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Alive with Rock and Tree

Oh, you’re here already. Spot on time. I hope you enjoyed your walk up the hill? Yes, it’s beautiful, isn’t it, the way the light dances through the forest, leaping from trunk to leaf to frond. Please, take a seat on Rock. Rock specifically requested to be sat on. Yes, of course Rock speaks. Sit. Roll your shoulders, slip off your shoes, take a deep breath and thank Tree for breathing for you and Rock for holding you up. I’d normally suggest greeting Tree properly. You know, offer a hug or a full body kiss, but we’ve got a lot of ground to cover. I think we best get rolling.

ROCK WILL BEGIN, because Rock has seen it all. Was once tree, moss, soil, sand. Will be again tree, moss, soil, sand. Those wildflowers over there, boronia and flannel flower and wattle, pink and fuzzy-white and lemon-yellow, are only here because Rock gave something away. Rock has no language for endings, only becomings.

For Rock, this time we call the Anthropocene is a mere irritation – like being attacked by a swarm of mosquitoes. Itchy, annoying, short-lived.

For us, the human people, the Anthropocene is no small vexation. It arrived with a thud, accompanied by a heaviness that says something like this: we are – or perhaps we should be – coming to terms with a world that is collapsing at our hands. This is a terrible sentence. Rock would never say it, because Rock dreams in millennia. Bee wouldn’t either – Bee dreams in days, their world collapsing every month or so. I speak these words not to shock, but to say here we are.

Here we are, sitting on top of a soaring sandstone escarpment surrounded by scribbly gum and wattle; where wallaby and wren dance in the shadows. It is sublime, the view over River rolls forever, but the edge is unstable. Small pebbles and rocks the size of a human head are constantly dislodging and tumbling. Some days, entire boulders take their leave, coming to rest far below. Keep away from the edge.

Here we are, going to the dentist, walking the dog, worrying about ageing parents. Here we are, alive! It is a beautiful day.

Because we are here, in this strange and complex place and time, it is important to talk about ways of being that are grounded, generous and sustaining. For you and me, for Rock and Tree, for all. Therefore, it is important to talk of gardening. As verb, noun, metaphor.

MY EARLIEST MEMORIES are of following my mother around the garden. Planting ‘cottage garden’ seed mixes of honey-scented alyssum and egg-yolk orange Californian poppies; watching her divide agapanthus tubers with a few sharp stabs of the spade. (The agapanthus were planted as a border in the ’80s, before being ripped out in the ’90s, after Mum fell in love with native Australian plants.) School holidays and weekends: weeding and mulching and planting.

Illustrated garden books were requested for birthdays and Christmas presents. Dreams of travel to the grand estates of England and Europe sprouted. I studied horticulture and landscape design, then worked as a garden designer. Finally, I travelled – the long-dreamed-of trip rambling around Europe guided by a map made from listings in the very bossy book 1001 Gardens You Must See Before You Die. It was the late 2000s and I was in my late twenties. A time in which the title’s reference to mortality felt merely personal, not planetary.  I have spent decades immersed in gardens. Making them, being in them, thinking about them. They’re complex, layered places, which is why I keep hanging around. On TV lifestyle programs they’re weekend DIY jobs; for plant fanatics they’re a collection of treasures; for many others they’re food, solace, habitat, breathing space. In colonised countries like Australia, they’re a claim on land – always political, contested, uneasy. Cities densify, and the cost of living shoots skyward, making gardens indicators of privilege, too.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a garden is not very complicated at all. It is ‘A piece of ground adjoining a house, in which grass, flowers, and shrubs may be grown’ and a gardener is ‘A person who tends and cultivates a garden as a pastime or for a living’.

A dictionary definition only takes the mind so far. It is like the clearing of ground, the planting of a seed. Then, the seed sprouts and grows in strange directions and its flowers are blue instead of yellow and you wonder what it was you planted in the first place.

I’ve crafted my own definition, because gardening is how I make meaning and the dictionary doesn’t fit. Garden: Any place – public, private, undesignated – where human hands and feet touch soil. Where relationship, responsibility and reciprocity grow. A garden is a place of earthly flourishing.

Gardener: One who is committed to right-action on behalf of Earth. Who is committed to the care of soil and all the beings who grow with and from it. The act of gardening is a framework for being, and caring, in these strange times.

Janet Laurence. From the series Entangled Garden for Plant Memory, 2020. Chromogenic print onto duraclear, 120x80cm. Courtesy Dominik Mersch Gallery. 

