Between the Lines
The line pulls us through life and space in ways obvious and unseen. It contains, frees, controls, holds, breaks, embraces. We make lines, we erase lines, we see them, we don’t. Desire is destination. Line is the tool that takes us there.
The Latin linea, from which the word ‘line’ originates, means ‘linen thread, string’. From linea comes linum, the botanical name of the flax plant, from which linen is made. The first lines were threads made of plants; line was a physical ‘thing’. But it soon became something else: a concept. Take the word ruler, for example. It is both a tool used to draw a straight line and a sovereign who controls and governs a territory. These two usages of the word are closely related, suggests Tim Ingold in Lines: A Brief History. ‘In establishing the territory as his to control, the ruler lays down guidelines for its inhabitants to follow. And in his political judgements and strategic decisions – his rulings – he plots the course of action they should take. As in the territory so also on the page … ’
Lives are defined by lines.
A wilderness pushes over and through and above the parallel lines of railway and road. Callistemon trees contort beneath looping cables, casuarinas lurch from cuts in the concrete-coated landscape. Camphor laurel, cotoneaster and acacia take space where they can. Roots melt into rock.
Does this small chaos – this paradise of plastic and pollination pressed between utility – benefit from visual, hence physical, neglect? It is comforting, though perhaps overly romantic, to imagine biological riches in such places. Refuge in such places.
It is safer, sometimes, to be unseen, undesignated. An overgrown front yard is problematic because there are expectations of conformity. The land between lines is left alone; unburdened by cultural weight, by assumed functionality.
There is a war on the other side of the world. I watch a video of a Ukrainian woman attempting to give a Russian soldier a handful of sunflower seeds. ‘Put them in your pocket,’ she yells at the man, ‘so the flowers will grow from your grave.’
‘A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around. A road, on the other hand, even the most primitive road, embodies a resistance against the landscape. Its reason is not simply the necessity for movement, but haste. Its wish is to avoid contact with the landscape; it seeks so far as possible to go over the country, rather than through it … its tendency is to translate place into space in order to traverse it with the least effort.’
– Wendell Berry
A few years ago I nearly bought a block of bushland in the Blue Mountains. The vegetation was beautiful and untouched. Yet, I had the urge – weird then, weird now – to prune some of the plants. Not to remove, but to sculpt. To make the lines clearer. Why? Because it would have made my eyes happier. An interesting, but not always honourable, cause for action.
The human desire to make order out of disorder is deep, perhaps essential. Is this why we garden? Is this why our eye will not sit for long on a tangle of foliage, but lingers on a lawn?
An image with nowhere for the eye to land is harder to see. Photographer Daniel Shipp: ‘They’re the photos I try not to take. Without line there is no story.’
A thread, fine and strong, ties your toes to the earth. Every step, love.
See them, these marks on land made by feet of human and other animals. See how they weave through parks and bushland, backyards and paddocks. I want to follow them more than I want to stay on the concrete. The footpath. The designated space. I trace wallaby tracks through the trees behind my house, make my own way through parkland. I do not want my experience of place moderated by others.
See the layers of concrete and stone sandwiched between soil and sole. See, or don’t see, how desire lines are rendered invisible by this insulation. Unseen but not unactioned. Desire always has its way.
Desire lines divide. Some love them. Others don’t. Because, well, KEEP ON THE PATH! In his book On Trails, Robert Moor writes: ‘ … dictatorial architects,like actual dictators, despise them. A shortcut is a kind of geographic graffiti, pointing out the authoritarian failure to predict our needs and police our desires.’
A designer friend thinks they’re wonderful. ‘Desire lines are a great indicator of how we don’t understand ourselves. That even the most considered and rigorous design process will still miss obvious things.’ Wise designers, asserts Moor, ‘design with desire, not against it’.
‘Over the course of millennia, our first tentative trails have sprawled into a global network, allowing individuals to reach their ends faster than ever before. But one unintended consequence of this shift has been that many of us now spend much more of our lives within a world made up of little more than connectors and nodes, desire lines and objects of desire. The danger of such a blinkered existence is that the more effectively these trails deliver us to our ends, the more they can insulate us from the world’s complexity and flux, which results in structures that are dangerously fragile, fixed, or myopic.’
– Robert Moor, On Trails
Though we may reassure ourselves that we’re atheist, agnostic and secular, our religion is efficiency, and the straight line is worshipped. Graph, fence, skyscraper, hedge. All hail.
We planted tens of thousands of trees in fenced-off rows along the paddock boundaries of our farm. It made sense for production and efficiency, and for keeping stock from eating saplings. It would not be possible to plant as many, nor would they have survived, if scattered through the paddocks at random.
Sometimes I wonder what beauty felt like, before efficiency became a god.
‘I do not believe a perfectly trained hand ever can draw a line without some curvature in it, or some variety of direction … A great draughtsman can, as far as I have observed, draw every line but a straight one.’
– John Ruskin
River finds the lines in a landscape and inhabits them fully. Exploits them, even. River pushes and weaves and meanders relentlessly towards the lowest place. (Have you noticed? I write River as a proper noun. River is origin not object.) My days are metered by the swell of tide. The pushing up, the sinking away. I write and watch River. River watches me.
