EDGE OF THE SACRED RAINFOREST:
STORIES FROM FAR NORTH QUEENSLAND
by Eshana (Elizabeth Bragg, PhD) from Selected writings by Eshana
Originally published in proceedings of the Sense of Place Colloquium, University of Western Sydney, December 5-9 1996. A reworked version of this paper is also on this web-site - The Forest and the Sea: Nature as Teacher and Healer
Sitting gazing over rooftops floating in a sea of rainforest. Above Kuranda, the old hippie-heart of wet tropical Far North Queensland. We are high on wooden stilts in a grand mansion which is tip-toeing straining for the sky. The richness of the primordial rainforest surrounds us but is somewhere below consciousness. The feeling thrust upon me is of mastery, an appreciation of the grand aesthetic through sweeping green views. I am, however, somehow divorced from my understanding of this land of tangled roots, vaulting archways of trees and vines, dark dank wetness, the sweet smell of rotting vegetation and the sharp calls of cat-birds. We are above it all.
I am just returned to this land. Searching for my Australian roots after a year of travel throughout the world. Not yet finding, touching, feeling with my fingers and my toes. My soul is striving towards home, not quite arrived. I have but memories of how this forest drew me at once to the depths of my shadow world, and to the heart of the dark Goddess of the Earth.
In this paper, I explore issues stimulated by the suggested topics for this gathering, as well as by David Tacey's inspiring book 'Edge of the Sacred', and by John Cameron's article 'Reflections on Soul, Spirit and Environment'. I draw upon my own personal experiences of the spirit of place, as well as others' experiences and expressions of their relationship with the natural world. During my doctoral research conducted in Far North Queensland, I was privileged to listen to many stories from people living on the edge of the rainforest, and the quotations included in this paper are excerpts from these interviews.
One issue I am particularly interested in is diversity, both in terms of the types of environments which are considered 'truly' Australian, and the range of experiences (and ways of articulating these experiences) of spirit of place. In 'Edge of the Sacred', Tacey has a tendency towards a rather monolithic view of 'Australian spirit of place'. The 'red centre' of the continent receives most attention, and the forests at the edge of the 'real' Australia are treated simply as pseudo-European landscapes which can prevent Euro-Australians from connecting with the authentic aboriginal Australian spirit of place. In contrast to Tacey's position, but with an attitude of contribution, I focus on the tropical rainforests of Far North Queensland. I hope to illustrate that just as meaningful psychological and spiritual connections can be made with Australia through forest landscapes as through the desert.
'Spirit of place', while on one level inherent in the physical environment(1), is experienced (and articulated) by human beings through a myriad of different world-views (and discourses). The socially-constructed aspects of 'spirit of place' necessarily create diversity. The tendency to study soulful relationships with nature through the writings of prominent literary figures(2), however, may tend to disguise such diversity. Such a focus on artists has many advantages(3), not the least of which is that they are able to articulate and communicate such numinous and nebulous experiences and concepts as 'spirit of place'. Their expressions are inspiring and can reach us on a deep soul level. As Tacey and others have pointed out, they also tend to be amongst the 'sensitive souls' of our society, picking up undercurrents in the contemporary psyche and acting as harbingers of the 'new'. In this paper, however, I wish to show that sensitivity to spirit of place is not the sole property of artists (who are, after all, only one facet of Australian society). Embedded in the stories told by 'ordinary' people about their experiences in nature are a number of different images and metaphors which may not emerge through literary analyses.
The second major theme inherent in this paper is the value, or the sacred nature, of the edge itself. 'The edge' is the point where major transformation is possible. It is the place of duality, of paradox, where a dynamic interplay of opposites is most likely. It is a place of the recognition of 'otherness'. As I hope the following stories will show, it is on the edge of the rainforest, where primordial nature meets the human psyche, that meaningful relationship and 'sacredness' emerges. Plunging straight into the depths of the forest, without access to the safety of the light, open and familiar human-influenced landscape, is likely to be terrifying and create psychological defenses against the overwhelming 'other'(4).
Similarly, it is on the edge of mainstream thought where the most significant changes in consciousness are likely to take place(5). Many ecophilosophers argue for a widespread adoption of a new/ancient mode of experiencing the relationship between nature and the self, which is often based upon models from Eastern religions and indigenous cosmologies(6). My argument, however, is that for many people in contemporary Australian society, this is plunging too deep too soon(7). It can lead either to defenses against something too foreign or 'fringey' or to the superficial adoption and misappropriation of 'other' world-views and practices. There are many 'intermediary' ways of experiencing and expressing sacred relationships with the natural environment. These are more securely grounded in contemporary Australian culture and therefore more accessible to a greater number of people.
