The world is full of persons, only some of them human

My latest story for Patagonia’s Roaring Journals.

There’s a moment in The Road to Patagonia when Matty Hannon – protagonist, film maker, surfer – stands, surveying the damage to his kombi van, which has just flipped and rolled off a remote Alaskan highway. He’s unscathed, but in the background of the shot, transporting oil to Valdez, lies the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. It’s a neat, if accidental, piece of symbolism: even in the wilderness, we’re never far from the long reach of exploitation.

Be it in the jungles of the Mentawais or the coastal scrub of Chile, the theme of taking – by corporations, governments and ideology – is central to the film. But there can be no taking without giving, and at the documentary’s heart is Matty’s deep commitment to something more tender, too – a generosity of spirit, of the collective and of nature. Arcing from pounding surf to environmental degradation, mental health and rebel resistance, the story is an unhurried, unpretentious look at how humans and the earth coexist. Surfboards strictly non-negotiable.

I watch the premiere in a packed theatre at Byron Bay International Film Festival, a bobbing line of babies in arms making up the back row of the audience. One of those is Colt, Matty and his fiancée Heather Hillier’s one-year-old son for whom the story is a parable and a love letter, a philosophical cornerstone and a paean to a future well lived. As we watch Colt’s parents meet, fall in love and travel down the west coast of the Americas, we see colliding worlds, crumbling cultures and the potent and hopeful connective fibre of something more spiritual, to something bigger than you and I.

But the story begins some nine years before that kombi crash and epic two-and-a-half-year journey south to Ushuaia. It begins with a Sony camcorder, bought towards the end of a five-year stay in the Sumatran jungle, where Matty “disappeared” with the Salakirrat tribes of the Mentawais.

There, the ecology degree he studied at Deakin University was no longer theoretical. Cut off from roads, electricity and phones but connected to culture, community and pristine waves, he filmed to share his life with family and friends at home in Melbourne, but also to capture something that he knew was special and threatened. His tribespeople friends weren’t financially wealthy but lived in abundance, intertwined with the land. They took only what they needed from the jungle and the sea, humans and nature living as one, resolutely traditional despite being well-aware of the outside world.

“It totally opened my mind to a different way of life, one that is dedicated to community and family and the environment. You’re incredibly time-rich over there,” he tells me as we talk in my home on Bundjalung Country a few days after the premiere. We drink tea and are interrupted by an obsidian crow who hops through the front door. Big Scrub rainforest isn’t far from my veranda and the ocean is less than a kilometre away, but Matty and his tribal chest tattoos seem a long way from the unknowns of the road.

It’s an exercise of my imagination, then, to picture him in Melbourne working a city job when he returned from Sumatra. “I just felt utterly out of place,” he remembers as he recalls the immensity of the city and its effect on his identity. He was diagnosed with anxiety and, for all its trauma, that moment gave life to the idea to surf his way from Alaska to Patagonia, filming the odyssey as it unfurled in no hurry and with no particular plan. Instinctively, he drives, then motorbikes, then horse rides his way south, stopping to sample some truly singular waves along the way. With each starry night, a bigger picture comes into focus, as if his own health is a fractal that can be multiplied to a universal scale: how did we lose the way when it comes to looking after our planet?

The first child of four, Matty was born in London, moved to Victoria as an infant, then to Jakarta and the Dandenong Ranges as a teenager. Those hills gave him a vantage point from which to understand the creep of urban sprawl and by the time he left, the “soul-destroying mediocrity of suburbia” had swallowed his teen home.

In the Mentawais, he saw coral bleaching, cyanide fishing and palm monoculture. Later, he and Heather witnessed the extent to which Canada’s old growth forest has been axed. But what they came across on Chile’s coastal spine is what he calls the epitome of industrialised monoculture. “They’ve literally just wiped the surface of the earth clear and planted pine trees in identical rows,” he says. Between an Indonesia striving towards development and communities torn from their life sources, he saw that “what we consider to be good quality living is not necessarily the truth”.

Instead, while Matty and Heather camped and foraged, spoke with locals and took on perilous mountain passes on their way south, an observation slowly condensed, then crystallised. “In their own different cultural ways, everyone was saying the same thing,” he recalls. “Up until a very short time ago, we all experienced the world through almost the same lens, albeit with a different cultural veneer over the top. We all saw the world as being animate.”

