(Kiama is on the land of the Dharawal people, more specifically the Wodi Wodi, a sub-group of the Dharawal. I acknowledge here the Dharawal and the Wodi Wodi as the traditional custodians of this land and pay my respects to their elders past and present.)
In next to no time at all I was transported, along with all my little dreams for the coming month, from circling the outskirts of Bath—walking over the green, damp grass there, observing the urban growth from the surrounding hills, admiring the crescents, the circuses, the caramel-coloured limestone and the prim, uniform austerity of the Georgian architecture—to doing more or less exactly the same thing around the fringes of Kiama, a town on the south coast of NSW; moving my body through the space to obtain a perspective, at some distance, on the situation of human building in the landscape.
Faced with the combination of this sudden shift in geography and climate, on the one hand, and the curious congruence in my own activity, on the other, I felt compelled to try and understand the two different places more precisely by thinking through contrasts between them.
The first thing to say about suburban, rural and central Kiama, is equally relevant to most of the east coast of NSW: it seems positively tropical. Perhaps I wouldn’t have said the same thing in January before I left, when everything, even on the usually luxuriant south coast, seemed in need of a good drink. Not so now. If England’s hills are a pleasant green, then Kiama’s are a manic emerald. The grass is thick and charged with a force that is subdued in the northern cool. It’s the right conditions for spontaneous generation. Nothing dries very easily, particularly a salty beach towel. The thick licks of remnant forest in patches around the otherwise thoroughly transformed rural and suburban landscape drip constantly and house bold, impossible to locate, birds that sound as though they are chasing you out of the landscape. Were I not so at home in such environs, I’d sympathise with the expression of repulsion and disgust in response to the vegetation in the first part of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, particularly the palm trees:
The same small breezes make the rotted palms along the condominium complex’s stone walls rustle and click, and a couple of fronds detach and spiral down, hitting the deck with a slap. All the plants out here are malevolent, heavy and sharp. The parts of the palms above the fronds are tuffed in sick stuff like coconut-hair. Roaches and other things live in the trees. Rats, maybe. Loathsome high-altitude critters of all kinds. All the plants either spiny or meaty. Cacti in queer tortured shapes. The tops of the palms like Rod Stewart’s hair, from days gone by.
To some extent I sympathise with the levels of apprehension and yet I am compelled to think of myself as a resident of such malevolence, an advocate for its fecund mess and thereby immune to the apparent hostility.
The second thing, which I’ve mentioned already, are the birds: Magpie, Butcher Bird, Wattle Bird and Willy Wagtail are most prominent, to my ear at least. The first two of these four are disgracefully good singers, the butcher bird in particular, which perches itself on the conspicuous electrical wires along the street in front of our dwelling and chortles with an unmatched prowess. There is nothing pretty about the song, like the vegetation: it’s lurid, immersive and bold, not something you could use on loop in a game of virtual golf. It’s foreground not background noise. Grippingly talented singers, the butcherbird and the magpie. In their company, I’m less likely to feel proud of my garden than ashamed at my voice. They are menacingly elegant.
The third thing, and the last of this list, which has been revealingly nature-focused: the sound of the insects, particularly what I presume to be crickets in the grass. The noise is a constant sonic mist. It makes me unreasonably happy, excited and relaxed at the same time. The sound of the crickets in the lawn, an audible night light. There seems to be two different sounds, overlaying each other: one is intermittent and more pronounced, the other continuous and soft. I listen to them in bed at night, emptying my mind, feeling safe.
Forms of borders
The border between the rural and the urban isn’t as ragged in Bath, it’s a little more settled. Building at the fringes still goes on, of course, it just seems as though the landscape has already been subdued; there’s something less raw and more cohesively worked about how the urban and the rural are going to integrate. The vegetation in England seems more willingly shaped, more polite, easier to keep at bay. The suburban fringes in Kiama remind me of acne outbreaks during adolescence. There’s kind of rude, barely containable force to the so called natural world, whether it’s the impenetrable tongues of scrub that tumble down in gullies at the edges of the town, or in the sheer walls of wet rock into which roads and fields have been cut. You could never use the word ‘rolling’ to describe the topography, it’s too shifting and syncopated. Too jagged and uneven, too bold.
