On Being a Flea on the Skin of the World

2,113 total words    

8 minutes of reading

Environmental Philosopher Val Plumwood, motionless in ICU following a crocodile attack, came to contemplate herself as a being, vulnerable in the world in a new and ontologically shattering way. Seeing herself through the eyes of this apex predator, as meat, fundamentally shifted her conception of self, existing in a more-than-human world.  I read this interesting tidbit as the rain continues to fall outside, an aggressive drumming on the tin roof that has not let up for days. Cloistered inside my shack in the woods, I text my lover—similarly ensconced in his own streaming paradise in another valley—my child interstate, friends and other family. Those living locally share stories of their encounters with rain, and we all marvel at the volume of water and intractability of the storm. The teen and I watch TV on the computer, play Wordle, and FaceTime my daughter in Melbourne. I keep an eye on the weather, via an app on my phone and a Facebook group of amateur meteorologists.

Plumwood’s feminist interrogation of the human/nature binary led me down a forest path that I have been exploring ever since, through my studies and life in general. As the rain drums, I come across her essay “Human vulnerability and the experience of being prey,” in which she shares her experience of the crocodile attack, the thoughts that arose as her body was taken into a death roll by the predator, her shock, horror and mental rejection of the notion that this could happen to her as a human.[1] Humans are not food! This insight into the non-human perspective profoundly unsettled her worldview, illuminating the human exceptionalism at the core of her understanding of herself and the world. 

Sitting on my sodden veranda, the rain a curtain of overflow from the gutters, the plink of drips against stainless steel bowls scattered here and there on the floor, the incessant roar of rain on leaves and the swelling creek in the gully below, a strange shifting becomes apparent in the trees on the scarp below the house. Limbs have been cracking and falling for days and I think I have seen a large one fall now. It is unusual to see a limb fall; it is more likely to be something one hears and feels with a thump. I think I have just seen it happen though, and as I sit and wonder, further movement occurs in the tangled foliage, up closer to the house. My body knows, before my mind does, that this is a landslip. I watch in horror as steady gums—10 or 15m tall or more—slowly and gracefully slip downwards, taking tangles of lantana, water vine and smaller saplings with them. The whole event happens in seeming silence, all sound obscured by the infernal drum of the rain. The trees, in their descent, are beautiful, surfing the skin of the world as it bucks and loosens. In The perception of the environment, Tim Ingold states that “the landscape is never complete…it is perpetually under construction,” and I am awestruck as I witness the deconstruction of what had seemed stable, and the construction anew of this once familiar landscape.[2]

I watch as this happens, through a veil of water which is not letting up.  Body thumping to the beat of my heart, I crane my neck to see better what has happened, but all that is sure is an area of absence, sitting behind some small trees in the foreground, in an area I have been tending since the bushfires threatened a couple of years ago. There were trees there before and now there are not. The very ground upon which I had stood is now gone.

David Reason, in his exploration of the life-process of landscape, concludes that:

Landscapes change; and change is itself an intrinsic aspect of our experience of landscape.  The landscape is a polyrhythmic composition of processes whose pulse varies from the erratic flutter of leaves to the measured drift and clash of tectonic plates.  Relative to the human span, the view before us seems composed of fleeting, ephemeral effects which create a patina of transience on apparently stable forms.[3]

My mind is stupid and uncomprehending, but my body knows, keeping me watchful throughout that long afternoon of pounding rain, as the teenager sleeps inside. More slips happen throughout the ensuing hours, opening up a new and terrifying view of the tumbling creek.

Sometime during the morning we lose all phone and internet reception. I realise we face some level of danger, with the landscape literally falling away below the house. The teen and I prepare to evacuate. We are trapped on our property, which itself is cut in three by two causeways, both of which are flooded and impassable. We can’t leave the property, but we can move to the house up the road, which is empty and rudimentary but would provide shelter.  It has no power or running water but is safer than here on the slipping slope. We pack all the food (not much, as the ferocity of this weather has taken me by surprise, and I didn’t stock up), clothes, books, camping gear, load it all into the car, getting drenched in the process.

For long hours I am anxious and pacing, unable to leave the veranda for fear of missing something crucial. The rain does not stop. The teenager sleeps and I desperately want to as well, my body exhausted by this vigilance. I settle instead to reading of drought, droving and dancing—My brilliant career keeping me distracted from the panic that rises with the water in the creek below. When the next major slip happens, taking a giant gum violently downwards to break all the trees below to thump into the surging water, I begin to make bargains with the landscape—I can accept that one must go, but not that one. A thin line of trees stands between my house and the new muddy cliff that has formed. I nominate trees and vow that when this or that one falls, it is time to leave.

By late afternoon the rain has stopped, and a sliver of sunshine has made it through the clouds, for the first time in about five days. I walk down to the front causeway and check the water level—still alarmingly high but visibly dropping—and converse with the various neighbours congregated there. We swap snippets of information gleaned in the hours before we lost all outside communication. The talk is all of homes lost, roads blocked and trees down. Watching the water, I know that I will be able to leave soon. I plan where I might go, calculating the likelihood of different roads being open or closed, based on observation of past flooding events in the area. I will buy tobacco, milk, chocolate and bread.

