Eco-QT Aesthetics of a Critter-Switch*
*Some sea slugs have non-binary magic; it’s true.
In early quarantine, I became an anomaly: a master’s student with time. I was relieved of my job and remote classes evaporated my commute. To counter the daily anxious intake of unsolicited advice, call outs, and community copping round how to navigate the shaky beginnings of a pandemic, I did one thing: watched countless YouTube videos of marine life.
They were all sweet, the aqueous critters, but the star to me was and is the slinky critter known as Elysia Chlorotica. She has the color of plants, dotted with chummy greens from Hex #BBEA4F to #23510B.
Through the 13-inch screen of my laptop, she appeared to me as an art film. There was something in the way he moved, fluttering in a fluid weightlessness and making subtle gestures that imprinted my little queer heart. She put on a good show.
Her greenness was new; I hadn’t known any animals to be this hue. I looked her up -- Elysia Chlorotica is an autotroph, meaning he can muster energy through simple chemicals like carbon dioxide. More specifically, they’re photosynthetic and, like plants, can transmute the sun into bodily power. There, she emerged as a plantimal; a weird critter-switch that interrupts science books. Though sea slugs probably don’t identify as non-binary (who’s to say they do/n’t?), Elysia Chlorotica’s slippy nature undeniably evades capture. Her inability to be “read” by systems of sense-making makes her out to be nonsensical, even imperceptible to eyes trained to interface only with that which confirms their own. There, in the liminality of nonsensical living, she emerges as a non-human critter with the aestheticized demeanor of trans imperception. As I watched her meander through my screen, my mind splintered with questions of where queer aesthetics come out to play in non-human ecologies; could one instance be in the tricks of a kingdom-fluid sea slug? My compulsion to get to know her was a somatic-coded “yes.”
Curiously, Ms. Chlorotica obtained her alchemic capacities two weeks after being born in Florida marshes. They ingest a yellow-green algae known as Vaucheria litorea and, remarkably, pluck some of the algae’s DNA and incorporate it into their tummy lining. This algal ingestion is not a fanciful thing; it is a process integral to Chlorotica’s growth. Scientists are stumped by her ability to seamlessly integrate plastids into her body. Horizontal gene transfer was once the leading hypothesis, but was ruled out by a comprehensive study in 2013. The specifics are unclear, but this hasn’t stopped Big Science (BS) from dubbing the algal-animal ingestive relation as “kleptoplasty.” The term is derived from kleptes -- the Greek word for thief.
In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there’s a class of monsters known as kleptes-virgo, or, rather, virgin-thief. These “thieves” are able to mystically lure human virgins close to them through their sexual promiscuousness. In Buffy, this was epitomized by a green insect-human hybrid: She-Mantis. The She-Mantis, also known as Natalie French and “Miss Well Proportioned,” is able to magically veil her true form as a giant praying mantis while serving as a school teacher. A hybrid, She-Mantis is a metaphor for the trans other. Her trick is to entice human virgins through her physicality, then, like the insect she is, to ingest them once they are alone (the transphobia of this situation is not lost on me, but something far more useful is bubbling under the surface of this tale). She-Mantis never has sex with her prey; she fulfills her desires with ingestive carnage -- an act aestheticized through the camera’s gaze capturing the slippages between sex and ingestion, where the latter becomes climax, the site of a desire fulfilled.
Return my fluttering, inquisitive queer heart while seeing Chlorotica dance around algae, only to latch onto the stringy plant and suck on its innards. The feeding is its own suggestive-ingestive happening aestheticized through the camera’s glance. As Chlorotica sucks, as the species-bending She-Mantis eats, they perform a queer desire to subsume and be subsumed, emerging post-ingestion as an unfathomable creature that defies BS cosmology. The liminal nature of Elysia Chlorotica is an ecological sweetness that defies the curated impulse to twist bodies into discomforting cosmological configurations, including that of gender. It is a fluttery alternative that serves as a non-human schematic for trans and queer understanding, perhaps even an ecologically-oriented queer/trans performance, or eco-QT aesthetic.
As a non-binary person, I think with Chlorotica’s impulse to evade; I mull over my own gender dodginess. I wonder how much our cosmologies crossover, where I am slug-like and where I am not. I think on the future of the slug world as Florida marshes grow more uninhabitable, and I think about how the science articles told me how delicate Elysia is, how quickly she’s losing space -- a tragic queer fate produced by negligent heterosexist systems of value that isn’t limited to the non-human world. Adding to her imperceptible evasion, she is incredibly difficult to find, and scientists will spend months searching for Elysia’s home. She can’t be reproduced in a lab, they’ve tried, and have since dropped the project as Chlorotica faded into the illegible, queer backburner of Western environmentalism. She isn’t in the science books, that would make learning the difference between prokaryotes and eukaryotes too nuanced for the underfunded public education system. She’s an addendum to the addendum in the lost stacks. She’s a non-binary schematic of imperception; unseen by the world because of her hybridity -- a liminal specter, but also a eco-QT promise.
In wrapping my mind around Elysia’s invisibility in BS studies, I am reminded of my own invisibility. I recall being called “she,” of not being perceived by those that claim to see me. I straddle perception and imperception as a glitchy image. However, unlike my slug friend who continues to lose their habitat due to ecological devastation, my unknown transness is a bittersweet privilege. It hurts and protects, a couplet that I despise, yet appreciate.
I wonder what kind of thing I can do for my sea slug friend who’s ripply green body and lifeway is a bonafide eco-QT aesthetic; how can I admire his shifty beauty in the ways I know how?
So, as a leaky poet, I write her a hymn.
My sluggy trans kin /
Fugitive of the BS world /
I look to you /
In times of my own /
Imperception and doubt /
For a glimpse /
Of necessary resistance /
You cannot live /
Without being a ghost /
And I /
The same /
Two glitches /
We swim /