artcore journal

artcore journal

Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story: Beth Stephens and Annie Sprinkle Marry A Mountain by Corinne Van Houten

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Protest march on Blair Mountain. Photo by Jordan Freeman

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Protest march on Blair Mountain. Photo by Jordan Freeman

What do pornography, bosoms, and lesbian feminism have in common with mountain top removal mining? The answer is Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, performance artists whose mission, as artists, as lovers, as women, as human beings, is to turn us onto “ecosexuality,” a movement they celebrate in projects as diverse as The Love Art Laboratory,[1] Sexecological Walking Tours, and a film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story (Summer 2013). The focus of the film is the devastating destruction that results from mountain top removal mining or MTR. MTR begins with the clearing of trees then drilling blast holes, filling them with a mixture of ammonia nitrate and diesel, and then igniting the explosives and blowing the tops off the mountains. What’s left of the earth, animals, and plants that are unlucky enough to get caught in the blast is called “overburden.” This is simply shoved off the mountain, and pushed down into the valley, killing any animals, vegetation and streams in its path. Over five hundred mountains have been destroyed, one million acres of forest have been decimated and over 2,300 miles of streams have been filled. None of these will come back.

Mountain Top Removal Site. Photo by Paul Corbit Brown

Mountain Top Removal Site. Photo by Paul Corbit Brown

In an interview in May 2013, Stephens and Sprinkle discussed the inspiration behind their “ecosexual” art projects. This essay interweaves comments from the interview with those taken from the film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain, in order to allow the reader insight into the ideas and philosophy behind Stephens and Sprinkles’ mission to alter our relationship with the environment. Using a combination of humorous and erotic performance in conjunction with research and scientific data, Stephens and Sprinkle draw our attention to the very real problems we are facing on a planet that is being consumed by industry, greed, and overpopulation.

Stephens and Sprinkle created “ecosexuality” and “sexecology” to combine their erotic love for each other and that of their shared concern for the planet, the erosion of natural resources, and the resultant threat to human survival. This concern became the basis for much of their collaborative work since 2003. In a celebration of sexuality focusing on the earth as our lover, Sprinkle and Stephens use their intelligence, wit, fame (or infamy), and seductive powers to defend their ‘lover’ from the ravages of brutal attacks and greedy corporate abuse. They want to replace the age-old association of the Earth as “mother” with a definition of the earth as “lover.” Stephens and Sprinkle believe that the over-familiar metaphor of mother has produced children who take and take, resulting in a planet that is weakened, drained, and on the verge of collapse. By substituting the term “lover” for “mother” Sprinkle and Stephens want to emphasize the joy and pleasure of caring for another rather than the centuries-old, childish assumption that we are to be cared for by “mother” earth. They want to remind us that we need to assume responsibility for a relationship that has become so unbalanced that it threatens our survival as a species.

“I’m a tree-hugger from way back,” Stephens says at the beginning of Goodbye Gauley Mountain as she and her older sister, Anne, hug a tree. In the ecosexual community, “tree-hugger” is not a euphemism for “liberal” (and it is certainly not derogatory). Instead, it’s a literal description of Stephens and Sprinkle’s approach to nature, which emphasizes the physical embracing of trees as well as other natural plants and objects. Caressing, touching, licking—Stephens and Sprinkle use sexual metaphors and sexual acts to wake us up to our destructive attitudes towards the natural resources on which we depend. For the artists, sexuality is a natural part of human relationships that has become de-naturalized through religious and cultural restrictions and taboos. This de-naturalization has resulted in our alienation from the earth and from each other. In order to re-assert the positive energy and power that is released upon acceptance of our sexual natures, Stephens and Sprinkle often go to comical lengths in order to question taboos and re-assess the value of sexuality for relationships and for the respect and love of nature.

