Tag Archives: Jim Hatley

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 Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century.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).

Songsters

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring continues to haunt us with remembrance of all the Earth is losing. It calls us repeatedly to realise how beautiful are the lives of others, and how precious. With remembrance comes sadness: how lonely and grief-stricken are the silences. And as Paul Shepard reminds us, Silent Spring is also a warning against ‘the deafened self, against emptiness’. Two kinds of violence, then: the silencing of others, and the shutting down of one’s own capacity to hear.

Recently I listened to a radio documentary made with and about my friend Hollis Taylor. Hollis is a musician and composer, as well as a deeply serious student of birdsong. For nine years now, she has been recording and analysing the music of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) in various regions of Australia. Central Australia is one of her research areas, and from time to time her friend Jane Ulman, sound artist and radio director, accompanies her. The radio show ‘Bird Interrupted’ takes listeners on a trip through the MacDonnell Ranges with two remarkable artists, listening not only to birdsong but also to a delightful array of human characters (listen here).

Hollis Taylor, Photo: Jane Ulman
Hollis Taylor,
Photo: Jon Rose

Hollis explains that the key features that mark birdsong as music are: the fact that it is learned (not innate), and that it is improvisational. Not only do birds learn to sing by being taught by other birds, but individuals develop their own musical repertoires. Some of them are wonderfully creative – a joy not only to other birds, but to humans as well.

Her research asks the probing question: ‘Is birdsong music?’ Most of us probably think we know the answer to this question, and we may well wonder why it even needs to be asked. The question is provocative because music is one of the markers selected to show that humans are different and special creatures. According to those who seek to sustain an impassable boundary between us (humans) and all the others (our Earth kin), our capacity for music (along with language and other capabilities) makes humans exceptional.

Pied butcherbird research tells a different story. At certain times of year, these birds perform solos for up to six hours a night. It is helpful to have a good ear in order to appreciate the musical complexities of pied butcherbird song. Hollis’s description (with sound bites) of the main motif in the Alice Springs region is further brought to life by her presentation of some of the regional and individual variations on the main theme. I was enthralled to be introduced to music that, left to my own devices, I would have heard as beautiful but been unable to understand in its complexity.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

‘Bird Interrupted’ is a great reminder that one of the outstanding characteristics of planet Earth is that living beings communicate. One of the great desires of many life forms is the desire to put sound out into the world – to announce, to call, to communicate, to seduce, and much more.

Our planet is not only blue, watery, and filled with cycles of nutrients, it is symphonic.

At the recent conference ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, Richard Nelson spoke about our musical Earth. Richard is an Alaskan anthropologist whose life is dedicated to participatory learning with Indigenous people and to documenting the sounds of life and shaping them into radio programs. Richard takes an expansive view of ‘the singing planet’, including wind, water, ice and animals, amongst others, as ‘voices’. They and we are all part of the ‘single language of living things’, he tells us. The video of his engaging speech is now posted online (view here).

Richard also brought up another form of violence: human din. Our species is getting noisier, as well as more numerous, and noise is a hallmark of the Anthropocene. We are acoustically crowding out others and even worse, we are assaulting them. Whales and other marine mammals, for example, are among many Earth creatures whose lives are threatened by lethal sound. Navy sonar and other underwater high-decibel noise has such terrible impacts on whales and others that one orca researcher calls it an ‘accoustic holocaust’.

Many of the animals who are under acoustical assault are themselves songsters. According to Hollis, ‘about half of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species are songbirds, so distinguished because they learn their song. Intriguingly, vocal learning is rare; our closest primate relatives, for example, are not vocal learners. Even the elaborate song bouts of gibbons are innate. Aside from songbirds, to date this capacity appears limited to hummingbirds and parrots (and possibly a few other avian groups), as well as marine mammals, elephants, and bats.’

Humpback Whale  by Andrew Schaefer
Humpback Whale by Andrew Schaefer (CC)

While pied butcherbirds are singing their themes and variations in Central Australia, humpback whales are singing their way through the oceans. A recent study of whale song, undertaken by Ellen Garland, a University of Queensland PhD student, identified eleven different humpback whale song types. They ‘typically started in the eastern Australian population and spread in a step-wise fashion across the region to French Polynesia’. In a fascinating interview (view here), Ellen explains that the cultural innovation taking place here is extremely unusual in non-human culture. Only males sing, and it seems they want to stand out from the crowd. A new song is a stand-out performance. It is adopted as a novelty, but soon becomes what everyone is doing, and so males develop new songs. Every two years or so, a new song comes into being.