In the rest of this paper, the two themes of 'diversity' and 'the edge' come together in an exploration of a myriad of 'ordinary' voices expressing the spirit of the rainforest. They reflect different views from a variety of sub-cultures within non-Aboriginal Australia. Although it may be unusual to refer to many of these quotations as experiences of 'spirit of place'(8), it is my view that they are authentic expressions of soulful connection with the land, and as such are keys to motivating action on behalf of these environments. It is crucial, in our search for the sacred in Australian society, not to limit ourselves to expressions which include the words "spirit" and "soul", and thereby to depth-psychological and 'new age' understandings.
Paradoxically, my own understanding of the spirit of the rainforest is most easily expressed in just such a psychological new age discourse. The most profound period of personal transformation and connection with the Australian landscape I have experienced occurred more than six years ago now when I suffered my 'nervous-breakthrough'. Contained within an academic and suburban reality of Townsville, the Tower card of my newly-acquired tarot deck suggested I was experiencing the shattering of my ego. This was the most terrifying experience of my life. I was losing my 'sanity', my rational hold on 'reality', my well-prized academic expertise! Having studied mainstream psychology for many years, however, the last thing I wanted to do was visit a professional psychologist. Instead, I headed up onto the Atherton Tablelands with my ecologist boyfriend, where we began to live in a beautifully disintegrating log cabin on the very edge of the rainforest.
A year of deep healing ensued. I climbed trees and sat alone on tall tree stumps, soaking in the bird calls, insect trills and shimmering energy. On my first overnight wilderness walks to the peaks of mountains, across rivers rushing through and roots and boulders, I faced physical challenges and discovered my strength. During night dreams I faced the 'monsters' of the forest - wild pigs and dogs - learning not to run and hide, but to slay them (whereupon human forms would inevitably emerge from their fur-coats), and finally to stand before them and project a beam of love (and they would melt into happy and contented creatures). Day and night, I was held and loved by the dark Feminine, contained in the dark safety of Her embrace. I surrendered and let the Spirit of the Forest heal me.
On the border between light and dark we dwelled, between the familiar tamed land of bright green rolling dairy pastures and the mysterious writhing intertwining of life-death-life in the shadowy greens. I believe it was the safety of the edge which allowed me to delve so deeply. Throughout that year, I tended the garden and practised hatha yoga in the sun-shine. I cooked. I learned about alternative medicine from a friend and healer who was helping me through this difficult passage. I recorded and worked with my dreams. I read a lot - especially about women's spirituality and ecofeminism, deep ecology, shamanism(9). Within these readings, I found ways of articulating my own spiritual awakening and connection with the Earth. Finding a cultural framework for my personal experience was profoundly affirming. I discovered I was not alone in the ways I understood the world. I began to practice rituals derived from Wiccan and Native American traditions, and through these developed an even more direct connection with the Earth, Great Spirit, Goddess Gaia. I then received daily guidance in a near-auditory form, which led me out into the human world again, but this time on a clearer path, one more deeply connected to the inner reaches of my being, and to the planet itself.
One part of the new path on which I embarked was a PhD research project investigating how people in contemporary Australian society understand their relationship with the natural environment. In 1992 and '93, I conducted in-depth interviews with 'ordinary' Australians who lived in the area surrounding the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area(10). By 'ordinary', I mean that they were not academic philosophers, prominent artists or literary figures, but farmers, environmental activists, alternative lifestylers, and people living in the suburbs who said they rarely went out into natural environments. I heard many evocative stories of meaningful relationships with natural places, excerpts from which I share with you now.
In his introduction to the 'Edge of the Sacred', David Tacey writes:
"The desperate need in every secular society is to 're-make' the sacred, in the sense of restoring our relationship to the sacred. This is a supreme art or craft: the ability to track down the sacred, to revive and restore it, without falling into religious literalism, fundamentalism, or dogmatic thinking." (1995, p.1). John Cameron makes the point, following Tacey, that "it is not culturally or psychically possible (or desirable) for white Australians to try to adopt the Aboriginal cosmology as a means of spiritual renewal. Instead, he counsels us to re-activate our own spiritual heritage, to find the indigenous archetypes within our European traditions, and bring them to life in the Australian context." (1996, p.51)(11) By exploring the images and metaphors contained in Euro-Australians' descriptions of the rainforests, I aim to assist in this process of re-enchantment.
[The following links take you to interviewees' descriptions of the rainforest and the continuation of this article.]