I first became aware of “sexecology” in 2010 when I went on a “sexecological” walking tour of the Castro (a neighborhood in San Francisco famous for being one of the first gay neighborhoods in the United States) with Sprinkle and her partner, Stephens. It was a blast; funny, playful, and sometimes ridiculous, it was easy to over-look the serious point they were making and yet, ultimately, their humorous approach succeeded in making manifest the vital importance of our connection to a deeper appreciation of the natural world.  Sprinkle (whom I remembered from art history—my favorite piece of hers is Bosom Ballet which was originally performed in the mid-nineteen eighties) wore a low-cut ‘hippie-style’ dress with a long skirt and velvet bustier. She carried a long white feather that she waved in the air as we followed her down the streets of the Castro, stopping at plots of weeds and pots hanging from windows (evoking remarks about the vagina dentata and, a poor little cactus, “penis” dentata), and at trees with obvious carnal qualities festooned as they were with bumps, gnarled creases and split trunks.[2] Here Sprinkle would lick the tree or hug it, or simply caress the mounds and creases as she told a story about orgasming while making love to the sky and the clouds. While Sprinkle was making love to sky and tree, Stephens would point out the practical drawbacks of nature eroticism saying, “Don’t lick too low, you know what I mean” (a reference to a dog’s natural use of trees as pee posts).

This element of humor is what makes both Stephens’ and Sprinkle’s work so memorable and so effective. For Sprinkle and Stephens art is sexy, funny and fun but it is also a means by which to address more serious issues. They don’t take themselves too seriously but they do take their message seriously. Humor is a great way to bridge differences between people; it’s a way of making people feel more comfortable when faced with something unpleasant or awkward. Using humor and eroticism, Sprinkle and Stephens arouse awareness and interest in issues that might otherwise be dismissed as too banal or dark to address.

“Oh yeah, you’ve gotta have humor because this stuff is so hard,” Stephens says. “I mean otherwise I couldn’t handle it, it is really hard stuff. And so I think humor is essential. There are some people who would say that we are being somewhat disrespectful of the issue but I strongly disagree with that. I think humor has always played a role in Southern culture and Appalachian culture. But I think that, given the magnitude of what’s happening (mountaintop removal mining) and how unbelievable it is, the only way to open up space and even engage with it is through humor… And I think sex is funny and sexuality… I think sex is one of the funniest things ever, you know? It’s ridiculous. We make complete and utter fools out of ourselves having sex.” (Stephens, Interview, May 2013)

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Mountain Healing. Photo by Julian Cash. Design by Naomi Pitcairn

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Mountain Healing. Photo by Julian Cash. Design by Naomi Pitcairn

Before becoming a performance artist and sex educator, Annie Sprinkle was a porn actress and prostitute for twenty years. Elizabeth Stephens is an interdisciplinary artist and activist who is a Professor of Art at the University of California, Santa Cruz. They met in 1991 when Stephens curated one of Sprinkle’s “tit prints” into a show she had organized called Outrageous Desire.[3] Sprinkle and Stephens met again during the photo shoot for Stephens’ graduate exhibition, Who’s Zoomin Who in 1992 in which Stephens and Sprinkle interacted around Stephens’ Harley. High heels, bare breasts, cigarettes, and a motorcycle—all the elements of motorcycle magazine fantasies about “biker babes” are here but with a twist—it’s two women playing “butch” and “femme” roles in the lesbian world, as well as the more traditional characterizations of a male mechanic and female seductress in the heterosexual worldview. Laughing and winking at the viewer, Stephens and Sprinkle share with us/draw us into their world while humorously leading us to confront our discomfort with and assumptions about socially disjunctive images and relationships.

Artistically both Sprinkle and Stephens are activists who see art as a vehicle for expression, for exploration of issues that are fundamental to their world views, each, to a certain extent derived from and evolving around eroticism and sexuality. Sprinkle said, “I think you can see the cosmos, the world through any kind of glasses, you know, all kinds of glasses. Some people have a Catholic eye, some people have an art eye, some a biology or science eye. I have a sex eye so I see everything tied into sexuality so when I walk, like right now it’s spring and to me all these trees are like in mating season, I’m seeing sex everywhere and I’m looking at the stars and thinking about how we’re made of star dust and how when we’re having sex with a person we’re rubbing stardust.” (Sprinkle, Interview, May 2013)

