Essay

One hundred years of sumbiotude

Resisting the extinction of emotions

I AM A child of the Anthropocene, born in 1953. I have lived in a period of history also known as the ‘Great Acceleration’. The speed and scale of material change since 1953 is breathtaking, so much so that I sometimes feel I am a passive observer of this change, not a participant. I struggle to contemplate it all, bogged down within a form of magical realism where the uncanny, fantastic, disruptive and improbable weave in and out of what once was predictable phenology, the patterns and rhythms of life.

That foundational phenology – the phases of the moon, the Earth’s tilt and spin, the seasons, animal migration – is still with us, yet it is being warped and corrupted by the human power to change…everything. The normal and the ‘new normal’ are being replaced by the ‘new abnormal’, and this has powerful consequences for human physical and mental health. The new abnormal has seen the imposition of terrifying change in landscapes. Even as I write, in early 2020, wildfire has immolated huge swathes of Australia and continues to threaten many other communities, including my own property in the Hunter Region of New South Wales.

I have engaged with the new abnormal ever since I read One Hundred Years of Solitude (Jonathan Cape, 1970) by Gabriel García Márquez in the mid-1970s. As a young student philosopher I felt empathy for Marquez’s character José Arcadio Buendía, who, after a protracted period of tumultuous and obsessive mental and physical effort to understand global navigation, came to the conclusion that ‘the Earth is round, like an orange’. For decades, my own feverish search for meaning was based on the assumption that if I only looked harder and worked more, the complexity of reality would be revealed. I was a believer in the wisdom of Goethe, who, in a poem in 1820, argued that nature hides nothing from us and that it has neither core nor outer rind but is rather ‘all things at once’. An orange is part of the great dialectic of life; the bud, the blossom and the fruit (as GWF Hegel taught me) are, despite being different, all ‘moments’ in the fluid continuity of existence.

I have spent my entire adult lifetime trying to understand the place of humans within nature and the emotional ties we have to life and living things. And, after sixty-six years of contemplation, I have come to the conclusion that all those greats – Buendía, Goethe and Hegel – are still on safe ground: there is no new revelation. Following centuries of humans thinking about nature, I have come to the Goetherian conclusion that in life, all beings are interconnected.

What Goethe would now marvel at are the relatively recent discoveries of the sheer depth and complexity of Earth and life connections. Science and technology have revealed the details of pattern and interconnection via 3D virtual reality, electron microscopes, nuclear accelerators and X-ray crystallography, as they have gradually revealed the structure of the cosmos, the atom, complex molecules, cells, DNA, the gut microbiome, and the marvels of symbiosis in explaining the mysteries of the minutiae of life and the previously unknown. In particular, the discoveries made by bioscience in the ‘microcosmos’ have amply reinforced Goethe’s poetic vision of the integration of life.

Being alive in this particular era, I have had the privilege of living through the rapid transition from a focus on that which is ‘obvious to the senses’ to our new ways of rendering the invisible visible. It is this revolution in our perception of reality that has helped me in the creation of new words and concepts as a response to these discoveries. I am sure there remains much that is invisible to us, impatiently waiting to be revealed by the detectorists. I am also a non-magical realist in that I accept that reality is complex and independent of us and that new insights into nature can come via acts of scientific and conceptual discovery. However, I am always aware that I am walking in the footsteps of the late Big Bill Neidjie of Arnhem Land when in Gagudju Man (JB Books, 2002) he suggests:

We walk on earth,

We look after,

like rainbow sitting on top.

But something underneath,

under the ground.

We don’t know.

You don’t know.

But the path to this revelation about the importance of the invisible and the unknown has been integral to my life story, and I have had to create a way of looking at aspects of my life story to bring the development of that insight into focus. Through this, I’ve created a sumbiography (from the Greek, sumbios, which means living together) to investigate the union of elements in nature and culture that have symbiotically cohered into a view about life – a philosophy of my own – that is unique. For others, undertaking a sumbiography has the potential to help them find their own particular view of their emotional connection – or the lack of it – to the Earth. A sumbiography can reveal just what kind of emotional compass we have with respect to our personal relationship to this living planet. At a time of massive biophysical change (heatwaves, wildfire, floods), we need to expand our language to understand these changes and to be able to share the emotional upheavals they engender.

