Wild Mares is one woman’s telling of her own history with land, and women’s land, of lesbianism and lesbian separatism in the Midwest during the 1970s and 80s.
Dianna Hunter grew up rural working class in North Dakota. She went to a liberal arts school, Macalester, in St. Paul, Minnesota, where she came out, co-founded a Lesbian Resource Center, and started her back-to-the-land journey with women she met in the city.
Wild Mares begins in the late 1960s during Hunter’s adolescence and college years, during which she comes out, but the bulk of the narrative takes us through the early 1970s into the late 1980s, through her journey of back-to-the-land living with other lesbians through four farms in northwestern Wisconsin: Haidiya Farm, Rising Moon, Del Lago, and Pliny. By virtue of the life Hunter lived, and that this is representative of that life, the story centers on women’s land, on the challenges of communal living with other queers, and, notably, on the romantic relationships that develop (Hunter’s own as well as between others) within these distinctly intimate spaces. Wild Mares is a story of land, but it is also a story of love, of seeking and finding and losing and finding again. Rather like the relationship to land itself. It begins,
On a map, Lake Superior pointed like a giant finger at our farm, directing rain, snow, and fog from the east. Winds off the lake sometimes pinned a weather system in place right over us, until we couldn’t drive our tractors into the fields because of too much water in one form or another. Each morning at six a.m., I walked from the house to the barn, hung my coat on a nail inside the door, and went to work feeding and milking thirty Holsteins. I dressed to survive and thrive in coveralls, jeans, shirts, and rubber boots that I bought from the men’s clothing section of local farm stores. My men’s clothes were made with stouter fabric, heavier zippers, bigger pockets, and more generous seam allowances than the clothes in the women’s section. Mine stood up to barbed wire and other farming stresses, and they fit me. I was blessed with muscles and a waist that bore little resemblance to the connecting tube of an hourglass. At the Lesbian Resource Center in the 1970s, we used to say that any clothes a woman chose to wear became women’s clothes. By the spring of 1986, I had been out of the closet for fifteen years, and I didn’t care if the wrong people thought I looked like a dyke as long as the right people recognized me for exactly who I was.
At the end of the prologue, I had to put the book down, because I had broken out in ugly, heaving sobs on a Monday night in the dog days of summer, after a hot and heated and emotionally heavy July eclipse, drinking a glass of rose in my apartment in Harlem. For me, conversations about small, family farms — always present in the communities I grew up in in rural Iowa and northwestern Wisconsin – have centered around heteropatriarchal family lineage, around fathers passing on land to sons. To suddenly learn that there were these communal, women’s farms entirely populated by queers practically in my backyard all that time — something in me unraveled.
It was immediately clear to me that Wild Mares wasn’t just a story of land. It was going to be about my land. From the streets Hunter names in the Twin Cities to her trips to Duluth to the rolling farm country of northwestern Wisconsin, I could picture it all perfectly. It was as if I had suddenly accessed a layer underneath the topsoil. I could feel the dirt underneath my fingernails.
Wild Mares is at its best when Hunter is giving us narrative scenes that will be familiar to readers of memoir, representing her younger self and her friends and lovers as characters with dialogue in the moment, showing us the details of the weather and the farms and the animals themselves, of the fraught emotions and concerns faced by queers not very long ago.
The line between memoir and autobiography is slippery. These days, autobiographical writing tends to be labeled memoir; certainly, when a narrative only covers a slice of life, or seems to be thematically organized, it is more likely to get chunked in as “memoir.” However, memoir as a genre has developed to a point where stories are often expected to read more as compelling narratives, with a distinctive storyline and well-developed “characters,” if you will. Memoir also often features the narrative voice of the author within the time frame being represented within the book.
This is where Wild Mares seemed more autobiographical. The course of events were presented chronologically and often unlinked thematically for the reader; Hunter’s narrative voice is also distinctly distant and reflective, the voice of Hunter as she is now, in the 2010s, not Hunter as she was then. Few characters are developed in a sustained way throughout the course of the narrative. There is frequent “pulling out” of the scenes themselves to telescope time and discuss what happened to her ex-friends and lovers within the narrative, or to offer glimpses of her conversations with their family members.
For all that Hunter deals with the nitty gritty of farm life, she selectively dives into systemic issues and challenges that they faced. She addresses that it was easier to be “out” in the city than it was in the country, where your neighbors all knew you; she does not, however, reckon with white privilege, which looms as an overwhelming spectre. Presumably, the collective of women is mostly, if not exclusively, white, and there is little discussion of race in the book, or of the societal privileges that allowed a group of women to, if not flourish, at least exist without explicit harm in northern Wisconsin in the 1970s and 80s. For example, Hunter doesn’t interrogate why her group of friends feels safe, even when explicitly considering homophobia in passages like this one:
In a resort town, we met a delicately built man with long, golden hair and a well-groomed moustache. He offered milk for our kittens, which he hurried into his house to get and then on his return set the saucer on the ground in front of the with a dramatic flourish. His house sat near a country store. As we stood in the shade of maples and pines, he told us that his lover was a doctor, and the people who ran the store and lived in the next-door house were his lover’s parents. “We’ve been together twelve years,” he said, “and it just keeps getting better and better. Every day is a honeymoon.”
