IDEA | A grounded life

Posted on 31/12/2010

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For many years, I’ve been thinking about a project that explores multiple ways of knowing and experiencing places and sites. Perhaps I have written about this elsewhere. The project arose from an array of quite different textual engagements. For example, I was quite interested in the way that Eve Ensler’s The Vagina Monologues was assembled as a compendium of stories from women about their experiences and knowledge of the ‘scape’ of their bodies. For me, this was a mapping exercise that excavated deeply entrenched cultural taboos and exploitations as well as the more technical operations of medicine and military (e.g. rape camps). There is a sense of diversity and multiplicity in this work that I found equally provocative and confounding, affirming an acute awareness that a body is never just a body. Then, in a book about bushwalking in South East Queensland, I noted the initial chapters provided a detailed overview of the topography, geology and geomorphology of the area, with an overview of ancient volcanic activity, rock strata and other phenomena through the lens of earth science. Obviously, I needed to appreciate this to appreciate my subsequent experiences of bushwalking. There were also descriptions of the flora and fauna as well as some references to Indigenous history and knowledge. In the context of an interdisciplinary and intercultural conversation, such exchanges of information might enhance our knowledge of a place as well as inform how we relate to and engage with that site – to map its breadth as well as its depth – so that we might read it differently or knowingly when we reach the summit of the hill or pause to gaze across the valley.

Scientific and technical knowledge might add to our experience of a place, inform and interleave with our cultural response. It is somehow potent to know that places have a history – both natural and cultural – beyond our own presence in that moment, to know that the Earth is very very old. And so, in my mind, I formulated this project to draw on a range of historical, scientific, technical, political, philosophical and other material (such as traveller/explorer diaries, farm journals, newspaper reports) to tell the stories of places as they are grounded in the Earth, as they are shaped through our actions and desires. Fundamentally, I enjoy the nuances of assemblage – it can cope with contradictions and gaps, multiplicity and difference – like edited (or curated) collections of historical documents. The idea returned to me again not so long ago when I was working on a quarry project. I was enthralled at a community meeting when a geologist provided detailed descriptions of how sediment was layered through flooding and tidal changes, how the river changed its pathway over thousands of years. In this account, I remind myself that the Earth is not the landscape. In the process of this work, I read about solastalgia – a phenomenon observed by environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht – which occurs when the environment you call home changes unrecognisably for reasons beyond your immediate control (say, mining or deforestation). That is, degradation of or displacement from a landscape or environment that one is somehow connected to evokes mental illness.

Another enduring influence is the work of Gaston Bachelard who, in Earth and Reveries of Will, which in part considers the possibility of living a grounded life, wrote, “Earth presents challenges to us, enticing our interaction with or, more dynamically and actively, provoking reactions to an array of possiblilites for engaging our energies.” To imagine the Earth is to somehow imagine ourselves, possibly to develop what Albrecht describes as an (embodied) ecological consciousness. So in speaking of these places, in reading them and recounting them, it’s possible to come to understand something of its complexity as well as the complexity of the knowledges that shape it. I had a sense that this work would be best presented as a series of readings or conversations, potentially with some kind of interactive element like a ‘walkshop’. The project idea has returned to me of late with the proliferation of catastrophic events and extreme weather – flooding, fire, earthquake – reminding me that geologic duration is persistent and slow.

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