 

GROWING UP ON the Swan Coastal Plain in Perth gave generously of the experiences needed to fully appreciate the beauty and complexity of life. With a region exhibiting such high degrees of endemism, especially in its botany, I was able to develop a love of that which is unique to a given location, and acquire what George Seddon famously called ‘a sense of place’. In acquiring this emotional grounding, I was assisted by my grandmother and, later, my mother, born in the very special place called Manjimup (in the Noongar language, the place of bulrushes and a meeting place). My family would visit during school holidays and it was there that I fell under the influence of my grandparents and their way of life. In the tall karri and jarrah forests around Manjimup, I further developed my endemic sense of place. The particular red of the red-capped parrot, the marsupial shape of the flower called the kangaroo paw, the majesty of the karri tree, and the presence of my tiny bird friend and totem, the grey fantail: all built my love of nature.

My grandparents knew this place well and could teach me its stories. Pop-Pop was a ‘dinky-di’ bushman who could find the secret places where the giant freshwater crayfish, the marron, lived. He could log trees, construct a saw mill, mill timber for a house and build it. Nana could convert the largesse of the orchard, dairy, chook yard and vegetable patch into delicious food for hordes of her extended family. She was a wildlife carer, so I learnt from her that care of the non-human was intrinsically good. She also taught me how to kill and prepare chickens and wild rabbit for the woodfired oven.

My mother had earlier consumed their knowledge and forged her own path as a florist and gifted amateur botanist. She gave that knowledge to others as a volunteer guide at Kings Park in Perth for over twenty years, and gifted that botanical wisdom to me. She taught me, for example, the secrets of the wild orchids and the way each one is connected to its own, unique macrofungi underground network. In this way, my grandparents and my mother helped me understand that human life is intimately connected to all life. With such a grounding, it was no wonder that I could easily overflow with biophilia, or the love of life.

My mother also taught me the love of words. In the late 1940s, while recovering from tuberculosis in the Wooroloo Sanatorium, about sixty kilometres inland from Perth, she honed her skills as a champion Scrabble player and crossword maestro. She also met my father there. She survived heroic surgery and pioneer antibiotic treatment and lived the rest of her life with only one functioning lung. I learnt early in life never to take her on in Scrabble and expect to win. Her knowledge and love of words, for someone who never completed high school, was as big as a dictionary.

As I became a free-ranging bicycle nature boy, the attention I paid to the elements of the natural world increased to the point where I would often spend my days immersed in the lives of the creatures around our house and in the adjacent bushland. I watched wild birds and lizards for hours, engrossed in their lives, and forgetful of my own. This merging of subject and object became a ‘normal’ mental state for me. I was often dream-wandering in a place where the boundaries between the self and the other were obliterated.

That state continued, unfortunately, into my young adulthood, where I failed to pay attention to university professors who were trying to teach me the scientific foundations of ornithology within a bachelor of science. While still dreaming of birds, I also drifted into new spaces, where words, not birds, became beguiling. Philosophy beckoned and the search within ontology and epistemology became more compelling than zoology and ornithology.

I did not become an ornithologist, but succeeded in becoming an academic, teaching and researching the core issues of environmental ethics, health and sustainability, and moving across the continent from the west coast to Newcastle. And by serendipity, it was my love of birds that brought me into contact with what would become the focus of my academic career: the investigation of the emotional states that exist between the psyche and the Earth. I call this the psychoterratic (psyche-Earth emotional states).

It was the lithographs produced by John and Elizabeth Gould for The Birds of Australia (1840–1848) that provided the conduit to my own forced encounter with Earth’s desolation. The purchase of one lithograph – the depiction of the regent bowerbird, the male in its glittering gold and black livery, the female in her striking striations – alerted me to the fact that the Goulds had visited the Hunter Region of New South Wales in 1839–1840. Elizabeth Gould’s brother lived at Yarrandi (named for the place of possums) in the Upper Hunter, making it a base for their avifaunal explorations and artistic endeavours. Both John and Elizabeth had much to say about the beauty and richness of the Hunter Region as a whole and the Upper Hunter in particular.

After learning about this connection to the Goulds, I had to visit Yarrandi and take in the very same earth that they had experienced. But to get to the Upper Hunter from our own home in Newcastle, we had to travel through the massive area being mined for black coal between Singleton and Muswellbrook. When confronted by the full landscape desolation of open-cut coal mining, my emotional wellbeing – my mental landscape – was also desolated.

 

AS A PHILOSOPHER, my response to the encounter with a desolated landscape was to rethink the emotions of attachment to and abandonment of a place that is loved, and to find the right way to express my feelings. As there was nothing in the English language to help me, I decided to create my own concept – a neologism – to adequately describe the emotional distress at the loss of one’s sense of place. However, ‘distress’ is a word used in a multitude of contexts: to simply place ‘eco-’ or ‘enviro-’ in front of it was not going to work. The particular form of distress connected to one’s relationship to a desolated environment demanded a conceptual space of its own.

