The Natural and the Artificial in Suburban Kiama

The Natural and the Artificial in Suburban Kiama

(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.)

Creature comforts

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.

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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.

Sham trees

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.

Hospitable quarries

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.

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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).

Old Kiama Quarry

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.

Book Review: Shit Gardens

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In the introduction to James Hull and Bede Brennan’s Shit Gardens, the authors spell out an ambivalence concerning aesthetic evaluation that is core to the concept and production of the book. For the authors, ‘shit’ describes gardens which might initially appear “inexplicably bad”, then, with time, come to be appreciated and inspire wonder. For Hull and Brennan, this sense of wonderment is provoked by the juxtaposition of “grand ambitions of intent with the inelegance of unfinished reality”, or what Peter Sloterdijk has described as the “aesthetics of disappointment”, which he argues characterises modernity more broadly (2013, 771).

However, it would be wrong to see these suburb delights as failures in any straightforward sense. As the authors stress, shit gardens are not “shit as a result of neglect”, but due to enduring departures from perfect from, whether through “a misunderstanding of scale, an appreciation for the weird, or bold disregard for convention.” 

The book is the product of walks through suburbia and, to some extent, the fact that now most people, whether they intend to take photos or not, find that they happen to have a camera in their pockets if they want to fulfil the seemingly impossible to resist demand of being contactable all the time. The authors have a hugely popular Instagram account @shitgardens, which has over 50,000 followers, a bunch of whom are credited with the photographs used in the book.

As tech commentator Ben Evans has noted in 2015, internet enabled image sharing exists on a historically unforeseen scale. As Evan writes, according to Kodak, in 1999 consumers took around 80 billion images. In 2015 the inevitably inexact number is somewhere between 2 and 5 trillion, which doesn’t include the images taken and not shared. That seems to suggest a difference in kind, rather than degree.

Shit Gardens is in part a product of this socio-technical ecology, which is composed of the camera enabled smartphone, image sharing services such as Instagram, internet infrastructure and the communities that participate in this unprecedented flow of images. The mundane is under surveillance, not by the hierarchically organised, Orwellian systems of power, but by people taking their evening walks and getting a little buzz out of sharing minor wonders with a remotely present crew.

Like the authors’ conception of ‘shit’, publishing a book is an exercise significantly informed by duration. Lots of people have hypothetical, imaginary books which they are going to write or might have written. But the distance between thought bubble and the horizon to completion can be a long and barren stretch, with few cairns along the way to reassure those who take the path that they are on the right track.

That is, until the internet. Blogs and social media have given people access to audiences who can immediately signal their interest in an idea. The immediacy with which information can be published significantly reduces the burden of having to invest time and emotional effort into something that might not deliver a reward. It changes the hedonic nature of the performance of writing or curating. Now the pleasure of making oneself known and yet obscure to world at the same time—traditionally a relatively exclusive pleasure for published writers—is an ambient availability for anyone who can afford or steal a smartphone. Instagram can provide that often sorely needed little hit of public affirmation on the long trail to the traditionally more auspicious occasions of a gallery opening or book launch–oddly enough, in this digital age, these kinds of events retain a lustre for which virtual voting systems do not adequately substitute. Instagram is also an invaluable source of data for book publishers and other talent scouts in search of content, which is how @shitgardens the Instagram account became Shit Gardens the book.

But it would be wrong to therefore presume books like Shit Gardens are without generic precedent before the digital age. Clearly there are forceful echoes of the Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, in this work. The book is a collection of irregular gems. There is no proof here of god’s work in the universal oneness of things. Rather, what Shit Gardens proves, or rather celebrates, is the sometimes near pathological activity of humans operating autonomously from intelligent design. There are suggestive principles of order, but these are overlaid thematically by the authors according to diverse criteria. The chapters include: Topiaries (100% Plant-Based Surrealism), Gardens of Antiquity (Sentimental Statuary), Astroturf (The Future of Lawn), Hard Surfaces (High-Performance Concrete), Water Features (From Atlantis to the Present), Zen Gardens (The Suburban Minimalist), and WTF (Rethinking the Absurd). The best of which in my opinion is the chapter on Water Features. There is something about the detail and aspirations of these sculptural works that seems to paradigmatically express the sentiments of the book. And they photograph particularly well.

