, or the scree-strewn slope, or the lover, or the mountain path marked by a thousand footprints, holds incalculable risk. That the safest place is here, staying put. It had held me at the edge of that circle of town and unknown and adventure. I was never quite game to step out: only to stand at the perimeter.
That thread let go at one end now, releasing me from my orbit. You stayed on the ledge while I took off up the crumbling scarp without you. It was not long before I returned, bolstered by sights you had not seen. And the intervening pause, overseen by an enormous, broken tree, was freed from the elongated non-time of two bodies torn between feeling and doing. We walked down together, and it was still just light, just; and the grass still waved across the front of our boots, and we stepped through soft greens and snapping dry leaves and scattered rocks all still lying there. At the foot of the hill we were too low to see our surrounds, and too far from the car to know exactly where it was. And though it could only be there, and though there was no chance or hope or risk of it being anywhere but there, for a few minutes where we were became a mystery of trust and hope and uncertainty. Everything went back to its nature, and we walked in it blindly, hanging sweetly onto nothing but the mess of grass and bark and trunk, among the webs that stretched between the boughs.
That night there was a thunderstorm. You drove us to the fire-tower perched above a nearby town, up spiralling gravel tracks in streaming rain until we reached the top of the mountain. Pulled up near its metal struts, you gripped the wheel and leaned forward, craning your neck at the tower. You hoped to see a lightning strike. We got out and sat on the steaming hood. I thought we’d get killed but could not say no to you. No lightning came and when we returned to our place of shelter, you towelled my wet hair and stroked the back of my shoulders with the backs of your hands. We stood on the porch as remnants of cloud ripped each other out of the moon’s way. A solitary fruit bat swung its velvet span across the fields, obscuring the stars.
What would I do if you came to me, finally? It would be as terrifying as leaving the town and walking into the wilderness; as terrifying, equally, as losing myself in the black rock tunnels, placing my hands on their cool walls. And yet, the sun would still turn, and the squalls would tear at my clothes, my cheeks brightening in the bright cold space of you. You are my endless place of inbetween, and if I can get away with living in this place, I will. How long can the tundra lie silent and warm enough to melt snow? How long can the edge stay edge? How long can that whisper hang in this thing rarer than air, this atmosphere of us, its force unmeasurable?
The butch’s world is liminal, dusted in snow, black underneath where the hidden passages run. The walls of the mine are sharp-cut rock. The network of passages reaches deep into the earth. If you decide to ‘go in’, braving the darkened tunnels, you reach only the performance of intelligibility, knowing all the time that the complex workings are hidden, even there, by the cool stone. I too am secretive: equally as impenetrable, proximal and separate.
The woman and the landscape have so often been read together – but the butch woman in the landscape is not a woman, and not a man. If she is ‘nature’, she is nature of a different kind: irreducible to mother or destroyer. Nor is she coloniser, nor discoverer. If she is ‘other’ to the femme, it is because she mirrors: a dark glass that ultimately shows the same self-protection, the same subtleties of retreat and hunger and survival and passion, from the other side of that reflective skin.
Fear must be your friend if you want to reach the noble places. The lone woman traveller knows this, every time she takes a walk beyond the town. But walking to an edge and looking beyond means not only the fear of what’s out there – it also means always having a limitless view. A view of what’s possible, of life as she chooses it.
I stretch myself between two contradictions: the unwavering strand is secured to closeness and separation, love and autonomy, the broken precipice and the lip of consummation. It is precisely in this space, touching both failure and strength, that loving another pulls gently at loving the self, this bonded dance producing the ecstasy of impossible/possible. In desire, as in the landscape, the irresolvable tensions of the unfamiliar press up against the home within.
You present me with the physical: the trudge up the hill, the cuts in the mountain like proud scars. And I am made hostage by my own choice, refusing to leave you for someone or somewhere simpler, tolerating your magnificence and your banality and rewarded only slowly for my persistence. Never by you, though – you choose absence over presence. I examine you carefully and then come closer; not because of anything you offer but despite your taciturn rumblings. You turn your back but I take off my shoes and step gently, pressing out my exploration onto your flesh with as certain a tread as reindeer on moss. Oh yes, finally sure-footed, despite your protestations.
