Category Archives: Arts in Dark Times

Lively Water

Jila is a place of ‘living water’. It identifies fresh water that never dries up. Often unprepossessing, perhaps the water is secreted deep in a well that has been dug and maintained for generations, perhaps it is a spring that bubbles up quietly, or maybe the water forms a pool that remains after the flow of a river or creek has disappeared. Jila, the place of living water, commands respect and care; it gives life and thus is a source of life. Here on the driest inhabited continent on earth, knowledge of living water can truly make the difference between life and death. Living water is cherished; it is a blessing.

Native well, South Australia
“Native well”, South Australia

If water is living, can it also die? Is water caught up in precarity, is it vulnerable? Is water, like life, variable and diverse; in this time of ecological loss, is it threatened? The great Sydney artist Janet Laurence says ‘yes’ to these questions. Water, she wants us to understand, is fragile and complex, precious and threatened. This message was offered in her recent installation ‘H2O: Water Bar’, set up in the Paddington Reservoir. Janet’s stated aim was to bring people into appreciation of water’s variability, and to raise questions in their minds about its fragility.

Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)
Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)

In the 1860s the city of Sydney built an underground reservoir to augment its water supplies. Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century. For decades it was used for storage, then part of it collapsed. Finally in 2006 part of it was redesigned as a sunken garden and part of it was preserved as an historic site; it is only open to the public on special occasions. We were there on a very hot evening. The reservoir was cool and elegant, and beautifully peaceful; the city seemed to evaporate. The arches woke up memories of Roman water construction. We breathed the moist, earthy garden air, and in spite of the solidity of the construction materials, we felt surprisingly buoyant.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

The water bar, gleaming with glass and mirrors, was set up at one end of the enclosed area. There were shelves of vials, each containing a different water, and each carefully labelled both for origin and for trace elements and pH factor. Janet’s assistants, wearing lab coats and managing all the vials, beakers and shot glasses, offered us water and engaged us in conversation. We were invited to taste and compare, to bring our own bodily sensorium into encounter with water’s diversity and charms. I was particularly taken with spring water from Mt Warning (in NSW). This volcanic water contains fluoride, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc, cyanide, silica, sodium and copper and is pH 7.3. Its taste on my palate was lively, with a bit of zip (cyanide, perhaps?).

The best art works a kind of magic, bringing us to experience the world unexpectedly. Janet’s water bar, with its hints of alchemy and its commingling of quantification and qualitative experience, transformed a glass of water from everyday necessity to precious experience. Without having to say it, the water bar reminded us that all too often we take for granted this glorious, life-giving flow; we forget its individuality, its relationships with place, its flowing nature.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

My friend Luke Fischer organised an evening of readings on ‘The Language of Water’ to coincide with one of the water tasting events at the H2O bar. The aim was to honour Janet’s work, and to bring words into the celebration of water’s liveliness. I was invited to speak, and I drew on my experiences over many years with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory in order to address this question: if water is living, does it have a voice and does it have a face?

The area where I lived in the Territory was in the catchment of the Wickham River, a tributary of the great Victoria River. This is monsoon country, where rivers flow episodically and the extreme aridity of the dry season is counter-balanced by the massive downpours of the wet season. Across the course of a single year the extremes are enormous. And of course there are larger fluctuations linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Sun and Rain, dry season and wet season, each have their moment. Sometimes they balance each other well, but in many years the usual extremes became even more wild. This past wet season the monsoon failed and life became very tough. Heat and humidity were intense, and the blessed relief of rain was largely absent. When it came, though, it was caused by a cyclone, making sudden, localised floods that killed people. In other years, though, the rains go on and on, floodwaters rise everywhere, communities are evacuated, and it takes most of the dry season for the country to dry out enough to be able to travel off road even in four wheel drive.

Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)
Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)

The great seasonal forces are for Aboriginal people expressions of the power of on-going creation; they are part of the eco-cosmology. Wet season and Dry season: Rain and Sun. The great life-shaping powers wrestle back and forth, Rain and Sun, Sun and Rain: living beings have learned to live with extremes, from the desiccated aridity of the late dry to the swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people do actually die.

The North Australian monsoon region is its own thing, but it also needs to be said that Australia is its own thing! Water in Australia is governed ecologically by the reality that this continent is the ‘driest, flattest, most poorly drained, and in fact largely inward draining land on Earth’, according to Mary White. Most of it is arid; rain is wildly variable, as I’ve said, and global warming is almost certain to exacerbate the unpredictability of water. Here in Australia ‘normal’ is already a set of extremes, and it is hard to imagine what may be coming.

And still, water flows through everything.

It flows through you and me, through soils and trees and rocks, through all creaturely bodies and through its own ever-shifting pathways. And everywhere it goes it is connected with life. When the rain falls, living beings respond: plants and other creatures liven up and new generation are begun.

Aboriginal eco-cosmology is expressed in the medium of kinship, and conveys the underlying knowledge of connectivities. Across all the big players like Sun and Rain, across species and landforms, across seasons and generations, patterns of connectedness reproduce bonds of enduring solidarity. One big social division in the Victoria River area is based on the Sun/Rain dynamic. People are born into one or the other: either Sun, along with earth, ground, the dry season and associated animals; or Rain, along with light or dark rain and associated animals.

I was privileged to be incorporated into the kinship system, and the perspectives I know best involve my close kin: dark rain, along with the flying-foxes (Pteropus alecto) who hang upside down over the water.

Dark rains are fierce and erratic. They can come as thunderstorms, sometimes they come as cyclones. They descend on the land, they fill up the billabongs and move into the underground waterways and aquifers. They get the rivers flowing, often get them running bankers and flooding far out across the land. And then they go away, and sometimes they don’t come back for a very long time.

Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area
Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area

Sun and Rain wrestle it out, and where they meet and join, there you see a rainbow. Pattern and connection: out of difference comes something new and powerful. The Rainbow Snake is the great being associated with all water: all rains, all rivers, but most of all with every permanent spring and waterhole. The fact of permanence is living proof that something powerful is there. That ‘something’ is the Rainbow Snake. Furthermore, the Rainbow snake embodies the idea that water is both a powerful presence and an ethical subject. What I mean by saying that water is an ethical subject is that it is enmeshed in, and responsive to, calls for care and responsibility.

Aboriginal stories really draw this out. Let’s go back to those flying-foxes hanging down over the water. Late in the dry season, when country is becoming almost unbearably hot, they come to camp above permanent water. Why do they do this? It is pretty dangerous – one false move and you become dinner for the hungry crocs that patrol up and down beneath the pandanus trees. One reason is that they need the humidity to counter the heat stress they experience as the Wet season (summer) approaches.

Eucalyptus flowers
Eucalyptus flowers

Another reason is told through Aboriginal story: they are calling out to the Rainbow Snake, telling it to bring rain. The people who taught me said that they are ‘mates’ with the Rainbow, and their calling out is a central part of the relationship. There is a pattern that works like this: flying-foxes live by following the successive flowering of Eucalypts and Corymbias. The flowering starts in the higher country away from the river and works its way across the land until it reaches the river banks. Flying-foxes follow the flowers, and when they get to the river they have reached the last of the blossoms. It is late in the dry season and there will be no more flowers until the rains come and renew the country. So they call to their mate, the Rainbow, urging it to get up and get going, and bring the rain. Others join in: the frogs shout their crazy chorus, waterbirds come flocking in, cicadas are shrieking. It becomes very noisy, there is heteroglossia to the max, and most of the time the Rainbow Snake responds. Across this continent of heat, dust and fires, the rains do come.

Flying-foxes over permanent water
Flying-foxes over permanent water

Water, I am saying, has a face, using the term as developed by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his studies of ethics, to have a face is to be an ethical subject. Ethics arrive as a passionate call for connection. The flying-foxes call to their mate the Rainbow, and the Rainbow responds. Those responses bring life. We ourselves are expressions of water. All the creatures who live because of water, from frogs to birds to turtles and flying foxes, to you and me, all of us bear witness to water’s gifts of life.

