Essay

More than human, more than nature

PERFECT SEPTEMBER DUSK. Tide low, water still. We scrunch wet sand beneath our shoes, facing the rocky cliff opposite. A hooded human in a light-coloured coat enters left, across the water. The figure slowly walks, stretches, crawls, lies, curls – crossing our field of view, always just on top of the water. A black head at the waterline some metres in front is the only clue. The scene is accompanied by a flautist standing in the shallows, and later by readings from historical diaries that echo off the cliffs. We are all captivated, savouring the surreality along with the brackish whiff of the river and the thickening darkness. But we also wonder: how are they doing that?

Over dinner, some of the engineering and performative intricacies emerge. The raft was supported by milk crates with plastic bottles half full of water, calibrated to provide exactly the right amount of flotation. The tide and sunset times could be predicted, in order to bring the audience to the stage at the precise time. This art had a lot of science behind it. The stillness after a windy afternoon was perfect, but just lucky.

This was just one in a set of artistic performances in the Bundanon Siteworks field day. Participants who had spent time in residence responding to that beautiful place near Nowra, gifted to the nation by the Boyd family, had their intimacy ruptured by those who came to experience some of the outcomes. The next day we were joined in conversations between artists and scientists about the future of food and water in a time of global warming. One thread in that conversation was distress and anxiety about climate change and the future, and the failure of society to take seriously what scientists are saying. For some scientists, artists were the messengers who would translate these arcane truths via stage, page or screen into something intelligible to the general community. Most of the artists were too polite to say so, but I don't think they saw their mission as being the public relations arm of science. There is plenty of empirical evidence to demonstrate that education about the facts is insufficient to generate changes in social practice. Notwithstanding differences of opinion about the purpose and role of the arts and sciences, Siteworks puts a bridge across the river dividing the two cultures. There is much to be learned from the conversation: how the geomorphologist Steph Kermode reads landscape history in a stratigraphic section; how the performance artist Barbara Campbell camouflages the audience and gets them to think like a bird or a nest.

But framing an opposition between sciences and the humanities misses the point, wastes time and effort. This is not to deny the profound differences in how they go about things, nor the significant differences within what we call science and the arts. There is an eerie similarity in the twentieth-century incarnation of both science and arts: they frame the human as separate to the rest of nature. They are not facing each other across that divide; they are both facing the same direction, albeit equipped with different tools. At a time when human activities have become so deeply embedded in earth surface processes that even the molecular composition of the atmosphere bears our signature, the most urgent task for all fields of human endeavour is to reframe our relations to the more-than-human world. We don't need more modernist constructions like bridges; we need a different mode of relating to the river, a conversation about what it is like to all be standing on the same bank. In a sense we are all looking at the figure in the hooded coat (the performance artist Tess De Quincey). She is on the river, but not exactly in it. She is of the river, but not of the river. We, the audience, are looking at an Arthur Boyd painting, and feeling almost in it.

 

THE NATURAL SCIENCES took their subject matter to be the nonhuman world, excluding from their field of view various forms of human influence. They named their leading journal of science and technology Nature. The social sciences focused on human actors and agency, helping, in the words of the historian Tim Mitchell, 'to format a world resolved into this binary order' by constituting phenomena such as 'the economy'. The humanities defined themselves around our species, taking scholarship into the human condition as their raison d'etre. This binary formatting of the world developed a spatial logic – seen, for example, in the divide between nature and the city. When we preserve nature, we preserve it 'out there'. The city is seen as the place of culture, for better or worse, but totally separated. It can represent both the highest forms of human civilisation, in which people ascend far above the state of nature, and also a fatally flawed place that is 'anti-nature'.

Accumulating empirical evidence over the past few decades challenges each of these perspectives in different, albeit consistent, terms. Human difference was shown by evolutionary ecology and genetic research to be the contingent outcome of a few stray genes that seized the moment, and the behavioural consequences that reinforced various moments, rather than a divinely ordained status within creation. Archaeological and palaeoecological evidence demonstrated, in Australia as elsewhere, that 'nature' had been neither stable nor pristine. Climates became colder, hotter, wetter, drier. Sea levels rose and fell, creating new configurations of land and seascape. Humans were participants in Australian ecosystems for tens of thousands of years: burning, hunting, choosing some plants over others, transporting plants and animals to different parts of the landscape in the course of everyday life. Contemporary ecologists have discovered contingency and dynamism, expressed in the idea of novel and emerging ecosystems – new configurations and assemblages not seen before in the fossil record. In these ecosystems, species occur in combinations and relative abundances new to a particular biome as a response to human action. (These are different from modified ecosystems that require human maintenance to continue, such as agricultural systems.) Examples of novel ecosystems include the rain-shadow tussock grasslands of New Zealand, and salt-tolerant communities in salinised areas of southern Australia that combine native and alien species. Ecologists also began to venture into urban spaces, slowly letting go of their reluctance to work in areas dominated by humans.