Paul Barker’s brilliant The Freedoms of Suburbia is a more recent precedent. Parker’s work is, like Shit Gardens, a defence of the diverse, vernacular adaptations which suburbia seems to afford. In contrast to the commonly held notion that postwar urban developments are lifeless places, both these books suggest that character is a quality that trumps beauty.

Shit Gardens is a affirmation of Daniel Harris’ argument that the aesthetic is “entirely indiscriminate in its choice of venue” (2001, xi). This has always to some extent been the case. However, the recent explosion of contexts for ‘hanging’ or posting works and the proliferation of communities devoted to aesthetic judgement means that it has become explicit and what we mean by aesthetic judgement is changing as a result. Hence Shit Gardens: which joins the countless books on gardens informed by the aesthetic of the beautiful, the sublime or the picturesque.

While the paradoxical vagueness and forcefulness of ‘shit’ as an aesthetic evaluation makes it perfect for an Instagram handle, it is actually the aesthetic category of ‘the interesting’ which in some senses more accurately captures the principles of discrimination, order and feeling at work in the book. As Sianne Ngai notes in her work on minor aesthetic categories, the interesting is an aesthetic which gives place to the role time plays in aesthetic judgement:

In contrast to the once-and-for-allness of our experience of, say, the sublime, the object we find interesting is one we tend to come back to, as if to verify that it is still interesting. To judge something interesting is thus always, potentially, to find it interesting again. In contrast to the “suddenness” Karl Heinz Bohrer celebrates as the essence of the aesthetic relation, here aesthetic experience seems narrativized or to unfold in a succession of episodes. (786)

The interesting is in abundance in a media ecology where cumulative catalogues of always accessible, different yet similar, aesthetic experiences are available in your pocket. As Ngai emphasises, the interesting is episodic. Its meaning is not in singularity but in the series. In this sense shit gardens become interesting not so much in themselves alone, as forceful, inescapable events of great magnitude and unforeseen meaning, but as a catalogue of impressionistically or analogically related types.

When Hull and Brennan note in their introduction that the shit-ness of shit gardens transforms from mild repulsion or puzzlement to perhaps equally mild wonder, they are describing a process that is very different to the idea of an sudden, emphatic, immediately transformative aesthetic experience associated with the sublime, and the more purely and straightforwardly pleasurable feelings that typically accompany the beautiful.  The caveats the authors make concerning the question of aesthetic judgement at the beginning of the book indicate that the gardens they have chosen in some sense thwart or resist immediate judgement. On first glance they might strike us a shit, but then a different, more complicated sentiment emerges, as we attempt to integrate expectations of perfection with an imperfect reality, after which we might experience feelings of sympathy, or even reverence, at ingenuity, diversity, perversity, audacity, sentimentality, indifference to standards and the peculiar interpretation of standards.

List of works cited

Barker, Paul. The Freedoms of Suburbia. London: Frances Lincoln Limited (2009).

Evans, Benedict, “How many pictures?” August 27, 2015. Available from, https://www.ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2015/8/19/how-many-pictures

Harris, Daniel. Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism. Da Capo Press (2000).

Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories. Cambridge: Harvard University Press (2012).

Sloterdijk, P. Spheres Volume II: Macrospherology Globes, translated by Wieland Hoban. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press (2014).

Moreton Bay Figs in Prince Alfred Park

Moreton Bay Figs in Prince Alfred Park

Moreton Bay Figs in Prince Alfred Park

At the south western end of Prince Alfred Park the canopies of two large Moreton Bay Figs entangle to enclose a flat, grassy area, with the sandstone remains of some prior vision for the place, including steps and two sandstone retaining walls. The area in-between the two walls, under the shade of the figs, is a flat, roughly square patch of grass, levelled into the slope, bordered by taller, thicker tufts of kangaroo grass and Dianella .

I have admired this space from the vantage of the nearby outdoor exercise gym for some time. It is a quasi-inside space, with the trees providing a roof and walls of sorts, and the flat, landscaped ground and sandstone elements further adding to the sense of a welcoming enclosure.

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In the summer of this year I surrendered to the urge to breakfast under the trees on my way to work. It is now almost an everyday occurrence. Between 8-9am a man shovelling his oats, yoghurt and fruit from a plastic container is now part of the park mise en scène, along with increasingly diverse acrobatics performed by those hooked on the morning endorphins or calm that comes from deploying the body in states of controlled motion and resistance on the fitness gym nearby.