Earth has been a watery planet for 3.5 billion years, and in all this time the relationship between water and life has been symbiotic water sustains life, and life sustains water. And yet, the liveliness of water is not faring well. Eileen Crist writes vividly that ‘human beings have taken aim at the very qualities that define the living planet, dismantling, with an intent that seems paradoxically both blind and demonic, the diversity, complexity, and abundance of life on Earth.’

We are water creatures, all of us. Life evolved in salt water and stayed there until about 400 million years ago when plants and animals ventured on to land. Terrestrial mammals such as ourselves recapitulate this history, floating in our own little sea of amniotic fluid until being thrust out and required to breathe. We are 78% water as babies, and drop to 65% (give or take) as adults. Many plants are 90% water; other animals vary around 60%. Even in the driest places, where living things have become incredibly adept at living with minuscule amounts of water, the story is still the same: no water no life.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

The voices of water are around and within us, and they are passionate. The appropriate response is to join in. To celebrate and protect water, to taste and treasure its diversity, to delight in and defend the creatures who call on water, to be awed by water’s power, and to cherish the connections: this is the work of life; this is the work that really matters.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

Resources:

A beautiful account of jila places can be found in the book by Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike: Jilji: Life in the Great Sandy Desert, published by Magabala Books. I learned about the sacred qualities of living water in my work on Aboriginal claims to land throughout the Northern Territory; a great many of the sacred sites we visited were water sites.

A description of ‘H2O: Water Bar’, and a video of Janet talking about the work, is available online (visit here). I have written about her work in other essays, for example ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’. Jim Hatley has an absolute ripper of an essay online (visit here).

A brief description of ‘The Language of Water’ can be found here. To learn more about Luke Fischer – poet, scholar, writer and organiser – visit his website (here).

To learn more about the Indigenous knowledge of weather and seasons mentioned in this essay, see my article ‘Rhythms, Patterns, Connectivities’.

The quote from Mary White is taken from her book Running Down: Water in a Changing Land, published in 2000.

The relationship between flying-foxes and heat stress has been the focus of several essays, for example ‘Climate Change and the Question of Community‘, and ‘Lethal Heat‘.

The quote from Eileen Crist is from her essay ’Intimations of Gaia’ in a book she has edited: Gaia in Turmoil, published by MIT Press in 2010. This book contains an excellent essay on water. Numerous websites offer facts and figures relating to water problems; a good start is with the WWF (visit here).

Strong Rain

Recently Sydney had a wild event that felt even crazier than usual. It was hot and sultry, 38°C on the balcony. The pressure was building. The sky got darker and darker, and with a bang that shook the house the thunder and rain were upon us. It was torrenting down, there was lightning, there were big drops threatening to turn to hail, the wind whipped all about and a strange darkness enveloped us.

Storm, Ma L (CC)
Storm, Ma L (CC)

At first the air remained hot in spite of the rain, and it all felt perfectly tropical, but then the temperature plummeted. As the storm moved on, little falls of rain continued; the day slipped away, and we hoped not to get soaked and chilled as we walked from the train station to the opera house for a performance.

We were actually pretty damp and chilly but it felt okay because we had gone to see ‘Cut the Sky’, a new production by the Marrugeku dance theatre group. The performance was described as ‘a dynamic fusion of dance, song, poetry and breathtaking visuals, featuring … heartfelt poetry and music’. It lived up to, and beyond, its promise.

Cut The Sky, ©Jon Green 2015*
Cut The Sky, ©Jon Green 2015*

The group is based in Broome (Kimberley region, Western Australia) and is made up of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal creative artists. The title refers to the ability of the Elder rainmakers to call up the rain, and to send it away again, too. I guess the rainmakers thought a good drenching was in order for opening night, perhaps to cheer on the performers, perhaps to remind the rest of us that these are great forces, not to be taken lightly.

The Kimberley rainmakers have been part of my cultural world since I started living with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory back in 1980. In that arid region of the tropical savanna the monsoon rains come from the west, that is, from the Kimberley. People in the Victoria River region of the Territory were somewhat in awe of the rainmakers.

The Kimberley coastal mobs experienced most of this rain first, and they were said to have the most powerful songs and rituals for rain-making. Their power was that of life and death: if no rain came in the wet season the country would suffer terribly, for there would likely be no rain until the following year.

Dry Season, Victoria River Country
Dry Season, Victoria River Country

I was interested in my Aboriginal teachers’ understandings of seasons, of course, and it was not too surprising that in this hot, dry country their annual cycle works at one level between the two big powers: sun and rain. When the sun is in the ascendence (the dry season in local vernacular), rain is hidden away. When the rains re-emerge and gain ascendence, the sun is hidden away (although rarely for long). Rain is understood as the action of the Rainbow Serpent, a figure of life and death throughout Australia.

These two great powers wrestle back and forth, and living beings have learned to live with extremes: from the desiccated aridity of late dry season to the flooded billabongs, swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet season. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people (often but not always tourists) do die of failure to understand one or the other of the demanding regimes of this country.

Extremes are normal here, and they are interrupted occasionally by titanic events.

This is how it is: Australia is impacted by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and by the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Monumental droughts and massive cyclones are part of the story. As I write, Cyclone Stan is leaving the Indian Ocean and heading across Western Australia. My friends in Broome are at the edge of it, but many coastal mobs will be well awash in strong rain.

One of the most famous is Cyclone Tracy which slammed down on Darwin on Christmas Eve (1974). It crossed over, turned around, and slammed the city again. Its energy, its focus on the major site of white Australian habitation in the far North, and its timing all marked it as something way out of the ordinary.

Darwin after Tracy, EM Knowledge Hub (CC)
Darwin after Tracy, EM Knowledge Hub (CC)

Why did Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin? Local Larakia people had an answer: in their view it was a hit against Whitefellas who were refusing to grant the Larakia people land rights. In other words, the cyclone had a social context.

Across the region from Darwin through the Kimberley, the cyclone became part of Aboriginal people’s repertoire of stories. Outside of Darwin, people also identified a social context for this titanic event, but they found meanings relevant to themselves. Over in the East Kimberley they made a whole corroboree about it. Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) tells the story of the Cyclone through song, dance, painted boards, body paint, and tall headdresses. It is a wonderfully vivid corroboree in a region where Indigenous culture is already rich with ceremonies.

Gurirr Gurirr was taught to Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas by his mother a few months after she died. She told him of her travels, how she had seen what the Cyclone had done to Darwin, and how she wanted the story to be remembered by being performed. Aboriginal Elders in the Kimberley said that Gurirr Gurirr would teach Aboriginal people, young and old, to take the cyclone as a warning and to keep their knowledge and culture strong. Thomas’s work hangs in the National Gallery, and some of the paintings depict Cyclone Tracy.

Gurirr Gurirr is vivid, beautiful, energetic, and very much in the classic style.

Now: imagine a new Kimberley corroboree. Imagine a multi-media modern dance-theatre performance dedicated to rain and cyclones. Imagine that it addresses multiple dangers – climate change, mining, extinctions, exploitation.

Cyclone Glenda over Broome, Dave Sag (CC)
Cyclone Glenda over Broome, Dave Sag (CC)

‘Cut the Sky’ draws inspiration from the power of the rain and sun, the power of country, and the power of the Kimberly rainmakers and song makers. Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain are the collaborative creators of this awesome work. They write: ‘There is a sense that the cyclone has been circling us as we work. That it, in turn, has been listening to us, causing us to dance at the edge of the apocalypse.’