In the smallest hours, the light turns golden on your flanks. When you’re gone and I am left, the tension increases. It begins to rain and the streams rise just a little, the underground lake laps at the rock in the dark until the note of the cavern shifts higher in pitch. No bats, no life, no fallen bones. A cavity with no ingress or egress: a dark heart you can’t reach except by blasting.
You do not interrupt my rhythm, do you notice? Nothing does. And yours was so simple – you fucked me in one great explosion every night, it was your quotidian heartbeat as much as climax. You set your charges: I set my watch by you.
I knew all along that you were not to be touched. You would not even ask a question, the question. You only pointed to the turbines with their cool beauty and advised that they couldn’t be reached. What did I want from you except to wrap my thighs around you and dive my tongue towards the cut in your earth, to feel for your breasts and have you feel for mine?
I tethered our secrets together; felt the way we pulled on one another. I took up with you for those weeks, coupled to what I brought with me and what you ignored.
There is an abandoned coalmine in Pennsylvania, where a fire has taken hold in the shafts, decades ago, and continues to burn through the seam. It smokes unendingly out of vents in the earth, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. On the contrary, Prospekt’s mine is the exemplar of safety, the town above in quiet thrall to its order.
In one of Rilke’s poems, the arrow shivers in the bow, gathering its existence as it waits for the moment of flight. An arrow’s flight, never quite predictable, is desire in motion: a breaking-away, subtle or fervid, from the path laid out for it. Perhaps because the horizon will always recede, it can only mean release. When you walk towards it, every accomplishment is superseded by the next. There will always be that fertile, desolate, complex ground, riddled with mycelium or tessellated by drying mud, and it will always be surprising.
Emotions flock like starlings, moving in ominous, elated, dancerly patterns in search of their final form. One minute, they take the shape of detachment, the next, of a heart chinked open. Coexistence passes through their black clouds like a wave. The starlings are so busy watching themselves that at times their cloud of forms crumbles into fragmentedness, the patches of sky showing through too clearly. The whole looks briefly like a scrambled QR code, ripped by the tips of wings.
Behind the mountain, the town and mine did not exist. The dogs ceased their hacking and there was only an icy wind. I picked out a loose path where I could, between rocks, lichens and the bonsaied, clinging plants – wildflowers and tough little bushes that reached out strongly with twiggy, twisted arms. A pair of tourists slipped back onto the well-trodden path and off to their dinner in town. The noise of the wind slackened or rose as I turned my head. And then I turned my head at the thump of something solid on the ground.
An animal, four-legged and heavy, stepped from behind a broken fence, out of the birches that filled the gully behind. A reindeer, lifting its glossy legs over the flattened posts and wire, and halting to take me in. It watched before stepping by me cautiously, its pelt like dark cream, legs and antlers deepening to chocolate. Wary at first, finally it relaxed and trotted away down the fell, lifting prancing hooves neatly as it went.
Alone again, it was as if I had imagined it. A presence that interrupted time, did not fit its flow, was here but not-here, uncertain and unreal. A reindeer looked me in the eye, perhaps the first creature to really do so in this whole time and place. Not out on the plateau, but impossibly close to the town. A warm presence revealing itself – or perhaps revealing the wilderness, its absolute expanse and enigma.
Retracing the path to where I could again see concrete buildings in the distance, I found a dirt road to lead me back to Prospekt. I descended between enormous slag heaps that obscured the landscape, entering an inbetween zone of rubble and overgrown wasteland. With no outlook or landmark, it was a nowhere-place. For a few minutes, suppressing anxiety, I became a woman alone in the shadows, at the edge of any outback town.
I soon regained Prospekt’s main road – its very end was this ragged trail into the foothills. I cut through a final stand of birches, lying between the wasteland and the outer limits of the town. The trees were dense, obscuring both the town and the mountain, but the well-worn track told me I was nearly there. I stepped out into a suburban cul-de-sac, passed by its houses, turned a corner and recognised my own street. Everything became familiar: the mini-mart, a post-box, the flats on the right, the playground. The sound of a lawnmower, and two dark-haired girls with a malamute, walking in the sun.
1. Rilke, R. M. 2009. The Poetry of Rilke. Ed./transl. Edward Snow. New York: North Point Press, pp. 574–5
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