Heather and Matty’s recordings explore the theme of resistance, gently telling the stories of violence and revolutionary tactics of those who have fought for their lands and communities. Zapatista members speak about the power of the collective. Mapuche rebels recall fighting, arson and kidnappings. One Mapuche interviewee claims to have been sent to jail for opposing large-scale industry – not a world away from the treatment, closer to home, of Adani protester Ben Pennings. But, bewildered and dispossessed as some of their interviewees are, they have in common a deep respect for relationships that go beyond the human.

“It’s almost word for word,” says Matty, describing the similarities between those he met in Chile and Indonesia. They talked about the spirit of a volcano or the spirit of their vegetable garden, or the spirit of a river. Derived from the Latin for ‘breath’, animism attributes sentience, or soul, to other beings, forces of nature and things. Matty quotes scholar Graham Harvey when explaining the concept: “Animists are people who recognise the world is full of persons, only some of them human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.” It is practised all over the world, from Western Apache to Siberian Eveny people, and has been for many thousands of years. Anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor labelled it “primitive”. Today, it is a counter-cultural misfit in an empirical, solvable world.

Still, it comes unbidden. At my mother’s funeral, I spoke about her soul living on in the jacaranda trees and the scudding clouds, in the chilli I chop for dinner. She is them and they are her. Here at Roaring Journals, Ella Noah Bancroft writes of a crying planet who “pleads for her children to return to a world of reciprocity”, as does Linley Hurrell, who shares the deep and ancient connection of Gunditjmara people, kin to koontapool, or southern right whales.

At one point in the film, the couple desperately search for water as they trek through Chilean dunes. They and their four horses haven’t drunk for a day and the humans are starting to panic. The next morning, the pack sets off, rounds a corner and finds a spring, fresh water dripping from grassy outcrops overhead. At its base is a religious shrine. The horses drink, Matty and Heather drink. Their relief fills the moment, and it’s easy to see why humans have come to worship a place where water gives life to animals and plants. Not far away, entire forests are being razed.

Might a lost sense of devotion be at the heart of environmental degradation? Perhaps we can learn to live as better humans by taking animism as a starting point and unspooling from it a thread that weaves being into all that surrounds us. “We’re immersed in a story that says we are separate and superior to nature right now,” Matty says. “If we were to stop for a moment, we’d realise that the most intelligent species in the world shouldn’t be the ones destroying it.”

We’re also the ones attempting to save it. Just as interconnected as the planet’s problems are, so might be the ways to counter them. Technology, be it in the form of wind farms or copper batteries, must only form a fraction of the recovery plan. (Matt is currently making a film about copper mining on the Clarence River and much of the resource’s demand comes from the renewable energy sector). Indigenous philosophy is also part of the answer, along with social and behaviour change, legislation and a lot of imagination. Pausing to assess our own behaviour must feature, too. “We’re ingenious,” Matty adds, “but we’re really only going to find success when we stop to analyse our own story.”

His own version of salvation was to slow down and connect. He and his family live on Gumbaynggirr Country on land he owns with his brother and sister. They’re plugged into local permaculture and a tight community. Connection means immersing himself in the ocean, eating local produce, walking, gardening. It means going out and canoeing the rivers and being conscious and building a home. Lacing the everyday with awe. Living with a long-term mindset. And what will the everyday look like in, say, 50 years’ time, when Colt’s 51? “I guess what I would want is that he grows up with a sense of wonder and a sense of hope,” says his father. “I don’t think there’s any way you can shelter him from the realities of the world and the problems we’re seeing.”

Perhaps, a little like frogs or earthworms, those communities in Sumatra, the Amazon and the Andes behave as sentinel species, sensitive to the changes wrought by globalisation. The world is alive and beloved, they taught Matty. And everything worth loving is worth fighting for.

Photo by Matty Hannon


Becoming like the desert

We leave base camp and start our trek across this vast country.
We invite you to walk with us in a movement of the Australian people for a better future.The Uluru Statement from the Heart

There’s a section of our local bush track that takes me past the only handful of homes designated for Arakwal people of the Bundjalung Nation to live on their own, hard fought for, land. The path slinks through shaded grass then into soft sand and birdsong-pierced coastal scrub that finally, but only at the very last moment, opens onto the profound blackness of tea tree lake. It is said to be a traditional birthing place, a pool of maternal creation. There is peace in that spot, an energy that has existed and will continue to exist for aeons beyond you and me.

