The Seed: Conversations for Radical Hope

What can the Natural World Teach Us about Ourselves? with Cai Quirk

October 18, 2022 Pendle Hill, Dwight Dunston, Cai Quirk Season 1 Episode 3
The Seed: Conversations for Radical Hope
What can the Natural World Teach Us about Ourselves? with Cai Quirk
Show Notes Transcript

Cai Quirk frames their art and their work expanding gender narratives as a collaboration between themself, the natural world, and Spirit. Despite the continued erasure of queer stories, Cai reminds us that the natural world keeps these stories of the “fluidity and diversity of ourselves…for us to be able to relearn.” In their conversation with Dwight, Cai invites us into those processes of collaboration, expansion, and relearning.

Cai Quirk (they/them or ey/em) is a lifelong Quaker with passions for Witness, personal discernment, and diverse methods of spiritual deepening. With a gender that transcends binaries, Cai is practiced at deeply questioning societal expectations and norms and in shifting towards roots of individual and group integrity. Spiritual deepening, Witness, and integrity are expanded in Cai’s writing, photography, and music practices. Cai’s upcoming book of photography and stories, Transcendence: Queer Restoryation, connects themes of spirituality, mythology, and gender diversity, nature and storytelling. 

Learn more about Cai’s work here:

Preorder Cai’s upcoming book, Transcendence: Queer Restoryation, here.

Listen to Cai’s First Monday lecture, “Myths of Gender,” here.

The Seed asks guests to share a quote or text that has been transformational for them. Cai shared the following quote from Winona LaDuke

“When we start our stories at the moment of harm, we get limited, we lose imagination. What were our stories before the harm? We can reimagine our pasts, imagine the pieces, the stories that weren’t handed down.”

Find the transcript for this episode here. 


The Seed is a project of Pendle Hill, a Quaker center, open to all, for Spirit-led learning, retreat, and community. We’re located in Wallingford, Pennsylvania, on the traditional territory of the Lenni-Lenape people.

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This project is made possible by the generous support of the Thomas H. & Mary Williams Shoemaker Fund.

Cai Quirk  0:09  

There have been so many queer stories erased throughout time and through oppression. And one of the things that I was realizing recently is just how much the natural world holds some of these stories for us.

Dwight Dunston  0:27  

Welcome, everyone, to The Seed: Conversations for Radical Hope, a Pendle Hill podcast where Quakers and other seekers come together to explore visions of the world that is growing up through the cracks of our broken systems. I'm your host, Dwight Dunston. 

Today we are welcoming Cai Quirk onto the show. Cai Quirk is a lifelong Quaker with passions for witness, personal discernment, and diverse methods of spiritual deepening. With a gender that transcends binaries, Cai is practiced at deeply questioning societal expectations and norms. And it's shifting towards roots of individual and group integrity. At the time of this recording, Cai was in residence at Pendle Hill as the 2022 Minnie Jane Scholar. Welcome, Cai. 

Cai Quirk  1:12  

Thank you. 

Dwight Dunston  1:13  

So great to see you. 

Cai Quirk  1:14  

Yeah, you as well. 

Dwight Dunston  1:16  

On this podcast, we love to start out the conversation with a check-in question. And that is for you to just share what's it like being Cai Quirk today.

Cai Quirk  1:30  

Today, I woke up fairly early and went on a run to absorb just the nature all around here at Pendle Hill. And that then shifted into some music. So to be able to have these two ways of connecting to Spirit without words, early in the morning before Pendle Hill worship. I remember when I was a kid, my mom would have a practice of, on the way to Meeting, there would be no media, no, you know, she would not read anything, not listen to anything, so that she could center herself and be ready for worship. So I kind of continue this practice, although music is a kind of media. And occasionally I'll get songs stuck in my head in worship, but worship comes and then the, the writing and photography start. So today was some writing of poetry outside after worship.

Dwight Dunston  2:19  

Mmm. So I hear you're coming in connecting to this grounded practice that has been in your life for a long time.

Cai Quirk  2:26  


Dwight Dunston  2:27  

Beautiful. We also like asking our guests to bring in a transformational text: something that they've come across in their lives that has been shifting for you and the life that you live. I know you brought a quote in for our time together today. And I'm wondering if you might be able to read that for us?

Cai Quirk  2:47  

Sure. The quote that I brought is from Winona LaDuke, from a talk of hers that I attended a year ago. And in that talk, she said, 

"When we start our stories at the moment of harm, we get limited, we lose imagination. What were our stories before the harm? We can reimagine our pasts. Imagine the pieces, the stories that weren't handed down."

Dwight Dunston  3:12  

What is--what does this quote mean to you, Cai? You mentioned sort of the story around when you first came across it. I would love to just expand on what, where you were at that time. And yeah, just hear about what happens to you, for you, when you read this.

Cai Quirk  3:30  

For me, this quote ties into a lot of the ministry that I carry, which is imagining the world that could be. My godmother and mentor says 'nature doesn't like a vacuum'. And so it's really hard to just simply release an idea without a new idea coming and replacing it. In this way, I'm working to create a vision of a world that people want to move towards, rather than wasting energy trying to completely break down the old system first. And so in that, it's this visioning that can help inspire people to move towards the world that we want to create.