“Do they know about the two of you?” Shirley asked, gesturing toward the store.
“Oh honey,” he crooned. “If they don’t, they’d have to be blind.”
Of course, many people preferred to ‘be blind’ in those days. My friends and I were in the thick of figuring out how to live a rural life that was visible and honest while also protecting ourselves as best we could from the homophobic blowback that sometimes came with visibility. We knew that the consequences of homophobia, then as now, could include discrimination, gay bashing, and murder. The wonder is that most of the time we felt safe.
The issue of money is also a question. Hunter herself grew up working class and addresses her own economic situation but does not address the socioeconomic status or contributions of other women on the farms. Hunter is clearly not trying to formulate any new theories or even overtly situate her work within the existing ouevre of LGBTQ+ literature or broader, more prescient cultural conversations around queerness, gender, or intersectionality, but this raises the question: to what extent can our work, as queer writers, exist in such a silo?
Even though Hunter is clearly telling her story, and not presenting any theories around queer living, Wild Mares can’t help but be significant in how it works out and through notions of queer utopia. Who among us (or maybe it’s just me?) does not think of running off to Themiscyra or some queer commune or even just A-Camp 2019? The farms that Hunter works and lives on with other women and queers both affirm and challenge the idea of a queer utopia by simply reminding us that people are people, weather is hard, animals get sick and sometimes die, chores sometimes don’t get done, and some folks are bad cooks. Also: there’s always romantic drama or friendship drama or some drama happening, not necessarily because queers, but, again, because living in close proximity and intimacy with other humans is going to cause friction, is going to send shockwaves through the collective and elicit little earthquakes.
Everyone seemed so much more competent [on the farm] than I. Others have told me they felt the same way, so it seems we all had each other fooled and impressed in ways that kept us from relaxing and really knowing each other’s hearts.
How rare is it, to be able to have a story that feels so intimate and personal to oneself. We do not have many of these, memoirs by this older generation of dykes and queers. There is the exquisite, classic work of Leslie Feinberg and Alison Bechdel, of course, and then the theory of Audre Lorde and Kate Bornstein and Jack Halberstam. There is a new generation: Roxane Gay, Maggie Nelson, Janet Mock, Melissa Febos. But we do not have a plethora of memoir, of subjects, of eras represented.
Having a memoir by a Midwestern lesbian writer that is riddled with stories of negotiating with neighbors, the varying cost of Grade A milk, unreliable farm animals, and the the farm crisis that affected so many of our communities is rare. Passages like this one hit home in a unique and profound way,
By 1985, the farm financial crisis had deepened. I saw stories about farm foreclosures, bankruptcies, and rural suicides in the Duluth paper. Evidence of local damage was mounting on the bulletin board at my feed store. There were so many auctions that the sale flyers were stacked and pinned together. Some of my neighbors had already gone out of business, and I found myself needing to carry one bill or another over to the next month almost all the time.
As distinctly, uniquely queer as so many of the subjects in this narrative are, just as many of Hunter’s concerns are distinctly rural, concerns that will be familiar to readers who grew up in places (not just the Midwest) that were dependent on agriculture. It is rare to read a queer woman’s perspective on these moments. Usually, it is cishet white men and their families who are the faces of the 1980s farm crisis – certainly, not queer women and their communities.
There is power in storytelling, in lifting voices, in showing how we were part of major cultural moments. Wild Mares is a slow burn of a read that offers an important glimpse into a slice of all-too-recent history. It’s a story of land, of “do it yourself and make it up as you go,” of pro-woman, green, sustainable, non-violent social experiments sprung in the most unlikely of places. Of what Hunter herself calls a Fool’s Journey. Of what if. Of possibility.
Thank you for sharing this. I live in a midwestern city. Through involvement in sports, the feminist bookstore that has long since closed, and going to the feminist women’s choral group and just existing as a queer woman in a smallish conservative city, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this generation. They had (have?) land a few hours from the city as part of the movement that was detailed in this book. I’m hoping some of this movement and world is documented well while this generation is still very active. I know some of it can be problematic (yes, with race and when I was with a trans guy a lot of this generation didn’t quite understand, had been active with Michigan Women’s Music Festival etc) but this era and the midwestern vibe deserve to be well documented.
Thank you so much for sharing this. I grew up queer on a farm in the midwest and I would have given anything to read something like this when I was younger. Really looking forward to checking this out.