Underwater Worlds

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!):

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Shape-Shifting and Catness

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

“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.

Shadow Places That Grow Us

*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.

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An iconic ‘wilderness’ near my home in the Blue Mountains that appears on many an Australian postcard! This is a loved place.

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!

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One of my local, ‘secret’ places…away from ‘the human’. A loved place.

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.”

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Entering my shadow place. So far, so good…

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.

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Water quality and riparian zone health is under pressure.
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Far from the pristine, human-free view of nature, this shadow place features human marks.

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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.

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Copious amounts of rubbish are haphazardly dumped in the water and litter the banks.
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Most of this litter is recyclable.
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Discarded remnants of human presence.
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It baffles me that someone walked all the way to the pond to discard their junk mail when council provides recycling bins to every home. This place seems to be viewed largely as a dumping ground for excess waste.

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.

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 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.

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This image causes me to blush: with upset, with embarrassment, and with anger.

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.

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Growing Lives: Domestic goose & Muscovy duck.
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Growing Lives: An old gum tree.
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Growing Lives: The old man and his grey dog.
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Growing Lives: New bird lives supported by tree lives.

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.

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Growing Lives: Casuarina voices in the wind share with me memories of my childhood through a familiar sound.
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Growing Lives: Seeing less of the trash in the foreground in order to notice the ducks, reeds, willow tree, native trees, wind, soil, leaves, sticks and light shadowed in the background.
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Growing Lives: The coincidental sharing of colour here reminded me that many diverse lives grow alongside the problems here.

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.

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 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.”

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Duck Pond: A Shadow Place. A More-Than-Human Place.

REFERENCES:

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.

More-Than-Human Law

*All photographs by me.

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.

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 stories around the sharks – shark lore. 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/lore 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 more-than-human law. I took something that was not mine, that I had no right to, for my own selfish indulgence in its beauty, and a desire to possess it. A sinking feeling appeared in my chest as I put the pieces together.

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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 lore/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 more-than-human 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 earth-based 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.

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Dolphin Dreaming.

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 more-than-human law and my place in it.

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Eco-Philosophy: From Gaelic Imaginings to African Realisations (“no trees, no air; no air, no breathing; no breathing, no living!”)

*All photographs by  me.

My environmental journey has been one of the most metamorphic experiences of my life. At first, I imagine that journey as river, its flow gathering steadily and branching off into tributaries that nourish new ideas and perspectives. Then, I liken that winding river to the sinuous body of a snake, periodically shedding its philosophical skin as it grows into something new and more integrated each time. I am always learning, changing. Why do I care about the environment today? Because according to my understanding, I am an environment, and I am part of other environments that are in turn part of a holistic global environment.

In this sense, the eco-philosophical framework I most strongly resonate with is philosophical animism,  and I find myself in agreement with much of Val Plumwood’s writings. Coming to philosophical animism has involved drawing together various aspects of my personal experiences and finding the ethical frameworks that compliment them. However, I have never found a single eco-philosophy that suits me in its entirety, and my approach to philosophical animism is largely based on a collaborative approach to what does and doesn’t work for me from a variety of standpoints. My philosophical animism is one that combines aspects of deep ecology, eco-spirituality/psychology, eco-feminism and indigenous knowledges from both Australian Aboriginal and Afrocentric perspectives.

The deep ecology philosophy is built on an understanding of ecology as a science, but extends ‘deeper’ to include political and spiritual consciousness of our inseparable connection to Earth (Naess 1973; Devall & Sessions 1985). Deep ecology suggests that the living planet is an intricately entangled system where all organisms – regardless of form, autonomy, or capacity – have intrinsic worth and equal claim to pursue life (Sessions & Devall 1985; Luke 2002). Deep ecologists are often accused of being biocentric due to their heavy focus on non-human claims to the environment (Bookchin 1987; Van Wyck 1997). However, I have found this eco-philosophy to actively include human lives and cultures as part of their definition of ‘biodiversity’ (Ambrosius 2005; Drengson 2012). This resonates strongly with me, I have always felt unnecessarily obligated to ‘choose sides’ when it comes to ‘people vs animal’ environmental issues (Nations 1988), an obligation that makes little sense in my worldview.

Nature & Culture together: (From left to right) A Maasai colleague rescues and releases a flap-necked chameleon after learning about reptiles at the local guide school; vocational nature guide students take community children bird-watching; school children incorporate appreciation for wildlife into their studies by using their hand prints and finger painting to connect the human and more-than-human; the Mkuyu Guiding School bush club for children.
All of these projects contribute to both community development and nature conservation by drawing on  cultural ‘ways of knowing’ and lived experiences of more-than-human animals and environment.

