A long time ago I promised to think more about the crown of weeds in King Lear. On October 12, 2012, more than two years since I made that promise, I was given that opportunity in public. I participated in the creation of a tradition at UNSW that involved the actual construction of a weedy crown. On this day Professor Deborah Bird Rose crowned me with weeds to celebrate the submission of my PhD*. Hopefully future students in the Environmental Humanities** will also be similarly crowned! The tradition was the collaborative brainchild of Drs Eben Kirksey, Thom van Dooren and Ms-not-quite-Dr myself and made with the assistance of Diego Bonetto, Sydney’s own King of Weeds. Eben suggested I make a costume to celebrate my submission, Thom was amicable to this idea, I came up with the idea of crowning myself with weeds and Diego helped me select the edible weeds.
On a frosty morning Diego, Carin (from Slow Food Sydney) and myself went walking along the Cooks River and Wolli Creek in search of rogue edible plants. Below are a series of photos that capture the creation of this foraged weedy crown.
My PhD is on the storm in King Lear and during his time in the storm Lear strips naked and then crowns himself with weeds. My favourite interpretation of this crown is from Akira Kurosawa’s 1985 Adaptation Ran (Chaos).
I wanted to make the crown because I like what it represents. It is usually considered an indicator of Lear’s madness or the chaos in the kingdom. But I think the weedy crown represents the promise of an alternative political order. Taken out of its dramatic context, I think a weedy crown can be worn by anyone (of the 99%!) to represent an alternative way of imaging and living in the world. For me this alternative world positions disorderly natural forces (such as weeds, parasites and storms) and the unwieldy patterns of life and death at the heart of a refigured body politic.
This post comes with two disclaimers.
*Firstly, I have not yet received the award of PhD, given all this attention I can only hope I pass!
**I am a student of English at UNSW, not Environmental Humanities but I have been teaching in the Environmental Humanities and it was lovely of them to help mark this occasion. When I do finally receive the award, however, it will be through the English department.
Nevertheless, I am incredibly honoured to have been crowned with weeds by Professor Bird Rose and I can only hope to live up to the ideals represented by this digestible and perishable diadem.
It feels like just yesterday that I said my last goodbye to Dad, but when I think seriously about it, a lot has happened since the 16th September, 2009. I learned how to organise a funeral, I thought a lot about death and mortality and politics and society, I started writing my thesis again, I produced a play and took it on tour, I started to learn how to play a ukulele, I started to learn how to keep a garden alive, I started to learn how to collaborate properly, I became a vegetarian, I travelled abroad with my mother, I travelled abroad alone, I became an artist, curator and writer, I learned to take risks, I reopened myself to the world, I fell out of love, and I fell in love again.
When I think about it now, I think these activities of the last two years of my life are motivated by grief. I had to find ways to stay alive and present in the world in the face of such loss. I had to figure out what to do in order not to fall over in a heap.
Dad died two years ago today. I remember when he died cards came from everywhere expressing sympathy, but sometimes we received empathy cards. Often the empathy cards would say quite clearly that while they are sorry for the loss, they wanted us to know that ‘it doesn’t get any easier’. I felt as though such cards were welcoming mum and I into an exclusive club; a club for those struck by insurmountable grief, giving us the opportunity to suffer terribly forevermore along with them. This filled me with fear and dread: ‘It never gets any easier?’ I thought, ‘How will I survive?’ Two years on I guess I can say that they are right, it doesn’t get easier having lost the person. That person has gone and, as we know, no amount of wishing or hoping brings them back. But what those cards didn’t say was that if you can find a way to keep that person alive through yourself, that difficulty becomes manageable; they remain alive in the way they guide your actions, in the way you trust what they taught you and act accordingly. If this is true then I have my father to thank for the last two years of my life even though he wasn’t to help me through them. These were two of the most difficult and incredible years of my life so far. I wish he was here to share them with me, but that is impossible because since he died I have lived for him, rather than with him.
‘You are so young, so much before all beginning, and I would like to beg you, dear Sir, as well as I can, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them.
And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.’
Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, ‘Letter #4′.
(a companion to my earlier post: ‘writing‘)
This blog is rarely personal because usually I have more to say about the world than myself. I have blogged about leaf-blowers and death, politics and history, and science, meteorology and deep fried bacon. So please excuse me while I get a bit personal for a moment…
Last night I dreamt that I was a gladiator on the TV show Gladiators. I was striving to get to be selected as the one to chase the contestant up the rock-climbing wall, and violently rip them off in a dazzling display of physical strength and agility. I wasn’t selected but I had great abs and an awesome costume.
