I’ve spent the last decade or so of my life writing a book about women and plants–specifically, eighteenth-century British women and their investment in botanical knowledge as a generative force for their own intellectual and emotional development. A few chapters of this book, Botanical Entanglements, think about the relationship between women and botanical representation in the visual arts and the ways such representation offers a model for a deep, personal intimacy between women and their vegetal subjects. Further, part of the central argument of the book is that botanical art, for eighteenth-century women, was a tool for seizing authority in a predominantly male intellectual world and defying patriarchal repression of their thoughts and desires.
It is therefore perhaps surprising that some of my favorite contemporary artwork can be found gracing the album covers of my favorite band, the heavy metal group Baroness. Album cover art featuring elaborate paintings of nature and sexualized female bodies is fairly commonplace in the heavy metal genre, dating back to Blue Cheer’s 1968 album Outsideinside. The cover art for the foundational heavy metal band’s sophomore album (below), painted by former Hell’s Angel and prominent counterculture artist Allan “Gut” Terk, combines Terk’s signature psychedelic portraits of the band members with surreal, almost grotesque depictions of nude female bodies, female body parts, and natural objects associated with female sexuality (like the shell in the lower right-hand portion of the front cover).
The depictions of nude or nearly-nude women “in the wild” became so associated with metal music that the 1981 satirical animated film Heavy Metal included copious scantily-clad, big-breasted women in their adaptations of science fiction and fantasy stories from a pulp magazine of the same name. The much-awaited sequel (Heavy Metal 2000) equally embraces busty metal babes, albeit theoretically with the ironic awareness of their excess in the new millennium. And while some genres of media representation echoed this popular image of badass, nearly nude women in nature while laying claim to some kind of feminist agenda—the beloved historical fantasy Xena: Warrior Princess, or DC Comics’ anti-hero Poison Ivy (below, by Joshua Middleton), for example—such depictions are also often critiqued as sexist and exploitative.
Hence the reason I’ve admitted that my love for the artwork of Baroness singer and rhythm guitarist John Dyer Baizley might seem a bit incompatible with an intellectual agenda that explicitly argues against the sexualization of women in eighteenth-century botanical discourses. Indeed, popular botanical imagination in the eighteenth century almost unilaterally blurred the conceptual boundaries between plant bodies and female bodies: as Alan Bewell explains of eighteenth-century botanical imagination, “to see a plant properly…requires a special kind of double vision, which allows us to see both plant and female as one, passing easily from one to the other.” Porous, mutable boundaries between plant and woman are central to Baizley’s artwork, too, which is distinctive and beloved in the heavy metal community. In addition to producing the album artwork for his own band, he’s also created paintings for Torche, Kevlertak, Skeletonwitch, Kylesa, and, somewhat incongruously, the folk parody group Flight of the Conchords. While the visual connections between women and botanical motifs are so ubiquitous as to become unnoticeable in modern culture (I think in the last day alone I’ve seen ads for sneakers, notebooks, socks, furniture, makeup, and wallpaper that all feature botanical inspiration), art like the cover for Baroness’s 2009 Blue Record is unique. Not only was this album named among the best metal albums in history by LA Weekly in 2013, the cover art also persistently reminds me of Eramus Darwin’s controversial poem “The Loves of the Plants” (1789).
Infamous and beloved in turn, “The Loves of the Plants” is a strange, ambitious poem; Darwin uses the basic premise of Linnaean classes to imagine vivid scenes of plant courtship and sex. Linnaean’s botanical classification system used the numbers of stamens (the male reproductive part) on a given plant to sort that plant into one of twenty-four classes, subsequently using the number and position of pistils (the female reproductive part) to further sort into orders. “The Loves of the Plants,” while at least in part ostensibly didactic, also focuses extensively on the poetic allure of dalliances between gendered plant parts, especially when the numbers of included partners begins to climb. These sensual vignettes feature evocative but nonspecific descriptions of botanical intercourse, including the impregnation of “the fair OSMUNDA,” a woman-plant from class Cryptogamia. In pursuit of both sexual pleasure and her biological imperative to reproduce, Osmunda “seeks the silent dell / The ivy canopy, and dripping cell; / There hid in shades clandestine rites approves / Till the green progeny betrays her loves.” Osmunda’s lush sensuality, wrapped in twirling ivy and obscured by surrounding foliage, represents the mysterious reproductive processes of Cryptogamia—a class of plants including ferns and mosses whose spore-based reproductive strategies were at the time unknown.