It may seem odd to think of challenging mountaintop removal mining with sex and eroticism. Mountaintop removal mining is, after all, a product of industrialization, of Capitalism, of a male-dominated, socio-economic worldview that sees nature, like women, as products to be used and mined for pleasure, power, and profit. How can two women performance artists, one coming out of prostitution and pornography, the other from a lesbian alternative lifestyle, confront an industry that has seemingly little to do with them? As an ex-sex worker/sex performer, Sprinkle represents women who have generally existed on the lowest rung socially, politically, and economically in Capitalist, patriarchal societies.[4]  Such women have been the pawns, which men (and women) have used for their own goals/gains, rather than independent entities whose opinions and welfare carry much weight in a social system. Instead, those who don’t fit in are ostracized and seen as threatening to the status quo. Such women are either bought out or they’re squeezed out. It’s rare to see someone triumph without losing his/her position as an outcast. Yet, Stephens and Sprinkle have triumphed through the medium of art, a medium they have each claimed as their own even prior to meeting and marrying one another. They are now carrying this literally grass-roots challenge to the foundations of Capitalism—challenging the returns on destructive environmental activity that is parlayed into financial gain. From diamond mines to oil fields, the power of the few enslaves the many, an imbalance that contributes greatly to the loss of all of us in relation not just to future generations of human beings but to the health of the planet.

Of course, Sprinkle and Stephens are not the first artists to challenge the Capitalist, industrial system and its destructive fall-out.[5] Many male as well as female artists have defied the status quo. Duchamp and other Dada artists thumbed their nose at the idea of creating art for profit. Stephens and Sprinkle continue this tradition (following Fluxus and other movements that grew out of Dada), using humor, puns, performance art and the concept of “inclusion” rather than “exclusion” to express their views on issues ranging from marriage equality to environmental destruction and climate change.

“Yeah, we credit ad nauseam, if you go to our Love Art Lab you’ll see on every wedding we did—now we’ve done fifteen or sixteen weddings—we’ve always done a program which includes every single person that was involved…sometimes that’s one hundred and fifty people named. Ultimately it’s about like world peace, I mean if people can’t get along and collaborate…I mean if it’s all about me, me, me…we’re nowhere.  I mean I guess for some people that’s fine but we can’t all be like that or we won’t survive.” (Sprinkle, Interview, May 2013)

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephen, Annie and Beth with Snake

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephen, Madame and Eve. Image by Greg Archer

By using nudity, humor, eroticism, and controversy, Sprinkle and Stephens focus attention on issues that they believe are vital to human survival and a healthy environment. They aren’t just focused on notoriety for self centered purposes, they are focused on the future for all of us, thus turning full circle from the narcissistic arena that defines Contemporary art (the artist as individual genius, the artist’s ego) to the role art has played in human heritage…as an expression of the divine, the incomprehensible, the unknown. The art of the cave paintings was not an art meant to glorify the individual artist but to connect the community to a sacred power, the power of nature, of natural phenomenon and of the universe in which we all live. This universe is beyond human control but of vital importance to humanity’s survival. Sprinkle and Stephens, in a twenty-first century tongue-in-cheek mode, are seeking to re-establish the beauty, the fun and the vital importance of our connection with nature, thereby linking us back to the essential relationship between human and nature. In doing so, they remind us of our limited comprehension of “truth” and “reality” within the context of an external reality of forces that are beyond human control.

Their respect for sexual identity, nature, and community is abundantly clear in the film, Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story, a combination of documentary and art performance film about the devastation that mountain top removal mining has inflicted on the communities and environment of Appalachia in the U.S. Mountain top removal mining has ravaged the beautiful Appalachian Mountains leaving an ugly open scar where once there were blue misted forest ranges and rolling hills. This is the home Stephens plans on returning to, the home where generations of her family, as well as a multitude of other communities, have grown up and died, a home that is being decimated by greed, violation, and indifference.