Spirits lifting, I relax a little. In the late afternoon, the teen and I discuss our options. Do we think we will be able to sleep here, worrying about further slips and the stability of the bank which holds the house? Are we scared enough to evacuate? We debate the merits of leaving vs staying and decide to half evacuate. We will sleep over at the studio—a small, newer building, semi-detached from the house and currently empty—reasoning that, being steel structured and sitting further back from the steeper terrain, it will be safer than the house.

We eat dinner and play cards. Frogs sing their gratitude in the night, and we are thankful that this is finally over and tomorrow we may leave. I am anxious for news of the outside world.  I need to get in touch with my lover, with family, to let them know that we are alright, and check in on them in return. I am startled out of my plannings by a series of brittle snaps ringing out in the night. My body is alert and listening, but the teenager seems unaware, playing the next card and taking a sip of hot chocolate. The snaps turn into cracks and the night is suddenly rent by loud and reverberating pops, rumbles and an almighty thumping, all of which echo around the valley for what seems likes minutes. We both jump from our seats and momentarily run, flapping in alarm and indecision. What to do? Our bodies require reaction but what is the correct action in this circumstance? I race to the back veranda and peer out into the darkness. Unsurprisingly, nothing is visible. The light on my phone is hopeless; I can’t find a torch. Out on the front veranda I think I can see a change in the silhouette of trees but can’t be sure.

We sleep in the studio, comforted by our closeness and preparedness to decamp at a moment’s notice. Morning light shows a further absence and a new view to the creek at the bottom, which has visibly dropped, giving me hope that we will leave today, assuming the road has held up to the volume of water passing over it in the last few days.

I am shocked by the violence of what has happened to this place I have felt so embedded in. For the last few years, I have engaged deeply with the concept of reciprocity. This place has been my classroom, as I have wrestled with my entanglement within all that transpires here. I have thought deeply about all acts of landscape management, mindfully tending this patch, communicating and engaging with any and all beings entering my field of awareness.

I see in a way I have never glimpsed before, the implacable movement of landscape, the pace and scale of change, and feel silly for my own deluded sense of safety. Here before me is a graphic illustration of what Ingold describes as “the cumulative outcome of a slow and long-drawn-out process of erosion and deposition…not confined to earlier geological epochs during which the landscape assumed its present topographic form.”[4] Walking this new landscape, I fear it is attempting to shed me, flick me off and away. It suddenly feels ridiculous to live in a house on an escarpment, the very existence of the escarpment being testament to the movability of Country. I am reminded, again, of the relativity of permanence. In Indigenous ontoepistemologies, as described by Anne Poelina, “Country communicates with people in various ways such as weather events, ecosystem signal responses like flowering, animal behaviours and bird migration, and via their senses,” and I am unable to dismiss these landslips as simply chaotic, unpredictable and unreadable events. This is dialogue, in fierce and furious action.[5]

Relative to the ontological impossibility of permanence, my home suddenly feels overwhelmingly vulnerable. The escarpment will continue to slip over time and, while the house is safe for the moment, to believe it will remain so is folly.  Houses are a way to separate one’s self from the environment—out there—to feel a sense of safety in an unpredictable world. Living in a wooden house, in the middle of a forest, on the edge of an escarpment, cannot provide any long term or robust sense of safety. Borrowing from Ingold  again—“as long as the building remains standing in the landscape, it will continue to figure within the environment and is subject, too, to the same forces of weathering and decomposition, that effect everything else in the landscape”[6]. I draw on Buddhist teachings to quell the rising panic and from the concept of Wu Wei, described by Freya Mathews as:

…the way of least resistance; not simply the giving up one’s own ends in deference to the ends of others but rather as tailoring one’s ends to those already in train in one’s environment and using the energies already at play in that environment to further one’s goals.[7]

That’s when I remember—I have always wanted to live in a tepee.

[1] V. Plumwood. Human vulnerability and the experience of being prey. Quadrant 39(3), pp 29-34, 1995.

[2] T. Ingold. The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. (Psychology Press, 2000), 199.

[3] D. Reason. A hard singing of country.  In Cutts, S., The unpainted landscape. (London: Coracle Press, 1987), 40. 

[4] T. Ingold. The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. (Psychology Press, 2000), 203.

[5] A. Poelina, et.al. “Hearing, voicing and healing: Rivers as culturally located and connected”. River Research and Applications, 38(3), 2021, 426.

[6] T. Ingold. The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill. (Psychology Press, 2000), 206.

[7] F. Mathews. “Strategia: Thinking with or accommodating the world”.  In Gibson, K., Rose, D. and Fincher, R. (eds.) Manifesto for living in the Anthropocene.  (Punctum Books, 2015), 39.

Image credit: “Wave energy” by kevin dooley is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

  • Rebecca Ryall

    Rebecca Ryall is a PhD student with Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia. She lives off grid in the forest in northern New South Wales on unceded Widjabul:Waiabul lands. Her research interests include people-place relationships and dialogue with the more-than-human.

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