Recently, I have noticed other people inhabiting the space. Sometimes someone will be sunning themselves, leaning back against one of the large buttress roots of the figs. For a while a tent was pitched in the space. I could see the integrated feet of a couple through the gauze of the open flap.

The desire to document the diverse uses to which the space is put led me to approaching another couple who I have seen on a number of occasions canoodling between the buttress roots on what I presume is their lunch break. I felt conflicted by ruining their sense of privacy and my own desire to observe and share thoughts about the space. My request for a photo was turned down.

More so than other, common Sydney trees, such as plane trees, brush box and various eucalypts, the Moreton Bay fig makes a show of its roots. Combined with the large, spreading branches, which often come close to touching the ground, all parts of the tree seem involved in the sinewy display of unity and differentiation that the German philosopher Sloterdijk identifies as one of the key metaphorical attributes of trees.

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The bulky, deep cavities of it’s buttress roots are one of the tree’s distinctive features. The these give the tree an architectural dimension reminiscent of grand, cavernous cathedrals. The Australian poet Robert Gary recognises this in his poem “Smoke” when he describes the tree as possessing a “Gaudi-like, visceral architecture” (cited in Hart, 166).

The spatial imagination of trees and vegetative life is a constant presence both in contemporary popular culture and ancient systems of human knowledge. Trees give tangible form to the integration of the contrasting forces of unity and differentiation which are central to earthly systems of life support and communication. Examples abound:  the Winterfell heart tree in Game of Thrones, the sprawling, towering, viral vegetative network of the second series of Stranger Things, the role the tree played as a meme in the field of organic chemistry in 19th and early 20th centuries trees, and many variations on trees of life and trees of knowledge in ancient religious texts.

The Riddle of the Trumpalar

Climbing trees and building tree houses are common, fondly remembered childhood activities. Without houses of their own, children make use of their imagination and turn trees into places of play and dwelling. Finding good climbing tree or tree for a tree house still figures in the perceptual experience of adults who carry the residual memories of their arboreal childhood adventures and rudimentary homebuilding in the branches.

The magic and grandeur of a particular Moreton Bay Fig seems to have been one of the key pieces of inspiration for Judy Bernard-Waite’s children’s book, The Riddle of the Trumpalar (1981). The fig in question can be found in the bushland that rises up behind Trumpar Park Oval in Paddington. It is easy to see why this giant specimen would have provoked a fantasy of mystical beings and imaginary lands accessible only to those with active imaginations.

The Riddle of the Trumpalar is based around the efforts of two children to protect the particular Moreton Bay from the council, who plan to cut it down. The hidden value of trees, to adults and children, becomes manifest when the threat of disappearance becomes a reality. Unlike houses, which convey their amenity in a more obvious fashion, the ambiguous status of trees as spaces of dwelling for humans and animals often leads to conflict and public outcry.

This was the case in the summer of 2015-16 when the Port Jackson Figs along the south western fringe of Centennial Park were removed to make way for the new light rail. Residents and campaigners dressed in mourning attire protested on Alison Road with placards speaking on behalf of the trees. Poems that were originally written to commemorate the dead soldiers for whom some of the trees were originally planted were re-appropriated and used in banners of protest.

Trees and psychological comfort

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdjik devotes a significant section to trees in Bubbles: Spheres Volume I, his sweeping, anthropological analysis of intimate psychological spaces.

In an interview about the book, Sloterdijk points to the intimacy people feel towards trees: “People do not only identify with animals they also have brotherly and sisterly feelings toward plants. Trees are, as it were, the first plants to which you can really relate to. There’s an affinity that probably has something to do with this spherical form of the tree”. Sloterdijk speculates about the metaphorical correlations which underpin the widely known desires people have to hug, plant, picnic and live in the proximity of trees.