* Christian Paradise
* Dark Virgin Jungle
* European Faerie-Tales and Folk-Traditions
* Spiritual Oneness
* Animistic Ecology of Gaia
* Sensuous Wonderment, An Ordinary Love
(1) My personal understanding is that the physical environment, along with its sensorily-observable features, has an inherent 'spirit' contained within its form. Certain places resonate with more or less, and with different qualities of 'spirit', or different vibrations of energy. Such 'spirit', along with the more 'ordinary' attributes of place (e.g., colour, form, smell), is experienced and understood through different world-views, and described using different discourses. Thus the 'spirit of place' becomes socially constructed. I believe, however, that something beyond the sensorily-observable environment exists in a place WHICH CAN BE SIGNIFICANTLY ALTERED BY HUMANS' EXPERIENCES, THOUGHTS AND SPIRITUAL PRACTICES (I.E., THEIR MODES OF BEING). That is, by experiencing a place as 'sacred', that place becomes more sacred on a level way beyond its physical and social construction. Simultaneously, by tuning in to these vibrations or subtle energies of the Earth, we are put in touch with what Tacey (pp.134-6) refers to as our 'indigenous archetype'. In this way, we allow the conquered Australian land to remake the conquerors without appropriating the Aboriginal people's spirituality and cosmology.
(2) Examples includes David Tacey's 'Edge of the Sacred' (1995, Harper Collins); Simon Schama's 'Landscape and Memory' (1995, Harper Collins); and David Wall's 'Green History' (1994, Routledge).
(3) A clear advantage is that the material for such literary analysis is readily available. Unpublished stories of spirit of place need to be collected before they are analyzed!
(4) This is well explored by Tacey ('Edge of the Sacred' - chapters 4 and 5), but in the context of the 'demonic interior' of the desert rather than the rainforest.
(5) Fundamental changes in consciousness are unlikely to take place in the CENTRE of the 'old' paradigm. Radically new ideas are only understandable by a small number of people. See Alan Atkinson's articles in issues 28 and 32 of 'In Context' for a simple summary of social change theories, and John Seed's analogy with bush regeneration techniques (in T.C. Kim & J.A. Dator's 'Creating a New History for Future Generations', 1995, Institute for Integrated Study of Future Generations, Kyoto)
(6) See, for example, Joanna Macy's 'World as Lover, World as Self' (1991, Parallax Press); John Seed and colleagues' 'Thinking Like a Mountain' (1988, New Society Publishers); and Judith Plant's edited 'Healing the Wounds: The Promise of Ecofeminism' (1989, New Society)
(7) My PhD research suggested that relationships with nature closest to those of 'radical environmental philosophy' were associated with a very specific group of people in contemporary Australian society: younger, highly educated individuals from both ends of the socio-economic spectrum (i.e., professionals and unemployed/students), but in positions of choice ('decision-making' class) and opposed to the 'mainstream'.
(8) See, for example, the sorts of experiences described in James Swan's 'Sacred Places: How the Living Earth Seeks Our Friendship' (1990, Bear & Co., Santa Fe). We must be alert to the danger of replacing one 'legitimate' way of experiencing Australian spirit of place (e.g., the Aboriginal Australian perspective, see Tacey, p.25) with another (e.g., those described by prominent Australian writers, a 'depth psychological', 'new age' or 'radical eco-philosophical' perspective).
(9) See John Seed and Judith Plant in footnote 6, and Michael Harner's 'The Way of the Shaman' (1980, Harper & Row).
(10) This research was one of three projects (the others involving media analysis, and the evaluation of experiential workshops) which comprise my doctoral dissertation ('Towards Ecological Self: Individual and Shared Understandings of the Relationship between Self and the Natural Environment', 1995, James Cook University). I conducted structured interviews, sometimes lasting up to four hours, with forty local residents in their homes. Quotations used in this paper are largely in answer to my questions "What IS a rainforest?" and "Could you tell me a bit about how a rainforest functions?", although not confined to these. Participants' names have been changed.
(11) When I was planning my research and would tell friends and colleagues about the different community groups I intended to interview, the most commonly asked question was "And what about Aboriginal people?". Although I had many rational and logistic reasons why I could not include them in my already overwhelming research design, I always felt uncomfortable about my omission of the most obvious voices of connection to the Australian landscape. Intuitively, however, I was more interested in finding stories of sacred relationships with nature from Euro-Australians. Now I understand that the stories I collected were more likely to contain the images and metaphors meaningful to others within the same socio-cultural context, and may therefore more effectively encourage our mythic imagination, and the re-enchantment of nature.
[Return to Selected writings by Eshana]