If you have ever been underwater, you will notice something immediately: everything is much slower, quieter and all around deeper down there! Maybe my sensory difficulties make it more obvious to me, I don’t know. All I know is that sound tends to be heavily filtered and usually of very low frequencies…the kind that doesn’t hurt all of my senses. Water conducts life – it slows movement to the rhythms of tides, currents and waves. The underwater world is far less stressful for me than the one I inhabit most often. Down there, my senses can be delighted rather than affronted, and
I can hear myself breathing, living, in time with the rhythm of the sea and the earth.
I wanted to share a video I made underwater. I made it recently during a visit back to my childhood home on the south coast, in what I now know to be Dharawal and Elouera Country. As you will see in my video, particular towards the end, underwater organisms dance with light and water. So much of what is synesthesia for me everyday is just the way of things underwater.
I feel like my mind-scape has suddenly become the living land-scape!
Sound and colour, light, movement…they are all connected and interacting. When I see these things, and the striking and/or amazingly camouflaged creatures, who innovate, navigate and illuminate in their worlds, I can’t help but feel that
I am bearing witness to an intentionality and creativity in nature and evolution that does not get the recognition it deserves.
Our world, our home, is beautiful! And mysterious. There is so much we still do not know, and this becomes so clear when you encounter the intricate underwater worlds.
Please enjoy some extraordinary clips of the underwater worlds of Dharawal & Elouera Country (the light show and seaweed dance at the end is just incredible!):
I genuinely didn’t think I could make it. My whole body began to shut down in protest, I just stood there, staring…Paka wasn’t here now, so I sang the song we share instead…I lifted my gaze…what I saw, I hardly believed! A calico cat just like Paka sitting square in the middle of the road at the top of the hill, looking down at me!
Come, let me tell you a strange little story about a cat that I know.
For eight hours, I had been hiking my way up and down the sacred Blue Mountains – scrambling over moss covered boulders, crawling under fallen trees alive with invertebrate traffic, and holding hands with the ferns, vines and saplings that promised not to let me fall. Somewhere along the way, I had fallen into the river – the clumsiness of my step disturbing the focused flow of water and forcing me to relinquish, unexpectedly, my small lunchbox. Despite my best, albeit useless attempts to retrieve it, the river had claimed my only meal for the day. Short-cuts turned into lengthy entrapments with one mishap after another – I could have sworn that the bush was intent on keeping me there, urging me to see something, to pay attention, to learn what it wanted to share.
But finally, it released me some twenty minutes further down the mountain than I was supposed to be, my senses over-indulged and my body running on empty. I knew there was food here, but I didn’t have the knowledge to identify it. Slowly, I looked up at the climb ahead of me…twenty minutes up, and I was already at my limit. But with no other choice, I put one foot in front of the other, and up I went.
It happened in the last ascent before coming out onto the highway and the train station. The road suddenly inclines steeply here, the final push up and out. I stopped in the middle of the road, looking up. I genuinely didn’t think I could make it. My whole body began to shut down in protest, I just stood there, staring. Usually when I feel this kind of exhaustion, it is neurological, and I turn to Paka, my cat friend, for support. But Paka wasn’t here now, so I sang the song we share instead – the strange, Gaelic song about the shape-shifting, spatio-temporal defying cat Pangur Ban:
“You must go where I cannot, Pangur Ban, Pangur Ban: Nil sa saol seo ach ceo, is ni bheimid beo, ach seal beag gearr…”
A calm washed over me, as it always does when I sing instead of speak. The courage to look up at my final challenge crept reluctantly into my chest, and I lifted my gaze. But what I saw, I hardly believed! A calico cat just like Paka sitting square in the middle of the road at the top of the hill, looking down at me! Suddenly, the courage swelled, and I knew I could make it up there, up to Paka. And I did.