My family came from the Isle of Skye many generations ago, bringing with them the strong traditions of our sea and loch dwelling clans-folk. Many of these traditions came from the relationship of the clan to the natural world. Nan told me Gaelic stories about seilchies – seal-like creatures with spiritual mythology. My grandparents – and apparently generations before them – believed that seilchies taught us how to fish sustainably. If a seilchie appeared during a hunt, many fish could be taken, if not it meant that catch should be modest. Stories like this illustrate an intimate understanding of fluctuating ecosystems – the appearance of an oceanic predator likely indicated to my ancestors that fish numbers were abundant at that time. Such eco-spiritual narratives align with deep ecology (and indigenous) principles where an understanding of our connection to complex natural systems take on spiritual consciousness that informs our respectful interaction with other life (Naess 1973; Devall & Sessions 1985; Luke 2002).

While the eco-spiritual context (Booth 1999; Lincoln 2000) in which I was raised lends heavy influence to my deep ecology perspectives of earth as both an creative subject with personhood and an integrated life support system mutually called ‘home’ by all inhabitants, there are also strong interwoven eco-feminism themes that hold great weight with me today. Though my grandparents identified as Christians, traditional spiritual influences around the natural world have been passed down through generations of women in my family. Both Father God in Heaven and Mother Goddess on Earth – Dia and Ban-Dia in what little bastardised Scottish Gaelic my grandmother recalled as a second generation Australian – are recognised. As a child, I had a meaningful experience with a sionnach (wild red fox) and remember my grandmother giving thanks to Ban-Dia for sending the sionnach to watch over ‘its sister’. That Earth is understood as ‘mother’ and ‘family’, and that this wisdom is largely passed down through women, resonates with eco-feminist philosophies that consider the feminising of nature as ‘giver and nurturer of life and communities’ (Mies & Shiva 1993; Rocheleau 1995; Swanson 2015). Oppression by androcentric views of domination and conquest overlaps are also significant (Warren 1994; Plumwood 2002). My grandmother often voiced her feelings that “Mother Earth has been dominated by Man” and that “if we want to live, then Mankind ought not to be persecuting their own Mother”.

The ‘Mother as nurturer of life’ dimension to the eco-philosophical context in which I have been raised has manifested in my care of more-than-humans who have been orphaned or injured by human activities and disturbances. (From left to right): Brushtail possum, maned gosling; grey-headed flying fox; owlet nightjar.

Sometimes these eco-philosophies don’t always work for me. For example, though not a philosophical rule many deep ecologists support vegetarianism (Orton 2000), which is something that I have moved away from as I have felt less comfortable with how it fits into my ecological worldview. I do not believe that it is wrong to eat animals, in fact I believe that it is perfectly natural. However, I do believe that humans need to step down from their pedestal and accept the reality of our place in the food chain as potential prey if we wish to exploit this predator-prey relationship as meat-eaters (see Val Plumwood’s account of her crocodile attack and realisation of ‘Being Prey‘; and her argument around how veganism actually further separates humans from the more-than-human world through imposition of human values). Similarly, some eco-feminists are strong proponents of drawing meaning from ‘meat’ as it relates to animal and female oppression comparatively (Gaard 2003; Adams 2004). This is something that I cannot comfortably agree with because it comes across to me as a false dichotomy of woman-as-meat / animal-as-meat drawn from an over simplified attempt at homogenising ecological realities with socially constructed and imposed behaviours. While I can draw similarities between the oppression of women and industrialised farming practices, I cannot find the same dualisms between the oppression of women and the eating of meat in general, as this seems to accuse ‘Mother Nature’ of having imposed an oppressive system upon all life through the predator-prey relationships that are a key feature of healthy, functioning ecologies.

Where both deep ecology and eco-feminism don’t fit well against my attitudes and perspectives, I find that the combination of ecology as a science and inspiration from raw, indigenous worldviews tend to fill in the gaps. There are several indigenous Australian and African perspectives that resonate strongly with me (Lalonde 1993; Mosha 1999; Kelbessa 2002; Glasson et al. 2010; Mawere 2014; see also the work of Deborah Bird Rose and Val Plumwood), many of which deal with concepts of animism where nutrient cycles, death, and realities of humans-as-prey are integrated spiritually and culturally as part of life, alongside an intense relationality with a fully integrated more-than-human community. My own spiritual upbringing includes strong animist themes where animals and trees contain ‘spirit’ (Newton 1996), or energy as I prefer, so these were not difficult ideas to relate to. However, truly facing the concept of a harsh nature and humans-as-prey in Africa has greatly challenged the more romanticised spiritual view of nature that I grew up with. Ironically, these indigenous perspectives have been compromised for most Africans themselves by the imposition of Western colonialism and anthropocentric/biocentric environmentalism upon their social-environmental framework (Mawere 2014).