The performance has a direct focus both on ecological processes that degrade life on earth, and on their social corollaries: dispossession, violence, deceit and trauma. Throughout the five acts of the performance the dancers brought breath-taking energy to everything they did. Even the quiet moments were astonishingly intense.

Cut The Sky, ©Jon Green 2015*
Cut The Sky, ©Jon Green 2015*

Dalisa is a member of a gifted Broome family and the descendant of Bardi rainmakers. She holds and focuses space with every movement. To watch her solo work was to be in the presence of mesmerising artistry. She transformed herself and her connection with her audience, going beyond performance to become something far more rare, and beautiful, and sacred. Throughout her main solo, the anguish and anger of people who are under the weight of destruction came forth, and so did the defiance. ‘I was born for a reason’, she called out, moving in a heart-grabbing stretch between earth and sky. We were with her.

That place of connection became real and the dance became transformative. No longer was it an enactment of the powers of life, but rather it inhabited those highly charged powers. We were there.

There was a time not so long ago when most western-educated people would have scoffed at the idea of connections between human action and weather events. Now our knowledge of climate change reveals the hubris of thinking that our impacts don’t matter. The connectivities are clear, and so too are the responsibilities. We can’t honestly imagine that these big changes have nothing to do with us.

We are in the midst of extreme events, and on this continent the extremes are becoming gargantuan. We are in the midst of violence against the earth and earth’s living beings that seems almost (not always) impossible to stop. We are in the midst of on-going dispossession, greed and deceit, and in our bad dreams we know the frenzy, despair, defiance, and power that ‘Cut the Sky’ brings to life for us. We know it, we need to know it, and we need to be sure that we remember what we know along with recognising that there is much that we don’t know.

'Cut The Sky', © Jon Green*
‘Cut The Sky’, © Jon Green*

I don’t want to spoil the ending of ‘Cut the Sky’, but I can say that leaving the theatre I felt strong. The final act, ‘Dreaming the Future’, put us in the midst of the enduring presence of country, this time overwhelming us with the power of this land of gift. I came home feeling blessed.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

*Photographs provided by Marrugeku. All rights reserved.

Resources:

For a discussion of Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) see this article (view here). To see some of the art, view here.

To see a clip of ‘Cut the Sky’, including a small segment of Dalisa’s solo, view here. For more on Marrugeku, view here. To see a clip of Dalisa’s solo Gudirr Gudirr (not to be confused with Gurrir Gurrir), view here.

To see the Bardi dancers in action, view here.

To learn more about the Indigenous knowledge of weather and seasons mentioned in this essay, see my article ‘Rhythms, Patterns, Connectivities’.

Ways Toward Compassion

Singer and songwriter Betsy Rose has been visiting for a few weeks. She is travelling for eight months on a journey that will take her around the world, singing as she goes. Betsy is my sister, so of course it is wonderful to have her here, and in good sisterly fashion she’s given me the opportunity to pick her mind. She is a Buddhist, and I have saved up some questions about compassion.

Betsy Rose
Betsy Rose

The term ‘compassionate conservation’ hit me like electricity when I first heard it. How exciting it is to encounter an alternative to the treadmill of killing that claims that the only way to achieve healthy ecosystems is to kill everything that appears to get in the way of a pretty narrow human vision of what belongs and what does not. Compassionate conservation takes us right away from a suite of practices based on suffering and death, inviting us to think and act differently. The convergence of ecology and compassion is a truly significant direction for major change in our world today, but what is compassion, actually?

Betsy’s mode of engaged Buddhism draws inspiration from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches a basic message of mindfulness and peace that is becoming more profoundly urgent as our species’ penchant for violence erupts into an accelerated, global, multispecies rampage. From an ecological point of view, Buddhism offers a particularly significant human response to violence because it links individuals into wider networks of living beings and aims for the well-being of all.

Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)
Guan Yin detail, Akuppa John Wigham (CC)

Many Buddhist prayers ask that all beings be free from suffering. There is, of course, no way to eliminate suffering from life – the two go hand in hand, just as joy and life go hand in hand. But we human creatures have it within us to change our own behaviour so as not to cause suffering needlessly, and it is possible to work toward more peaceful, less brutal societal relations between humans and other creatures. The emerging field of compassionate conservation aims to accomplish this manner of social change in the domains of ecological management and conservation. And yet …

the Buddhist idea of well-being goes way beyond welfare.

The provocation to western thought is huge! Welfare can be understood as freedom from suffering, whereas well-being implies that beings are actually capable of experiencing the goodness of life. This is so significant that it can be hard to take in. One has to pause for a moment to consider what the experience of well-being implies. In ecological terms, we would say that all beings have their own life-world, and they experience it subjectively. Creatures, whether large or tiny, are not machines, but rather are subjects: they have ways of life, modes of being, forms of action and interaction. Worlds of subjectivity include time, place, mobility, sustenance and much more.

Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)
Migrating butterflies, Bruce Tuten (CC)

One effect of the Buddhist commitment to well-being is that it calls for commitment to ways of life. And in this world of connectivities, commitments keep expanding. For example, commitment to a migratory species must surely include the path of their travel, and commitment to species whose strong site fidelity brings them home to reproduce must involve commitment to those home places. We might think with others in terms of their precious well-being and be reminded of salmon running up their specific streams to spawn; or the lovely synchronicity between flowers, nourishing pollen and pollinators as butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada and back; or turtles returning to specific beaches to lay their eggs.

Buddhist commitment to well-being apparently involves a lively, unlimited recognition of the connected world in which creatures are capable of experiencing joy in their own well-being. A short section of the Buddhist prayer of universal love reveals this:

May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen
Dwelling far off or nearby
Being or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.

Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)
Visitors at Elephant Nature Park, Christian Haugen (CC)

I did a short interview with Betsy (view here), asking about her travels and her activism. We filmed at home with the relentless rain contributing a little hum in the background. Betsy had encountered a multispecies zone of compassion at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and she offered a vivid description of the thrill of being in an animal-centric place. There, humans are just visitors, and the focus, organisation and management of the place is dedicated to the well-being of the other (non-human) animals. To close the interview, Betsy sang one of the songs she wrote expressing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings. It is particularly moving to me because it is about breathing. Breath is immensely inclusive: all the myriad creatures (plants, fungi, animals, many bacteria) breathe in one form or another, and the wind is the breath of the world. Wind, breath, life, well-being: it flows through us all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources

For more about Betsy and her music, visit here. To follow her travels, visit here. Her first posting, from Thailand, tells of how she was honoured with the ‘International Tara Award’. To learn more about the Elephant Nature Reserve, visit here.

The Centre for Compassionate Conservation at UTS has excellent material on this ethical approach to conservation. I  have addressed issues involving compassionate conservation in a number of essays, for example, ‘How to Love a Pest’.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and teachings are well documented, for example at the site for Plum Village in France.

The west’s understanding that creatures inhabit their own worlds of meaning owes its recent history to the continental biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Brett Buchanan has provided an excellent analysis of Uexküll’s influence in more recent philosophy in his book Onto-Ethologies. Thom van Dooren and I have developed some of this thought in relation to how two types of animals, penguins and flying-foxes, create worlds of meaning that focus on place. Our article is available on the web.

Site Fidelity

A couple of weeks ago I was swimming in Lake Washington. I had paddled about in this large snow-fed Seattle lake when I was a child, and in recent years it has been wonderful to return. This October I was using a lazy breaststroke so that I could hold Mt Rainier in my sight. The lake shimmered with ripples, waves and sun. The mountain gleamed with snow and ice, light and shadow.

Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)
Lake and Mountain, Selbe B (CC)

It was a perfect swim, and I reflected with gratitude that the outcome of the geographical tug of war between my father (east coast) and mother (west coast) had never really been in doubt. Yes, we bounced back and forth, also sometimes landing in regions between the two coasts, but for the past several decades it has been Seattle, the lake, the mountains and the Pacific Ocean that have anchored my natal family and given a great deal of meaning to our lives. Many of our stories and many of the events of our lives have been connected to the beauty and generosity of lake and mountain.

