“The gate’s been left open…”

*Featured image by Jolita Kelias. All other photographs by me.

“You’ve grown a lot this past year, you know. Right now, I’m seeing you kind of like a dingo-dog person who has been living in a human yard a long, long time never really feeling there, you know, not fully content in what you know. That dingo part inside can always see out, but the dog part is held back by the fence and his loyalty to rules and the things he knows. But now, there’s something calling to the dingo part, like the wind out there, beyond the fenced in places, it’s calling to him. And the gate’s been left open…”

The above quote was something that an old indigenous friend said to me during a particularly meaningful part of an ongoing journey over the summer. We first met when I was a blossoming environmental science student, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to go out there and ‘change the world’ for the better. That year, I was working on a sustainable farm owned by seasoned ecologists who were also working with the community of my companion. We became friends then, and have been since, though our meetings are periodic and rare.

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The farm where we worked together. Looking at this photo alongside my friend’s comment now, I can’t help but notice how much is happening, expanding, emerging, forming, extending and beckoning from outside of the fenced, gated area in the foreground. The lesson, is quite simple and clear really.

Throughout my science days, we had many debates about many things. He challenged the rationality that was increasingly stamping out the flames of the more subjective, nourishing, and honest worldview that I had grown with all my life. But to me, science had become the new dogma that I was expected to swallow and digest without question or deviation if I was serious about contributing to environment and conservation. My subjective feelings and experiences no longer counted, they were no longer worth inclusion…not even alongside the rigorous scientific data. No, such subjectivity, such affective-ness was naive, idealistic, fantastical, explainable, reducible, and worst of all – anthropomorphic. At the risk of ridicule and not being taken seriously in my student and professional endeavours, Atheism and rational objectivity became almost unspoken requirements of being a ‘real‘ scientist, a ‘legitimate‘ conservationist. Anything to the contrary would bring your knowledge and ideas into question.

Perhaps it impacted me more than it was supposed to, but I don’t think so. The numbing, objectifying, ‘resourcing’, and de-spiritualising of the non-human world, and my own personal world, seemed just as pervasive amongst the few other female environmental science students I did my undergrad with. Perhaps it was because, as a  male-dominated industry, we felt we women more than ever had to prove ourselves not only capable, but rationally objective, unfeeling, and uncorrupted by sentimentality towards nature. We were – along with the blokes – expected to demonstrate an enlightened, informed and unwavering persona of scientific excellence – detached, measurable, rational, objective to the last. All things always knowable.

It drove my friend crazy! For him, the world is a very different place, one full of connections, relations, feelings, and stories. And, he has so often reminded me, there is nothing naive or idealistic about it. To him, I lived in a limited world, trapped inside an imposed yard of Western rationalism and held captive by the deceptive, uncrossable boundaries of scientific dogma. To him, that fence was one that served a very real and useful purpose, but one that also failed to see beyond its own limitations and knowledge. It kept the gate locked – and everything on the opposite side of the ‘white/rational/male/culture’ divide out.

For me, the past twelve months has seen an active transition from science to cultural geography, a shift that truly began two years earlier when I first set foot on the continent of Africa. So much of what I thought I knew has been challenged by that deeply nuanced, complex community of communities of communities – both human and more-than-human. These days, I distrust a lot of ‘truths’ and take a lot more time and care to consider ‘fantasy’. Don’t get me wrong, I still love and trust a lot about science! I have so much respect for scientific method, and the genuine good that scientific knowledge and accomplishment contributes to the world. But I am increasingly resisting the rigidity, the exclusion of knowledges not considered scientific, and science as a deeply colonial and corruptible institution.

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Being an environmental scientist, and the principles of science itself, are still very important parts of my identity and worldview. But…
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…science simply is not the ONLY part of that identity and worldview. Even if that means that other aspects of myself conflict with rigid scientific thinking. I don’t want to live inside a closed gate.

Labels, assumptions, and categories are losing their integrity and coming apart like melting ice in the sun. In particular, I found the courage to stop seeing my experience of the world, my neurological difference to an arbitrary, imposed ‘norm’, as somehow defective, pathologised or something to be ashamed of. Instead, I am realising how much my neurology – particularly my sensory sensitivities – enrich daily life and more-than-human relationships in ways that are largely dismissed by my society as ‘disconnection from reality’ and ‘preoccupation with fantasy to compensate for empathetic and social deficits’. Consequently, I have found myself reconnecting to important elements of my spiritual and cultural identity that were suffocated and denied by the unspoken violences of my scientific training. I am finding myself deeply nourished again – as both geographer and scientist, and always more-than.

But the metaphor – though I wonder if there is more to it than simple metaphor – provided by my friend here really captured the essence of my transformation…not just back to a previous state, no, no, no – that would be too simplistic, dualistic and reductive. I have grown and begun to look beyond just that which I know. Knowledge stretches far and wide, broadly and deeply. Knowledge is multidirectional, multicultural, multi-species, multiplicitous and very, very plural. Knowledge is more than just the space where you, yourself, belong.

Belonging has always been a difficult and elusive concept for me, one that seems written in my more-than-human spiritual and cultural encounters. My Gaelic clan held an affinity to the European red fox, a creature known for being a pariah on the fringes of society. My dreams over the years have been consistently and persistently visited by Biladurang, platypus – a creature who, according to the Wiradjuri people, was born of two very different worlds. Now, I was being likened to the contentiously debated dingo-dog hybrids…neither wild nor domestic, but lingering somewhere in between. At this particular stage in my life, I choose to take these things as symbolic wisdom that speaks to both a desire to encounter knowledge beyond my own, beyond what is relevant to me; and as a blessing to continue this journey of possibilities that I have been on.

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Coloured pencil drawing of ‘Biladurang’, the platypus, that I did during my undergraduate ecological study of their population dynamics in Wiradjuri country.
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My oil painting of ‘Sionnach’, the red fox, an important animal in my families cultural history.

Imagine being that dingo-dog, confined to a limited and limiting space for so long, suddenly realising one day that the gate has been left open. A multitude of thoughts and feelings come in torrents as the worldview imposed upon you begins to loosen its grip – not necessarily breaking down, but becoming comfortable in its own identity and allowing openness to other possibilities. The dog part of my identity is just as valuable as the dingo, but more easily controlled and exploited. Meanwhile, having laid dormant and captive for too long, the dingo awakens, quickened by his curiosity, his instincts, and his keen awareness of imminent freedom. He knows it’s not always an easy path to travel, out there in the wild, but its real and meaningful, and it calls to him from somewhere deep within. It calls to the dog too. The world extends now beyond the containing fence, beyond that which dingo-dog, which I, know.

The world opens up to embrace us, and we step out of the yard to take a walk with it.

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