By Ben Gleeson
On holiday for a few days at Depot beach on the NSW south coast last summer, my family and I went for a walk over the headland to nearby North Durras. My kids raced ahead with their cousins and my partner lagged behind with her sister so that for a while I found myself alone in silence wandering in a small patch of eucalypt forest. The path was sandy, strewn with shed gum-leaves, and bordered with bracken and burrawang ferns. The closed canopy of the spotted gums was thirty to forty metres overhead and there was little understorey to speak of. The impression was of a tall leafy ceiling supported on wide poles enclosing a spacious, open, quiet and still chamber. It struck me that this space was composed entirely of living beings like me.
In its midst I knew myself a part of a living landscape; a small part, a visitor, in awe of my fellow life-forms and the abiding suchness of this place; the calm-quiet, the stillness. It was beautiful and I became aware of how keenly I felt its beauty. The place seemed barely aware of me yet I felt that, perhaps in a way, I could belong here as just a life-form among life-forms, existing, treading gently, and stepping silently among the other beings, a reverent observer and admirer. I kicked off my flip-flops to feel the sandy, leafy floor of the forest with my bare soles. I thought about wandering off the path and lying down somewhere hidden, to quietly stare at the sky through the leaves and imbibe this place for a time.
I imagined the lives of the first Australians here, wandering through this space in a small group, in silence or in comfortable conversation; walking on their way from one place to another they knew well. Moving often; carrying so little but feeling so at home; comfortable; familiar. I thought about wandering-off myself and living amongst this country; of stepping from one life into another and turning to a new existence of simplicity; of moving from place to place as I desired, without deadlines or appointments, or walls or roofs, where the only time that mattered was the time when I was hungry, when I would settle down, contentedly and eat……….when I would eat……….what…..?
I was loving this moment so much, feeling at home in this place of such beauty and calm – a place I wished to love as if I were owned by it– but when I thought of food, I suddenly knew myself to be vastly separated from it. I knew that I could never live as part of it; without the food we had back in our holiday cabin, I would not be here to witness the place at all. It struck me, if I cannot eat of this landscape, I could certainly never truly belong to it; never really connect; never share existence as a part of it.
I thought of the many people I have known that lived hidden away in the bush as I myself have done, enjoying its character, feeling a peace there but, I realised, always perched precariously, without ecological communion; without connection to the cycles and flows of the local ecosystems, without that intimate and sustaining relation to place.
I thought of an astronaut, immersed in a scene of great beauty, overwhelmed by the wondrousness and the stillness and the quiet but only floating by, never to belong; like a tourist whose roots are always firmly planted ‘back home’; like a scuba-diver, inserting themselves to witness and to admire but never belonging, knowing always that this life is not their life, knowing that they draw breath from the surface, from a distant, different, elsewhere.
I once heard the farmer, Joel Salatin, use the term ‘ecological umbilical’ in relation to our food and our food systems. This term sheds some light on the way that I felt at that time; in that forest of life where I knew I could not live. My ecological umbilical was back at the cabin, safely stored in our refrigerator, my lifeline to nourishment and existence, my conduit to sustenance, full of transported food, all grown in the elsewhere desolation of farming, where life occurs on sufferance and is plucked and pumped by means of economy to wherever we happen to stand.
I ponder my umbilical; I wonder, ‘to what am I connected?’ Where does my ecological umbilical lead? What is at the far end? What feeds it?
Clearly, it is not some beauteous natural cathedral-like landscape of ecological harmony and stillness that I am anchored to, it is a farm; or more correctly it is farms. It is farms that feed my umbilical; farms are where I connect to our biosphere. Farms are the source of my nutrients; farms are the source of the solar energy that lifts my arms, that warms and cools my body and that fires my thoughts. The roots of my existence are reaching into cultivated soil. At one time here, briefly there, my connection to the soil and the Earth is shallow and shifting and, I would say, tenuous; randomised by the roiling and impermanent nature of economic advantage and opportunity.
Surely it is natural for me to long to exist within a landscape as an aspect of it; sharing and living as one among the many life forms that compose it. How many years of evolution on this planet have led me here? How much genetic or instinctual knowledge of connected existence, of belonging, of intimate relation to our surroundings? The forest at Durras and I share an ancestor: that original simple spark of life that became the myriad profusion of interdependency that we now see; an interdependence that we can aesthetically feel and that we increasingly know with our rational learnings as well.
How do we bring this aesthetic and this rationalised knowledge to our farming? What would change if we cultivated our landscapes as if we belonged to them? Could we build their complexity? Could we guide the ebb and flow of energy and material so that our landscapes grew around us, both supporting and supported, each a part of the other?
Standing in the forest at Durras, like a suited astronaut – my lifeline trailing away behind me to some distant technological mother-ship– I long to step from the spacesuit and truly breath; to cast away the space-food and truly eat; to merge with the biotic landscape that surrounds me and start to truly live, just a small part of a small part of planet Earth, where I belong.