How one comes to be attached to specific places is a process that is both deeply known and yet also forever mysterious. Many attachments are formed early, some stick and some do not. Some people experience them more deeply and non-negotiably than others, but in all cases attachments to place also involve time. Memories form around places, and as they are acted upon they accumulate, and so they are enhanced.

Attachments to place are deeply embedded in memory, action, and anticipation.

Place-action becomes part of the process of meaning-making, so that place, like the living creatures who grow into it, exists in the lives and minds of creatures who themselves come and go, and are sustained by place. It may not be so well known that humans are by no means the only creatures to form attachments to place. Amongst nonhuman animals one process of attachment is known as site fidelity (the tendency or desire to return).

Thom van Dooren and I recently wrote an article about place and meaning-making in the lives of two animal species who have strong place-attachments here in Sydney – flying-foxes and little penguins. We wanted to make the point that whatever functionalities are involved in creatures’ determination to return to the same places to breed (philopatry), there is also the wider domain of meaning which exceeds functionality.

These animals, we were saying, inhabit places made meaningful through their own practices of memory, action and anticipation. As with humans, attachment is both enriching and exposing. The great philosopher of place, Edward Casey, reminds us that to be emplaced is also to face the ‘unhappy prospect’ of becoming unplaced. He was pointing toward the anguish of those whose homes are no longer inhabitable.

Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)
Little penguins at Manly, cocoa3c (CC)

As Thom explains in the context of nonhumans, meaningful places are not just ‘habitats’. They are not interchangeable, but rather are experiential worlds that can be understood as ‘home’. It follows that site fidelity, although it sounds quite formal, is really about intimacy: the familiarity, security, knowledge, confidence, and intergenerational gifting that goes into making homes.

While I was in Seattle I was forcibly reminded that there is a strong human dimension to home and homelessness that may often be overlooked: ‘home’ is not just a roof over one’s head, but is a complicated and irreplaceable world of meaning. People want to go home, or to find home, and so do those other animals whose lives are shaped by site fidelity. Penguins return to their burrows in Manly every year in spite of the fact that every year the place becomes more built-up, noisy and dangerous. Flying-foxes attempt to return to their camps every year, and it takes sonic torture and other horrific modes of ‘dispersal’ to force them away from their home places.

Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards
Grey-headed flying-fox, Nick Edards

I couldn’t help but think about the lives of creatures I love as I enacted my own site fidelity by swimming in the lake. We try to make things better for ourselves as humans, at least some of the time. Lake Washington became so polluted once that it was dangerous to swim in, but it has been cleaned up. What, though, do we do to ease the anguish of nonhumans whose attachments to place and to their future generations is every bit as committed as ours?

My family’s site fidelity, like that of flying-foxes and penguins, has been an intergenerational project. Flying-foxes return to maternity camps to give birth, penguins return to their familiar burrows to hatch and fledge their young. In my family, Lake Washington was where my mother and her parents had swum, and our family kept returning.

Recently we added another chapter to our attachments to place, time and generations when our mother died in her bed at home facing the lake. We kept her body with us until the afternoon, and when the professionals came to take her away we sang ‘Will the circle be unbroken’. The clouds parted and the sun shone with astonishing heat and brilliance.

There was only one thing to do:   we ran to the jetty and jumped into the lake.

DSC03200

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: The article Thom and I wrote is called ‘Storied-places in a multispecies city’ (read here).

Edward Casey’s work on becoming ‘unplaced’. as I mention here, can be found in one of his major books Getting Back Into Place.

Little penguins are also the subject of a chapter in Thom’s book Flight Ways, a terrific new book about which I will have more to say soon.

Ecology and Writing ~ Martin Harrison

My friend Martin Harrison was a poet, essayist, professor, mentor and colleague. He died unexpectedly on Saturday, September 6, 2014 at just 65 years of age.

Martin Harrison, by Adrian Wiggins (CC)
Martin Harrison, by Adrian Wiggins (CC)

Martin was one of the foundation members of Kangaloon, ‘a fellowship of poets, scholars, artists and activists in dialogue with the current cascade of ecological degradation and diminishment of life’. Kangaloon takes its name from the area in NSW that is home to the endangered giant dragonfly, Petalura gigantea.

Throughout many deep and exploratory conversations, Martin was a key figure in developing our statement of who we are and what we aim for: ‘Through our creative endeavours we ask: how are we to respond with vision, love and hope? How are we and other species to live and live well? How may we promote health, life and beauty in an era of unfathomable loss?’

Our commitments, too, were deeply affected by Martin’s vision:
– to the beauty and practicality of ecological systems to a philosophy at one with the environment
– to create art, writing and scholarship from the depth of nature
– to promote balance and sustainability in design
– to rethink economy as ecology
– to live simply and poetically in the presence of earth’s creatures

Petalura gigantea, Merryjack (CC)
Petalura gigantea, Merryjack (CC)

The Kangaloon group reached out to others in numerous ways that included open seminars, readings, panels, and writing. One of our achievements was a special issue of the journal TEXT, an open-access online journal dedicated to writing and the teaching of writing. Four of us co-edited a special edition with the title ‘Writing Creates Ecology / Ecology Creates Writing’.

Martin wrote a brilliant essay, and indeed the whole special issue consists of fascinating  contributions to the questions that Martin formulated so succinctly: ‘How does creative writing engage with the theme of ecological catastrophe and ecological possibility?  How does the ecological challenge of the contemporary period impact on the teaching of writing?  What are the thematic horizons of new and emerging writers who engage with issues to do with the environment and ecology?  What kinds of experiment does the ecological context encourage and indeed require of the contemporary writer?’

Just last Thursday (September 4) Martin and I presented together in a small seminar at the University of Technology, Sydney where Martin taught creative writing. The seminar series was titled ‘Poetics, Writing, Thought’, and was organised by the students. It was a special evening, charged with ideas, conversation, and the kind of dialogue that pushes everyone’s thinking along. Martin suggested that he and I read the ‘Postscript’ we wrote for TEXT, and so we revisited an enjoyable writing project. The lucky people who attended this seminar got to hear Martin read one of his great poems, ‘White-Tailed Deer’ (see below), perhaps the last poem he ever read.

Martin was in great form. Rarely did he approach an issue in full frontal mode. Like every fine poet, his approach was to move quietly and circuitously toward a moment of revelation. And so he said, with that wonderfully characteristic shrug, ‘I’m sorry to keep bringing Heidegger into the conversation, but … he was absolutely right.’ He smiled, then, and went on: ‘I’m sure you know what I’m getting at, Heidegger was telling us even then that humans are so remaking and re-defining the world that all they ever can see is the human’.

Martin (Harrison, not Heidegger) loved earth life – the lives of other-than-humans. His deepest concerns were called forth by the perils, indeed disasters, of human self-enclosure. At the same time, he had the greatest respect for ‘the others’, and that respect included the fact that they live their own lives.

We brush against each other, some of us, from time to time, and Martin the poet was grabbed by the mystery of it all, the indecipherable connections, the unpredictable moments when something happens and we humans are drawn from our encaged preoccupations.

When I learned that Martin had died I was already on the other side of the world, and my thoughts flew back to the evening in Sydney when we spoke and conversed. Kisses are strange and beautiful events, I realised, remembering that we had kissed ‘hello’ and, later, ‘goodbye’. There are kisses that are formalities, and others that are sweet friendship, and in the end, without our even knowing it, there are the kisses that will come to have said, and will forever say, fare thee well, dear friend, fare thee well.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

For more on Martin Harrison’s life and writings, see Wikipedia.