Okay, okay, hold it right there! I know what you are thinking: “Sara – cats are material beings governed by the basic laws of science, Paka could not possibly have been at the top of the hill when you know full well that she is safely sleeping on your bed at home several kilometres away! It’s a random cat…who just happens to look identical to your unusual looking feline friend, and looks at you with a familiarity that cats generally don’t give away to strangers…and behaves in the same strange manner as Paka, engaging in a call-and-response of specific cat-sounds with you”.
It was probably a coincidence, but a mighty finely detailed one. So detailed that it felt strange to leave this cat behind to return home. But in the end, the cat left me. She changed suddenly, and no longer seemed familiar, ducking into the shrubs. This aloof cat, who had a moment ago been my affectionate cat, now no longer was. Perhaps it was all in my head.
Let me tell you about Pangur Ban. I first discovered Pangur Ban in the enchanting Tomm Moore film The Secret of Kells, with it’s rich Celtic-inspired animation. The song that I sing with Paka is from this movie – sung by Aisling the forest sidhe (spirit/faerie) as she invokes the shape-shifting nature of animals, in this case Pangur Ban. As Aisling’s song unfolds, we watch in awe as Pangur literally shape-shifts into an ethereal spirit capable of traversing time, space and matter. These seemingly magical qualities are, notably, invoked through song and language derived from a Celtic oral and bardic past.
In my slow, quiet endeavours to reconnect with my own cultural ancestry and heritage, I have been learning bits of Gaelic – both Scottish and Irish, since I come from both – and this song has been amongst my attempts. Every night while stroking Paka before sleep, I sing Aisling’s song to her, and she listens and purrs. If I play the song on my computer, Paka jumps on my lap ready for pats. She knows the melody, the sounds of the language.
But does she know the meaning? Aisling’s Gaelic words remind us that all in this world is mist, or spirit, and that though our physical incarnation changes, our mist is continuous. It remembers. Does my connection – and my desire to strengthen a long broken connection – to my ancestors, culture and heritage communicate itself to Paka through oral traditions of language and song? Does she sense my enchantment, my sense of familiarity and longing for the heritage that nurtures such rich story-telling and belief in the unbelievable, subjective, and unprovable? And through that, did I call to Paka – my support cat – in a time of need, through song, over time and space? And was she able to reciprocate? Part of me wants to believe that her mist, her consciousness, took shape temporarily in the physical being of another cat. But I guess there is no way we will ever know, and few who would ever believe such things!
What I do know is that Paka is more to me than a pet, she is kin. She keeps me sane, she keeps me healthy, and frankly, I love her. There is no one I’d rather spend my time with. Interestingly, Pangur Ban was a real cat long before The Secret of Kells. A beautiful Gaelic poem was written about him (or her?) in the 9th Century by an Irish monk. It tells of the shared, but ultimately solitary lives of both cat and scholar, comparing their pursuits – of either prey or knowledge – as like-practices. Knowledges. The personal resonance for me as an Aspie research student who relies on a cat for moral support cannot be overstated here.
Whether or not Paka really shape-shifted or not is beside the point, and ultimately an unimportant detail allowed to be an important treasure to those of us who want to believe in old stories and the unknowable. The point is that heritage is important – our stories, songs, languages and knowledges provide important relational bridges in a more-than-human world. A more-than-human world where the catness of cats is allowed to be unexplainable and mysterious, and connection to culture includes complex relationships with non-human fellows and kinsfolk. Maybe Paka’s shape-shifting was a spiritual thing, maybe it was psychological…it really doesn’t matter. All that matters is that it meant something personal: I got up the hill.
I hate maths! But I love animals, plants, elements, ecology and understanding how systems work, and what they mean to us as humans. I’m a nature person, maybe even a science person, but definitely NOT a maths person! Basic mathematics has always been a problem – my autistic mind works in sensations, affective (not geometric) patterns, observation, imagination and written words. Ask me to do a sum – even a simple one – and I will either laugh or cry.