The moment that it was made most clear to me that I was not exempt from the ‘rules of nature’ was in Zambia 2014 when I was charged by an elephant. There was nothing that I had specifically done to antagonise the elephant, but her past experiences with poachers and hunters had taught her not to trust bipedal, furless apes or their vehicles. As the matriarch of her herd, she went into defence mode to protect her kin from a perceived predator. Never before have I ever felt so small and fragile. Even in a large, off-road vehicle, I felt vulnerable in the face of this oncoming giant hell-bent on not letting another human being terrorise her herd. On that day, elephants ceased to be the gentle, lumbering half-wit characters of Western imaginations, and instead took on something more real – an identity that conveyed the capacity to remember, to experience trauma and stress, to make decisions based on a sense of responsibility and care towards family, and to not consider humans as sacred, special or untouchable. As far as this elephant was concerned, we were predators and she would give us no special treatment for being human.

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The matriarch elephant, just moments before she lowered her head, rolled her trunk up and charged at remarkable speed towards my vehicle.

Since then, I have learnt through conversations with my friends and students in various villages in Zambia and Tanzania that my experience was not unique, nor was it restricted to elephants. People in Africa were prey. There had been a time when indigenous African people lived peacefully with wildlife under this understanding of mutual predator-prey relationships, but that quickly changed with colonisation and the introduction of the Western anthropocentric view of humans and animals. Today, human-wildlife conflict in Africa is a major source of conservation concern, one that does not have a simple, quick, or ideal solution (Clarke 2012). It has called for a serious parking of many of my deep ecology and eco-feminist perspectives to instead adopt the now-necessary, imposed anthropocentric environmentalism techniques sold to disadvantaged Africans by Western conservationists (Adams & McShane 1992; Caminero-Santangelo 2014; Shoreman-Ouimet 2015), integrated with deeply disrupted indigenous attitudes to establish a kind of ‘Afrocentric’ environmentalism (Gottlieb 1996; Verharen 2003; Kgari-Masondo 2015). This continues to have significant influences on my own environmental views – both positive and negative. I have had to bring my more-than-human values and ideals into sharp focus and critique when placed in less privileged contexts than my own. The challenges are immense, but the rewards and sharing of insights are beyond words.

When I think of the environment and the more-than-human, fluidity comes in taking my lessons from nature, and I feel the strongest resonance with the ecological animism philosophies of Val Plumwood (2002, 2012; Rose 2013) in this regard. By not considering myself different or somehow set apart from the more-than-human, I also submit myself to the laws of nature when I consider my interactions with the more-than-human. So for instance, where an animal rights activist and I might agree that factory farming is a horrific violation of basic animal welfare and wellbeing, we probably wouldn’t agree that eating meat is fundamentally wrong or even that it is a matter of ‘rights’, since the concept of ‘rights’ is a human constructed idea that really only has relevance in determining human conduct in human worlds. This was illustrated most clearly to me during a discussion with a Tanzanian environmentalist:

“I do not understand why Wazungu are so upset by eating cattle when even the Cape buffalo is hunted and eaten by lions as part of its natural life experience. If not man, then another animal would eat the cattle. To give rights to cattle is to exempt them from their natural experience in their free-living life. You are saying to the cow, “our human ideals are better and more suitable than what nature determined your lot to be, our ideas for you are above nature and we are above nature to give them to you”.

Wazungu are opposed to hunting animals for food too…even if that is how it is done in nature. Maybe some Wazungu are herbivores like the impala, sure, but will those Wazungu consider themselves to be prey for lions also? No! I see this as nature being rejected by people. Wazungu say they love nature, but they are very unnatural in the way they think we should live.”

The combined influence of the spiritual context in which my grandparents understood the environment with the raw African worlds that I have found myself deeply embedded in have influenced a philosophical animism peppered by deep ecology, eco-feminism, eco-spirituality and an ‘Afrocentric’ hybrid of indigenous and postcolonial perspectives. Having my ecological science training immersed in complex social experiences has had an enormous impact on my framing of my ecological ethics, and I look forward to discovering new eco-philosophies and seeing how they fit into my worldview. For now, I can best sum-up my perspectives by quoting my nature doco-loving grandfather’s common ‘argument’ with the television: “no trees, no air; no air, no breathing; no breathing, no living!”

REFERENCES:

Adams, C.J., 2004. The pornography of meat. A&C Black.

Adams, J.S. and McShane, T.O., 1992. The myth of wild Africa: conservation without illusion. Univ of California Press.

Ambrosius, W., 2005. Deep Ecology: A Debate on the Role of Humans in the Environment. University of Wisconsin Journal of Research VIII. Viewed 5th May 2016, <http://www.uwlax.edu/urc/jur-online/pdf/2005/ambrosius.pdf&gt;

Bookchin, M., 1987. Social ecology versus deep ecology: A challenge for the ecology movement. Green Perspectives: Newsletter of the Green Program Project1987, pp.4-5.