The issue of TEXT that Martin, Lorraine Shannon, Kim Satchell and I edited can be accessed online (view here). It includes articles and poetry by Kangaloon members Martin, Lorrain, Kim, Peter Boyle, James Hatley, and me.

The ‘Postscript’ that Martin and I wrote, including his poem, can be accessed online (view here), and I include a small portion of it here as well:

[this is part of what was read by Martin and me the Thursday evening before he died]

…. MARTIN: In other conversations, you have wanted to talk about my poem White-Tailed Deer.  It’s true that in that poem (hopefully) a rich diverse system has come together.   This is not because I wanted it to, but because in order to be a poem it had to come together.  There is even the risk that it will all fall apart and that it won’t make sense that the local sunset had to meet the up-state New York night and that the deer have something to do with it.  I had been entranced by them, by their watchful presence, in that deep, often re-growth forest.  It was on the border between New York State and Vermont.  It took me a couple of years to get the original drafts unfocussed and then re-focussed.   You see, I’m not just a slow writer but a really lazy one!

DEBORAH: You know yourself best (maybe!), but I’d dispute the term ‘lazy’. The multiple time dimensions through which living beings speak, and the terrible slowness with which many of us humans manage to respond, is not so much laziness, I think, but more like struggling through some awful nightmare. The terrible realisation today is that to wake from a nightmare is to emerge into another one. I keep thinking (always) of the flying foxes who are at this moment being tortured in the effort to force them to leave and never to return to their home camp in Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens. For them, as for the flying foxes in Queensland who are being shot, each day is a fresh nightmare, each generation is subjected to a new biocide, and in spite of the dedicated, sometimes heart-broken people who protect, defend, rescue, care, and seek to assist them back into the symbiotic life of blossoms, nectar, nourishment and pollination, nothing is ever enough. And so the loss of generations, and the loss of ecosystems, and the loss of the human capacity to stretch outside the boundaries of this self-made  prison of righteousness and knowing goes on rendering more suffering, more death, more distance, more loss of all those within whose company we could have thrived, and who could have thrived with us.

The time scales are outside our ordinary frames. The poem that speaks beyond the frame, that takes minutes to read but years to write, takes even more years on the part of plants, animals, and human culture to have arrived at that particular nexus. If like yours it succeeds, it becomes an achievement in binding time, species, place, and culture; it lets us glimpse through the membrane of closure into other worlds, times, creatures, and forms of love, and to grasp, again, that moment in which the future was (is?) still open.

MARTIN:

White-Tailed Deer

The small thump from nowhere, someone turning
a piece of tin, a door’s buffeting noise closing across the gulley,
a neighbour – what are they doing out there? – dropping a trailer or a drum
in a paddock where damp grass’s been drying out these last twenty minutes
in a final sun cube whose shattered gleam just now has
flooded through sprays of half-grown bluegums
traced on the shed-wall —
it happens – where? –
closing in mid-air between two never identified twigs
six metres up, or caught behind a bird song (was it that?
or just some other sound) caught the thousandth time
from outside the kitchen door, magnified for a second or two
then forgotten just as many thousand times.  Like the thump,
it’s forgotten so intensely that we all hear it as an event
not really known as an event, one which shifts
the breath, the blood-surge, and how we see,
back into shape.  For a moment you understand
dazed ecstasy –  it’s a squawky wattlebird landing
(no, that’s a dream half-merged with a memory)
or it’s the elbow’s jerk with which the car boot slams,
happenings which aren’t noticed or which can’t be,
how the shopping brought home brushes the passage wall,
how events change time’s flow beneath perception.
Really, you’ve no idea what’s going on.  You hardly grab a thing.

Networked. Transformative.  Yes, the world glimmers.
The flash lies in the grass, is something and is nothing.?
The yellow-throated bird scrabbles in the rangy grevillea.
A great ocean withdraws into perspective over my shoulder,
in the shadows of untended trees.  A hum overtakes the orchestra
and a striated sense of inevitable time surpasses each local thought.

It’s as if you can be fearless — a second or two — about
what’s inextricable in feeling and movement and mood.
A dance becomes a fight, bodies tangled, then a dance again.
The light goes down like a glittering dark boulder buried in the soil.
An aurora flares in the half-heard resonance around the thing –
the thump, the door closing, the click that passes you by –
while intangibility takes a serpent’s shape of wind-brushed molecules.
And how will it end? this half-traced ecstasy at merely being here.
Could anything be heard other than the after mode
of how we got there, made it out?  Suddenly you realise
you’re hearing a night-time forest floor, a twig snapped –
not this last light with its thin, gold trees and ragged openness –
but a moment’s hesitation one night in a foreign country:
I was in up-state New York, there was a house in the woods,
there was indoor light of a dinner party, good people, drinks.
I’d stepped outside to get a sense of things, their loitering depth.
Earlier I’d seen startled deer leap a stone wall tumbled into bracken.

                                                        (Acknowledgements to Vagabond Press)

To listen to Martin reading this poem, here is an audio file, with thanks to Peter Boyle and Nick Keys!

 

Arts of Motion

I was delighted to discover that there are mermaids in Bhutan. I know them well from North Australia but hadn’t expected to meet them in the mountains.

Mermaid, Paro Dzong
Mermaid, Paro Dzong

In the Bhutanese national language, sacred sites that are visible primarily by geological or geographical features are called ney. The English translation is ‘sacred natural site’. According to experts at the ISE conference, these are ‘living and breathing natural places of retreat and worship, where enlightened masters throughout the ages have brought blessing power, and where pilgrims and spiritual practitioners perpetuate and fortify the energy until today. As a result, these revered and cherished sites have been protected from external forces that might disturb their sanctity…’

Many of the sites hold stories of how Buddhist teachers encountered and subdued local spirits, turning them toward Buddhism. To anyone sensitised to conquest in settler societies, the story of take-over looms large, and the history of Buddhism in the Himalayas and Central Asia is indeed a story of competing religions. The stories are everywhere. When Deki, Dechen and I walked in the hills to visit the rock painting of Guru Rimpoche (a notable demon-subduer), we crossed a suspension bridge, as discussed in a previous essay. We were just up-stream from a rock formation that testifies to the efforts of a goddess to cross the river to meet the Guru. Her bridge was destroyed by a demon.

Do Zam, where the Goddess tried to cross the river.
Do Zam, where the Goddess tried to cross the river.

And yet, now that a millennium or more has passed, the outstanding aspect of these stories is how inclusive and protective they are.

And indeed, the need and desire for protection are never done with. A ney is a place where nature, culture and spirit all come together. The wider story concerns a sacred geography that continues to offer respect to local deities (nep). These figures, resident in mountains, rivers, stones, and other ‘natural’ features, remain on earth and guard their local areas. One type belongs in and protects water. All lakes in Bhutan are sacred, and mermaid-goddesses inhabit and guard them. We visited one such lake, Baritsho (bari = bamboo; tsho = lake) within the Royal Botanic Gardens. Here people of the region gather to make offerings of respect and to enjoy blessings.

Baritsho, Royal Botanic Gardens

Mermaids’ benign protection is not only for lakes. A number of the temples we visited had a little pond with mermaids outside the entrance. Perched in tiny  artificial lakes, they bring their protective presence to temples too. The temples themselves, with their geographical positioning adjacent to flowing water and with their mermaid and other presences, testify both to Buddhist teaching and learning as well as to the local area with its unique guardians.

Mermaids in pond, Paro Dzong
Mermaids in pond, Paro Dzong

Over the past few years Bhutan has conducted a formal survey of ney. According to Sangay Dhendup of the ‘Division of Cultural Properties, Bhutan’, 197 sites have thus far been recorded. The objectives of this admirable project were spelled out in his fascinating conference presentation: to better understand history and heritage; to assert the value of cultural practices; to preserve little known traditions that are important to local communities; and to provide a reference point for the future. He linked with these sites with biocultural conservation. As explained in the conference booklet: ‘… these revered and cherished sites … [create] important buffers and corridors for biodiversity’.

