Elemental views

Drawing by Kim Holten, 2008
Drawing by Kim Holten, 2008

from the animation, Connectivity


I am testing an idea:

Some worldviews give voice to environments through objective observations and subjective experiences of humans living within them. These views help me understand how places work and how people experience living within them. I am calling these worldviews Elemental.

You may hold an Elemental view about your place.

Polar expeditioners who approached the ice with romantic notions of the Sublime, or Heroism, did not possess Elemental views. They did not survive because they did not understand the ice. John Franklin (1845-1859) and Robert Falcon Scott (1868–1912) became tragic heroes.

Sealers who first ventured to polar regions, and Amundsen (1872–1928). who reached the south pole first, were predominantly practical people. They survived because they prepared for what they objectively knew of the ice. Amundsen brought his understandings of Norway to Antarctica. He knew what was needed to survive in the ice.

Realists, it appears, survive better in harsh conditions, than Romantic dreamers.

However, I suggest that if humans are to usefully evolve as a species, it is not enough to simply survive. We need to survive to tell the tale, to inspire confidence in the reality of environments and human capabilities within them. To survive and tell the tale, a balance between aesthetic and realistic world views is necessary. Traditional Australian Aboriginal cultures offer useful ways for us to be thinking today.

Traditional Australian Aboriginal views are Elemental because they give voice to Australian land through rituals that express human connectivity with environments. These views are known through sensory experience and objective observation. This knowledge is reflected through ritualistic practices that engage reasoning through sensory engagement. Sensory engagement typically involves drawing, dancing, music, story telling and making objects. Rituals engage humour and an aesthetic use of natural materials to raise awareness of the body as continuous with the land.

To many Western minds, Aboriginal Dreamtime is misunderstood; Dreamtime is misread as fiction.

Traditional Aboriginal Australians understand the reality of the land as continuous with all its creatures, including humans.

Aboriginal people survived here for 40,000 years because they knew the land for how it works, and how they connected within it.

Aboriginal stories, dances, images and objects are sacred because they provide symbols, myths and metaphors to describe the world as it functions, which is vital to know for human survival. These rituals connect objective observations with subjective experiences. They teach about maintaining balance through reciprocity between humans and the land.

Subjective experiences are known through our senses, and expressed through the various arts. These experiences are shaped predominantly by our right brain, through sense of connection with each other and our environments.

Objective observations are known through reason, predominantly using the left side of our brain. Logical lines of reasoning help us function in the world.

Our brains are internally complex systems, shaped by how we interconnect with other people and our environments. We can choose to think and to feel the reality of our connectivity.

Few artists can cast an Elemental eye on Antarctica because few have experienced much time there. But there are some who may be willing to share their thoughts.

Some questions:

I speculate there are other philosophies that accord with this view. What do you know?

What are your thoughts about your sense of place? What is your experience?

I welcome your responses, because they help to shape my thinking.


2 Replies to “Elemental views”

  1. I would suggest that Aborigines were also a practical people and over time they came to understand their territory well enough to maintain it in a longer term way which our culture has yet to. The fact that they did not possess the sort of technology, which impacts the environment on the global scale helped. (Their ability to stuff up was less consequential.) They had to be adaptive enough to cope with environment change – sea level rising – wasn’t it ~100 m between 17000 and 8000 y ago. In places such sea level rise would have made big impacts during peoples lifetime, such as the Kimberley coast – where there is a fairly flat shelf now covered by ocean.

    It is known that the Aborigines were around when megafauna disappeared from the mainland, but it may never be certain whether they were the predominant factor in their demise or climate change or both.

    Myths, stories, dances were their way or telling cultural stories, keeping alive knowledge. When other cultures invented writing, our need for using this media in such a way diminished.

    Socrates decried the loss of rhetorical skills with the rise of written culture in ancient Greece. Today older members of our society decry the loss of skill in of our traditional forms of communication vs IT means. (An on going process I would suggest.) Yet the newer tools do offer us opportunities for doing things better. We just have to become wise enough to adopt the right approach.

    At present it is I think a common world view that simplistic economics is all that matters. This is despite the fact the environment which underpins it is ignored and discounted. It is not rocket science to suggest that continued growth of consumption and population is impossible.

    Cultures give a framework for a world view. When alive they are not static but change with time. They can never probably be totally correct in terms of pointing a direction for the future, but need to change to incorporate a better appreciation of reality. I think I am typical in thinking that my world view gives a better understanding of how I should and the rest of the world should go forward than other cultural systems I do not understand or believe ( such as Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, or the literal Genesis story of creation).

    It is interesting that probably the most accepted current view of the origin of our universe is the big bang theory – about 15 B yr ago – essentially the creation of the universe out of ??? The sequence of events the creation, the sequence which followed is not that far removed from that written in Genesis, even if the time scale is much compressed in the biblical account.