CLAMBERING UP THE HILL, on the way to our appointment today, I came face to face with a cluster of seedlings – eriostemon, kunzea and others – growing in a narrow channel of leaf litter pressed between two wind-corrugated boulders. Did you see them too? It’s astounding, isn’t it, how life makes space for life.

I stopped and had a chat with the plants. Stroked their tiny limbs. Wished them luck. This place is a garden, and I am a gardener. Not the gardener, not its gardener, simply a gardener.

I don’t garden the bush by assuming ownership. I touch the plants to say hello, not to make them conform. I garden with eyes and heart, by being in relationship.

However we choose to see ourselves amid these anthropogenic rumblings – sinking, sipping sunset cocktails, flailing, floating – one thing is clear: any action on behalf of life (all life, not just human), no matter how large or small, is worth undertaking and celebrating. 

Gary Snyder: ‘Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.’

EARTH HAS ALWAYS been gardened. For eons, people have lived in reciprocal relationship with places, animals, plants. Just ask Rock and Tree. Rock says, ‘Always. Always there have been warm bodies keeping me company.’ Tree says, ‘Yes! I remember the hands the arms the words that are not spoken anymore.’

‘Where have you gone?’ Rock and Tree ask, in unison. The westerly wind picks up, Tree’s leaves murmur secrets to each other, a currawong calls in the distance.

Where have we gone?

It’s a big question, a complicated answer. The full story will take too long to tell. Sun won’t stay up, and Moon is not here yet. Instead, a very short story: We haven’t gone anywhere. We just don’t garden anymore.

IT’S COOLED OFF since Cloud moved in front of Sun. Luckily for us, we’re sitting with Rock, who is keeping our bottoms and legs nice and warm. And Cloud is spectacular. Actually, Cloud looks exactly like my dog! Can you see the short little legs and very long body? No? Okay, okay.

Yes, I’m aware you booked a seminar titled Stayin’ Alive: Tips and Tricks for Living Your Best Life amid Ecological Collapse. That’s why we’re here. I am sad to see you confused and restless. Don’t worry, things will reveal themselves soon. You’ll get all the tips you’ll ever need, and then some.

Rock says: ‘Relax, you’re alive.’ Tree says: ‘Breathe me in, stay a little longer and I might share with you some leaf tips.’ Trees joke too.

Sun is back. Feel the fire on your face, feel your body melt into Rock. Slip your feet over Rock’s edge and dig your fidgety toes into the leaf litter below. Wiggle them, until the soil rises up between each one. Let the cool earth press against your feet, let Sun soak into your skin. Be still, and let’s talk of love.

LOVE STORIES about the more-than-human world have always been told. You’ll find them on library shelves titled: ‘Delightful women telling pretty stories about plants and flowers’ or ‘Man stands in awe atop mountain’. If they’re spoken, they’re tales of indulgence and irrationality; if they’re not, it’s for fear of ridicule, diminishment. Don’t mention the L word.

Is this one of the strangest stories of our time? This avoidance of intimacy, this pushing aside of love of land, of place, of other?

When I am not with Rock and Tree, I am chatting with interesting people. Ecologists, artists, philosophers, gardeners, designers, farmers. Love is always present as an undercurrent, but rarely addressed overtly. This is a very strange thing. Think about it: Here we are – you and me, Rock and Tree, and billions of other tiny beings – waking each day to a world that is messy and mad, beautiful and terrible, and entirely unfathomable. I’m not sure if there’s a way to speak of this complexity, nuance and wonder without love.

‘The land is love. Love is what we fear. To disengage from the earth is our own oppression,’ says Terry Tempest Williams in an interview in Wild Heart: The Politics of Place. Love of place is political, she suggests. But it’s also sensual, passionate. And therefore, fearful. ‘Audre Lorde says that we have been raised to fear the “yes” within ourselves … our lack of intimacy with the land has initiated a lack of intimacy with each other.’

 If we do fear love of other beings and places – like Rock and Tree and Sun and River and on and on – is it because it undermines in its waywardness, messiness and unquantifiability, the dominant rational-scientific worldview we’re living within? The word ‘extraction’ does not sit easily next to love.

Now is a good time to give Tree that full-body kiss I mentioned earlier. C’mon, stand up, and give yourself to Tree. Wrap your arms all the way around Tree’s sturdy, smooth red-grey trunk and surrender.

‘If we lose our connection to landscape,’ continues Tempest Williams, ‘if we forget where the source of our power lies – a real power, not power in Washington, not power based on oppression, but power derived from an authentic life, from a life in balance, from a life of beauty, awe, integrity, compassion, empathy, then how can we know liberty? How can we know the truth of our souls? How can we know other?’