In addition, that a cognate term did not already exist in the English language was, to me, a sign of just how deeply alienated from our home we – as an Earth-destroying, or terraphthoric, culture – had become. We tend to focus on the extinction of species, cultures, languages – but what about the chronic extinction of our emotions, particularly those connected to the state of the Earth? In the Upper Hunter of NSW, along with the loss of Indigenous ‘country’ since colonisation, and whole rural villages after that, this extinction of the emotions of place-attachment had already begun.

It took the combination of a lifetime of psychoterratic experiences, teaching, thinking and a creative effort shared with my wife, Jillian, before the concept of ‘solastalgia’ entered the world in 2003. Solastalgia, the distressing lived experience of negative environmental change, arose from the understanding that the positive side of the lived experience of Earth emotions had to have negative equivalents. Solastalgia marked the beginning of my journey of mental-landscape discovery.

My mother also played a huge part in my rediscovery and naming of different, more positive, psychoterratic emotions. I had created the concept of solastalgia while connected to the University of Newcastle, where I had been working for twenty years. But in 2009, with the support and understanding of my brother, Jill and close family, I returned to WA to teach and research at Murdoch University and, importantly, to care for my mother. In her late seventies, she was struggling: the legacy of tuberculosis had left her breathless and she was having trouble both retaining her independence and continuing as a volunteer guide in Kings Park. I shopped for her and we ate together most nights.

After a year where I lived close by, she suffered a big, bloody and lonely fall. Following her hospitalisation and recovery, I took her to live with me in the village of Jarrahdale in the Perth Hills. As the name suggests, Jarrahdale has an affinity with the jarrah tree, the same tall tree of Manjimup and my mother’s childhood. The name ‘jarrah’ comes from ‘djarraly’ in the Noongar language, from the people who lived in this beautiful place before the European ‘dale’ arrived with its frontier wars and timber mills.

Our house and block, ‘Birdland’, had jarrah trees on it and ground orchids; it was visited by kangaroos, possums, quenda (southern brown bandicoot) and many different kinds of birds. My mother and I thrived there, she reconnecting with her own endemic sense of place, and I thinking about the concepts and the associated words needed to account for that sense of reconnection and good Earth emotions. If the mine-scape of the Upper Hunter and the homogeneity of the city of Perth represented the Anthropocene to me, Jarrahdale had offered a lifeline to a different lifestyle and worldview, one where co-existence with non-human life went beyond companion and domesticated animals and a limited number of edible plants. I began to have visions of a good society with humanity reintegrated with the full richness and diversity of endemic wildness at any place on Earth. Birdland was also a place where friends and kin visited on a constant basis.

I would take my mother, complete with walker frame, onto forest paths – on one occasion, lifting her clean over a fence so we could hunt for ground orchids together in a likely patch of bush. In loving each other as kin, we also shared a love of life that biophilia made manifest in the moments when spider, donkey, enamel or bee orchids were found with almost the same excitement as if they were very first encounters.

These five years with my mother added richness to my sumbiography. As an adult, I could reunite with my past and feel, beyond solastalgia, positive emotional states residing in me that were without the corresponding concepts, words and ideas in my language. While based at Murdoch University, I began a systematic quest to negate solastalgia and all the other negative Earth emotions to add something new, something optimistic that could join the dialectic of the psychoterratic. In 2011, I created the meme of the Symbiocene, which I defined as the next era in human and Earth history where reintegration of the Anthropos (humans) with the Sumbios (symbiotic life) was completed.

In 2013, aged eighty-four, my mother died. Half her ashes were scattered carefully into the Kings Park bush around a huge old gnarly log from a long-dead jarrah tree. Ground orchids abounded in this place, so too the red and green kangaroo paws. She deserved a presence in that park, as her spirit had graced it for more than twenty years. I imagine she became a copse of pink enamel orchids, glistening in the Perth spring sun. If humans are kind to the Earth, some of her will also become a new jarrah tree, auburn hair all fiery in its wood grain.

 

IT WAS AFTER her death that I decided to retire from the authoritarianism and administrivia of university life and become a genuine free thinker. I moved back to NSW. The philosopher was to become a farmosopher and the psychoterratic in me was about to confront the reality of living in a non-urban environment, close to the Earth and the elements. I wanted a new home from which to write about Earth emotions, and purchased Wallaby Farm with Jill, a place that was an echo of my grandparents’ farm in Manjimup. My own effort to exit the Anthropocene and enter the Symbiocene, what I hoped would become the next era in human and earthly affairs, was about to commence. The Earth-destroying or terraphthoran emotional forces were to be confronted by the Earth-creating or terranascient emotions.