Among Sloterdijk’s great cast of diverse, often bizarre examples, is the role played by an old elm tree in the history of the unconscious. The tree in question was situated in the town square of the small village of Buzancy in the North of France. It was used by the Marquis de Puysegur in his experiments with the therapeutic techniques of mesmerism, which were a spreading trend in that part of the world during the late 18th Century. Henri F. Ellenberger describes the process in full in his book, The Discovery of the Unconscious:

The public square of the small village of Buzancy, surrounded by thatched cottages and trees, was not far from the majestic castle of the Puysegurs. In the center of that square stood a large, beautiful old elm tree, at the foot of which a spring poured forth its limpid waters. The peasants would sit on the surrounding stone benches. Ropes were hung in the tree’s main branches and around its trunk, and the patients wound ends of the rope around the ailing parts of their bodies. The operation started with the patients’ forming a chain, holding one another by the thumbs. They began to feel the fluid circulate among them to varying degrees. After a while, the master ordered the chain to be broken and the patients to rub their hands. He then chose a few of them and, touching them with his iron rod, put them into “perfect crisis.” These subjects, now called physicians, diagnosed diseases and prescribed treatment. To “disenchant” them (that is, to wake them from their magnetic sleep), Puysegur ordered them to kiss the tree, whereupon they awoke, remembering nothing of what had happened. These treatments were carried out in the presence of curious and enthusiastic onlookers. It was reported that within little more than one month, 62 of the 300 patients had been cured of various ailments. (1970, 71)

Sloterdijk sees this example as lending credence to his argument that there is a deep psychological connectedness between humans and trees. He describes the Buzancy tree as a “herbaceous magnetisation machine” that plays the role of a “metaphorical umbilical cord” connecting the individuals in a psychophysical companionship, reminiscent of the relationship infants have with their mothers (Sloterdijk 2011, 409).

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“Puységur and the magnetised elm of Buzancy”, from the third edition of Puységur’s Memoirs…du magnitisme animal.

 Expanding ecosystem services

The concept of ecosystems services helps to make explicit the value of trees by using the language and metrics that are palatable in positivist cultures. Scientists can speak persuasively on behalf of trees when they provide data that proves trees play a role in the reduction of pollution, temperature control and carbon sequestration.

However, as demonstrated by researchers at the University of Melbourne and The ANU, trees also provide important psychological and emotional companionship to humans, which escapes the typical measures used to assess benefit. Part of the research involves an email service that allows people to communicate with specific trees. Many of the emails show strong emotional connections, with responses such as: “I very fond of you [sic]”, “I miss you”, “It makes me happy knowing you are there”, and “It saddens me that your passing will be sooner than my own”. Interestingly, it was a certain golden elm tree on Punt Road in Melbourne which received the most emails. The legend Buzany elm lives on in the digital age!

Comparable research conducted by researchers at the Fenner School at ANU used a photo elicitation exercise to collect feedback from farmers in rural NSW about why they valued trees. The research participants were asked to photograph “significant features of their farm landscape, especially those that influenced their farm management decisions, and record what they captured and why” (Sherren, Fischer and Price 2010, 1058). The design of the research allowed for explication of aesthetic and emotional dimensions between farmers and trees, which might otherwise remain inexplicit. The written responses of the farmers indicate a nuanced relationship between the specific forms of trees and the feelings they provoke, with descriptions such as “gnarly”, and “scraggly” accompanying aesthetic evaluations including “beautiful”, ”funny”, and “interesting” (1060).

Trees inside humans and humans inside trees

The picturesque tradition in painting and gardening has long recognised the importance of well placed trees as framing devices for landscape or landscape features. Trees can add a vertical dimension that works in contrast and harmony with the horizon. Not unlike the spire of a church, they act as mediators between the heavens and the earth, screening light into tangible form. The lone trees that often frame the foreground of picturesque paintings seem to dwell in the middle ground between the undifferentiated mass of a forest and the more ordered, civilising forces of human activity and structure.

john_constable_008 The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826, The National Gallery London. 

However, the perspectival conventions of this tradition are only one, initial step in understanding of the dynamic spatio-psychological relationship that exists between humans and trees. In looking at a picturesque painting of Claude Lorrain or John Constable, for example, the viewer gains little sense of the dynamism and complexity that exists when we come to be inside something and of the role trees have played in the biological, emotional and intellectual evolution of humanity.

The Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte was a lover of trees. Magritte saw the trees as an “image of certain happiness”, which bear witness to the “more or less agitated spectacle of our life.” Magritte’s love of trees is perhaps most directly displayed in his series of paintings, The Voice of Blood, which add a further layer of understanding to the companionship shared between humans and trees. Sloterdijk interprets this series as an exemplification of the vegetative nature which supports “intellectual inhabitants” (373), describing Magritte’s trees as a ”detailed, spongy spheric structure” reminiscent of a womb. If the viewer puts themselves in the position of an foetus, experiencing their first audible sensations, this is something the title of the painting would also seem to suggest.