The awkward term ‘sacred natural site’ testifies to the on-going difficulties posed by the west’s nature-culture binary and the warping effects it has in the context of heritage. Cultural heritage is man-made; natural heritage is not. Where these two types converge the term ‘mixed heritage’ is used. ‘Mixed’ does not, indeed cannot, do justice to the sites it purports to categorise. At most it shows just how arbitrary and ultimately unhelpful the nature/culture categories really are. But there is another problem that twists up out of the binaries. Where is the sacred? If heritage is either natural or human, the great multitude of local guardians, demons, goddesses and protectors, along with all the Buddhist manifestations and metamorphic presences slip out of the story.

A great gem of Tibetan wisdom is expressed as a puzzle: A prayer flag flutters in the wind. Which is it that moves, the flag or the wind? Answer: Neither. The spirit moves them both.

???????????????????????????????

This way of understanding and experiencing spirit carries us far from binaries and exclusive categories.

Spirit is that which moves through everything, and that by which everything moves.

I thought of this great gem frequently while I was in Bhutan where so many sites, including temples, weave geography and spirit. The action of stones, water, plants, lichens, animals and other forces combine with the actions of human history and culture, and with the activities of greater-than-everyday beings to produce sites of co-mingled power. Prayer flags and wind, prayer wheels and flowing water, mermaids and lakes and temples: such co-constitutive prayers and protection offer multiple blessings.

There was one sacred natural site that spoke very strongly to me. At this place in Bumthang the story moves across two stones and involves the subjugation of a demon. The first stone is where the demon was hiding in the form of a snake. The second stone is where the large bird took the snake and bashed it. The second stone bears the imprint of the large bird’s footprints.

DSC02640

Mr Balaram Gurung took a small group of us to this place, and in response to subsequent emails through which I sought to ensure that I understood the story correctly, he wrote:

“Regarding the story about the two stones, I also tried to collect as much as evidence as I could from some reliable religious people. They all say that the same story has been conveyed from generation to generation and has been taught to children by their parents who all know the story about the stones. So to add up to your story, let me elaborate a little about the names of the places where these stones lies. They say: ‘the place where the big stone lies is named as duefog (due – demon  and fog – hillock, small mountain) and the single stone with garuda’s foot print is named as Jachhung thang (Jachhung – Garuda and thang – plain).”

Garuda in Thimpu, Ping (CC)
Garuda in Thimpu, Ping (CC)

I brought a Jachhung (Garuda) mask home with me. The more I look at it, the more I see. There is the bird who killed a snake, and the powerful Jachhung who subdued a demon, and there are stones, the hillock and plain, Mr Gurung and all the religious people he consulted, dancers and masks, and all the people across generations who told the story and kept it alive.

The story travels, too. Knowledge of Garuda moves all across South and South-East Asia. This marvellous bird — his name and iconography change, but his protective action is everywhere loved and revered. Like prayer flags in the wind, spirit moves through all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Acknowledgements: On-going thanks to Mr Balaram Gurung and to Deki and Dechi.  Thanks as well to Mr Sangay Dhendup who gave such a terrific speech at the ISE Congress in Bumthang.

Resources: Except for information that is specifically acknowledged, most of the information in this essay came from signage at sites and from Wikipedia.

 

Waking up to Divine Madness

In Bhutan I encountered a sudden reminder of how culturally conditioned human vision really is. Looking and seeing are so automatic that it takes the sight of something never seen before, never even imagined before, to wake up awareness of just how much one relies on a taken-for-granted interplay between knowing and seeing. The sight that woke me up in Bhutan is usually referred to as a phallus. This particular style –  pink, erect, spouting, and wearing a ribbon tied with a bow –  is painted on many houses, shops and restaurants.

Outside a restaurant
Outside a restaurant

In addition to this particular image, there was also a proliferation of carved objects. Large ones, referred to in English as ‘flying phalluses’, were secured above doors, often wrapped with a prayer scarf, as protection against bad forces. Indeed, at the phallus shop at the beginning of the track to the fertility temple known as Chimi Lhakhang, one could buy everything from a key chain ornament to a metre-high statue.

Shop near Chimi Lhakhang
Shop near Chimi Lhakhang

Chimi Lhakhang is where imagery, pilgrimage, story and the sacred come together in the figure of Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529). According to biographies, songs and legends, this Tantric master migrated from Tibet and travelled throughout Bhutan. He was fond of women, wine and excess, and as he travelled he taught by singing, telling stories, making jokes, and behaving outrageously. He called himself the ‘Madman from Kyishodruk’.

The story is that on one occasion when he received a blessing thread to hang around his neck, he tied it around his penis to bring luck with women. His sexual exploits are, apparently, legendary. And yet, Lama Drukpa Kunley is a saint.

There is a divine spark in all this excess.

The Lonely Planet Guide offers this poem as a sample of the wider works of Lama Drukpa Kunley. It is addressed to the great teacher Pema Lingpa:

I, the madman from Kyishodruk,
Wander around from place to place:
I believe in lamas when it suits me.
I practice the Dharma in my own way.
I choose any qualities, they are all illusions,
Any gods, they are all the Emptiness of the Mind.
I use fair and foul words for Mantras; it’s all the same.
My meditation practice is girls and wine;
I do whatever I feel like, strolling around in the Void….

The great Lama was also a holy fighter. In these stories his penis seems to acquire extra power, a fact which undoubtedly connects with the use of a phallus to protect homes and shops.

Phallus outside shop, hockadilly (CC)
Phallus outside shop, hockadilly (CC)

According to Keith Dowman’s lovely compilation on Lama Drukpa Kunley:

“The Lama saw the terrifying form of the Lhadzong Demoness approaching him dressed in absurd, unconventional clothing. He immediately erected his Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom in the sky and she, unable to bear the sight of that magical tower, changed herself into a Venomous Serpent. The Lama stepped upon her head and the creature was petrified. It can still be seen today in the middle of the main road.”

The phallus naturally has its fertility dimensions: Chimi Lakhang is a temple for such blessings. Couples who are hoping for children go there to be blessed with a wooden phallus.

Chimi Lhakhang, Oliver Lejade (CC)
Chimi Lhakhang, Oliver Lejade (CC)

Although temples are not ordinarily adorned with phalluses, there is one dance I read about (but have not yet had an opportunity to see) in which the monks dance wearing giant red phalluses. In their dances, they mock ‘worldly things’ and represent the achievement of wisdom.

What a complex story these phalluses bear: fertility, the wisdom of detachment, the joys of engagement,  jokes, protection, power, and traces of the divine!

These days, of course, they also have a place in international commodity chains.

Statues in the phallus shop
Statues in the phallus shop

As my eye became accustomed to the unexpected sight of phalluses on public display, I came to appreciate the intermingling of the sacred and the everyday.

Intermingling neither devalues the sacred nor utterly transforms the everyday, but rather bears constant witness to the fact that life’s complexities are intertwined.

This is an insight I want to hold ever-present in my heart. In the midst of all the suffering and death, terror and trauma, that I witness and write about in my work with living beings at the edge of extinction, it is good to keep hold of the knowledge that our world  includes more than terrible deathwork. The sacred, the holy and the madness of crazy exuberance are, truly, part of life’s great on-going story.

Divine madness, it is clear, has its comic dimensions. I was fortunate to encounter just such a holy joker in the person of Guru Baza, the sage at the Burning Lake sacred site discussed in an earlier essay (read here). Guru Baza engaged in the most delightful clowning. He snatched and wore the hat of one of the visitors, for example, and his jokes and fun kept us all laughing.