The apparent contrasts are made all the more strange by unexpended congruences, such as the Kiama drystone walls and the Cape Honeysuckle (Tecomaria capensis) hedges that partially engulf them. These two ancient border technologies are largely absent from the other parts of rural and peri-urban Australia with which I am familiar, but quite common in the UK. The walls map out a significant portion of farmland around the Saddleback Mountain Road and Old Saddleback Road. They measure the progress of the town, which spreads continually outwards, making it seem as though the old walls are edging their way in. People have built letterboxes into parts of the wall, while in other places, the walls bear witness to the gradual emergence of town-like features, such as street signage, roundabouts, geraniums and the more closely spaced, newly built houses of suburbia.
Nearly all of the walls were built in the mid-19th century by a emigrant from Kent by the name of Thomas Newing. He used a technique known as the ‘double dyke’ or ‘twin skin’ which, as the names suggest, involved using two tapering outer walls with rubble infill and stone capping. The resulting walls are more pyramidal than rectangular, making them friendly to leg over.
More than 350 drystone walls have been recorded in the area and they are the source of much local pride on account of the aesthetic and historical significance. Ian Downes, the man who, according to reports of the Kiama Independent, is considered the present day Thomas Newing, has called the walls “a natural feature of Kiama”, a revealing description, the perhaps unintended philosophical implications of which puts Mr Downes squarely outside the modern, Western tradition that favours a firm distinction between cultural activities, such as wall making, and natural processes, such as rain.
Kiama is very proud of its drystone walls: there have been twelve town entry markers built (by Mr Downes) from drystone walls in homage to Newing’s efforts. The walls are also commonly listed as one of the tourist attractions of the area. There’s a town Dry Stone Wall Committee, composed of members from Kiama Rotary, Kiama Lions, the Historical Society, Kiama council and other community members. There’s even a cafe named after the walls, called the Stone Wall Cafe—originally I thought, with some surprise, that there might have been a bit of a ‘scene’ in Kiama.
Indeed, there seems to be something utterly inoffensive and quaint about a drystone wall. To some extent quaintness simply becomes more probable with time passing. While it might be argued that smaller, less offensive things are likely to be more quaint, there’s really nothing inherently small and inoffensive about steam trains, which in their time were the cause of a good many deaths and on first sighting in rural England were often described as particularly violent phenomena (see Thomas Hardy). Perhaps things simply become candidates for quaintness when they are regarded as relatively diminished in terms of their overall impact on the world. Typewriters: yes. Printed maps: yes. Postage stamps: yes. Gaslight fittings: yes. Anything made from cement: not quite/ almost. Televisions: still too popular. Gameboys: just recently. Nonetheless, the form of the drystone wall tempts me to argue that, while perhaps not inherently quaint, the scale and composition at least have a probable relationship with things we’ve been bio-socially trained to regard as visually pleasing. It’s the combination of harmony and irregularity, which is absent from large, uniform walls, which appear to be made from one thing, or small piles of rubble, which don’t appear to be made at all.
My forays around the Kiama peripheries resulted in a most curious and unexpected discovery: a massive radio tower of some kind designed to be disguised as a tree. I first noticed the tower on account of the tree-like cement trunk, which is laudably close to the texture of bark, then looking upwards revealed that the structure was covered in branch-like nodes jutting out from the central columns all the way to the top. But the crowning glory and the feature that confirmed, irrefutably, the intent behind this astounding effort of verisimilitude, were the plastic leaves and branches in a heap encircling the base. The idea, it seemed, was that the leaf-covered branches on the ground would at some point be affixed to the branch nodes on the tower in order to obscure what must have otherwise been deemed an unsightly radio tower. Left naked in its present state, however, the tower looked even more ugly than most examples of its kind, with the branch nodes having the appearance of spikes, which, combined with the branching form of the tower, made the whole thing look like a gigantic mace, or at best, one of the maimed plane trees familiar to me from Sydney that are continuously cut to accommodate overhead electrical wires.
As far as signal-sending civic infrastructure goes, the Kiama Lighthouse no doubt receives far more attention from tourists and locals—in part on account of its quaintness—however, in my opinion, this bizarre tower is undoubtedly more unique and, in a way, far more revealing of the broader cultural preoccupations of the species who arranged its construction. The tower seems to be an excellent architectural instance of the so called ‘Streisand effect’, a psychological phenomenon whereby efforts to conceal something end up drawing more attention to it—in Streisand’s case, the attempt to hide photographs of her large house from the public only increased media attention. W. G. Sebald described something similar in his novel Austerlitz, with reference to a certain perverse logic operative in the building of fortifications, whereby larger, supposedly more impenetrable structures attract increased attention from enemy forces, while at the same time limiting the movements of the occupants who they are meant to protect.