Dwight Dunston  4:14  

Gandhi spoke about obstructive and constructive programming--so, obstructive being in movements when we see the nonviolent protests, the boycotting, the fighting back against the system, and constructive programming being the creation of the ways we want to relate to each other, be in connection with each other, be in the world with one another. And the fact that we need to be doing both of those at the same time in movements. And so I hear you, in this quote, thinking about creating new possibilities with your life and we're gonna get into your art in just a moment. But it sounds like this quote speaks to something you've been activating in your life for quite some time.

Cai Quirk  4:58  

This quote was introduced to me while I was in the middle of working on the book Transcendence, that is part of this 'restoryation,' that is, expanding the stories beyond the moment of harm. And it felt like it named something that was already in process, that was already happening. At the same time, it was also an invitation to further expand the stories around trans people. So many times, the stories of trans people are about the moment of harm or are about specifically the physical transition or the social challenges that are around being trans in this society in this time. But there are so many more stories out there about transness that are not centered [around harm]. So this quote was an invitation to continue expanding those stories. In the project that I've been working on right now, as I tried to completely focus on stories that were euphoric and uplifting, it felt like that was not acknowledging the harms that have been done. And so the project evolved to include stories in many different ways, some of which are acknowledging the harm done, some are moving through the harm, some are just completely not related to that way of looking at things at all, but are expanding stories in completely different directions.

Dwight Dunston  6:22  

Yeah, so much of that resonates. We had a conversation not too long ago about the connection to your story around your trans identity, how you move in the world, the harms, the celebrations of that journey, there was a way that I felt connected to my Black identity, and being racialized in this culture and context, and the stories of the hurt and the harm, but also the stories of the celebrations. And it feels like such a tenuous journey, or creative endeavor, to kind of uplift all of these different pieces of your story, of that story, right. And I do want to ask you about your project, "Beyond Pink and Blue." And on this podcast, one of the things we're going to do is be talking to folks like yourself about their visions and their practices for building a more just world. And specifically in this project, "Beyond Pink and Blue", you are inviting folks that will be engaging with the project into a new understanding of what gender could be. 

And I would just love for you to tell us more about this project and the hopes that you have around what it will give to people who will see it, interact with it, be with it.

Cai Quirk  7:37  

The project "Beyond Pink and Blue" is using a metaphor of color to explore gender. There's these stereotypes that blue is for boys, pink is for girls, and yet, there are so many more colors in the rainbow, there are so many more genders out there. In the rainbow, blue is not any more inherently default than orange or yellow. And even within what we would call 'pink' or 'blue,' there are many variations: many different colors of blue, many different colors of pink, many ways to be male or female. But it's looking at 'how does the natural world reflect a spectrum much broader than simply two colors?' And similarly, how do humans mirror that?

One of the things that I love about this metaphor is the way that it has helped me internalize the releasing of defaults. I realized that while I mentally knew that it was okay to be nonbinary and to be, you know--and even that word sent us the binary--but to be beyond pink or blue, to be orange or green or silver. When I realized this metaphor of color created a level playing field, I could just feel it so much more deeply in my body. And I could feel that sense of place, the sense of home that metaphor gave.

Dwight Dunston  9:38  

Thank you for that, Cai. It's expanded the way that I've thought about gender diversity. And I'm curious for our listeners, because we've been socialized to think about pink is for girls, blue is for boys, and I was really interested when you said 'silver.' I'm like, what does silver look like? Feel like? What color do you feel today? And what would you invite the listener, as they're maybe holding these new ideas, new ways of thinking, how would you invite them to expand their own ideas around gender diversity using this metaphor that you're introducing?

Cai Quirk  10:13  

One of the practices that I invite people into is looking at the natural world. There are many colors out there. And yet, you know, sometimes it's thought of that blue and green are the most common colors, and a lot of nature's described in terms of blue and green. But when we use only those two colors, we lose the beauty of cardinals, and daffodils, and tulips. And so I've sometimes invited people to try to look at a scene, imagine a scene, and pick two of the most prominent colors. And then pick a third color, and try to describe that third color in terms of the first two. So perhaps describe the cardinal in terms of the blue of the sky and the green of the grass. Some people have gotten fairly close to being able to describe things in certain ways if the colors were somewhat near each other. But generally, it's pretty hard to do. And so I think that that gives a bit of an insight to when people ask me to describe my gender in terms of male and female--you know, it's just not related to the binary at all.

Dwight Dunston  11:14  

Do you feel a certain color today, in terms of your gender?

Cai Quirk  11:18  

Today, I feel silver. The image that is coming to mind is the sun behind the clouds that kind of wraps around the clouds and has that edge along the edge of the glowing edge.

Dwight Dunston  11:30  

It's beautiful.

Cai Quirk  11:31  


Dwight Dunston  11:32  

I'm going to pivot us ever so slightly, because I've heard the story of your name, Cai, and I'm wondering if you would be open to sharing the story of that name.