The desire to express one’s presence vocally is, for many creatures, integral to their living self.

I learned this the sad way when I picked up a severely injured sulphur-crested cockatoo and put it in the car to take to the vet. On the way, the bird died. Before he died, however, he let loose his last raucous call, as if unwilling to leave silently. I knew it was the end when I heard him, and I felt kinship as well as sorrow in the presence of his desire to make a final acoustical mark showing that he had lived and been part of the world.

In life as well as in death, we are songsters, many of us. A couple of years ago I travelled with my friend Jim Hatley, philosopher, artist and poet, to Central Australia. We visited gorges along the MacDonnell Ranges, including one of my favourites – Trephina Gorge. After hiking along the top country, we went down into the dry river bed. We walked on pale sand amidst tall river gums whose single great tap root shoots down into the underground water; and like a quiet miracle in this dry country, we saw small birds whose presence signals water. Around a bend we came upon a permanent waterhole no more than a few meters across in any direction.

'Zebra finch 4', by Jim Bendon
‘Zebra finch 4’, by Jim Bendon (CC)

The country was pulsing with life, both visible and hidden. Jim paused under the shade of a river gum to sing. His voice moved up and down the gorge, honouring this place and giving something in return. As he poured forth his praise, the finches gathered. Small, elegant songbirds of desert and waterhole, they settled in the tree above him as he sang.

We are songsters to the core of our being, but we are not therefore alone or exceptional.

Amongst the great and varied kindred of Earth life, blessed are the singers of new songs ~ they bring creativity, along with all this great wild beauty, to the symphony of life.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources

Silent Spring was first published in 1962, and is still in print. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27333.Silent_Spring

The quote from Paul Shepard comes from his book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1640911.The_Others

Hollis is the co-author of a fascinating article about lyre birds that is available online: http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.3.pdf

Richard Nelson’s most beloved book is Make Prayers to the Raven. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/134644.Make_Prayers_to_the_Raven

Some of Jim Hatley’s inspired work can be encountered at his website: http://geoaesthetics.blogspot.com.au/

Art in Dark Times

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery

My friend Lorraine Shannon once described dark times as these moments ‘when ethics, tenderness, and the embrace of earth others are being trampled on’. Lorraine is a fellow member of the Kangaloon Group for Creative Ecologies, a ‘fellowship of poets, scholars, artists and activists in dialogue with the current cascade of ecological degradation and diminishment of life’.  I keep coming back to her words because they so clearly draw us into realms of vulnerability, love and participation in our lively planet, and so vividly express the violence that rages against life in its fullness. In dark times we need words of witness. We need to share insights with each other, and we need to be reminded that what is passing for ‘normal’ is actually a full-frontal assault on life in both the present and in the future.

Just this week the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced plans to invite world leaders to a climate change summit in response to the fact that greenhouse gas emissions are rising, and scientific warnings about the consequences are becoming ever more vigorous. At the same time, the new Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot continues his charge into the heart of darkness by abolishing both the Climate Commission and the Climate Change Authority, and by getting rid of senior public servants who have served the nation on matters of climate science and the future.

We know the climate change issue well because it has the greatest profile, but of course it is just one big part of a much wider set of entwined events that include the great mass extinction event now in process, the acidification of the oceans, the accumulation of plastic waste, the loss of soils and fertility, the loss of rainforests, and of course the rampant consumption that fuels the work of tearing up and wrecking planet Earth. And then there is the wreckage of denial: the insistence that these trampling assaults are really just business as usual.

Isabelle Stengers, one of the great continental philosophers, holds that the lure of contemporary darkness is like sorcery – we are bewitched, or ensorcelled, by the seductions of darkness. To break out of the spell, she says, we need antidotes. Not just rational arguments, although they matter too, but other kinds of conversations entirely. We need spell-breakers.

A few weeks ago I immersed myself in a powerful spell-breaker at the TarraWarra Museum of Art in Healesville, Victoria. The Director Victoria Lynn has mounted an exhibition called ‘Animate/Inanimate’ which includes the work of leading contemporary artists, including Janet Laurence and Louise Weaver from Australia, Allora & Calzadilla of the USA, Amar Kanwar of India and Lin Tianmiao of China. All the work explores impacts on earth life of global economic assaults, climate change and direct human violence. The works are haunting in their beauty and intensity, and include sculptural works, sound installations and video works. Dr Lynn writes (in the catalogue) that the artists in ‘Animate/Inanimate’ are not communicating ‘about life’ but rather are imbued ‘with life’. This is the spell-breaker: the reality of encounter that artists offer us; the seeming magic of how they enable us to see and understand more deeply and strongly.

