“Why do I want to come away alone like this, I wonder? And when I do, why this preference for old shepherd’s huts or abandoned camps or shell-shocked farm houses?…Is it somehow by passing dark nights and wandering under vast skies alone, that one comes into the presence — the inner presence, the nurturing, beautiful, poetic presence — of reality?” Freya Mathews, “Barramunga: Return to the Doorstep of Night” in Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture, 197.
Ah, reality. Ever-present and yet elusive. Inescapable and yet always up for definition, redefinition, appropriation, re-appropriation. How confused we become when the most basic kind of reality – the physical loss of a loved one, for instance – shreds the web of words and symbols, ideas and assignations, tasks and promises that is the reality of daily social life. And then there is the finer kind of reality that Mathews hints at: the sensed presence of the world as sentience, something that can be felt but not conceptualized. Something that cannot be taught, or even communicated, try as we might. All that one can say is yes, I know, yes. Call it God or Gaia or Barramunga.
Freya Mathews’ essay “Barramunga: Return to the Doorstep of Night” records her stays in an old farmhouse in a dwindling hamlet in the Otway mountains of Australia over the period of 1998 to 2000: the ugly as well as the beautiful, the tragic as well as the charming. It is a story of falling in love with a place.
That we should be passionately in love with our world – this is the foundation of being that so often gets lost or tangled up in knots as we are socialized and educated. I don’t say “should” as moral prescriptive. I say should to invoke the necessity of this love. Neither capitalism nor socialism nor religion nor science nor civilization itself has the right to take it away, to damage or obstruct what is necessary for human sanity and health.
For Mathews, reality in Barramunga is full of animals, plants, and weather – lambs and foxes, rabbits and rosellas, Mathews’ dog Sashi and her galah, Rosie. There is “old Crane,” who, as in the Chinese tradition, is a numinous being. Mathews finds a baby swallow and tries to save its life to no avail. She is attacked by a bat, causes the death of some animals while trying to spare the lives of others, witnesses the suffering of animal lives and their quiet joys.
“A distilled moment on our walk today. A silver sun shone through the mist to illuminate, in a black and white sort of way, a nostalgic tableau: a little posse of sheep, dark against the ethereal ebb and flow of the grass, wending its way up a long, long slope at the top of which the roof of the old milking shed gleamed as worn, smooth, and lustrous as the doorstep of heaven.”
A moment of presence, a moment of shimmer, as Deborah Bird Rose might have called it, or of metamorphic beings (Latour). Mathews’ essay is a love letter to Barramunga, as a place and world, a world fading and coming into being, a world in which she makes her small corner of order and nurture, acknowledging that her human comfort comes at a cost to other lives.
There is beauty in Barramunga, but it is no pristine rural idyll: “I can hear — always — the familiar whine of a chain saw in the distance.” The meadows and orchards, the lambs and bunnies that are so charming are the result of a history of exploitation and disruption – the logging and introduction of highly destructive European species: “the beauty of the landscape floats on its darkness.”
Mathews is only a visitor and occasional witness, always returning to her life as an academic in Melbourne, to the life we are all so familiar with, of “tracking errors in systems, readjusting arrangements.” But she is close friends with an elderly couple, Norm and May, who have lived all their lives in Barramunga and know the place on a generational timescale. One senses the steady, calm kindness of the old couple set alongside the enthusiasms of their visitor. What would they say of Barramunga, what moments shine in the memory of the old couple, of all the steady old couples of the world, who do not speak in the public mode and yet make it possible for others, gifted with words, to do so? What would they speak of, those who are the unwavering and quiet stewards of the networks of love and nurture, those who holld the good world on its axis? The old couple are intertwined with Barramunga and it with them – together, landscape, humans, the multitude of non-humans, all intertwined, make a place.
This rootedness in place, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, in death and life, is the foundation of culture in Mathews’ thinking. Contrasting Modernity’s mode of extraction and profit-seeking, Mathews’ offers us another way of living: that of cherishing: “The word “culture” derives from the same root as “cultivate,” viz the Latin cultura, meaning a tending; cultura is in turn derived from colere, to till or cherish” (21) Mathews offers us another kind of civilization, in which “culture is a matter of cherishing the grounds of our existence” and practicing our daily activities and “collective forms of our life” in a mode of dialogue with the non-human world.
Opening up our human world to the non-human, redefining civilization so that it encompasses the grounds of our existence (eco-systems, biodiversity, climate, etc.) so that we can clearly understand who we are, where we stand, and what is important is the place where Latour and Mathews meet, albeit in very different styles of thinking. Both fascinating ways of coming back to Earth. And love. And a better grasp of reality.