Of the two women featured on the cover of Blue Record (below), either could be Osmunda: both are crowned with flowers, partially covered by coiling plants, and guarded by (or guarding) animals and fish. As with many of Baizley’s female figures, the women are nude but not pornographically explicit; likewise, they are sensual but not especially sexual (which is uncommon in this kind of artwork). These women are round, muscled, and full-figured—in fact, if I’m going to take inspiration from Darwin’s poetry and interpret the above lines as representing the unknowable reproductive process not only of plants, but of women and plants, the round belly of the woman on the left can be interpreted as the fullness of a kind of botanical pregnancy. Likewise, the tumble of eggs cracking down her front, yoke oozing and pooling, evokes some kind of interspecies reproduction. The ambiguous relationship between the women, flowers, animals, and fish in this painting, moreover, reminds me of Linnaeus’s preferred nickname for the reproductive tactics of class Cryptogamia, “clandestine marriage.” Whatever these two women are doing—enmeshed in the natural world in a deeply embodied, literally entangled sense—one gets the impression that it’s on their terms and it’s none of our business.
A few lines later in the same Canto, Darwin writes of the Lychnis, a “wanton beauty” who “shakes the bright dew-drops from her blushing face…[and] calls her wandering lovers to her arms.” Baizley’s botanical maiden is arguably more aggressive than enticing, she is definitely not blushing, and if she’s giving off any kind of vibes, they’re of the “stay away” kind. The women-plants of Baizley’s artwork, unlike the women-plants of Darwin’s poetry, are more evocative of the Amazon or female warrior (this is especially true with Red Album). And the “wandering lovers,” if any, seem aptly replaced with bewhiskered, phallic catfish and a somewhat terrifying rooster.
The image of women rejecting a delicate, infantilized relationship with flowers in favor of a more independent one has its roots in eighteenth-century poetry, too. For example, Charlotte Smith’s 1807 poem “Flora” envisions female fairies using foxgloves for armor, thorns for swords, and lichen for shields. These fairies are warlike and defensive of the goddess Flora herself, taking very seriously their sacred duty to guard a precious vegetal treasure—not unlike some of Baizley’s women. The cover for the 2012 Baroness double record Yellow & Green (below) features a vignette of nude women laboring amidst lush flowers, suggestive plants, and surreal animals. The “green progeny” of this scene appears to be shrimp the size of corgis, protected by nude women bedecked in elaborate headdresses of flowers, fungi, lit candles, nails, and regular-sized shrimp. Only one of the women faces forward; she appears to wear nothing but a crown of flowers and her own hair, but she haughtily meets the gaze of the viewer as she holds a knife to the throat of a docile swan. Other women undertake domestic tasks in Baizley’s fanciful vision of nature, such as caring for the giant shrimp babies, crafting decorative rings out of human teeth, and enlisting the aid of other swans to collect nails for new accessories. These women are a vital part of this wild ecosystem; they are entwined with plants and personally indebted to flora and fauna in ambiguous but clearly significant ways. And while their relationship to the music of the album whose cover they grace is at least somewhat consistent with certain genre-specific aesthetics, it seems clear to me that they have no time for Darwin’s “brother swains” or rabid (mostly male) metal fans of the sort mocked in Adult Swim’s brilliant animated series Metalocalypse.
I’m drawn to Baroness because of their music, and they’re my favorite band because of their unique sound and brilliant lyrical storytelling, but Baizley’s artwork and its celebration of the botanical feminine is also a big factor. I can’t say that their music inspired the book or anything like that, but I like to think that the women of the Baroness aesthetic—wild, untamed, and queer—represent the modern legacy of feminist acts of radical botanical labor. I do think that the women I write about in the book would be horrified by Baizley’s artwork (sadly, probably even Eliza Haywood), but I also think that the profound, intimate relationship between women and plants that I locate in several eighteenth-century texts and works of art is vibrantly re-imagined in these album covers. And, on second thought, Haywood (and others) would be very interested in a world where they could focus on their work (writing novels, collecting human teeth) without the inconvenience of men running around.
Katie Sagal is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Cornell College. She is the author of Botanical Entanglements (University of Virginia Press). Her scholarly work has also appeared in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, Eighteenth-Century Life, Restoration, and Literature Compass. She is perhaps inordinately fond of botanical things, which has led to many enlightening archival visits, several invigorating walks through botanical gardens near and far, and an exorbitant amount of money spent on Rifle Paper Co. products.