Janet Laurence. From the series Entangled Garden for Plant Memory, 2020. Chromogenic print onto duraclear, 120x80cm. Courtesy Dominik Mersch Gallery. 

Erich Fromm says love is ‘standing in’, not a ‘falling for’. I like this. It implies responsibility, purpose, generosity. I think you do too. Because here you are, standing in love with Tree.

I DON’T WANT TO MAKE a big deal out of it, but Rock tells me your edges are softening. Tree mentions your breath is floating higher and higher, tickling leaf and branch. I am trying to keep my excitement regarding your slow melting to myself. Of course, it is not my words that have done it. It’s being here in this enchanted place. Where life reaches out for you, where the ground pulls you in. You are held. Can you feel it?

Wind has settled, Cloud has wandered off, Sun has returned to stroke your cheeks. You are happy and relaxed – lounging on Rock, murmuring love words to Tree. It is now time for the seminar. We couldn’t have started any earlier.

TIPS AND TRICKS FOR LIVING YOUR BEST LIFE AMID ECOLOGICAL COLLAPSE

COMPOST YOUR DELUSIONS

When we first bought our home on the edge of River, I was swept up by grand visions of my first garden. No fences, abundant vegetable beds, and all the plants I’d ever seen in other people’s gardens. It would be beautiful and wild and overflowing with wonder! And then I met the wallabies, possums, bandicoots, sixty kilometre an hour westerly winds and the never-ending armies of weeds. I cried a few times when flower spikes were snapped off orchids and freshly planted tubestock were razed to the ground.

The romance soon evaporated. In its place grew pragmatism and – slowly, slowly – hands-in-the-ground, standing-in-place experience.

Nature (and really, I mean everything, everyone) is way more complex and alive and terrible and wonderful than can be imagined from afar. Ideas that only ever remain ideals cannot capture the nuance and complexity of actual, bodily experience. It’s less possible to believe in a black and white world when your mind and body are involved with a place, a vision, a person. When delusions are composted, awareness grows.

KNOW YOUR PLACE

David W Orr: ‘The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places.’

After you’ve thrown your delusions in the compost heap, a door opens amid the decomposition to a place that is more grounded and messy. Stay in this place. Dig yourself in, as Gary Snyder orders.

We have a flock of glossy black cockatoos living in the forest behind our house. These birds are listed as federally endangered. One of the factors contributing to their vulnerability is their fussiness – they eat only certain species of she-oak. Here on the river their food of choice is black she-oak (Allocasuarina littoralis).

It took me around a year to take notice of the birds. I’d see their chewed-up nuts on the bush track, hear their calls, but didn’t register who they were until I bought a bird book, downloaded a bird ID app on my phone, and set about learning who I was living with.

Now I see them all the time. I hear their calls in the early morning as they set out on their daily adventures, and again in the late afternoon on their return. I’ve developed a habit of running outside to say hello each time they fly overhead.

The other day, while weeding, I noticed a black she-oak seedling in the garden. I cleared around the tiny tree, and stuck a stick in the ground as a reminder. She-oak is not growing where I’d choose, and if I didn’t know the glossies, I may have been inclined to pull the tree out, but I won’t. She-oak will grow because of what I know about this place, the creatures who live here, and their needs. One day, long after I’m gone, I imagine a family of glossies sitting in their branches. Nibbling and chatting, stomachs full.

OWN YOUR ATTENTION

Attention has great value, which is why we use language like pay, grab, steal. Less common but more useful: give, offer, gift – words implying sovereignty, not commodity.

I led a workshop once with a group of nature writers. The workshop could be distilled into two words and an exclamation mark: Just look! Everything you want to know about earthly survival is right in front of your eyes. Tree will tell you about water and light. Rock will tell you about time and soil. Bee will tell you about abundance. It’s simple, but complicated, because what you see depends on where you’re looking from.

I’m a lapsed garden designer. I used to look at my river garden and think, ‘What a fucking disaster. This is not a garden! Look at all these gaps and weeds and ugly vistas. Where is the cohesion?’ I don’t see these things anymore. I see small wonders, homes for creatures, space for seeds to emerge from the seedbank, and plants as beings with agency. I see beauty where I once saw deficiency.

What, and how, we see shapes our reality. ‘It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency,’ writes Jenny Odell in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. ‘In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics.’

Janet Laurence. From the series Entangled Garden for Plant Memory, 2020. Chromogenic print onto duraclear, 120x80cm. Courtesy Dominik Mersch Gallery. 