Guru Baza
Guru Baza

Interspersed with all the fun, he switched into his other mode, inviting us to listen, learn, and enter into the spirit of prayer.

???????????????????????????????

Of the many blessings that come with encountering holy, clowning teachers, perhaps the deepest is the realisation that the spark of divine madness flares up everywhere.

Lama Drukpa Kunley taught this centuries ago, and I will close with a few lines that express this great wisdom in his own words:

“The teaching of the Tantric Mysteries is most profound,
But liberation cannot be gained without profound experience.
Drukpa Kunley may show you the way,
But you must traverse the path by yourself.”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: Much of the information in this essay is drawn from Keith Dowman’s book on Lama Drukpa Kunley, as is the final quote.

Other quotes and information come from the book Bhutan: The Mosaic of the Dragon, (published by the Bhutan Media Services),  the Lonely Planet Guide and Wikipedia.

Special thanks to Mr Balaram Gurung for taking a small group of us to the Burning Lake sacred site and introducing us to Guru Baza.

Arts of Peace While Bombs Are Falling

The violence in Gaza has taken another torque into anguish and grief. Tal Nitzan, an Israeli poet and pacifist, has written a beautiful open letter to her Palestinian colleague Basem Al-Nabriss, also a poet and peace activist (view here).

Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman
Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman

Tal posted this letter from Basem Al-Nabriss on facebook:

“The situation is really like Dante’s Inferno.
Little Tal [Basem’s granddaughter] and the entire family are in horror. No-one can sleep but for a few hours. I am in constant contact with them, and I try to give them some hope.
There is massive destruction of homes, unprecedented numbers of casualties, mostly innocent people.
What concerns me now is that we get out of this hell as soon as possible.
Regrettably, I feel that being a writer is futile now. What can words do in the face of this fanatical madness? In the face of burnt flesh?
It must be a nightmare for you too.
I imagine and feel the pain of everyone on both sides.
I wish you safety. Safety for our two peoples, and peace for all.”

I wrote about Tal, and another great poet of peace, Maram Al-Masri, in an earlier essay on arts in dark times. I join all of them in solidarity and love, and invite others to do the same. Tal speaks of the role of prophecy in awakening conscience and the awareness of responsibility. She claims poetry as ‘a rebellious act that unsettles axioms, generates question marks, and asserts the right of readers and writers as one to doubt, protest, and rise up.’ I hope she is remembering her own brave words in this time of terror, for she reminds us that ‘throughout history, literary creations have expressed the forbidden and the revolutionary and have … precipitated’ great changes.

Wild Strawberries ~ Arts of Happiness

It was very quiet just after the finish of the International Society of Ethnobiology’s 14th Congress. A lot of people left Bumthang for tours and treks, but by a curious twist of fate, I had a day without a plan.

Dog at Burning Lake

 

Flicking through my Lonely Planet Guide, I came across instructions for getting to a rock painting that was said to show Padmasambhava, better known in Bhutan as Guru Rimpoche. Around 750 (CE) he came to Bhutan and Tibet, battling demons, subduing and containing them, and directing their energy toward Buddhism. The entwined actions of earth, stone, water and mountains as they mingle with local guardians (ney) and, often, with the further engagement of Guru Rimpoche and other founding Buddhist figures, make for a rich, sensuous, varied, and expressive sacred geography.

Prayer wheels, Kyichu Lhakhang,one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bhutan
Prayer wheels, Kyichu Lhakhang,one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bhutan

To get to the site I would need both a vehicle and my own two feet. I decided to ask my host at the Gongkhar Guest House for some help. Would she, Deki, be able to organise a reliable taxi driver for me so that I could count on him waiting for me while I hiked off in search of the site? Her response was to borrow the book and go into the private rooms to consult with some of the others.

Deki returned to greet me with her beautiful, dignified smile. She and her sister would take me, she said. We would visit the site together, but we would need to leave straight away. Deki’s sister Dechen is the cook, and we would have to be back in time for her to get dinner prepared.

We drove to the place where we would leave the car, and we crossed the river on a suspension bridge. It swayed interestingly, but Deki and Dechen apparently decided it wasn’t lively enough so they jumped around to make it more fun! They, too, had not been to the site. This was going to be something fresh and enticing for all three of us.

Once across the river we had a brief but wonderfully pleasant walk in the valley while listening to the splashy rumbles of the river. It was a delight to be on level ground, for in the land of mountains every path is either an ascent or a descent and one’s visual perspective almost invariably is either a bird’s eye view from a precipitous cliff or a neck-straining gaze up into very high places.

Before long, though, we were following a snaky little path as it took us up a hill. The two local women moved effortlessly, but I did not. So we stopped and rested a couple of times, and we talked. We talked about families, languages, life histories, food, beauty, and cultural differences. I learned that Deki is a woman of many accomplishments. Before she became a businesswoman she was a nurse at the local hospital. She did her nurse training in Switzerland, and is proficient in German as well as English, and of course in the district dialect Bumthangkha, the national language Dzongkha, and Tibetan.

Debbie and Deki
Debbie and Deki

As we walked Deki noticed wild strawberries, and so we ate. We ate and walked in perfectly lovely country, and the blessings of life flowed around us in sunshine, breeze, river splashings, tall trees, and the bright vision of red berries tucked amongst varied shrubs including artemisia, the aromatic herb that is used in Bhutanese hot stone baths.

The rock painting was a great surprise – bright, fresh, lively and detailed! There he was, Guru Rimpoche in the form of Dorje Drolö, riding the flying tigress who brought him to Bhutan to wrestle with demons. The tigress is his ‘consort’ in a metamorphosed form: the great Yeshe Tsogyul, a Buddhist master in her own right and sometimes known as the mother of Tibetan Buddhism.

Rock Painting
Rock Painting, Guru Rimpoche & Yeshe Tsogyul

The stories are full of metamorphoses, transformations, and manifestations. Nothing in the world of material reality is fixed, but in the Buddhism of this region place is a point of holding, while form and time seem incredibly mutable.

Sitting at the base of the painting, straining my neck to look up at it, and trying not to take too much notice of the steep fall below me, my practical imagination took over. In the presence of all this shape-shifting, I began to think what a thrill it would be to turn into a flying tiger and avoid having to hike down along the narrow, twisty little path to the valley floor.

Actually, though, I was totally happy. I didn’t really want to be a flying tigress, or even a bird. I was remembering, almost as if the memories had been stored in my cells, the irreplaceable pleasures of walking in the bush with women. The pleasures of gathering food, eating, chatting, taking life as it is offered, and sharing the moments without demands or requirements.

Detzen and Debbie
Dechen and Debbie

Walking in such abundance brought a new dimension to the fact that ‘Green Tara’, one of numerous manifestations of the female Buddha, is very popular in Bhutan. I had seen her statue in many of the temples, and had learned to recognise her signature features: a vine twining around one arm, flowers surrounding her, and the other arm held out open-handed in a gesture of giving. The statues were beautifully serene, and yet in their perfection they seemed remote.

Green Tara, OlivIreland (CC)
Green Tara, OlivIreland (CC)

Here on the hillside, amongst wild strawberries and women who belong in this place, Green Tara came into liveliness.

My cherished memories include the painting, the twisty path, the valley floor, the sharp sweetness of wild berries, artemisia’s captivating smell, and most of all the glow of life’s beauty when women walk, chat, gather, eat, and share the limitless pleasures of sun, water, wild food, and the sacred.

Much later I learned that western experts at econometrics have been helping Bhutan to develop methods to quantify their gross national happiness more effectively.

Somehow, I suspect that the deeply satisfying pleasures of walking amidst wild strawberries will never figure in their models. I hope that is the case. I want to go on walking in the bush with women, gathering, eating, sharing and laughing, and I hope never to have to justify or account for it, or tick a box to show that I’ve done it.