“Right now I’m just focusing on Appalachia and mountain top removal mining and things like water quality. But the thing is, you know, the specific tragedy—it almost doesn’t matter what it is, because it could be fracking, it could be uranium mining, it could be a multitude of things, the oil spill in Arkansas—these things are all kind of similar in terms of the damage that they cause and in terms of the social stress that they place on the communities where they’re happening. But mountain top removal mining, I mean that’s the one that’s the closest to my heart right now because I’m watching the place I grew up [in] be obliterated. I mean these corporations are digging up people’s graveyards… You know, this is a place I thought I could retire. This is a place that I thought I could come home to, I would come home to my home where I would be protected by these beautiful mountains and, you know, I would be buried there. Even the graveyards aren’t safe anymore. I mean that’s fucked up.” (Stephens, Interview, May 2013)

At the opening of the film we hear birds singing against a backdrop of misty mountains, wind blows through trees, a tortoise walks through leafy greens, and butterflies and bees land on flowering plants. Interspersed amongst these idyllic scenes are the staccato sounds of machinery revving up and suddenly a loud explosion—another mountain has been blown apart. The confrontation has begun and the meaning is clear: nature is being hunted and destroyed by industry. Stephens talks about her childhood in these mountains, introducing us to her elementary school, to a public pool (“That’s the first time I ever felt fat”) and the mining background of her family—from miners in Cornwall, England in the 1600’s to her family’s company, The Marathon Coal Bit Company, which they sold in 1981, before mountain top removal mining became a commonplace event in Appalachia. (Stephens, Goodbye Gauley Mountain) Stephens was born in Montgomery, West Virginia in 1960 when “coal was king” and grew up in a family where her mother was a pianist, her grandmother a painter and the male members of the family worked for The Marathon Coal Bit Company. (Stephens, Interview, May 2013)

“When you grow up in a poor place you learn how to make do and making do has been very important to me especially as a queer woman growing up in a man’s world…The work I’m doing now is very much a continuation of things I’ve always been interested in especially around the land and around sex. I mean I really love where I’m from. It’s a very soulful place and I think it’s a place that’s been much maligned. And for me, regardless of where I’ve been or whom I’ve been with, that place has always been really embedded in my psyche and my heart. I think really almost everything I’ve made; even you know identity, various different kinds of sort of identity politics, has always been formed by West Virginia because West Virginia is a very queer marginal place. And growing up there, you know it’s not queer like homosexual, it’s just queer like the original meaning of queer, it’s just a very queer place and that has always informed pretty much every move I’ve made, so it’s a real privilege for me to be able to make this film which a lot of people in West Virginia are not going to like.” (Stephens, Interview, May 2013)

Stephens visits Lindytown, West Virginia before it is wiped out. Massey Energy bought up the community and forced the residents to leave. “I don’t know,” Stephens says as she walks past the empty homes, the orchards and lawns, a church. “This seems pretty criminal—to buy a whole culture and tear it down, then destroy the mountains. I think the places where people are born are genetically imprinted on their psyches and their DNA and their hearts. So all the people that had connections here, they’ve been erased.  I don’t know if it really matters to know where I was conceived but it’s nice to have the privilege of at least knowing that I can go back home.” (Stephens, Goodbye Gauley Mountain)

As the photographer, Vivian Stockman says, “We are rooted in a place, in a community (and) a cultural continuum is being disrupted by mountain top removal mining.”  (Stockman, Goodbye Gauley Mountain)

“And the other thing is, the water that is being contaminated right now is the water that goes to sustain the whole mid-Atlantic region. It’s water that goes down into the Ohio River Valley, gets into the Ohio River which gets into [the] Mississippi River which then goes down to the Gulf of Mexico and, you know, connects that to the whole BP oil spill. You know the Gulf of Mexico is a dead zone. So, you know, it’s an ecological system, it’s all connected. Everything is inter-connected…the wildlife and fauna don’t have a chance. And you want to talk about global warming in terms of the circulation of oxygen and CO2, they’re just slashing these beautiful hardwood forests.” (Stephens, Interview, May 2013)

“The Eastern deciduous forests are being wiped out,” the environmentalist Jack Spadaro says. “They’re gone forever.” (Spadaro, Goodbye Gauley Mountain)

The film contains interviews with various people who live in Appalachia and fight against coal mining companies like Massey Energy Company as well as those who support the mining companies and hold up signs in protest that read, “Tree huggers go home” and “We love our mining companies.”