TAKE RESPONSIBILITY

All beings – whether two-legged, eight-legged or no-legged – shape environments. Bandicoots undertake small earthworks projects nightly in my garden; she-oaks living by the river make a carpet of needles so thick other plants can’t grow beneath; borers (larvae of certain beetles and moths) have decided to live in the wattle trees I planted to intercept the westerly winds.

The actions of the borer in the wattle – let’s say they eventually kill the tree – affect the bees who feed on the flowers, the birds who use the tree as habitat. They affect me, because I’ll have to replant, wait for the new tree to grow, and in the meantime, lose a windbreak. The plants around the tree will be affected, because they’ll be exposed to more wind. All of this, the result of the actions of one tiny legless critter trying to stay alive! 

Borer does not see (do borers have eyes?) the knock-on effects of their actions, unlike humans. Not only do we have eyes, we have very large brains capable of all sorts of mental acrobatics. Our species has the capacity to see, understand and mitigate the effects of our interventions in our environments. Incredible.

Our superpower is storytelling, and tales presuming a magical separation between action and outcome proliferate. Tree’s been watching this story play out for hundreds of years and suggests, no, demands, better stories – about responsibility and interconnectedness – immediately.

Rise, Gardeners of the Anthropocene! Stand tall with Tree and tell better stories about accountability. Take responsibility for the effects of your actions, large and small. Know why you make, break, build, grow. Know who you affect when you do.

RECIPROCATE

Robin Wall Kimmerer: ‘I choose joy over despair. Not because I have my head in the sand, but because joy is what the earth gives me daily and I must return the gift.’

Until I read Kimmerer’s book, Braiding Sweetgrass, I hadn’t thought much about reciprocity. I cared for land and places, of course, but I was the boss, and my care was more about protecting ‘nature’ from myself, from us. Reciprocity challenges this dynamic, tethering the human to the ground, not floating a few metres above. It demands grace, generosity and humility.

What am I giving? Who is benefiting? I ask myself these questions before I take action in the garden. If the answer is only me, then I rethink. As a result, I do less, and I think more, and this is not a bad thing.

As well as talking to myself, I chatter with everyone else. Each day as I walk from house to studio, I stop at the bottom of the steps and say good morning to River. Hello to Tree. Thank you and goodbye to Star (I am an early riser). When I walk through the bush, I do the same. I ask permission to take, apologise for accidental damage. What all this chitchat does is place me in relationship, acknowledging that we are all here, alive, together.

Our job as humans is to keep Country company. I was told this by Nyikina woman Marlikka Perdrisat, who was told by Uncle Micklo Corpus. Keep Country company. A most profound directive.

FINALLY, THE SUN! The golden-toned end-of-day shimmer that licks tears from cheeks and strokes hearts with such tenderness it is possible to imagine a body melting slowly into a warm puddle of skin and sunshine and stone.

 Rock and Tree melt a little, too (yes, even Rock). They soften and slip a little deeper into the soil. We’re all breathing together now. Sinking into Earth. 

You want to stay? How lovely. I am very relieved. I was concerned for a while there. Yes, it’s beautiful up here on the escarpment at this time of day. Can you see the moss pulsing green in shallow sandstone puddles? And the trees pushing through cracks in rock, dripping upwards and down, towards stars and soil? It’s an incredible place.

Okay, okay, one last story. A very short one. Think of it as a summary of our delightful afternoon together.

LIFE IS PRECIOUS. This is one thing everyone, no matter where or how you live or what you believe, can agree on. Yes? Another point on which it is possible to gain consensus: the word life does not specifically apply to humans. Life means everything, everyone, alive right now. Mullet, sea eagle, moss, microbe.

We all agree: everything alive is precious. Beings (a much nicer word than things) are constantly proliferating (humans, cows, wheat), shapeshifting, evaporating (Leadbeater’s possum, greater glider, regent honeyeater and on and on). Much of this shifting around of life is happening at our hands. Our soft and tender-fingered human hands. Whether we agree or not. Whether we see or not.

What do we do then, we tiny powermongers in a world of precious things?

The answer is simple, and terribly complicated: we compost our delusions, we know our place, we own our attention, we take responsibility for our actions, and we ground them in reciprocity. Therefore, we are gardeners. Therefore, we are lovers.

THE GLOSSY BLACK COCKATOOS are calling up the stars, Tree is breathing out Sun, Rock is slipping towards dreams. Come, let’s stroll down the hill together. Before the light fades.