The fake tree tower speaks of our present, often laudable desires to limit the way we impinge on the natural world through more thoughtful design. The problem, however, is that the tower, and other superficial, naive fabrications of nature, are often not aesthetic improvements in any clear way. Like related examples of disingenuous greenwashing, the tower can in this sense perhaps be compared to the superficial use of medieval and religious iconography in the industrial age—19th century gothic pumping stations, such as Abbey Mills in London and Ryhope in Sunderland being classic examples.
Photographed catalogues of fake tree towers like the one in Kiama exist online, apparently the first appeared in Cape Town in 1996. Though in all my searching, I am yet to find another example in Australia, nor I have I been able to find a photograph of a tower caught in a state of autumnal undress. And this might be the saving grace of the Kiama tower. I can only speculate as to why the branches were on the ground when I ran past, but my hope is they can be preserved in this position, capturing the moment of equivocation, where those responsible for ordering the sham decide, halfarsedly, that it actually might be better not go through with it all and instead leave things in a state of permanent incompleteness. Mosts artists I know would have no shame in claiming such a ruse, which works both at the conceptual level, as a demonstration of the all too human hesitations that inform even our most sublime visions, and in terms of aesthetics, as the deliberate, nest-like arrangement of the “fallen” branches is arguably a far more appealing than a rigid orientation along the “trunk”.
At all events, discovering the fake tree tower had a striking personal significance on account of the recent attractions I’d visited in Bath, namely, the Sham Castle, which I encountered on the Skyline walk around the periphery of the city not much over two weeks ago. Discovering the sham tree gave me an unmistakable feeling of perspectives being related not primarily by time or space but by type or theme. In this instance, the shared attributes were: peripheral perspective on urban landscape obtained on foot + encountering a structure disguised as something else in order to improve the view.
An unsettling consequence of looking through photo catalogues of the fake tree towers–such as those of South African photographer Dillon Marsh–is that now I find myself becoming suspicious that certain trees, which I’d once imagined were actual trees, are in fact radio towers. This is particularly so in the case of the firmly perpendicular Norfolk Island Pines, which are a conspicuous part of the Kiama landscape. I don’t think I’ll be able to look at these trees from a distance in the same way again. There’s a flash of apprehension, each time I distinguish the form of a pine against the skyline, that I’m looking at a bit of telecommunications infrastructure. I’m inclined to declare, that Norfolk Island Pines do look kind of fake, too crystalline and rigid to be an organic form. But I never had this thought before I started looking at fake tree towers, which goes to show how primed we are by different reference points when making claims as to the realness and fakeness of certain things.
A more successful example of dressing up Kiama’s natural infrastructure is evident at the Kiama Leisure Centre and Sports Complex, both of which now occupy an old basalt quarry. A sheer stone cliff of some scale overlooks the grassy fields and carpark, which gives the site a sense of drama that in my experience is matched only by sporting grounds with large stadiums. There is little point trying to say, definitively, whether the ambience of the place is accounted for by natural or artificial aspects, as the exposed rock, while undoubtedly an elemental presence, is itself the work of large-scale human intervention over the centuries.
Quarries are not typically thought to be appealing landscapes. Indeed, the English poet Alexander Pope used ‘quarry’ as an epithet in criticising the architecture of John Vanburgh. Along with Nicholas Hawksmoor, Vanburgh was a key proponent of the English baroque, which, in some more provocative architectural genealogies, such as those of Jonathan Meades, is claimed as a forerunner of Brutalism, largely on account of baroque grandeur being tempered by a peculiarly British austerity. Pope, who is thought to have been alluding to Vanburgh’s pièce de résistance, Blenheim Palace, gave the following appraisal of the structure in his fourth epistle to Lord Burlington: “Lo! what huge heaps of littleness around/ the whole a laboured quarry above ground”. While the Kiama Sports Complex and its surrounding cliffs may lack some of Blenheim’s flourishes, a comparison between the two is not as fanciful as first might appear. Both are imposing vertical presences calved from stone of a uniform hue, the appeal of which is further accentuated by the play of sunlight and shadow. Unlike Blenheim, the sports complex invites informal recreation and is permanently open, at least in the case of the playing fields, which allows for flourishes of the body in space (burpees and shadow boxing, for example) to make up for the lack of detail in the stonework.