“The thing is,” Stephens says, “is that there are many communities—and so with some communities it’s [mining] an issue but with others it’s not. I had more problems with my family. Because my family is involved with coal mining. So, you know, it’s a very complicated issue. I mean I was watching some of the out-takes yesterday and a dear friend of mine who—she and her husband, in the process of making this film, and I hope it’s not because of making this film, and I don’t think it is because of the film, though the husband has come back to me and said it is because of the film—they separated and…she was saying you know, “ ‘this is a civil war. This is tearing families apart.’ It’s brother against brother, husband against wife, you know, parents against children. It’s a wild issue that people don’t really know anything about and they certainly don’t know anything about what kind of damage it’s causing in people’s personal lives.”

“I mean, you know, my family, they all support what Annie and I are doing, they just don’t all agree with it and they really don’t all agree with what I’m doing about the coal mining. Because there are real consequences for agreeing with me around this…they can lose business, they can lose their jobs, they can lose their reputation. And it’s me…And you know, when the film comes out, I’m both looking forward to it and dreading the premier in West Virginia because I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of controversy.” (Stephens, Interview, May 2013)

Both Sprinkle and Stephens participate in erotic sensual contact with the earth, the plants, the streams by hugging, licking, caressing—simultaneously awkward to watch and joyous. In one scene Stephens is amorously caressing a rock, in another Sprinkle and Stephens cover each other with mud, caressing each other’s breasts. They splash naked through a stream, hug and lick the trunk of a tree, seek out the crevices and bumps of the most mundane objects, whether they are vegetable, mineral, or liquid, they find sensual joy in the natural environment.

“Nature is full of sensual delights,” Sprinkle says in one scene where she runs her hands along the earth. “Fulfilling, erotic. Massage the earth with your feet, have intercourse with the air you breathe. Eroticizing nature lubricates ourselves through life.”  (Sprinkle, Goodbye Gauley Mountain)

“We employ ecosexuality, sexecology, and public weddings to nature entities as our activist tactics.” Sprinkle and Stephens look at each other and laugh. “Let’s go marry a mountain.”  (Sprinkle and Stephens, Goodbye Gauley Mountain)

The film ends with Stephens and Sprinkle celebrating their marriage to the mountain. Dressed in outrageous purple outfits (Stephens wears a “codpiece” representing the solar system at her crotch—she and Sprinkle married the moon during the purple year because NASA was bombing the moon looking for water and Stephens wore the same costume for both weddings) they are joined before a community of people from Appalachia. Some sober, dressed in their Sunday best, others in costumes, dancing and singing, they are all joyous in their celebration of the mountains and the land they all love.

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Purple Wedding

Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, Cake Cutting, Purple Wedding to the Appalachian Mountains. Image by Elizabeth Dobson

Stephens and Sprinkle realize that their erotic approach to nature, and their concept of “ecosexuality,” may be easily mocked or even dismissed as a minor artistic diversion. They acknowledge that it may not be the most effective way of stopping the devastation of mountain top removal mining. At one point in the film, Stephens says that, “global energy corporations are so powerful that I’m not really sure our ecosexual tactics can really help do anything to slow down their environmental wreckage.” (Stephens, Goodbye Gauley Mountain) Yet, as the film unfolds, it captures the all-too-real impact of the devastation mountain top removal mining has inflicted on mountains, streams, forests and communities, not only for the people of Appalachia but, on a much grander scale, for each of us. Throughout the film, Stephens documents the writings of Appalachian poets, Catherine Venerable Moore and Patricia Spangler (Stephens’ cousin), as well as the courage and dedication of Appalachian environmentalists and activists such as Stephanie Tyree, Jack Spadaro, Larry Gibson, and Paul Brown. They also document the observations made by members of various communities such as Stephens’ close friend, Cindy, her husband Roger, and sister, Anne. By the end of Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story caressing, kissing, hugging and loving trees, rocks, and streams seems far less absurd and far more vital to each of us as individuals than the blasting, dynamiting, and destruction of wildlife and fauna. It is the complete indifference to the earth, to nature, to mountains, to the land and the streams that have become the ridiculous, the blasphemous and the disgusting.