Voice of Blood

La voix du sang (Voice of Blood), René Magritte, 1959.

The most obviously distinctive element of the tree in this series of paintings is the sphere and the house which are contained in its trunk. The house and sphere are revealed behind two, vertically arranged doors that swing open in opposite directions. Sloterdijk notes “the humanly significant contrast […] between the organic form represented by the branches and leaves and the intellectually idealised and constructed figures of the house and ball” (370-373). According to Sloterdijk’s interpretation, Magritte’s tree is “pregnant […] with human subjectivity” (373) due to the presence of these anthropologically significant forms. The presence of the “geometric foetuses” in the trunk of the tree and its “nourishing foliar sphere” suggest a metaphorical connectedness to the tree of knowledge and the tree of life, which as Sloterdijk notes in his earlier analysis, are symbolically significant thought forms throughout human history.

Magritte saw the essence of a tree as something that is best captured when we are static, remarking that when humans move it is the tree who sees us, as it becomes witness to our activity rather than us to its. There are hints of an appreciation for one of the broader insights of relativity theory in this understanding: perception and temporality are the consequence of different, continuously changing event structures. Yet Magritte’s works to a certain extent remain limited by his surrealist emphasis on symbolic association and don’t seem to fully express the consequences of this understanding of time and perception .

William Robinson’s landscapes paintings of the forests of Beechmont in the Gold Coast hinterland suggest a more fully realised application of a relativistic understanding of perception in the medium of painting. Robinson’s distinctive contribution to the genre of landscape painting is arguably in the way his works—such as “Afternoon Light at Springbrook” (2001), the “Tone Poem” series (2007-2008), and “Springbrook with lifting fog” (1999)—eschew the typical perspectival devices of representative landscape painting and offer an alternative spatial model of a landscape that manages to incorporate both inside and outside perspectives on a single surface. His works hint at what’s possible with regard to making explicit the hidden architectural relations humans have with trees.

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Afternoon Light at Springbrook, William Robinson, 2001.

In her dissertation on mathematics and art (2009) Janelle Robyn Humphreys uses the paradigmatic topological figure of the Möbius strip to interpret the twisting coherence at work in Robinson’s paintings (23-47). As she notes, “There is no single viewpoint from which to observe his landscapes as is often the case in landscape paintings based on linear perspective. The multiple or shifting viewpoints give a sense of topography that is twisting and turning, like the rotating earth” (29). In this sense, Robinson’s paintings are a kind of “geometry given body by motion”—an irresistible phrase of Steven Connor’s to describe the topological thought at work in the philosophy of Michel Serres (2004). His works express the encounter between humans and trees as a dynamically unfolding perceptual event over time. The sense his works give of multiple, differentiated perspectives, combining together in a united whole is reminiscent of combination of unity and differentiation which Sloterdijk identifies as a key metaphorical affordance of the tree thought form.

Returning to Cleveland Paddocks

The two Moreton Bay figs which enclose the terraced grass patch on the south western fringe of Prince Alfred Park were most likely planted in 1870. They are part of a border planting which conforms to the original designs of Benjamin Backhouse, whose plan saw the transformation of a paddock-like landscape into a Victorian era park, fit for the new Exhibition Building, the foundation stone of which was laid in the same year.

While old by human standards, these trees have been witness to a relative small but changeful period of history associated with white settlement. Like many landscapes in Sydney, the landscape design interventions of Backhouse came after a denuding of the original landscape. John Rae’s 1850s painting of the Cleveland Paddocks (as Prince Alfred Park was known to white settlers prior to 1868) shows a bare landscape, crowded with settlers and their horses, dogs and cattle.

old-painting-on-hill

“Turning the First Turf of the First Railway in the Australasian Colonies at Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales. 3rd July 1850”, John Rae, (Source: Mitchell Library)

A small group of what appear to be aboriginal Australians in European clothing sit on the ground in a circle off to the right of the picture. They are seemingly marked out from other people in the painting due to their seated position, backs turned away from the view north, towards the city and harbour, which is admired by the rest of the crowd. Unlike the other people in the picture, who seem at home in the outdoor activities of recreation and spectacle, this small gathering seem like inhabitants who are profoundly at odds with the new logic of dwelling, labour and play that has seen their country changed beyond recognition.

