Transcendence: Queer Restoryation

By Cai Quirk. Skylark Editions, 2023. 94 pages. $55/paperback; $125/special edition.

As a queer Quaker interested in stories that speak to my own experience of gender fluidity—where gender identity and expression changes over time or depending on context—I find that they are few and far between. So I was excited to dive into Cai Quirk’s new photography book, Transcendence: Queer Restoryation, a work that has opened my mind to a new way of viewing gender and stillness within nature, which is the place where I experience the pureness of the Divine most strongly. Quirk, who identifies as genderqueer, is a lifelong Quaker from Ithaca (N.Y.) Meeting. Through evocative photographs and mystical words, they explore the connections between nature, gender, and Spirit, where nature is viewed as a restorative foundation, and all types of gender experience and expression are considered part of natural, Spirit-filled human existence.

In a manner that feels almost otherworldly, Quirk’s narrative of discovery and transcendence for genderfluid and gender-expansive individuals unfolds literally against the very substance of the earth. Stories of rebirth, discovery, and transformation come to life through ethereal, nude self-images captured outside in the natural world. Whether they are curled up inside a tree, letting sand sift through their fingers, or kneeling among shallow waters, Quirk affirms the existence of genderfluid and transgender individuals by presenting their own body as evidence.

The photographs are echoed by short prose-style novellas that help the reader center and experience the collective work as one fluid story. Quirk weaves together near mythological tales of gender and Spirit that speak to the queer experience in today’s world, reminding us that gender-diverse individuals have always existed. By placing themselves among nature, within nature, and of nature, Quirk’s Transcendence lives up to its title as a journey that transcends.

Themes of silence and Quaker worship are emphasized throughout the narrative—reminders of the transformative power in stillness and Spirit that lives within us all. Fluidity and connection to the earth are found in all living things, including humans, as illustrated in a section titled “Wanderer”:

The wanderer sank to the earth in gratitude and found dampness seeping up from below. . . . Settling into worship, the wanderer drew energy up through earth, body, and soul, until a trickle of water emerged from the ground. With each breath and reach for energy, the trickle grew, flowing down the hillside, washing away soot and carrying tiny seeds to pockets of earth where they could set down roots.

Quirk’s exceptional photography and storytelling encourage us to look at those among us whom we may not understand and remember: the Spirit made nature, and, as we are from nature, we are, therefore, of the Spirit. Transcendence is a vital contribution to discussions about the interrelatedness of nature, gender, and Spirit. I believe the book will be transformative for all who are fortunate to experience it; it was for me. A special edition is available from the publisher that is signed by the author and includes a signed limited edition print of each twilight, which is on the front cover.

Cassie J. Hardee (she/they) is a member and associate clerk of Fort Worth (Tex.) Meeting and an American Friends Service Committee representative for their yearly meeting. They work in education and engagement at a performing arts nonprofit. Cassie volunteers with faith-based LGBTQ+ outreach in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, and is passionate about ending LGBTQ+ youth homelessness.

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