The key to this reintegration was the recognition that, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the Anthropocene had shattered so many of the symbiotic connections between and within organisms that constituted the living Earth. The ancient affiliations in life via symbiosis were being displaced by a process of dysbiosis, the forces ensuring the death of life. For the great bulk of human existence, symbiosis, not dysbiosis, was typical of our relationship to the rest of nature, and I wanted to regain the property of what the Greeks called sumbiosis or ‘companionship’.

To reverse this death of life – this dysbiosis – an emotional revolution was needed to reactivate our biophilia and all of the positive emotional feelings we take for granted as a natural species about the rest of life and the landscapes within which that life exists. That peculiar mental state I had had as a child, that oceanic feeling, the unity of the knower and the known, I defined as eutierria or a ‘good Earth feeling’. Another feeling, one I had shared with my mother, was the deep secular appreciation of the uniqueness of place, and I defined this as endemophilia, or the love of the locally unique. It is this endemophilia that is vital for the creation of an endemic sense of place.

The mother gives birth to us all and nurtures us to adulthood. I was lucky to be able to care for my mother in her last few years on this Earth. The other half of my mother’s ashes went into the Donnelly River at One Tree Bridge near Manjimup. She floated away into the waters of life, perhaps to be consumed by a marron, an endemic culinary delicacy she loved above all else (except perhaps blue manna crabs). Very close by, the Four Aces, massive karri trees lined up in a row, still act as a special meeting place, an ‘up’ in Manjimup.

So many subtle but powerful positive Earth emotions needed to be identified and named before the end of endemism, and long before good Earth emotions might face possible extinction. Given the narrowing space within which to tackle dangerous climate change, humans need to work with urgency to avoid all forms of extinction. To progress the transition, I began to work on a new politics of place that I called soliphilia, or the desire of citizens to work together to create and conserve loved places despite old political allegiances. Such life-affirming politics would prevail over all negative Earth emotions, including solastalgia. They would also shift anthropocentric democracy (rule for humans) to sumbiocracy (rule for all beings).

 

THERE IS NO doubt in my mind that the age of solastalgia is currently upon us. It is a concept now both felt and expressed by so many in a huge diversity of human fields – from art to climate science. However, that influence can only have occurred if many humans still have within them the positive Earth emotions that have been with us since our emergence as a species. If we are to avoid the extinction of emotions, our positive side must now be openly expressed and the unity of good Earth emotions with good science celebrated in all forms of human culture and endeavour.

I am not the only thinker at work on neologisms that attempt to describe our collective future. To avoid what the biologist EO Wilson has called the Eremocene, or the age of loneliness, I hope that my creation of the Symbiocene puts into clear perspective a future home for all our positive Earth emotions. It will be possible to freely experience these emotions in the Symbiocene and, unlike past epochs, they will never be taken for granted nor left nameless. Enter the Symbiocene, and you will never want to leave, as the beauty and joy of earthly delights are far more compelling than the hell-like dread of the Anthropocene.

The creation of this new psychoterratic conceptual framework and vocabulary has been a predominantly solitary act for me in the sense that I have worked beyond established traditions within academia to create a new language for the Earth. As a creative, transdisciplinary thinker, I simply hoped that my ideas, especially solastalgia, would resonate with people around the world. They have. Now I no longer feel that my work emanates from an isolated head in an isolated home in Jarrahdale or Newcastle. Solastalgia and the rest of the psychoterratic are now part of a global response to self-inflicted environmental and climatic problems and their solutions. I sense I am now an integral part of a global community of interconnected and empathetic psychoterratic spirits.

At times this has felt like my own Buendían moment, creating names for that which already exists. Nevertheless, unlike Buendía’s ‘discovery’ of the spherical nature of the Earth, it seems like something new has been achieved. Artists, musicians, academics and ordinary folk who blog about their relationship to the biophysical world have all found aspects of the psychoterratic to be useful. I have created ways for them to enhance their understanding, to share their emotions and feelings, and to act on them in co-operation with others.

If I live to be one hundred years of age, it is my hope that my life will come to exemplify a neologism that is best defined as sumbiotude, or the state of living together. Sumbiotude is the exact opposite of solitude: instead of contemplating life in isolation, sumbiotude involves contemplation and completion of a lifespan with the loving companionship of humans and non-humans.

I will also be happy if my creative, conceptual work can help Generation Symbiocene – which includes my own children, my step-grandchildren and my five-year-old granddaughter – live in a world where positive Earth emotions prevail, a world that sees the extantion – not the extinction – of our emotions. As I wrote in Earth Emotions (Cornell University Press, 2019), ‘their laughter, and the singing of birds, [will be] clear signs that all is well with the Earth.’

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