*All photographs by me.
“You got to hang onto this story because the earth, this ground, earth where you brought up, this earth he grow you.’ – Bill Neidjie
There are places in this world with such breathtaking natural beauty that we go to great lengths to ensure their protection and longevity from the goings-on of human kind. Some of these places are famous on a global scale, adorning postcards, desktop wallpapers, and photography sites with their magnificence captured over and over and over again. Most of these places are heavily protected by laws and treaties – in part because they are so iconic. Then there are places that have a certain national, or perhaps local fame, and again many of these places – despite being slightly less iconic – achieve a level of protection and care that is often fought for by the local communities who most appreciate these places.
What these places seem to have in common, based on my observations, is that they are seemingly removed from human influence, sanctuaries away from our usual lives that remind us of the beauty, drama, wild and free of ‘out there, away, apart from’ all that is human, civilised, problematic. We attempt to either minimise or exclude human impacts as much as possible in these places – whether through declaring the area a national park or keeping certain places community ‘secrets’ – and who could blame anyone for that? We don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to caring for more-than-human places, or even illusory human places for that matter. I, myself, have a number of such ‘secret’ places that I enjoy visiting, and admittedly I am frustrated by any human presence that joins me and disturbs my quiet appreciation of those places – whether that be living human voices in-person (or perhaps in-place is more fitting), or remnant signs of human presence, such as litter or graffiti. These places are sacred to us because they – as much as possible – allow us to come, see and be with ‘nature’ as we have been taught to believe real nature should exist – free of Homo sapiens!
But I wonder…does this perception of nature-in-isolation exacerbate the human separation from the more-than-human world and perpetuate the kind of human/nature dualisms that have so thoroughly and damagingly divorced us from a world that we are critically entangled with, whether we acknowledge it or not? What about the other places? You know, those places that are frequently part of our lives, but considered less ‘natural’, less beautiful, less worthy of care and protection? Those places that Val Plumwood called ‘shadow places’ because they slip beneath the conservation radar, unloved and unrecognised as real nature experiences. I may have my secret places that enchant me with their beauty and minimal human presence, but I participate with these places very occasionally. What of the places that I participate with almost daily? The places that, as Plumwood and Bill Neidjie put it, grow me?
We all have places that grow us – places, often far removed from consciousness, that nourish our lives in various ways, whether through the provision of food, material resources, recreation, well-being, and a myriad of other aspects of our physical and social needs. For many, these places are unlikely ‘nature spots’ that are generally not regarded as proper, real ‘nature’ due to the deep marks of the human that they bear. And yet, they can have a profound effect on our connection to life. In reflecting on his childhood growing up in suburbia, John Briggs (2015) says of his experience of shadow places:
“The little scrap of woodland near our house seemed the only spot of refuge and sanity I could find from the clamorous preoccupations of my young life…[it] seemed to feed my sense of life in ways I still cannot fathom. Over the years I have talked to many people who as children had similar experiences and feelings about encounters with what nature they found along the margins of their urbanised, civilised world. One man told me his boyhood encounters with nature were confined to a drainage ditch populated by frogs. He loved to go there.”
Every day, I go for an afternoon walk around a little local council operated duck pond close to my home. The pond is situated in a suburban landscape, surrounded by a small patch of remnant, but neglected bush, which is in turn surrounded by residential homes, train tracks, roads, sewers, bike trails, and power-lines. The first time I walked this duck pond, and for many months afterwards, all I saw was the human presence and an unhealthy landscape. The scientist in me noted that only the most common native waterbirds were living here, mingling with domestic ducks and geese who had also somehow found their way to this place. The water quality was made poor by an over-abundance of ducks and the decaying bread that they had been fattened on. I saw invasive weeds amongst the native vegetation, decorated by discarded soft drink bottles, plastic wrappers, newspapers, McDonald’s bags filled with waste, bike parts, ring pulls, make-shift drug paraphernalia, used condoms, uncollected dog faeces, and plastic shopping bags.
The water is putrid in many places, accumulating the remnants of trash dumped in the surrounding bush and streams. Ducks here seem highly susceptible to injury – they have low fitness, poor habitat and heavy competition.
Perhaps worst of all, I saw majestic trees – trees, who have deep spiritual roles as ancestors, elders, guides, nourishers and teachers in my life – bearing the carved and spray-painted marks of graffiti in their noble bark, a horribly painful sign of the disrespect they had been afforded by the visitors who used this space, the place the trees know as home. There are no words for how deeply this impacts me, I find it very painful given the important ecological and practical roles that trees play in keeping us alive, not to mention the spiritual and folkloric heritage of my culture. The older damaged trees I was unable to photograph for this blog, it seemed far too much of a humiliating intrusion on ancient elders even for the purpose of raising awareness. Trees are grandparents, lungs and breath! Powerhouses of life. The disrespect is disturbing.