I’ve been thinking a lot about animism, spurred on by my latest feature for Patagonia’s Roaring Journals about the idea that a better way to live with and on the planet might lie in imparting lifeforce to its volcanoes, rivers, pebbles and snowflakes. To breathe a soul into grasses and shady bowers and petals and bee’s wings. Within that way of seeing, humans are only part of the reverberating whole, equal to but not above any being, rock or vegetable.

In her singular work, Tracks, Robyn Davidson writes about the Pitjantjara people she befriends as she treks across the spinifex-knotted aridity of remote central Australia. Remote to you and me, I should say, as it’s home to those First Nations people and their ancestors and families.

“And as I walked through that country, I was becoming involved with it in a most intense and yet not fully conscious way. The motions and patterns and connections of things became apparent on a gut level. I didn’t just see the animal tracks, I knew them. I didn’t just see the bird, I knew it in relationship to its actions and effects. My environment began to teach me about itself without my full awareness of the process. It became an animate being of which I was part”, she wrote.

“In picking up a rock I could no longer simply say, ‘This is a rock,’ I could now say, ‘This is part of a net,’ or closer, ‘This, which everything acts upon, acts.'”

She explains that in Pitjantjara, there is no word for ‘exist’. “Everything in the universe is a constant interaction with everything else. You cannot say, this is a rock. You can only say, there sits, leans, stands, falls over, lies down, a rock.”

Lose boundaries and fragmentation: join things up to stay alive. The self seemed to be, in that extraordinary place, “a reaction between mind and stimulus”, she wrote.

“The self in a desert becomes more and more like the desert. It has to, to survive.”

There is no individual, but a community of things and beings. To separate indigenous humans from their land is to shred that instinct. Pull a piece of that gum from the whole and the entire system shakes. It’s the same with the Mapuche in Chile or the Western Apache. It’s what Zapatista rebels fight for, it’s what our next generations, our Violet Cocos, are being sent to prison for. It’s a sense of neverendingness, of never-not-vibrating energy, that is woven through the Uluru Statement from the Heart.

Here walks a human, beside the fecund waters of the tea tree lake, past the fallen trees and the scythe tracks of a nearby snake. Here moves a community of humans, trekking across a vast and flawed nation.

Always moving forwards, together. Because, if the self becomes like a desert to survive the desert, does the self become like a prison to survive a prison?


Bentham on my mind

Much of my university study has slipped away, if not out of mind completely, then into its deeper recesses, but Jeremy Bentham’s work somehow defied the status quo and stuck. The panopticon and its modern day applications – ubiquitous CCTV, neighbourhood watch, social media – are all not hidden in plain sight.

The panopticon prison was an idea I came back to again and again during the choking, immensely weighty years of my mother’s time in a secure dementia unit. She was under watch but cared for, locked in but free to roam, feverishly but lumberingly wandering up and down, up and down. Nurses on sentry in their stations did the observing, and, occasionally, the ignoring. I still can’t believe I did that to her.

So, my university lectures mostly feel a long way from the foaming inlets and speckled swamps of Byron Shire. Its roads and its pubs, where constant surveillance is the modus operandi, less so. But what I hadn’t realised is Bentham’s involvement with NSW’s white settler story.

Not only did he find problems in the British colonial approach from the outset (he favoured his own prison design over transportation, arguing to the House of Commons Select Committee in 1798 that it was financially beneficial to the Crown), but he argued the colony had no legal basis, and was, he wrote in A Plea for the Constitution, a “Colossus mounted upon a straw.

As I learnt from Northern Rivers author Julianne Schultz in her uncannily timely The Idea of Australia, he “considered the failure to come to a legal agreement with traditional owners a flaw and predicted it would be ‘incurable’.” His plea and warnings, by the way, were written in 1803. 1803, the year Australia was proved to be an island.