One of the most difficult disciplinary concepts that I work with in geography is ‘more-than-human’. Much of this concept is either ‘felt’ (embodied) or challenges dominant, entrenched discourses around how we think about the non-human world, making it difficult to express adequately without sounding utterly fanciful. However, in these days of snow-balling ecological crises and the persistent denial of our seemingly obvious inclusion with and dependence upon the environment for our very survival, it is a critically important worldview that requires a lot more spotlight time and serious consideration than what it quietly demands. The words of Joan Countryman, quoted in Zinsser (1989) resonated profoundly with me more than once in this regard. In speaking about the ways in which we are complexly, and often beautifully, a part of mathematical worlds, she lamented that
“unfortunately, most people don’t see the world that way because they’ve been alienated from mathematics and told that it’s something apart from what they’re able to do.”
More-than-human is a lot like mathematics in this regard. Despite being very much apart of everyone’s daily lives, it seems like only those in the loop are privileged to the ‘special’ knowledge of what it’s really about. And yet, as a globally embodied reality, we all have the ability to (really!) know the more-than-human as much as mathematics. Both are all around us, all of the time – often without us even noticing. Indeed, more-than-human is all about challenging alienation and separation by recognising that human lives are intimately part of a far broader arrangement of species, forces, and existences than our own – a more-than-human world.
Amazing photographic artworks by Christoffer Relander that blend human and non-human images. Beautifully suggestive of humans as part of a more-than-human world, and carrying that awareness in our lives and being.
When considering how to communicate ‘more-than-human’ to those outside of my discipline, I found the urgency in Joan Countryman’s commitment to re-establishing the connections between students’ lives and mathematics poignant. She suggests that by doing things a little differently
“…you begin to make connections. Unless you make those connections, children will always think of mathematics as somehow ‘other than me – not part of my world’”.
Such ‘othering’ and separation is precisely what more-than-human seeks to challenge through building connections with our broader ecological contexts. But how can we convey such disciplinary concepts to the uninitiated? And should we?
I can’t help but think of my ecological humanities tutorial group – a diverse mix of disciplines, many who have never ventured into the ecological or social sciences, coming together to engage with human relationships with a more-than-human world. The major assessment task is to keep a journal that reflects on how you ‘get to know’ a particular non-human ‘other’. What I love about this task is that it is so simple, and yet so baffling at the same time! Students are approaching the task with caution, uncertainty, and sheer distrust of their tutor! I understand – the freedom to write reflectively, subjectively and even wildly hypothetically is not the usual way things are done at university – and often with good reason. Countryman comments on a similar phenomenon within mathematics, noting that
“there’s a heavy emphasis on…numbers as the sole language and the right answer as the sole objective.”
When I read this statement, I recall the approval-seeking that was rife as students shared their early thoughts about their journaling task. I also noted the lack of variety in ways that students were planning on ‘getting to know’ their non-human associate – almost all had planned rudimentary objective investigations in order to find out a specific answer to a specific question. While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, I felt that it missed the point of the task in a lot of ways, because there is no specific question, and certainly no specific answer. The task is about relating and reflecting as a way of ‘getting to know’, of learning ‘with’ rather than ‘about’.
The students were baffled – and possibly alarmed. What were the precise instructions about how to do it?” What are we going to be graded on here? What exactlyare we supposed to write about?” I wonder if such responses have anything to do with the dualisms of approval – right/wrong, pass/fail, yes/no – so entrenched in education? Countryman spoke of this in relation to mathematics as a question/answer based binary, one that I see reflected often in the ways that university students are trained to think.
But then I consider that we are trained to think that way for a reason. In some disciplines, like science, it is critically important to implementing one’s craft. While disciplinary jargon may not be engaging to the uninitiated, isn’t that the point of the word ‘discipline’? Despite my commitment to make academia a service to those we do research for and with, I can’t help but wonder if there is a danger of losing commitment, skill and discipline in one’s field of speciality by opening it up to too much of the ambivalent? For me personally, I shudder all too often at the misuse of ecological knowledge by over-zealous conservation activists – a stark reminder that ‘discipline’ means the investment of years of time and effort to learn your field deeply. Or is the ‘ambivalent’ exactly the kind of messiness that some disciplines – like geography – need in order to unsettle entrenched ways of thinking? Certainly some food for thought there.