I also dreamt that I was spending a lot of time on the train, and the final destination was Bellambi Train station; I dreamt that Bellambi Train station was less like a bleak concrete platform in the middle of a suburban waste land, and more like an exotic Moroccan bathhouse on the side of a cliff on above a large sandy beach. I spent a long time reading photocopied material, naked in a bath, waiting for the train.
I also dreamt I was walking and talking with someone along a pretty path, when we were interrupted by the sudden appearances of spectres from the past and portents of the future: this simple stroll became complicated. It was not awful or frustrating, but the walk was totally interrupted, all spectres and all people dispersed, and I’m not sure what happened next.
Incoherent as all the parts of the dream are, they hold together as a whole unit: a coherent emotional story. The dream has stayed with me all day. While sitting at my desk reading about Renaissance meteorology and perfectly able to concentrate on the dense text, I felt the emotions stirred by the dream still firing throughout my body: they were circling around in my stomach, tickling the creases of my inner arms and, believe it or not, warming me just behind my eyes. Cynics will no doubt joke that I am experiencing the early symptoms of stroke. But perverse as it may seem, these dreamy vibrations feel really good. This dream mapped a large area of my emotional landscape: it wasn’t about work, love and life, it was how they feel. My invisible interior life, that is really only visible if I blush or tremble, was translated into an entire dreamscape. I woke this morning with the implicit understanding that this dream was an inchoate representation of how I feel about several key aspects of my life as it is today (yes, including the Gladiators and the bath-house-train-station). It has left me with something to think about and work with. It was emotional epiphany of sorts even though I don’t know what I came to realise as such. So for now, I will just keep thinking, imagining and hoping. And spending my nights dreaming and my days reading and writing about meteorology.
If you made it this far, thank-you for indulging my emotional-innards blog post. I promise to return to blogging about death and carbon taxes ASAP.
During the Howard Years the label ‘queue jumper’ was applied to anyone who tried to enter Australia via ‘unofficial’ means or ‘illegal’ passage. For the most part these people are refugees. So, anyone who fled their home and country for fear of prosecution, but who also failed to fill out the correct paperwork before arriving in Australia was labelled a ‘queue jumper’. Rather than just being an offensive gaffe by some loose lipped Barnaby Joyce-type politician,forgotten well before the next election, this phrase has entered common usage in the Australian vernacular; indeed it was a phrase key in winning Howard the next election. It is a tragic misnomer for a range of reasons but most tragically in relation to refugees: one cannot queue to flee. However the phrase stuck because it made sense to a shameless majority; it played into the imaginations of many Australians who, it turns out, are afraid that the wide brown land is too small to accommodate people in need.
I was in a queue the other day, but it was a queue of a very different order. I was queuing for coffee at a cafe in Chippendale. But at first I didn’t see the queue. A girl walked in, looked at me, and walked straight past me to a line that was trained along the counter. This line was obviously a queue. I noticed this almost immediately and joined the queue behind the girl who had walked in after me. ‘Is this the queue?’ I asked. ‘Yes it is’, she replied quite definitely. I wasn’t too disgruntled that she was in front of me in the queue, even though I’d been at the cafe for a few minutes longer than her (and she knew that!). But it did make me think a little bit about the mundane, interpersonal politics of queues and how this might relate to the concept of the ‘queue jumper’.
My basic point is, even if you can join a queue (i.e. because you aren’t ‘fleeing’ or because it’s a sunny and peaceful Friday morning and you can wait ten more seconds for a decaf flat white), you can’t join the queue until you know where it is. Then, when you do find the queue, no one actually cares how long you’ve been looking for the queue. When you do join it you have to get on the back of the line. That’s the rule. There can be no way to register when you decide to start looking for the queue, because if you knew how to register, you’d know how to find the queue. What struck me was that the girl could have offered to let me in the line, but she didn’t. She knew where the queue was, I didn’t. She’s gotta wait too. Why would she want to wait any longer?
It is here, in this mundane, more or less every day unspoken rule, we find the base and wretched political power of the phrase ‘queue jumper’. It doesn’t matter that many of the people labelled ‘queue jumpers’ don’t even know there is a queue (if we can even speak of the wait to immigrate to Australia as a ‘queue’, as such). Furthermore, anyone seeking refugee status would not be able to queue anyway: queuing to ‘flee’ imminent danger is impossible by definition. It doesn’t matter because while you’re average joe is waiting for his morning coffee, and reading the daily tele’s latest wretched story about ‘queue jumpers’, he’s linking the idea of the refugee to his coffee queue; he’s thinking about what he’d like to do to anyone who dared extend his wait time for his mug-o-cino and using that ‘basic instinct’ to interpret the plight of those displaced by political turmoil. It may too banal and too base but I feel like there’s something in it.