One of the powerful aspects of art is it’s ability to alter the way we view the world; whether that is visually, spiritually, or through socio-political revelation. Art is both a reflection of contemporary culture and a voice for the future. Changing the way we see or perceive things is a fundamental strength of really good art. It may start on a small scale—it may start with kissing the earth and marrying a mountain—but it may grow and certainly make an impact. When people take their passion, their abilities and their talent and they express it in ways that have the capability of touching others in unique ways, in this case through performance. This is what Stephens and Sprinkle achieve, and by the end of the film, what seems rational and sane, what seems, in fact, essential to our survival and the survival of the planet, is not to profit from destruction and deceit but to protect the earth, to love each other and to support a positive relationship between human civilization and nature.

The premiere of Goodbye Gauley Mountain: An Ecosexual Love Story will be in August 2013 in West Virginia, U.S. A sneak preview was presented at the Portland Queer Docs Film Festival in Portland, Oregon and at the Museo Sophia Reina in Madrid, Spain. It will be shown at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival in August 2013 and in MICGénero 2013 in Mexico City in September. Stephens and Sprinkle will also be performing Earthy: An Ecosex Boot Camp as part of the Queer Arts Festival at the Center for Sex and Culture June 2013 and at Conway Hall, London in July.

Corinne Van Houten is a freelance writer and art critic based in Sacramento, California.


[1] Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens began their collaborative project, The Love Art Laboratory, in 2004. Each year was dedicated to a different color and a different focus revolving around love, both erotic and spiritual, combined with ecological responsibilites. Each year Sprinkle and Stephens celebrated by renewing their vows in a different types of marriage ceremonies and in a different parts of the world, celebrating their union with a different part of the environment: community, earth, sky, sea, or moon. Focusing on eroticism, love, compassion, and tolerance, Sprinkle and Stephens share with all of us who want to participate, their laughter, anger, passion and determination to initiate change using the various elements that make up their performances, their documented experiences and multi-disciplinary projects.

The first year of the project, 2005, was red and was dedicated to “Security/Survival” for obvious reasons—this was the year Annie Sprinkle was diagnosed with breast cancer. Throughout the year, as Sprinkle underwent surgery and chemo, Stephens and she shared with their viewers all of the challenges they faced and the beauty and humor they discovered and created in response to this crisis. In 2006, they celebrated using the color orange and dedicated it to “Sexuality/Creativity,” 2007 was yellow and focused on “Courage/Power,” 2008 was green and was about “Love/Compassion,” 2009 was blue and dedicated to “Communication,” 2010 was purple and about “Intuition/Wisdom,” and 2011 was white and focused on “Union/Bliss.”

[2] Vagina dentata refers to a “toothed” vagina and is derived from folk tales representing male fear of castration by the female.

[3] First created in the mid-nineteen eighties, Sprinkle’s “tit prints” are unique ‘prints’ of Sprinkle’s breasts pushed directly onto the paper surface using various colored inks and stencils.

[4] Of course there have always been exceptions—many courtesans and ‘high-class’ prostitutes have achieved wealth, fame, and power through their profession but this power is typically given to them by men, not usually achieved independent of men.

[5]It can be argued that Capitalism has made positive contributions to society. Tied in as it is with Democracy and the rights of the individual, there is at least the ideal of a respect for individual rights along with individual profits and certainly, Communism, an ideology that is basically the opposite of Capitalism, has proved that a social economy based on what is “best” for the majority has proved to be profoundly disadvantageous and equally destructive, however, as we have seen and are seeing, the power of corporations far exceeds the rights of the individual. As Leroy, a man interviewed in the film says, “The little man he can’t do it (destroy the mountains and its resources) but the big man can. They step on you every direction.”

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