Interestingly, as the ecological humanities class began to realise that no, I wasn’t tricking them, and yes, I was serious, a beautiful eruption of ideas began to flower. Some students drew strength and inspiration from their science-based hypotheses and experiments, and that was great! Some planned to casually blog their observations as daily reflections, while others considered writing narrative stories about their experiences, drawing pictures, or taking photos. They had begun to realise that they were free to engage on their terms – and perhaps also on the terms of their non-human associate. Throughout Zinnser’s (1989) chapter, there is a real sense of the interdisciplinary – realising that we are not islands floating alone in space, but inescapably linked and bumping into each other, whether it be to assist, support or challenge.
This is dynamic, and useful. It is needed.
Zinsser, W.K., 1989. “Writing Mathematics” in Writing to learn. New York: Harper & Row.
“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.
The past few days have been spent attempting to fulfil my life-long dream of cage diving with great white sharks. The intent was to be open to shark knowledges and the wisdom this magnificent and misunderstood creature may have to share with me. Unfortunately, things didn’t go to plan. A nasty wind came up the night before I went out to sea, and conditions were poor. We didn’t encounter any sharks save for a brief swim-by that lasted only a couple of precious seconds.
Disappointed, I chose to consider what this absence meant. For several months leading up to this adventure, I had been dreaming of sharks and making an effort to meditate on their lives. This has included engaging with some indigenous Australian stories and Dreaming around the great white shark. From this, I have learnt that the shark represents Law and justice. The shark carries the authority and responsibility of imparting deep lessons around what is and is not acceptable, and the necessary punishments to ensure justice when shark Law is broken. On the trip back in from sea, my imagination ran wild as I pondered these things, and the shadow of the boat on the foamy waves behind us looked eerily reminiscent of a shark swimming alongside us.
The following day, a stark realisation hit me. Casually, I had placed my hands in my pockets only to find the hard, bumpy surface of a seashell tucked away in there. The day before my shark dive, I had been at a nearby beach and – against my better understanding – I placed the beautiful shell in my pocket as a keepsake. I broke ocean Law. I took something that was not mine, that I had no right to, for my own selfish indulgence in its beauty. A sinking feeling appeared in my chest as I put the pieces together.
The beach where I found and took the seashell that started everything!
An indigenous friend has been guiding me in discovering my own sense of place and belonging with nature. One thing he warned me was that in seeking the knowledges of the more-than-human worlds, you also become bound to their Laws. I knew better than to take the shell, but I ignored that judgement and reverted to the self-serving judgement common to the modern Western world separated – falsely – from nature. The punishment for breaking Law had been served by the Great White Sharks – with their absence.
It was a valuable lesson. And a painful one. There are no words for how much I wanted to encounter the sharks, and how disappointing it was to not. But the lesson gained was powerful. It held a strange reminiscence to Val Plumwood’s account of her crocodile attack in the Northern Territory, something she situated around her own self-serving curiosity and disregard of sacred place and Law.
But the story continues. In order to set things right again, I returned to the beach where I had encountered and abducted the sea shell. I offered an apology to the ocean, taking a moment to gaze in awe on the crystal clear cerulean blue waters that I had offended. I realised that the self-imposed separation of humans from nature is what compels us to want to keep parts of nature for ourselves. In this moment, I realised that there had been no need to take the sea shell, that its beauty would have always been with me through the meaningfulness of my encounter with it if I had just been open to such an encounter. Stepping into the waves, I carefully placed my hand into the water and released the shell back to its water-space.