I’m looking forward to watching ‘Go Back to Where You Came From‘ on SBS tonight.
I have spent the day trying to construct a talk about my WALK project for The Right to the City Symposium this weekend. My project is entitled “walking in the rain” and is, as it says it is, a walk in the rain. The walk will happen rain, hail or shine along the Cooks River in Canterbury. I chose the site because of a range of reasons, but largely because the river is one enormous drain. Also I thought it would be interesting to think about rain in the city in relation to the infrastructure designed to drain it all away. I’ve been trying to think about my work in terms of the politics of storm water management, private property and urban planning. But it is really hard to construct a talk about a work that is not yet finished. So today I’ve been easily distracted from this task by Google Images, Flickr and YouTube. I was looking for engineered urban river systems, to help me think differently the particularities of the Cooks River system.
When thinking of urban waterways The Seine and the Thames of course came to mind, as did New York’s Hudson River. But as soon as I saw the picture I realised that the Los Angeles River is really the most extraordinarily stark example of a river that has been engineered in order to suit the water management needs of a modern industrialised city.
It is the epitome of ugliness and hasty, unsustainable urban planning. But it is also spectacular in its own way; for me the scale of the concrete system is almost sublime. It is a drain that is so big that it is iconic. But this is not what this post is actually about. This post is about cars. The Cars that Flooded Toowoomba.
In the process of looking for my urban riverscapes, I came across a video of the Toowoomba flash flood from earlier in the year. This footage was replayed over and over on TV at the time, probably under the headline ‘Inland Tsunami’, but I had never heard the original audio until today. The audio is a discussion between a group of colleagues, one holding the camera and the rest looking on in awe, while the flood waters rush into their work’s car park.
If you watched the video, did you notice that the discussion only refers to the flood waters a couple of times? Did you notice that for the majority of the clip entirely about the cars parked in the car park? This struck me as a telescoping of all media representation of disasters; ‘Nature’s’ fury doesn’t make sense to us unless pictured in relation with what ‘she’s’ furious with, in this case it’s the cars. Watching the footage of the Tsunami in Japan recently was the same for me; bridges crushing boats, suburbs of houses swirling around together like crumbs in a sink hole were the things that enabled me, with my limited human capacity, to begin to understand the scale of the non human wave.
While I think it is a banal, base and impulsive response, and (in the Toowoomba clip at least) it is also a funny response, it is nonetheless meaningful. If there was nothing meaningful in that relation between the natural event (wave, flood, storm) and the damage (houses, bridges, cars) what’s the difference between the footage of the Tsunami and images or footage of Niagara Falls? The ‘disaster’ is the relationship between the two. In fact, one scale for measuring the force of a tornado turns the basic human perspective into a kind of scientific method: the Fujita Scale measures the intensity of the cyclone by the amount of human infrastructure and vegetation it destroyed. For me the video of the flood in Toowoomba is a wonderful example of this curious human reflex.
As someone trying to write a thesis about a storm, I actually long for the opposite to be true. My entire thesis tries to circumvent this basic impulse to account for the human and not the storm. I am in engaged in a struggle to account for the storm itself; but then most of my observations have to begin with the drama of human perspectives that plays out within it/beside it/below it. I wonder what would need to be different for the basic reflex to be the opposite? I wonder what it would take for most of us non-experts to be able to imagine the storm instead of the broken power lines, the bush fire instead of the roadblock, the wave instead of the devastated town and the flood waters instead of the cars (the rising sea-levels instead of the politics?).
But how to link this impulse to focus on the cars in Toowoomba anyway to my day of thinking about urban storm water management? Here’s an idea. Our cities are built on the promise that we can manage the rain water. But, as French theorist Paul Virilio once stated that the invention of the train was also, in the same instance, the invention of the train wreck; by extension, the invention of the drain in some sense is also the invention of the flood. When the drains fail, be it the drain in the bathroom or the network of drains in the state of Queensland, it is logical that we take note of the damage to the things that the drain was supposed to keep dry. And perhaps recognise the drain itself as a mediator of the relationship between the flood waters and the damaged property; the drain/riverdrain is the conduit of meaning. The drain in this sense is meaningful. But meaningful how? I hope the meaning of the drain and its relevance to my my WALK project, to The Right to the City and to my talk on Saturday will emerge in a dream tonight. Sorry to leave this one hanging.
 all machines can be viewed in this way: plane/plane crash, ship/shipwreck, car/car crash. In fact perhaps it is just the industrialised version of Life/Death. Hmmm. That’s food for thought.
 It reminds me of this quote from the first episode of Treme “Hurricane Katrina was a natural disaster, but what happened in New Orleans was a man made catastrophe of epic fucking proportions”.