Schultz’s book is timely in many ways (it’s answering so much I’ve questioned, for example, here and here), but also because a recent story I wrote for SBS Voices about the series The Australian Wars won’t slip from my mind. I keep coming back to a quote from Dr Henry Reynolds, with whom I chatted for the story in Munich via Zoom from his home in Tasmania. We talked about the 100 years of bloody wars that formed the shaky foundations for the states and territories of Australia and how so much of that history has been white-washed, forgotten.

Indigenous people were more or less redacted from the story and by the early 20th Century became little more than a footnote in history books. Leaving out First Nations peoples meant, he said, “you left out the violence.”

“To treat Aboriginals as worthy foes would have created a different situation … It would have meant that fundamentally there was that respect for the people who were resisting,” Professor Reynolds told me.

Even as the land’s ancestral people were seen as important enough to fight, they were not seen as human enough to respect. The panopticon was very, very far from those battle grounds.

And, today, as First Nations people make up the largest prison population by far, and are the most surveilled of all Australians, no matter whether incarcerated or walking in Sydney’s CBD, that word ‘incurable’ feels hard to ignore.

I’ve just interviewed a man who helped build the Clarence Correctional Centre, a state-of-the-art prison in the Northern Rivers, and I learnt that it features a stone circle as a place to come together and sit. I presume. Rock and stone circles have for many millennia been part of indigenous cultures around the world, and are a part of Australian Aboriginal rituals and Dreamtime histories. Bora rings are places of initiation, Victoria’s Wurdi Youang rock formation, egg-shaped and in line with seasonal equinoxes, is possibly the world’s oldest astronomical observatory.

There is no getting away from the past. Its arrow is boundless. Today’s prisons borrow from ancient culture while, of course, filling their cells with its people – and Bentham is often long forgotten, although not by me.


Maid good

Where I live, in Byron Bay, cleaners charge up to $70 an hour. My cleaner has just raised her rate to $50 an hour and about $60 seems quite normal.

To put this in context, a friend has just been offered a role in comms and research, hourly wage $40. Childcarers, $22 an hour.

I say this not to whinge – although my first instinct is to want to rail against it: look at how little childcarers are paid! And what about nurses! And teachers! – but I’m more chuffed for cleaners than I am slightly broken by how much I pay to dodge scrubbing my children’s grubby dirt ring from the bath.

It feels like a mostly unpleasant job is being recognised for what it is – hard and unsavoury work, very often done by women who are loaded with barriers to other career paths. Being a cleaner comes with a social stigma, and in a country where domestic help is rare beyond home cleaning, they are housemaids we choose not to label that way. Anyway, like waiters, whose wages go up and up, cleaners are almost as rare as hen’s teeth in a post-Covid, economically confused holiday town.

So, I report all this in observation but also in reverence for the verisimilitudes of a planet, a society, a culture in flux. For a Byron that, too, is newly attached to its real estate perversion (hence the cleaners) but also tightly tethered to something far deeper, a power that lives beyond the liminal, winding its way through the flows, currents and patterns, around the ebb and dance of nature’s rhymes.

The Bay I know is not the Bay you know. Nor is it the Bay your parents knew or the Bay your children will know. It’s is, like us, forever in motion, shifting like the sandbars that have come to flavour its current surfing fame – or perhaps that’s the fame that came before its celebrity infamy.

As Steve Shearer writes in his perspicacious review of Tricia Shantz’s Neverland, Byron has been many things since sedimentary layers at Broken Head were formed up to 405 million years ago. Mercurial primary produce prices saw a buttery and abattoir come and go and then come again – and whale hunting had its short, bloody and profitable moment in the Byron sun. Magically and improbably, its sand was heavily mined after it was found to contain minerals that the US needed in its space program. Stardust to stardust.

With each iteration of a place and a region – and a world – in neverending movement, the push and pull of celebration and detraction, of loss and love, of boom and bust, will forever shape our lives.

I read, in Clover Stroud’s brilliant book about motherhood, My Wild and Sleepless Nights, that nothing is set in stone, apart from the love she has for her children, which is carved into rock. I feel the same, and I’d add that respect for one another (be you animal, mineral, vegetable or sprite) has to be up there, close to that granite truth, too.

Cleaners will charge what they can now, which will not be what they are able to charge in the future. What can’t be negotiated and must be fought for, is the life force that exists far beyond us and our whims, far beyond all we see and all we judge. That, simply, is not for sale.