A heavy weight seemed to lift from me in that instance, and I felt a great joy wash over me with each salty wave. For a few moments, it felt as though the beach and I were interacting as friends who had made up after an argument, re-establishing our bond through play and exuberance. I felt forgiven for my transgression. The sensation was confirmed with the arrival of five bottle-nose dolphins, cruising in on the waves towards me. Something about their presence seemed to hold a further lesson – to breathe. These charismatic creatures live perpetually in the watery womb of the earth, and our encounters with them always begin with their act of breathing as they surface. My encounter at this time with the dolphins reminded me that I am still a child, symbolically living in the womb of the Mother Earth who nourishes me and guides me in my lessons. I felt that the ocean was not only forgiving me, but guiding me to forgive myself and to view the lesson as growth rather than as punishment and forgiveness.
I went seeking shark wisdom and found it unexpectedly in a seemingly insignificant seashell. Nothing is insignificant, and the impermanence of the material world is balanced by the permanence of experience and encounter if we allow it to permeate our bodies fully. From this journey, I have learnt some valuable lessons about Law and my place in it.
Abram talks about how he sees God in nature, and refers to his Jewish heritage by explaining that in Hebrew – as with many languages – the words for breath, air, spirit, god, etc are often similar or even the same (37:40). He goes on to explain that a mysterious name is given for God in Hebrew, a name that consists of the four letters YHWH with no certain pronunciation, although it is commonly stated as ‘YAHWEH’. This is partly due to the Hebrew language not using vowels. But Abrams suggests that part of the great secrecy around the name of God can be derived from the fact that ‘breath’ and ‘spirit’ have a shared word in Hebrew. Abrams suggests that YHWH is not pronounced, but rather breathed. In other words, rather than filling in the gaps with vowels or verbal language, the gaps are instead filled with air, breath, something more-than-human that is life sustaining, physically intangible, yet sensorially experience-able. So when we breathe, when animals and plants breathe, when air and water interact to co-create climate, we are sharing in a communicative form devoid of any one specific language. Even those animated forms of life considered ‘abiotic’, like rocks and mountains, are touched and formed by wind and air…indeed, some of the most startlingly spiritual moments I have encountered have involved the sound of rushing of air through underground caverns!
The intention of considering more-than-human language needs to be one of decentering the dominant human ways of knowing. We need to considering realities outside of those paradigms, so that those realities are bought into the circle and included as part of a repertoire of possible ways to approach more-than-human research.
Reading a book by David Abram called ‘Becoming Animal’ that is a development of his book ‘Spell of the Sensuous’, both of which explore sensory experiences of the more-than-human world. He was describing how the general human perception of ‘shape-shifting’ elements in nature, like light and shadows, is one of 2-dimensions. We see ourselves (the 3D being) and then our shadow on the ground, a 2D casting of our shape as it blocks the light. However, he then goes on to describe how a bee might be flying along, the light gleaming on its wings, and pass into the space between me and my shadow. When this happens, the light ceases to gleam on the bee, it is effected/affected by entering that space. So, the space between me and my shadow on the ground is actually part of the shadow, and I am connected to it, and indeed a part of it as well. From the moment I begin and the 2D image of my shadow on the ground ends, we constitute a 3-dimensional entity that is ‘shadow of’ and is becoming (or co-becoming?) ‘shadow of’.
How do I experience this, as person with heightened sensory sensitivity?
My shadow is not something that I smell or taste, but I certainly engage with it visually as most people do. However, I recall instances of sensory-touch experiences with my shadow. I remember as a child often trying to reach out and touch my shadow – finger-tip to finger-tip. This is very difficult to explain, because of course…there is no possibility of physical touch between flesh and shadow. However, if you close one eye and line your flesh finger up with your shadow finger, you are able to touch! It is a perception experience, but one that was more than just an optical trick to my senses. For example, when doing this, the nerves in the tip of my flesh finger would tell me that I had made contact by tingling…the sensation, I believe, was recalled with perfect clarity from flesh-to-flesh contact experiences of similar kinds and re-enacted in relation to this interaction between my shadow and I.
Another experience that stands out to me is whenever I make my shadow hand disappear from the pavement by drawing my flesh hand into the space between my body and shadow. Upon doing this, my flesh hand experiences sensations of altered temperature and ‘thickness’ in the air-space it occupies. The space physically feels warmer, thicker than when my hand was not occupying that 3D continuum of person-shadow, suggesting in a sensory manner that there was something physical, alive, more…existing in that otherwise seemingly empty dark-space.