Cai Quirk  11:45  

Yeah. This poem is one of the poems from this series, "Beyond Pink and Blue," and it's the story of how I received my name. The title is "Flaming Red." 

footsteps lead me up the mountain

tracing a path I’ve walked so many times

to this place of my rebirth

     this time I am alone

     this time I am not hiding behind a shell

     this time I am known

by a self and a name revealed here

to this community first

many years ago

     now I am more rooted

     now I am more fluid

     now I know more of my true self

revealed by colors and nature

in times and moments

each growing towards today

     here I am grounded

     here I sense Spirit more strongly

     here I am ready

for changes I do not yet know

and new paths I cannot yet imagine

as I crest the mountain peak and find

     a bush with vibrant scarlet leaves

     a bush lit from behind by the sun

     a bush flaming red

like in the stories of old told in ancient tomes

and like those stories I resist at first

wondering if this can possibly be true

     and yet I am seeing clearly

     and yet I am hearing Spirit’s call

     and yet I am feeling this in my bones

sensing revelations on the horizon 

wondering if I should ask a weighty question 

but before I can think 

     Spirit whispers 

     Spirit answers 

     Spirit names me Cai 

and I am reborn again on the mountaintop

from a name inviting me to be brave 

to a name inviting me to rejoice unusually 

     a new calling 

     a new cycle of life 

     a new spark within 

I reintroduce myself to the community that night 

and we stand together in unity 

welcoming the new revelations as they invite me 

     to keep growing and listening to Spirit 

     to explore freely the paths of this new cycle 

     to share widely the gifts of rejoicing unusually

Dwight Dunston  14:47  

This pandemic has illuminated the ways that systems in our society don't serve us as a people. We see old ways of being and systems crumbling. And I see in your work the ways you've pushed back against systems while also envisioning new ways of being. And so as you look around, and from your vantage point are noticing old systems crumbling, I want to just make a little bit more space for you to share with us all what you are nurturing in your own life right now, what you are attending to, what you are cultivating.

Cai Quirk  15:25  

One of the things that I'm holding is thinking about how stories are passed on. And there have been so many queer stories erased throughout time and through oppression. And one of the things that I was realizing recently is just how much the natural world holds some of these stories for us. When people try to erase the fluidity and diversity of ourselves--and not just around gender, but in so many other ways--the natural world holds the stories for us, to be able to relearn. A lot of the poems in "Beyond Pink and Blue" as well as the photos and stories in Transcendence, each bring in some of the elements of the natural world as a part of these stories, to invite us into these ways of seeing gender diversity as perfectly natural and integrated within nature, as well as integral to the wholeness of humanity. A poem that came to me yesterday about these ways that the land holds stories that have been erased is titled "Multicolored." 

they can try to 

     erase our stories

     erase our multicolored identities

     erase our very bodies from this earth 

but they cannot hide 

     the stories the land holds for us 

     the rain that returns the knowing to us 

     the sun which sparks seeds hidden within us 

for we are reflected 

     in seasonal cycles of creation and growth 

     in every raindrop and color of the rainbow

     in fire’s transformative power 

since we 

      are natural to this earth 

     are made in the image of nature's wide spectrums 

     are intrinsic to humanity's rebirth and wholeness

Dwight Dunston  17:21  

Thank you for that, Cai. Is there anything else you want to share, say in this moment, before we close our time?

Cai Quirk  17:31  

One of the other places where it's been interesting to explore this idea of the land holding stories that can be relearned is through the way that I created the photos in Transcendence, which is the project that will be published in a book this winter. In it, there is a mix of gender diversity, mythology, spirituality, and storytelling. In creating the photos themselves, I went out into nature, and it was a collaboration between the natural world and myself and spirit kind of leading, almost like a compass within me, as I walked through the forest, sometimes in circles. Many of the times after this creation of the image, after this collaboration between the natural world and spirit and myself, I would look at the image months later and learn new things from it. And so I was continuously learning from these images created and from the natural world in these ways. And that's part of also what led to some of the written stories and Transcendence is this exploration of what is the natural world trying to tell us about ourselves?

Dwight Dunston  19:02  

Pendle Hill is a Quaker center open to all for spirit-led learning, retreat, and community. We’re located in Wallingford, PA, on the traditional territory of the Lenni Lenape people. Visit us at

The podcast was produced and edited by Ariel Goodman, with the support of Pendle Hill education director Frances Kreimer and education associate Anna Hill. Our episodes were mixed by Leah Shaw Dameron. Our theme music is the I Rise Project by Reverend Rhetta Morgan and Bennett Kuhn, produced by Astronautical Records. The bassoon playing that you heard on this episode was played by our guest Cai Quirk. 

If y’all are listening to these last 30 seconds, you made it to the end with us. And we would so love it if you could subscribe, rate, or review us wherever you get your podcasts. It helps us to keep planting those seeds. 

This project was made possible by the generous support of the Thomas H. and Mary Williams Shoemaker Fund.