The gallery space is wonderfully generous. We move slowly, almost as in a procession, through works that take our breath away, knocking us sideways, if not totally off our feet, with their power, beauty, energy, passion, commitment, care, concern, drama, tenderness, and their calmly contained but implicit desperation. I was especially thrilled to spend time with the installation produced by Janet Laurence (there will be more about the other artists in future posts). She is a Sydney artist, and another member of our Kangaloon group. Her work has been described as occupying ‘the liminal zones or meeting places of art, science, imagination and memory’. Last year the philosopher-artist Jim Hatley (another Kangaloon member) and I visited her in her studio, and also spent time with her large work ‘The memory of nature’ in the Art Gallery of NSW.

Janet gives witness to violence by working with its effects in the lives of plants, animals, and habitats. Her work becomes an ethical call to the vulnerability of others. It speaks into dark times without in any way becoming consumed by them. Jim wrote about ‘The memory of nature’:

‘Her works are inhabited by a loving tenderness for the living world, which, we are called to acknowledge, inevitably is also the dying world, indeed, the world become dead.  Memory reminds its viewer how the distance between the unborn in the womb and the recently living being rendered back into earthly elements is not so far.  Laurence would have human-beings enter into the liminal space between death and life, not in order to renounce earthly existence and all its chthonic mysteries, but in order to become fully acquainted with it and them. (Wednesday, September 5, 2012)

The TarraWarra installation is called ‘Fugitive’. It addresses itself to the precarious place where life and death, both for individuals and for species, hover at the brink of disaster. The space is divided into a number of veiled areas which Janet calls cells. The veils overlap so that one can pull a section aside and enter the cell. There the visitor is brought into intimacy and empathy, and into new possibilities for caring and concern.

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence,
TarraWarra Gallery

In ‘Fugitive’, as in other recent work, Laurence unsettles the visitor with veils, lighting, sounds and motion. She writes (in the catalogue): ‘Within the gallery space I want to bring us into contact with the life-world. With a focus on the animals and their loss, I think about the loneliness of the last one of a species. What was their death? I wonder about their umwelt, the unique world in which each species lives.’

Along with the veils, there are also screens on which images are projected in ghostly beauty. And always there is a dimly mysterious light, invoking the haunting sense that, in Richard Flanagan’s evocative words, ‘We live in the twilight of some terrible moment, the meaning of which we can only grasp at’.

Janet Laurence, TarraWarra Gallery
Janet Laurence,
TarraWarra Gallery

The burden of living in a world dominated by humans becomes disturbingly tangible. There are mirrors, and one sees oneself as part of the story. One starts to sense the incommensurate gap between our capacity to harm and our capacity to avert all that harm. The astonishing tenderness of her work is syncopated to a slow rhythm of breath. We slow down, adjust, breath in, breath out; we are stunned by the fragility of it all. We walk amongst veils, we go in, we go out, and as we breathe again, and remain within the world of the living, we experience the unassailable kinship with all those whose breath may never come again.

In Laurence’ work we see ourselves living now at a threshold of generational transition in which future life will either collapse or will flourish. We bring to the exhibit our knowledge that the zombie politics of darkness are dedicated to ruthlessly squandering the possibilities for earth life. And we are struck more forcibly than ever with the realisation that artists are among the great spell-breakers of our time. They are our magicians, our messengers who return from places of deep truth with visions of transformation.

Artists bring meaning alive for us, they catch at our minds and hearts, they enable us to become part of the work that refuses ‘business as usual’. Breath is the movement of life, the exhalation, and in-spiration. Artists are those who take our breath away. And artists are those who help us breathe again, re-inspired and transformed, as Ross Gibson has so vividly explained.

Artists return us to awe, love, wonder, joy, grief – all those encounters that fill our hearts without requiring justification – that simply are, as they erupt in our lives. All those encounters that grab hold of us without our asking, that take us out of ourselves, that remind us of the great and mysterious beauties of life, and return us to our humble place as part of the on-going story of life.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

References:

Ross Gibson’s article on art and breath can be found in Humanities Australia

Catalogue: Animate/Inanimate; TarraWarra International 2013. Published by the TarraWarra Museum of Art.