*All photographs by me. The featured image is of rain water running down a pipe. I chose this picture because I feel it captures my particular neurodiversity well, whilst also speaking to the more-than-human: connected, trail-like systems unable to contain or control the boisterousness and determination of water, and always situated amongst lives and worlds beyond that which is human-made.
This semester is going to be spent looking at more-than-human realisations in prejudiced contexts. By this, I mean marginalised groups that – like animals and the environment – are often viewed and treated as somehow inferior to the dominate ‘Western human’, whether due to difference, culture, poverty, perceived impairment, etc.
In Tanzania last month, I encountered three individuals who had lost sensory abilities (one was deaf, two were blind or near blind). Listening to them explain how they now experience the touch of a leaf, the smell of rain and wind, the vibration of thunder, the sound and vibrations of animals breathing or calling was deeply more-than-human.
I also spoke to the three Tanzanian teachers who expressed a number of ideas around their possession of heightened or more sensitive senses compared to Westerners due to the lack of convenience and technology inherent in their societies, and the bush school context potentially giving them a more attentive and intense experience of the natural world.
What was described to me was not unlike my own altered sensory experiences from within my context of Asperger’s and mood affective-ness. These conditions mean that I encounter sensory sensitivities that result in me having a different experience of the world around me. So I did a bit of reading when I got home and found a paper called Autistic Autobiographies and More-Than-Human Emotional Geographies (Davison & Smith 2009) that explored how their experience of the more-than-human world therapeutically benefits the autistic, and through their own writing also helps us to understand their experience of the world. What I am interested in is essentially the same, but from the opposite direction: how can the sensory experiences of those with altered sensory systems help us to understand the more-than-human world?
What I am particularly drawn to is this idea of the ‘less-than-human‘ (those who are often marginalised and excluded from the dominant Western consideration of what constitutes a functioning, complete and ‘able’ definition of a human being) may actually have a strong connection to the more-than-human world by virtue of those perceived ‘limitations’ and ‘impairments’ to their human reality. Culturally…we see this kind of thing all of the time. Societies (especially indigenous) are completely disregarded for their ways of knowing because they are perceived as inferior or ‘less-than’ the Western idea of what it means to be a strong, progressive and civilised human.
This is helpful to my larger MRes research in terms of familiarising myself with the term ‘more-than-human’ and engaging with ideas and thinking around how the more-than-human can manifest and be realised within our different understandings and ways of knowing the world. I’m not sure exactly how more-than-human ideas will factor into Tanzanian realities and my MRes project at this stage, but I really got the sense that they are there from some of the environmental philosophy and ‘talking classes’ I took at Mkuyu. So having a chance to really engage with it at a core place could be really helpful.
I don’t want to focus on the cultural side of things right now. That is a place I would prefer to go afterwards, maybe during my semester break before getting into my research project next year. For now, I really need something a little different to keep variety in all that I am doing! So I’d like to focus on sensory ‘impairment’ (I prefer sensory alteration, or neuro-diverse) as a way of understanding more-than-human realisations. At this stage, the aim is looking at what people with these experiences have to say about it, and what that can potentially contribute to more-than-human studies.
A Zambian friend once called me ‘Kanyoni’, a Nyanja word meaning ‘little bird’.
Birds are such symbolic creatures, their capacity for flight and the enormous effort it demands making them representatives of freedom, determination, and the unexpected strength of endurance.
Their songs symbolise ideas and the medicine inherent in finding our individual voices and letting them be heard. Their beauty speaks to the diversity of cultures, creatures and identities sharing this world.
Eastern Yellow Robin (left) & Eastern Spinebill (right)
Each one of us is our own kind of bird, rabbit, cactus, mountain, river, cloud…dreaming ourselves into existence through shared encounters, collaborations, and realisations.