Happiness doesn’t need robust statistics. It may be, though, that for happiness to flow through us, we human beings need to be aware of manifestations and metamorphoses of the sacred – goddesses and gods, teachers and demons, rivers and mountains, ancestors and histories. We need them because life has its own power and story; it comes to meet us place by place as we walk in the world alive to ourselves – alive as creatures attentive to, and participating in, the generosity that surround us.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript: Later, Deki and Dechen took me to meet Dechen’s mother (Deki’s father’s second wife). The family spoke Tibetan at home because their origins were on that side of the border. Dechen and her mother are both great cooks. They gave me the best momo ever, plump and mellow with a crimson-red chilli sauce for dipping.

Jakar is the main town in the area known as Bumthang. The Gongkhar Guest House is a short walk from town and is a perfect place to stay: friendly, family-owned, excellent food, clean, comfortable and attractive. If you want to take a meal in town, Deki’s Restaurant and Bar has fabulous momos.

Resources: The information I have shared here comes from conference presentations, local guides, the Lonely Planet Guide, various websites, and my own general knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism.

Ursula Le Guin offers a wonderful account of the pleasures for women of walking/working together, in her essay ‘The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction’, published in  Dancing at the Edge of the World.

I have written an essay on these pleasures drawing on my long-term research with Australian Aboriginal people (access here).

 

 

‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ ~ Janet Laurence

My friend Janet Laurence currently has a show at the Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide with the title ‘Residue’. When I saw the announcement, with its bold photo of the main piece, I knew I had to go and visit in person.

Janet-Laurence's-Residue-at-Hugo-Michell-Gallery-3

Laid out on the floor of the gallery, like a god on a bier, is the huge, broken, leafless branch of a white-barked gum tree. Here lies this recently living thing: perfectly tree, perfectly beautiful, perfectly dead. This installation is called ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’.

Adelaide is at the forefront of the heatwave weather that is becoming a key index of climate change in Australia. On January 16, 2014, this small city had the distinction of being the hottest city in the world. Other records were broken in Adelaide this summer, just as they had been during the previous summer, including eleven days of temperatures of 42°C or more (107.6F). The hottest days were 45°C+ (113F).

The weather became a participant in Janet’s work. While she was searching for a broken branch to bring into the gallery, Adelaide experienced a huge windstorm. Gusts of 100 kms (60 miles) or more knocked down heat-stressed trees all over the city.

The branch is about 9 metres (30 feet) in length and 6 metres (20 feet) at its widest. It is horribly disconcerting to see it as it is now – so large and strong, so vulnerable and lost. Janet bandaged some branches in white gauze, and she has installed tubes running from empty phials to a dead tree in gestures of forlorn life-support. Such green as can be seen is darkly dying.

JGP_7789

The great branch was placed on top of numerous sheets of mirror that were both reflective and stained. There were smears and drips, as if arteries had been cut into, and great gouts of blood had spurted through the area. And yet, almost everything here was white. This was a bleeding out that was desiccated, salty, bleached, and drained. It was beautiful, and it was scary.

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

All these white smears and gouts spoke of death that depletes and does not renew. The branch, whose limbs still seemed to reach out to life, was fallen in the midst of desertification, salinity, acid sulphate soils, endless heat, endless sun.

I kept walking around the piece, seeing on every turn another element of this great white terrain of loss. There was bleached coral. There were animal bones, including vertebrae, jawbones with teeth, and the long thin leg bones of, perhaps, water birds. There were dried leaves and twigs, and there were powders, salts and stones.

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

‘Blood and chlorophyll’ – trees and other plants, and the bones and exoskeletons of animals – is a desiccated deathscape assembled with the most loving care. Nothing here is ugly, nothing is out of place, nothing seems to be in pain. The vials and tubes testify to care, and the whole piece bears witness both to death and to those who live on after the deaths of others. It testifies to we who care, who mourn, who keep faith with life, and who honour death, even as we are becoming bleached out in the great desert of future-earth here in our part of this struggling planet.

There is a lot of synergy between Janet’s work and mine. In my book Wild Dog Dreaming I wrote:

For some four billion years life and death have been working together, each finding its own level in relation to the other, and together sustaining a family of life on Earth, a family that is always changing, always finding connections, generating fit, seeking an always shifting balance in an Earth system that is itself far from equilibrium. We humans emerged in dynamic relationships with animals and plants; with them we share our dependence on water and air, and we share basic energy and basic substance: blood, and its plant counterpart chlorophyll.’

‘If we could hear the call of those who are slipping out of life forever …. We might encounter a narrative emerging from extinctions, a level of blood that connects us all.’

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

I have travelled through many of the bleached out deserts of Australia, and I have been made breathless with their beauty. In the early years of my travels, it did not occur to me that these white expanses of deeply arid desert might be the landscapes of the future. Janet’s work brings us this shock of recognition.

And yet – not only the weather, but tiny creatures also are participants in Janet’s work. Hugo Michell (gallery owner) and Ceridwen Ahem (gallery manager) told me that there were active ants in the tree. I thought immediately of borers or termites, but whatever they are, they are alive, and they are thriving. A couple of days ago Ceridwen wrote: ‘ANT UPDATE:   When I came in this morning there were lots of little piles of sawdust – the ants are working so hard that you can hear them at it.  The whole tree makes these little clicking noises – it kind of sounds like popping candy.  I am loving it!’

‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ is just one of several pieces in ‘Residue’. The show also includes a lovely selection of Janet’s larger oeuvre. Those that worked most profoundly on my sensibilities as I sat in the gallery and contemplated the ensemble, are those that carried the theme of a salty heat-struck zone of violence and death. ‘Traded I’ from an earlier installation ‘After Eden’ has cast resin antlers, mirror, calcite, quartz, and the white pigment that I see as stains and smears – the aftermath of some unimaginable violence.

Traded I, from 'After Eden'
Traded I, from ‘After Eden’

Along the back wall there was a set of x-ray images (duraclear and inkjet on acrylic and mirror) of endangered species.

From 'Fugitive'
From ‘Fugitive’

Janet is famous for her work with lighting, veils, and mirrors along with scientific equipment and biological remains. The effect of mirrors is to require us to see ourselves in all these places of loss. Gauze, veils, and shadows cast by mysteriously ambiguous  lighting are intended to slow people down, to disrupt the everyday and the expected, and to help us to experience anew the precious qualities of life in the midst of the haunting miasma of all this loss.

‘Hauntology’ is Jacques Derrida’s term for the spectre of the past which confronts us as the future. Like many of his excellent ideas, it is more readily grasped through the work of scholars who have sought to put it to work in analysing the contemporary world. Nick Mansfield writes beautifully about haunting and the Anthropocene. He presses us toward the understanding that what we are facing arises out of our past and comes at us from the future. He writes that ‘the material violence of the past emerges, reincarnate, re-fleshed, in our future, and in a politics for which our last centuries of politics cannot prepare or even forewarn us’.

Blood and Chlorophyll, Traded I, and Traded II
Blood and Chlorophyll, Traded I, and Traded II

What politics cannot do, Janet and other artists are actually doing. They bring us into encounters and recognition, they hold us in that place where mystery and understanding mingle and overtake us. They bring us to our knees, astonishing us with awareness of our own mortality, complicity, grief, remorse, and unbounded love.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript ~ News from the Gallery: Ceridwen Ahern  writes that borers are now visibly active, as well as audibly active!

Insects at work in the gallery
Insects at work in the gallery

More news from the Gallery: The installation has been removed. The tree has been taken to a nearby park. The ants went with the tree. Life goes on.

Acknowledgement: All the photos in this essay were provided by the Hugo Michell Gallery.

Resources: Jim Hatley has written a beautiful essay on Janet’s installation ‘Memories of Nature’. Janet’s website contains a link to a video interview (view here) in her studio.