Trees hold so much life – including our own. They provide homes, food, clean air, bacteria, nutrients, and water for so many. Notice the ants in the first photo, whose lives are intimately connected to the sap-blood of this tree. No reverence has been given to the many lives, processes and gifts embodied by these trees, they have been utterly disregarded.
Scenes like this create unloved shadow places. They stand in dismal contrast to the shining beauty of iconic and secret ‘wilderness’ places. And yet, this shadow place is a place that I participate with far more frequently. It grows me! If I look at how much my pristine wilderness places contribute to my daily well-being compared to this dismal little duck pond, I am startled to find that it is far less than I had imagined. In fact, it is the duck pond that I turn to for respite from my studies and the stresses of the day, for a place to exercise my legs and allow my mind to wander unfocused for a short time, for a chance to make contact with other beings outside of my home each day. The duck pond, a shadow place, grows me as a living entity and engages me alongside other animistic entities and life stories.
And not just me – the community around me as well. Over time, I have come to recognise familiar faces that are also grown by our shadow place: the elderly man who walks his scruffy little grey dog each day; the ‘scoots’, a group of young boys who enjoy riding their scooters around the pond; the two women who chat and power walk with weights swinging rhythmically in their hands; the mother with the gentle voice who watches her children feed the birds, but insists that they do not chase or scare them; the wood ducks that congregate beside the foot bridge; the pacific black ducks who feed under the willow tree; the four white geese who honk and chase bicycles; and the red-faced Muscovy duck that wags its tail as it keeps a look out for passing dogs to play with; the singing cicadas; the many voices of wind and water; the vitality of life-giving plants. We are all grown by this shadow place.
Over time, I have seen less of the very real problems in this place, and a lot more of the life that also flourishes here. Each walk brings me into encounter with another life that I didn’t know dwelt here – kingfishers, possums, bowerbirds, parrots, snakes, insects, lizards, flowers, raptors, plants, rocks, elements. Each walk shares something with me – the heat of the day, the sound of the wind in casuarina trees that reminds me so strongly of my coastal childhood and my grandparents, the new families of ducks emerging clumsily from the reeds where they have been hidden, the death of a water dragon becoming life for literally several thousands of tiny insects that will continue to nourish the many lives living in this shadow place. Each walk encourages me to be just a little more attentive to the many voices speaking here – water voices, tree voices, wind voices, bird voices, human voices, dog voices, cicada voices – and the ways in which they speak differently with each new day, each new encounter.
This shadow place is a human place, but it is also a more-than-human place. It grows many lives. But unlike the wilderness places, pristine and beautiful, the duck pond has an ugliness that renders it unloved, uncared for. Such ugliness, I believe, comes from the human/nature dualism that separates humans – and subsequently, human care – from a place. You see, real nature, real wilderness is free of ongoing human presence, separate to human worlds. And only real nature, real wilderness is worthy of consideration for care and protection. But in excluding human presence to conserve, we create a binary that suggests that those places where humans interact and participate are less-than-nature, unnatural, unworthy of consideration as agent, active more-than-human places. And yet, it is these places that we most participate with. That grow us.
Perhaps if we take a moment to recognise this separation from shadow places, we could come to terms with how they nourish and contribute to our lives in much the same way as I have been steadily experiencing with the duck pond. While I still strongly believe that places of human exclusion are necessary in terms of providing adequate space and peace for other lives to flourish and play out is critically important, I would like to see the gap of separation close between human lives and the more-than-human places that do not make their way onto postcards, photographer’s portfolios, or conservation lists. Perhaps they should. Perhaps in recognising how shadow places grow us and constitute ‘nature’ even if it occurs smack-bang amongst urban human life, an ethic of care would filter into them and people would value these places more, pick up their trash or even the trash of others, think twice about writing their name on a tree that graciously supports innumerable lives.
I love these two photographs because despite the disrespect and disregard inflicted on these trees, the presence of beetles, ants and cicadas remind me that life continues to grow here in this shadowed place.
In the early encounters with the duck pond, I described it as ‘dismal’ and lacking the enchantments of the more secret ‘wilderness’ places I occasionally visit. But now, when I walk around and with the duck pond place, I am enchanted. Like a friend that you slowly get to know, I have felt my relationship with this place deepen, thicken and grow in ways that have enriched my daily life even more than when I first planted myself and began to grow here. Ways that continue to grow me, and the participating communities. Most importantly, shadow places – more than any other – have the potential to demonstrate to us just how inseparable we truly are from the more-than-human world. To quote John Briggs (2015) once again:
“[An] Earth-embodied consciousness …is not something exalted or rarefied. It does not require enlightenment, belief in a particular spiritual cosmology…or exercise of some esoteric practice. It is available everywhere nature is (which is everywhere), if we have the time and affection for life to look.”
Briggs, J. 2015. People of the Earth: Inviting a New Animism. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, 6(11), pp.475-484. Available here.
Plumwood, V. 2008. Shadow places and the politics of dwelling. Australian Humanities Review, 44. Available here.