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My Love Affair with a Tree Taught Me to Express Myself Sexually

When conceptual artist Genevieve Belleveau fell for a birch tree at age eight, she had no idea how her love for nature would shape her future ecosexuality.

by Genevieve Belleveau ; as told to Sirin Kale
Aug 16 2018, 9:19am

Illustration by Soofiya Andry

My First Time is a column and podcast series exploring sexuality, gender, and kink with the wide-eyed curiosity of a virgin. We all know your "first time" is about a lot more than just popping your cherry. From experimenting with kink to just trying something new and wild, everyone experiences thousands of first times in the bedroom—that's how sex stays fun, right?

This week, we're talking to conceptual artist and Sacred Sadism co-founder Genevieve Belleveau about her experiences of ecosexuality and ecofetishism. You can catch My First Time on Acast, Google Play, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

I grew up in the woods of northern Minnesota. We were a 30-minute drive from everywhere, so there were a lot of summers as a kid where I had nothing to do but be in the woods. My parents have acres of swamp land, so I spend lots of time exploring, playing pretend, and just trying not to go insane with boredom as a child. My mom is an environmental educator, and my dad spent lots of time trying to take us on walks and be still in the woods and listen to the trees.

The woods of Minnesota are so beautiful. In summer, they blossom into this almost rainforest-type jungle of flora and fauna. There are tons of birch trees, pine trees, and maple trees that turn color. It’s beyond gorgeous. The woods that I grew up in were dense and untouched. It was a wild place to grow up.

I fell in love with a little patch of land in those woods. I named it FernGully, after the Diana Young book and the accompanying film. It was really mossy and covered in ferns, and in the wet season, a tiny stream ran through it. It was a magical place. I spent loads of time there, building forts out of felled branches.

I became really attached to this one beautiful birch tree in FernGully. It almost looked like there had been another tree there that fell over at some point and rotted, and a bunch of moss grew up around it for another tree to grow out of. When you peeled back its bark, it was a pastel-toned rainbow color inside. I named her Rainbow Birch.

As an eight-year-old, it was entrancing to find this rainbow-colored tree. I fell in love with her and loved to visit her. I wanted to be around her and spend time with her. I felt this deep affection and sense of reverence for the tree—it was like a feeling of love for Rainbow Birch. There was a kinship between us—I got the sense that she was a young tree, maybe even a child, like I was.

As humans, we have a habit to anthropomorphize things in order to explain the behavior of other organisms. But I don’t know if I can give human language to Rainbow Birch's personality, or the feeling I got around her—fascination, and love, and the sense that the tree accepted my feelings—that even if she didn’t love me back, exactly, she was receptive to my love for her.

I tried to have sex with Rainbow Birch in whatever way a child or even a human can have sex with a tree. At that point in my sexuality, I was already having orgasms by rubbing myself on objects, like my bed. When I met the tree, I had similar feelings, so I tried it with Rainbow Birch: kissing her and hugging her and rubbing on her. But I felt a kind of shame afterwards, because I did that to a living entity without its consent. I felt weird about trying to impose my sexual desire on her. One issue I continue to return to in ecofetishism is that of consent. I can have these feelings and urges and desires to interact with plants in a certain way, but are they agreeing to be part of this exchange?

Years later, I was at my parents’ house over Christmas, trying to create some video art in the woods. I wanted to tap Rainbow Birch for sap. Because it was so cold out, I didn’t have the patience to sit there and get this plastic tap into the tree, so I rushed it and ended up gashing a huge wound in Rainbow Birch, the tree I loved so much. I was devastated, thinking, Why did I do that just to get a video?

That particular tree was unique, and very special—I don’t think that relationship has ever been mimicked in my lifetime. Because of Rainbow Birch, I realized that there was a sensual interplay between plants and myself. In particular, I came to understand this later on in adulthood through my use of psychedelic drugs, which often open up these channels for people. I started to see the consciousness and being of trees and plants.

When I was older, I came across the world of [Australian art duo] Pony Express. I heard about their Ecosexual Bathhouse project [a space where ecosexuals can explore their sexuality], and also read about Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stevens, a performance art duo who created a series of ecosexual performances. It was really exciting to learn about ecosexuality. I started to think about how that term might apply to me.

Genevieve and her husband and partner Themba. Photo by Lanee Bird (@lovvr).

There are a variety of ways that people might express ecosexuality. Some people want to be pleasured in nature. Others have relationships with nature. Some see it as a political statement about eco-friendly sex or eco-friendly practices, or as an environmentalist stance. It’s a diverse community.

Ecosexuality has become part of my adult sexuality in that I’m excited by the idea of incorporating plants and their aesthetics into my sex life. I like to find a way to flip the script on BDSM concepts and tools and make them something that exists in nature.

I run a conceptual art project and brand with my husband called Sacred Sadism, which replaces the traditional accoutrements of BDSM—the whips and leather—with plants and ecological elements. We create tools that are made of fake plants, like plastic silicone rubber plants that look really lifelike. My favorite one is the Kink Tamer Turf, which is basically a paddle brush with bristles made of fake plastic grass. It looks like a little lawn sprouting out of hairbrush. Sacred Sadism is about taking BDSM out of the dungeon and bringing it into the garden and making it feel less potentially seedy or scary.

Photo courtesy of Sacred Sadism.

If I’m doing a BDSM scene in the ecofetishist or Sacred Sadism style, I’ll be the master gardener, and the slave may be the sapling. This configuration switches up the entire dynamic of what the BDSM scene looks like: I plant my sapling in the soil, take care of it, tend it, prune it, and tie it to a stake if it needs to stay up, or whatever. It’s flipping the BDSM narrative to work around the idea of what it means to manipulate or mold plants, and how that would play out with a partner if you were that plant.

I came into ecofetishism because I felt like there was a deep potential for healing, growth, and consciousness expansion in BDSM, but many people don’t see that. They just see Fifty Shades of Grey, not the care and negotiation that happens in BDSM.

One common misconception about BDSM is that the dom is calling all the shots. Actually, the sub is in control: They’re the one holding the strings and saying, “I’ll do this, but not this.” I recently watched a really interesting documentary called The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, who argues that plants have modified humans, not the other way around, to make us do the things we need to in order to spread around the world and propagate. That’s such a ripe metaphor for power exchange. If you’re ethically negotiating your BDSM scenes, then the sub, or the plant, holds the power. The plant says, "I’ll do this, but not this."

When I think back to my early sexual encounter with Rainbow Birch, I continue to feel a lot of shame about the lack of consent that was there. I don’t think it’s that bad that I humped the tree or whatever, but there’s a difference between my ecosexual experience with Rainbow Birch and what I’m doing now with ecofetishism. My ecofetishist work with Sacred Sadism is more about embodying an experience with another consenting, sentient human being. And I guess I feel a little bit better about that.