Booth, A.L., 1999. Does the spirit move you? Environmental spirituality.Environmental Values, pp.89-105.

Caminero-Santangelo, B., 2014. Different shades of green: African literature, environmental justice, and political ecology. University of Virginia Press.

Clarke, J., 2012. Save me from the lion’s mouth: exposing human-wildlife conflict in Africa. Struik Nature. 

Devall, B. and Sessions, G., 1985. Deep ecology. Environmental ethics: Readings in theory and application, pp.157-61.

Drengson, A., 2012. Some Thought on the Deep Ecology Movement. Foundation For Deep Ecology. Viewed 5th May 2016, http://www.deepecology.org/deepecology.htm

Gaard, G.C., 2003. Vegetarian ecofeminism: A review essay. Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies23(3), pp.117-146.

Glasson, G.E., Mhango, N., Phiri, A. and Lanier, M., 2010. Sustainability science education in Africa: Negotiating indigenous ways of living with nature in the third space. International Journal of Science Education32(1), pp.125-141.

Gottlieb, R.S., 1996. This sacred earth: Religion, nature, environment. Psychology Press.

Kelbessa, W., 2002. Indigenous and modern environmental ethics: Toward Partnership. Thought and practice in African philosophy, pp.47-61.

Kgari-Masondo, M.C., 2015. Women as Guardians of the Environment in the Midst of Forced Removals: From Lady Selborne to Ga-Rankuwa.

Lalonde, A., 1993. African indigenous knowledge and its relevance to sustainable development. Traditional ecological knowledge: concepts and cases. Ottawa: Canadian Museum of Nature, pp.55-62.

Lincoln, V., 2000. Ecospirituality A Pattern that Connects. Journal of Holistic Nursing18(3), pp.227-244.

Luke, T.W., 2002. Deep Ecology: Living as if Nature Mattered Devall and Sessions on Defending the Earth. Organization & environment15(2), pp.178-186.

Mawere, M., 2014. Culture, indigenous knowledge and development in Africa: Reviving interconnections for sustainable development. Langaa RPCIG.

Mies, M. and Shiva, V., 1993. Ecofeminism. Halifax. Canada: Fernwood.

Mosha, R.S., 1999. The inseparable link between intellectual and spiritual formation in Indigenous knowledge and education: A case study in Tanzania. What is indigenous knowledge, pp.213-223.

Naess, A., 1973. The shallow and the deep, long‐range ecology movement. A summary∗. Inquiry16(1-4), pp.95-100.

Sessions, G. and Devall, B., 1985. Deep Ecology: Living as if nature mattered. Salt Lake City: Peregrine Smith Books.

Nations, J.D., 1988. Deep ecology meets the developing world. Biodiversity, pp.79-82. Viewed 5th May 2016. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK219272/pdf/Bookshelf_NBK219272.pdf

Newton, M., 1996. Tribal totems and clan trees. Aisling Magazine, [online] (23). Available at: http://www.aislingmagazine.com/aislingmagazine/articles/TAM23/Tribal.html [Accessed 5th May 2015]

Orton, D., 2000. Deep Ecology and Animal Rights A Discussion Paper. Green Web Publications. Viewed 5th May 2016. http://home.ca.inter.net/~greenweb/DE-AR.html

Plumwood, V., 2002. Environmental culture: The ecological crisis of reason. Psychology Press.

Plumwood, V., 2002. Feminism and the Mastery of Nature. Routledge.

Plumwood, V., 2012. The Eye of the crocodile. ANU E Press.

Rocheleau, D.E., 1995. Gender and biodiversity: A feminist political ecology perspective. IDS bulletin26(1), pp.9-16.

Rose, D.B., 2013. Val Plumwood’s philosophical animism: Attentive interactions in the sentient world. Environmental Humanities3, pp.93-109.

Shoreman-Ouimet, E. and Kopnina, H., 2015. Culture and Conservation: Beyond Anthropocentrism. Routledge.

Swanson, L.J., 2015. A Feminist Ethic That Binds us to Mother Earth.Ethics & the Environment20(2), pp.83-103.

Van Wyck, P.C., 1997. Primitives in the wilderness: Deep ecology and the missing human subject. SUNY Press.

Verharen, C., 2003. Afrocentricity, ecocentrism, and ecofeminism: New alliances for socialism. Socialism and Democracy17(2), pp.73-90.

Warren, K.J., 1994. Ecological feminism.

The language of breathing?

Watching a video by David Abrams entitled Mindfulness In Nature‘.

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.

Co-becoming ‘shadow of…’

*Photo of my desert shadow.

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’.

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Becoming Animal by David Abram

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.

Little Bird, Dreaming

*All photographs by me.

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.

We are little birds, and we are dreaming.

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African Fish Eagle