    I think it is worth showing some humility about all this and reflect about where we have come from. What we take as “correct” only reflects our present understanding. This continues to evolve and other linkages made. Newton’s theories of gravity, and mechanics of how the planets go around the sun works on that scale, but has limits when extrapolated far or very small. Relativity and quantum physics respectively provide better descriptions of those. The point here is that our stories (theories) continue to improve and yesterday’s stories can prove to have their shortcomings.

    Philosophically though we cannot just assume that our understanding will continue to improve. These improvements come as a result of intelligent endeavor. (If the system does not allow the right enquiry and the tools are not there then the understanding will not advance.)

    (What are your thoughts about your sense of place? What is your experience?)

    I have a sense of connectedness about the region in Melbourne (Nth Essendon) where I grew up even though I haven’t lived there for 30 years, and I have felt this sense more than I used to, say 20 years ago. This has something to do with the fact that I enjoy seeing my family who are there and their doings. The memories of the shared experiences while growing up help this sense of connection.

    In that case I do not find the landscape especially attractive, though I am interested in it and things that are happening there. I enjoy going out and exploring bits of that region (say suburban Melbourne) when I am there. Eg I like going for bike rides along some of Melbourne’s bike ways while I am there. This activity (the way I do it), looking around while I go, is a good way at viewing the world and what is going on. – which is a fairly typical activity for me. Also I like to walk (not drive) between my parents and sisters places (3 km apart) partly just to see how things are and have changed.

    Having lived for so long in Sydney (30 y), I notice things that I never did before – like how many brush box trees (big rainforest trees from Northern NSW – Qld) are planted in suburban Essendon as street trees (as they are in West Ryde). Another is that Jacarandas grow well in Melbourne, though they flower differently and later than in Sydney or Grafton. How different too is that the suburb now than the one I grew up in.

    It also is interesting that while living there I got tired of the endless obsession with AFL, but now I find myself liking to watch / listen to it on TV while I am home and definitely not rugby league. (cultural activity) It took me years of living in Sydney to come around to this way of thinking.

    I have a sense of place for favourite walking areas. These I do spend quality time in – esthetic, sounds, curiosity, weather processes and that effects things, the challenges I have faced there.

    Such places:
    The back beaches of the Mornington Peninsular (summer holidays while a child) – the areas around Rosebud which is where we were based are now very much suburbia. I have a great fondness for coastal walking places. Wilson’s Prom is always special. Is that the quality of the environment calling? or the teenage-young adult associations?

    The activity of camping is special – and this country (still) does really lend itself to it. It is a great way of moving about the best parts of it, So simple, uncluttered a ready way of appreciating it.
    The Victorian Alps, I have a special affinity too. I first joined a walking club when I went to (Melbourne) Uni. The Alps I came to know from then. I do like going there when I visit my family in Melbourne. The very special places are the rugged quieter places. – the Razor, Viking, Moroka Gorge.

    I find myself very attracted to the Kimberley. After the trip with Ken & David in 1985 to Purnalulu I was going there very regularly. Despite my interest in other places (and I was working full time and had breaks away), by the end of 1991, I had spent 7 months of my life there. Many of those landscapes do have a special quality to me. I can think of many places which for me have “sacred’” qualities, but then I have seen many such elsewhere. The canyons, the light in those canyons (but the Blue Mtns too!). Rocks sculptures. The ancient and water polished rocks. The overhangs where ancient artists painted are usually great places to “hang about”. The savannah- woodlands and their simple vistas. The long lunches by shady waterholes watching nature and the passing birds.

    I’ve never been to Antarctica, but I can imagine that the ice forms and environment would also be addictive, for a host of reasons.

    One concept which we (current Australian) culture undervalue is the concept of “resilience”. I heard some interesting and helpful discussion about this recently on ABC RN by Dr Brian Walker from CSIRO ecosystems. In the context of these ideas, resilience is greater when there is diversity of species, diversity of cultures, diversity of ideas and the ability to express them. This was a Deakin Lecture and he referred to a book Joe Tainter, “The Collapse of Complex Societies” Coincidentally I have been reading for more than a year now (I can be a very slow reader) Jarad Diamond’s “Collapse”.

  2. Dear Rob,

    I agree with you that humility is needed for us to admit that, as you say, ‘What we take as “correct” only reflects our present understanding’.

    And if we are living in a culture lacking in complexity, our individual and collective understandings of “correct” ways of connecting (or not) with the natural world are certainly limited.

    Tonight I returned from walking through the Douglas Apsley National Park and Maria Island, Tasmania. My feelings of complex and total bodily connection with those environments whilst within them were in stark contrast to the sense of disconnection I felt flying home with Virgin Blue.

    Yes, walking through Australian bush with other people can be an elemental experience. And yes, there is something special about revisiting places we first knew as children.

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Posted on Saturday, December 20th, 2008