Critique of the human/nature binary has been a feature of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences over the past twenty years. There have been widespread attempts to unsettle and dismantle it, as well as necessary work in analysing its extraordinary resilience and embeddedness in our thinking and institutions. While the natural and historical sciences were establishing the pervasiveness of human influences in space and time, human geography and other human sciences have over the past several decades rediscovered nonhuman nature and the environment as objects of enquiry, with rich literatures on animals, forests, water, gardens, zoos and urban wildlands, to name but a handful. The materiality of the nature in cities was explored through such lenses as water, clay, food networks and backyard gardens. This work demonstrated that diverse ways of seeing mattered. According to how we think of nature, we might want to put a fence around it, create a bureaucracy to look after it, kill it, eat it, plant it, or remove it. We have, for example, attempted to protect nature in bounded, purified spaces such as national parks and wilderness areas.

So, the natural sciences are discovering people, and the human sciences are considering the nonhuman world more systematically. Scholars are still groping with the implications of these findings and new perspectives. This is the challenge for the twenty-first century, and it is not easy. We talk of the 'post-humanities' to signal the decentring of the human subject, and the 'more-than-human' to acknowledge both the pervasiveness of human influence and its interaction with nonhumans (plants, animals, rocks, weather). The clumsiness of these terms illustrates the difficulty we all have in shifting our modes of thought, language and practice.

Concepts that have served us well now look a bit rusty. 'Human impacts', for example, was a crucial concept in identifying anthropogenic climate change in the long-term climatic record, and is now in common parlance. Human activities now use a quarter of the earth's terrestrial ecosystem production, and between a third and half of the land surface of the planet has been transformed by human development. But the concept of 'impact' positions humans as outside the system under analysis, as outside nature. A key contradiction persists: we maintain dual ways of talking about things (human impacts, human interaction with environment, anthropogenic climate change, cultural landscapes, social-ecological systems), while the empirical evidence increasingly demonstrates how inextricably humans have become embedded in earth surface and atmospheric processes. Agents of 'disturbance', such as humans and fire, must now be understood as a normal part of ecosystems, rather than an external influence. To argue that we need to stitch back together – or to build bridges across – systems or ways of thinking serves only to underscore their ontological separateness, rather than to overcome it.

The accumulating body of research in which the signal of anthropogenic climate change has been identified is one of science's most important contributions of the past half-century. It can be read as a triumphant moment for what James Scott calls the 'high-modernist optic', requiring perspectives both backwards and forwards in time, using evidence from microscopic to global scales. Yet this research also shows us how we might need to think differently about climate change. The emphasis on the moment of collision between two separate entities (the 'impact' of 'humans' on 'climate') has favoured historical explanations that depend on correlation in time and space, to the detriment of the search for mechanisms of connection, rather than simple correlation. This is particularly important to how we think about the future, since removal of the 'human' is presumably not our solution of first resort. Responses to climate change will require human action, in association and assemblage with many other types of agency. On the other hand, we do need to hold onto an appropriate sense of human power and responsibility. The historically demonstrated power of human activity lays on us the means and responsibility to find solutions. Further, climate change is not separable from the present and quarantined to some time labelled the future. There will be continuities with the present, as well as discontinuities. We are already both there and not there, just as there is no past baseline of stability.

Climate change does not stand alone, either as an environmental issue separate from peak oil, biodiversity conservation or food security. Nor does it stand apart from more-than-climatic things such as public debate, media scares, altered financial instruments or new policy frameworks. When people adapt or respond it is often not to climatic factors, but to these assemblages.

THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE, home of most more-than-human scholarship, itself creates a culturally specific framework that should not be assumed to apply universally. Binaries are particularly resilient in Australia because we have a temporal boundary entrenching the other divisions. The year 1788 establishes for us a boundary of belonging, between Indigenous and not. This is applied in much of our thinking about plants, animals, peoples and land use practices such as agriculture. In Australia the battle to include humans in conceptualisations of nature is not yet won. Many Aboriginal communities are still struggling against environmental management regimes that ignore or erase their presence in the landscape. In such a context they can find the concept – both anthropocentric and dualistic – of 'cultural landscape' a powerful political tool. This unfinished business also affects settler Australians who, research shows, still broadly understand themselves as outside nature. We can thus accurately conceptualise many Australian contexts as needing a more-than-nature approach, rather than a more-than-human one.

