Nature has endured far longer and greater than we, seems far more complex and unto its own than people. And though I could intimate that it has being it can feel so impersonal and well beyond my comprehension. It gives me so much, but what do I give it?
The elongated coastal dune system of Young Husband Peninsula in the Coorong National Park is cut-off from the main land. Dividing it is a stretch of mostly shallow lagoon waters that provide habitat to many species of bird, animal and fish life. This separation has left the peninsula largely free from the commercial grasp of humans and as a result, this strip of land remains largely wild. It remains a sanctuary for nature and for people wanting to experience landscape that is free from the conforming power of roads, fenced paddocks, and the trappings of contemporary human settlement.
Three of us drove down to the mainland edge of the Park in the Narrung area scouting for potential camps for a future project. On our way we called in to an Aboriginal community and met one of the elders of the Ngarrindjeri people for whom this place is the heart of their country. Having spent his youth here and now returned as a mature man in a leadership role. We talked about the ways in which relationship and acknowledgment is fundamental to community building, two themes that are at the heart of our own work and the reason we were there.
Taking our leave after our thoughtful exchange our scouting took us along a stretch of flattish, low scrub country between fenced agricultural land and the Coorong waters of the peninsula. The potential camp site we sought needed to offer suitable ground for people and gear, shelter and fair degree of seclusion. More importantly it needed to offer a sense of drama, one through which an impression could be made and meaning conveyed. To my mind this area was functional but fell short of the required drama. Not feeling drawn to look longer further down the track we turned tack and loaded up kayaks with minimal gear and set off to cross the water to the peninsula.
The flat, glistening water and light winds made for an easy crossing, our kayaks moved without great effort, the effort diminishing further as we got closer to the bank and into the lee of the land. Sparse groups of birds bobbed tranquilly before us but moved off as we approached. Below the kayaks the water’s bed became increasingly shallow. Thick, moss-like vegetation plumed beneath the surface but draped heavily over the paddles. We slid the hulls into the silty ground and stepped out onto thick couch grass banks and took stock of the place. Curiosity led us to explore further on foot so we pushed through tall reed beds our feet squishing out black, smelly mud beneath our feet. We found a spot for camp so returned for the kayaks and paddled the short distance around to our resting place for the night.
I’d bought my fishing rod and so whilst the others busied with set up I slid the kayak back into the water and let myself drift with the mild current watching the clouds relax and the grey-green watery world slip slowly by beneath me. It was so calm that I could feel the lead weight of the fishing line drag over the rocks of the lagoon’s bed. I caught nothing but the tranquillity of the day breathing out. Around me water plopped as unseen fish slipped and slopped just below the surface showing no interest in my baited line. On the shore a camp fire danced. I headed back to set up my tent.
Before sunset we wove a path through the scrub and climbed to the ridge of a dune where we stopped speechless. Before us a sunset saturated the sky, stretched out clouds hung ethereally between bare dunes and the emerging light of stars. Night slowly swallowed the day. On the ridge of a distant dune a bird standing poised suddenly leapt and pounced thus ending the day prematurely for its prey.
On our walk back I thought about just how much I get from being nature, how much I can feel calmed, refreshed, in wonder and in awe of it. Through it I can achieve insight, gain perspective feel embraced or shut out. I can feel that I know self and place but can also feel a stranger to both. These things and more I get from nature. Yet what might it need from me, what can I give to something so….omnipotent, seemingly indifferent to my being?
Nature has endured far longer and greater than we, seems far more complex and unto its own than people. And though I could intimate that it is a being it feels well beyond my comprehension. It gives me so much, but what do I give it? Respect. Care. Consideration. I give it my attention let my adoration and wonder flow to it. Does that count for anything? Does it even register, does it care, do I or any of us matter to it? Surely nature goes on regardless, even if we fuck things up as a species nature will follow its own laws as it has done for aeons and reclaim, renew. Nature the master evolver.
I don’t know how to narrow this vastness down to a handle, an entry point. I think what I’m grappling with is some notion of communion, reciprocity, where it’s possible to sense its being, hear its voice and intuit a response. I glean some sense of that but it’s rudimentary, undefined. I’ve come across these ideas in my readings of others who have also delved into reckoning with their relationship to nature. This is the first time I stumbled into my own version of this thought and I have to say that writing about it now seems premature, ill-formed, yet intriguing all the same.
As night took over our fire came into its own. Other than a source to cook on, and to keep warm fire also serves the function to draw people in. It offers a shared focal point but also draws people into themselves. A camp fire at night can limit the distractions available to the mind and can capture the attention of its watchers and in so-doing cast a spell that shifts one’s sense of space and time. Mostly it seems to slow things down. This night I found my thoughts doing just that, or rather, longer pauses came between my thoughts. But in the flicker of flame a slight of hand is evident as when our conversations came to a close a much longer time had passed than any of us guessed.
The new day dawned still and serenely lit. After an extended breakfast and further conversation we busied around camp packing down and clearing away any obvious trace of our presence and set off upstream to better explore the bare dunes that we had seen the night before.
Walking up a steep dune on the waters side we came up between two grass-toped hillocks and found ourselves standing on the rim of an arena of empty space. Before us wind shaped dunes, dense waves of sand with a rippled surface not unlike ruffled water stood unmoving. They held a space, an annex from the world around them where plant life had doggedly colonised, gripping into the sand just enough to survive and spread. But not into this void. Here was not exactly death just the absence of life. It was stark but it also had clarity. You also couldn’t hide, for everything that passed through left prints recording its passage across. In a way our foot prints seemed like a disturbance, an impurity upon the pristine surface.
Regardless of our infraction we explored for a while following or crossing the contours eventually circling back to the hillocks. I looked back briefly whilst walking away and noticed how even after a relatively short time my mind had accustomed to the vista of this place and already had muted some of my first impression. Only when I stopped and allowed my mind to still did I regain a feeling similar to my initial encounter.
We had found the dramatic landscape we had been seeking. This place spoke loudly. And though I’m not certain what it said it seemed okay to return and bring others here and let it speak to them. What they heard would be their business. It would be between the land and them and whether they understood it or not may not even matter. But it might make a difference.
It was time to turn for home. Coming with me was a deeper sense of this land, its people, its mystery. I felt as though a tendril of this place had latched on to me and in the time since, even as I write this now, I feel that connection at work. In the absence of being there I have my memories but I also have the woven reed artefacts that I felt compelled to buy before the drive home. I have them to listen to.