As Don Watson has so compellingly shown in his cultural history of the Australian environment, The Bush (2014), white settlement in this country is in significant part a history of acute intervention into the landscape—’landscape’ is itself a word which denotes a certain, thin, two dimensionality, associated with traditions of aesthetic representation and design for visual improvement. It is impossible for white settlers to adequately imagine and experience the architectural affordances and symbolic systems of life support the treed environments would have offered to the peoples who inhabited this country for so long prior to the colonial project.

It is impossible for white settlers to adequately imagine and experience the architectural affordances and symbolic systems of life support the treed environments would have offered to the peoples who inhabited this country for so long prior to the colonial project. However, if the vocabulary and syntax of Bill Neidjie is any indication, the relationship between Aboriginal Australians and their arboreal companions was informed by an understanding that humans and trees are connected intimately through feeling.

Neidjie was a Gaagudju man, and the last surviving speaker of the Gaagudju language. His book, Story About Feeling, is the transcription of talks between Neidjie and Keith Taylor in 1982, which to western eyes reads as a combination of narrative, poetry and metaphysics. One chapter is devoted to trees. Neidgie writes, “That tree e listen to you, what you!/ E got no finger, e can’t speak/ but that leaf e pumping his./ Way e grow in the night while you sleeping…/ you dream something,/ that tree and grass same thing…/ e grow with your body, your feeling” (23). This fragment of Neidgie’s work seems to suggest that in the dormitory condition in particular it becomes explicit that humans and trees participate in a shared activity, as though in sleep our nutritive souls are expressed.

It would be tendencious for this author to speculate about the extent to which Neidjie’s language and philosophy was widely shared across Aboriginal nations. However, set alongside what we know about how the landscape in Australia prior to white settlement, it is clear that the first peoples of this country had a mythically rich, benevolent and sustainable relationship with trees.

What are the different ways in which humans come to possess a place? I wonder about the constraints that the form of knowledge associated with real estate and all its attendant concepts enforce upon thinking about places. As my trips to the place underneath the fig canopy in Prince Alfred Park become more frequent, the range of activities I undertake there become more varied and bold. Is the latent inside-ness of the place becoming explicit as I stretch shirtless under its branches, as I make it the place where an increasingly large number of my thoughts emerge and become articulated? Will the couples embracing, smoking, walking their dogs and sun baking under its branches become attached to the place as their life takes form here? Will a certain mood, a restlessness, compel them to come back, many years on from now, and place their hands on Moreton for the consultation offered by the tree?

___________

List of works cited

Bernard-Waite, Judy, The riddle of the Trumpalar, Gosford, N.S.W.: Ashton Scholastic, 1981.

Connor, S. “Topologies: Michel Serres and the Shapes of Thought,” Anglistik, 15 (2004), 105-117. Available from: http://www.stevenconnor.com/topologies/

Ellenberger, Henri F. (1970), The Discovery of the Unconscious: The History and Evolution of Dynamic Psychiatry. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

Hart, Kevin., Poetry and Revelation: For a Phenomenology of Religious Poetry, London: Bloomsbury, 2017.

Kendal, D. Wilson, A. and Pearce, L. “Loving emails show there’s more to trees than ecosystem services”, The Conversation, July 24, 2015.

Humphreys, J. R. “Shadows of another dimension: A bridge between mathematician and artist”, PhD Dissertation, University of Wollongong, Faculty of Creative Arts, School of Art and Design, 2009.

Neidjie, Bill. Story About Feeling. Keith Taylor (ed),Broome: Magabala Books, 1989.

Sherren, K., Fischera, J., Price, R. “Using photography to elicit grazier values and management practices relating to tree survival and recruitment”, Land Use Policy 27 (2010) 1056–1067.

Sloterdijk, Peter., Spheres, Volume 1: Bubbles: Microspherology. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2011.

Sloterdijk, Peter. “Satan at the Center and Double Rhizomes: Discussing ‘Spheres’ and beyond with Peter Sloterdijk”, interviewed by Tom Boellstorff, LA Review of Books, 2014. Accessed June 27, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/satan-center-double- rhizomes-discussing-spheres-beyond-peter-sloterdijk/ – !

Watson, Don. The Bush. Sydney: Penguin Group, 2014.