Last week River flooded. Last year River flooded. Both times, the news reporters used phrases like ‘one-in-one-hundred-year flood’ and ‘unprecedented’, a word I am tired of hearing.
The trees come first. Sideways and clothed in mud, polystyrene baubles and water weed. Then the chemical drums, vinyl lounge chairs, kayaks, endless plastic artefacts. And the fridges. Last year there were hundreds. This year, fewer. Dead horse, dead dog, mobile home, dining table. I talk to men who have been working for the last year cleaning rubbish from the previous flood. Now they start again.
The water is light brown and too thick. Turbid, it’s called. A word ugly on the tongue, defined as deficient in clarity or purity. There is nothing clear here, only the fact that the birds who stalk the fish can’t see their next meal and the oysters are dying.
Desecration: ‘to divest of sacred character. To treat with sacrilege’. The word clogs oyster shells clinging to jetty piers, washes up on the shore in a tangle of debris, plastic bottles, fishing line and weeds; it slinks into the mud, moving in with hungry crabs and dead oysters; floats like an oil slick on top of the thickened water. It returns, again and again, on the tide.
‘There’s no democratic state that’s not compromised to the very core by its part in generating human misery.’
– Gilles Deleuze
Climate activist Colette Pichon Battle is a generational native of the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. The land her family has lived on, and with, for generations will be erased by sea level rise. ‘This is going to happen, no matter what,’ she says in a recent podcast interview with Krista Tippett for On Being. ‘We will lose these places. We will lose this land.’
‘I couldn’t believe that this place that I hold so dear, that I had such a long memory of – not because I was old, but because all my life I had been told stories from a very long time ago – all of those stories are going to go. All of the trees that we sat under are going to go. Everything that I knew to be, like, who I was, even describing just who I am and where I’m from, is going to go. It’s going to be lost. I still cry about it. I still think about it. It’s not something you understand one day and then move past. It’s something you contemplate daily. I take drives now, just to make sure I witness.’
In my naivety, I imagined the lines between land and the stories told about it, from it, for it, could never be broken. But what happens to the stories when the land disappears?
Press your finger on the equator of a desktop globe. Spin the sphere and see how the line you make is both straight and circular.
I talk on the phone with an urban designer who tells me that shopping centre design was based on casino design which was based on prison design. ‘Essentially, they lock people into these environments. There’s no clocks, no daylight, no sense of the weather outside. It’s unclear how you exit … casino design is the inverse of prison design. With prisons, it’s about line of sight to nothing.’
Line of sight to nothing.
In the case of the prison, it’s the world that is hidden. In the case of the casino, it’s the world that is hidden. In the case of the shopping centre, it’s the world that is hidden. There are differences between these places – how and why they exist – but are they as vast as we imagine?
There is a map on the wall of my parents’ home. It is the 1910 sales poster of the farmland I grew up on. Thick black lines illustrate the boundaries of each of the farms for sale. A network of seemingly random lines accompanied by snippets of text weave beneath the grid. ‘Cleared for cultivation’, ‘Good red soil’, ‘Undulating country’. Then this: ‘Ringbarked with the exception of a few clusters of trees in patches’. This one word – ringbark – is sprinkled all over the map.
Trees live in the outer layers of their trunks. The cambium, as it’s called, is a highway of life – sugars and water and nutrients travel from root to tip, up and back, up and back. Cut a horizontal ring around a tree’s trunk, deep enough to sever the cambium, and the tree will die.
We grew wheat in the rich red soil marked on that map, underneath the words ‘cleared’, ‘ringbarked’, ‘grubbed’. We galloped our horses across paddocks planted with lucerne and phalaris. We played under white box gums growing in gullies, spared the settler’s axe by the good luck of topography. We benefited from violence, from theft, from the severing of myriad life lines. And by the time we owned it, the evidence had nearly all been erased.
Our land was once a cemetery and how I loved its loss.
‘If the straight line was an icon of modernity, then the fragmented line seems to be emerging as an equally powerful icon of postmodernity. This is anything but a reversion to the meandering line of wayfaring. Where the latter goes along, from place to place, the fragmented, postmodern line goes across: not however stage by stage, from one destination to the next, but from one point of rupture to another. These points are not locations but dislocations, segments out of joint. To put it in terms suggested by Kenneth Olwig, the line of wayfaring, accomplished through the practices of dwelling and the circuitous movements they entail, is topian; the straight line of modernity, driven by a grand narrative of progressive advance, is utopian; the fragmented line of postmodernity is dystopian. “Perhaps it is time,” Olwig writes, “we moved beyond modernism’s utopianism and postmodernism’s dystopianism to a topianism that recognizes that human beings, as creatures of history, consciously and unconsciously create places.”’
– Tim Ingold
A white woman wearing a black T-shirt with the words ‘Care for Country’ printed across the back stands on top of a newly planted street garden, squashing the plants in order to take a photo of the sunset.