Quarries, particularly the reclaimed variety, are a reminder that what is considered above and below ground is to some extent contingent on human design. While Pope might have emphasised the building he scorned was a quarry “above ground”, there is in fact little need (outside those of poetic metre) for the qualification, as quarries are a reminder that above and below are relatively abstract ways of conceiving surfaces which are in reality continually modulated. There is nothing ‘below’ ground about the sheer cliff faces of the old, reclaimed quarries scattered around Kiama. They are now simply spaces of in-ness and exposure. In this sense, the terrestrial impression of quarries is misleading, they are as much air and vacancy as they are earth, as much a matter of seclusion as explosion.
At very general level, the sculpting of space from tensions between absence and presence in the example of the quarry shares a something in common with the small, domestic spaces, famously described by Gaston Bachelard in The Poetics of Space, including: houses and rooms; cellars and attics; drawers, chests, and wardrobes; nests and shells; nooks and corners. At the same time, a quarry seems the inverse of such spaces, particularly the nest, which at an impressionistic level is the most quaintly un-quarry-like thing I could possibly imagine.
The vast evacuation of space evident in quarries is not, however, simply a matter of inhospitable vacancy. As the various industrious reclaimings around Kiama attest, redundancy and abundance are not opposites, an absence can also be an availability, the hospitality of which is contingent of the scale of the visions we have for it.
While there has been a renewed call for the life-giving possibilities of industrial ruins, particularly via the work of Anna Tsing (2015), the examples around Kiama have nothing of either the love of the minor or the sublime about them, two extremes which characterise so much of the aspirational thinking done in the humanities about landscapes. In the ruins of Bombo Headland Quarry, there is a wastewater treatment plant (perhaps enjoyed more by mosquitos than local residents), while the aforementioned sports and leisure complex occupies the space left by Pikes Hill Quarry. Further north, in the old Minnamurra Quarry, plans for a BMX bike park are being discussed for the currently unused Sanctuary Place picnic area.
Reflecting on these examples and the services they offer to the community, I wonder whether Tsing isn’t a little too single-minded in her variously hesitant and forceful interpretations of the industrial (big) as bad, and anything small, peripheral and non-institutionalised as good, particularly on account of the large-scale, highly-coordinated efforts that are likely needed as we come to face the impacts of the climate crisis–and more particularly still, if it’s a retreat or withdrawal of humans from the landscapes they have previously managed that we wish to coordinate. The industrial is often reflexively associated with the big and unfriendly, and its opposites–such as the organic–with the small and the friendly. In actuality, however, spectrums of ‘big-to-small’ and ‘bad-to-good’, rarely capture the manifold of mutant, hybridised ways in which science and technology are used to design our landscapes and atmospheres. While Tsing’s work is in a sense an effort to tell a more complex story of how life–specifically mushrooms– returns to ruined industrial landscapes–specifically Chernobyl–the word industrial is nonetheless used systematically as a pejorative throughout her book, as though no historical or future good has come or might possibly come from large-scale manufacturing.
In clearing the way for big visions, however, I feel a certain, perhaps not entirely useful, apprehension. On the outskirts of Kiama, the new, currently operative Bombo Quarry still grows and, with the state government increasingly singing to the tune of commercial imperatives, there seems a possibility that slightly less civically-minded dreams might be projected into that vacant space. Perhaps Kiama will have its very own equivalent of InterContinental Shanghai Wonderland, a 337 guest room hotel situated in 88-meter-deep, water-filled, disused quarry. Though I sincerely hope the future residents of Kiama get something more akin to Rosherville Pleasure Gardens (old chalk quarry), or Parc des Buttes Chaumont (gypsum and lime).
List of works cited
Bachelard, Gaston (1994) The Poetics of Space. Translated by Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press
Crabb, Brendan (2016) “Dry stonewalls considered a key part of Kiama’s history”. Kiama Independent (March 10).
Foster-Wallace, David (2011) Infinite Jest. London: Hachette.
Sebald, W. G. (2001) Austerlitz. Translated by Anthea Bell. New York: Penguin.
Tsing, Anna Lownhaupt (2015) The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.