We have learned much from Indigenous ways of seeing for several decades now, and have drawn on these to dismantle the binaries. A recent example is provided by Jessica Weir's Murray River Country: An Ecological Dialogue with Traditional Owners (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2009). Weir argues that 'modern' thinking, which separates nature and culture, is not only false but also disables our responses to ecological devastation. The crisis in Australia's largest river system, described as being 'run' from computers in Canberra, results from historical over-allocation of water for irrigation, together with prolonged drought over the past decade or so and projected intensification of droughts under climate change. Aboriginal people, on the other hand, have 'respect for country' as a main concern. Weir positions the traditional owners, members of the Murray Lower Darling Rivers Indigenous Nations alliance, as 'amodern' in their relations with the nonhuman world. That is, they are embedded in intimate relationships of mutuality, respect and connection that mix human bodies with rivers and kidneys with lakes.

A big challenge here is how far amodern thinking gets us along a path of practical healing for the river. Are we really ready for the less interventionist approach of letting the river do the work? This is an argument also put forward for the Shoalhaven by a traditional owner, Richard Scott Moore, when he argues we should 'let the river be'. Amodern thinking may mean we have to accept things we cannot fix, and first grieve appropriately (as Weir suggests in part of her final chapter, called 'Acknowledging Ecocide'). We could then move on to living with the new and changed reality, such as that of a dead river. This is surely a tough ask for us moderns – to concede defeat and stop the eternal busyness around trying to fix things.

I am mentally arguing with Jessica Weir and Richard Scott Moore as we wander across the floodplain at Bundanon, considering its depositional history under the instruction of Steph Kermode. There are many influences on its past: climate and sea level change, episodic extreme floods, Aboriginal burning, vegetation clearance by early European farmers, the building of the Tallowa Dam. Local residents and fishers of longstanding have attested today to 'loss' – of fish, oysters, peace, quiet. What would it mean now to 'let this river be'? And why do we give the river primacy in the nonhuman landscape? What makes it an entity separate say to the groundwater, or the water transpired into and through the vegetation? What makes us structure our conceptual landscape around it, rather than around the sandstone topography or the ebb and flow of vegetation communities? Who is to say this river minds being siphoned off to be shared with greedy Sydneysiders?

 

WE STILL HAVE work to do in coming to terms with the rage and grief of Australia's colonial heritage. But if we misdirect this work as nostalgia for a lost paradise we are also disabling constructive engagement with our future. If Australia has particular problems with binaries we may also have the means to move beyond them, arguably to make a contribution to reframing modernity that will extend beyond our shores. In our everyday engagements with the messiness of our cultural and ecological hybridity we are all sowing the seeds of that crop. We don't yet know what it will look like, but its unruly possibilities might be cause for quiet optimism.

Bundanon and its companion property, Riversdale, are typically weedy places. Though we want to focus on the pristine beauty of the sclerophyll forest, we can only do so by squinting. Fireweed flourishes in the paddocks, lantana clusters along the riverbank. These are declared noxious weeds and conventional management wisdom calls for their removal. It must be a headache for those whose core business is maintaining and fostering the artistic heritage of the place. That heritage is partly one of colonialism – as we were reminded on the Saturday night when a group of young Aboriginal girls reclaimed the sandstone homestead in dance. Do those of us who are not Indigenous stand in the same ambiguous place in the paddock as the coral trees, recommended for removal in regional weed management strategies? Or can we articulate a new and different sort of belonging for ourselves?

Diego Bonetto's Bundanon performance, Weeds 'R' Us, saw the audience being served nettle soup and mallow tea. Bonetto challenges the binaries by articulating a more welcoming view of Australian nature than is provided for in most understandings of which plants belong here. His contribution to the Bundanon blog reflects this affectionate view of weeds: 'The strongholds of nature, the untameables, the unruly, the ones actually fighting back – blow after blow, seed after seed – our human prospective [sic] of what environment should look like...Nettle is everywhere, Urtica dioica, a blessed plant who fed human for millennia, and we will re-appropriate this and more, mix it with native edibles and create what could be regarded as a cross cultural appreciation of the bounty nature has to offer...'

These are fighting words, confronting to most conventional understandings of Australian environmental management, although they have much in common with Aboriginal people's views of introduced animals and plants, as documented by the anthropologist David Trigger.

There are many contradictions here, whether we are discussing weeds, rivers or climate change. And it is important that our discussions acknowledge our contradictory positions. But the main divisions are not between science and the arts. For those of us who grew up with western thinking, the challenge of reconceptualising human relations to the more-than-human world is our most profound and important. It will not occur as a purely cerebral activity, but as a process of engagement with the dilemmas of everyday practice. To undo the destructive practices of modernity, and reconstitute them into something better, we will need everything in the Enlightenment toolbox, science and arts included. But they will be most effective plunging into the river together, rather than attempting to bridge it.

Thanks to the organisers of the Siteworks at Bundanon program for the invitation to speak, and for the stimulation provided by the work of the Siteworks Laboratory participants.

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