03 Sep 2021 THE ANTITHESIS OF CIVILIZATION
In 1987 I came straight from London to Tamborine Mountain in subtropical south east Queensland – some twenty-two kilometres from the Pacific Ocean as the crow flies – and have lived there for the past thirty-four years. I was bowled over by the natural abundance and exuberance of the place — by the brilliant colours of the birds, the size and profuse growth of the vegetation and, above all, the alien beauty of the rainforest. I had not long been here when I visited nearby Lamington National Park and went for a walk on one of its many trails. Someone I happened to tell of my visit, remarked that there were areas in the park where no human foot had trodden.
This had an enormous impact on me, newly arrived from Great Britain, which, according to Paul Theroux, is the most minutely transacted, walked on, documented and recorded spot on the globe. For millennia its land has been bought and sold, mined, built on, fought over, grazed, farmed, re-arranged, hunted on, dug up, charted and mapped. It has been written about in poetry and prose, it has been drawn and painted, photographed and filmed and had music written about it, to a greater cumulative extent, it appears, than anywhere else on earth.
Also, in those early days, I took my six-year old son Simon on a car trip north along the coast and then west into the interior. As we drove up the Bruce Highway beyond the Sunshine Coast, I recall noticing that the fuel gauge was showing less than ¼ full – we had just passed a petrol station – and remarking to Simon that we would fill up at the next garage. I assumed that motoring conditions on Highway 1 in Australia would be the same as on the A 1 in the UK; 100 kilometres later we limped into the next garage.
As we drove from Rockhampton to Longreach, I would set the trip meter to zero at the start of a straight stretch of road and note how far we had travelled before the first bend. I stopped playing this game after the trip meter registered over 50 kilometres. The look of the parched land, its textures and hues, impressed me deeply, particularly the immense flat expanses where the appearance of a solitary tree became a notable event. And all the while you fly over Australia’s vast, trackless, empty centre – burnt by the sun, its myriad colours and patterns spread out far below, containing minimal evidence of human existence, a view so seductive that the distance between you and the ground no longer seems to exist – you see that humanity only has a toehold in this country, overwhelmingly clinging to the coastline of this huge landmass.
And then it hit me: untrodden Lamington National Park, the parched land around Longreach, the empty red centre, all led to me realizing that I was being informed by the raw energy of the earth in its pristine form, which is so palpably Australia’s essence. Wherever human presence is dominant, the energy is hugely weakened. By sheer chance, thanks to this spiritual experience, I had discovered the antithesis of civilization. It has been one of my most profound and joyous findings.
The raw energy of the earth is pervasive and powers the totality of life. It transcends and predates by aeons, the presence of Homo sapiens. Its glory is precisely that it is not predicated on the survival of our species with its civilizing urge to master or conquer the natural world, regardless of how harmful to the planet that may be. The raw energy of the earth should not be confused with the tectonic forces which cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. They, like extreme weather events on land and sea, manifest as localised phenomena.
Until I realised the raw energy of the earth, civilization circumscribed my existence, no matter where I went, and there was nothing beyond it. The Collins dictionary defines civilization as a human society with its own social organization and culture. This definition encompasses the entire history and variety of civilization, from hunter gatherer communities to the most technologically advanced liberal democracies. The history reveals the inexorable trajectory of humanity’s increasing disconnection from the earth. How many people nowadays, are oblivious to the sound of birds as they go about their daily life? A profound belonging to the earth still animates today’s first nation peoples. It is impossible to imagine what the natural world was like in the absence of such a dominant species as Homo sapiens, which in the context of cosmic time, has only existed for the blink of an eye. I see the beginning of civilization as the point of separation between our species and the rest of animal life. Worse, in adopting civilization as our survival mechanism we are progressively threatening the viability of the natural world.
Discovering the antithesis to civilization was wonderfully liberating, because I never suspected that such a thing existed. Overwhelmingly Europe is overlaid by civilization’s imprint, not least nature, which largely exists within the confines of man-made landscapes, so that the wild is all but snuffed out. This applies to those parts of the world, whether developed or not, which are heavily populated. Consequently, I can never read or hear the word nature without thinking of civilization, which completely contradicts its use to describe the non-human world. Homo sapiens likes to make its presence felt by weight of numbers, unlike most insects. They comprise the bulk of species visible to the unaided human eye and immeasurably outnumber us, but, unless swarming, they tend to hide themselves from our sight, which they can easily do because most are rather small. I do not know to what degree the Sahara and the Amazon rainforest reveal evidence of human existence, though I suspect it too is negligible, even if they are located in heavily populated continents. Yet I am not aware of any country but Australia, which is widely identified by harsh, empty terrain, harmful fauna and flora and an unrelenting climate. The raw energy of the earth gives impetus to the wildness that always seems to be close by, as here, on Tamborine Mountain, which is home to the spider with the most potent venom in the world, some of its most venomous snakes and numerous creatures and plants that will harm you.
The word nature is, according to the critic and cultural historian Raymond Williams in his seminal book ‘Keywords’, the most complex word in the English language. He shows that, in the Enlightenment of the 18th century, a byword for civilization, nature was equated with the material world whose laws could be discovered, a usage that remains current. This led to a common identification of nature with reason and as something to be tamed. The word culture is almost as complex. One of its meanings is closely associated with the word civilization, another, with the word nature, so that, to me, the word nature is doubly tainted by these associations.
Tamborine Mountain, a plateau surrounded by an almost uninhabited, forested escarpment, is an outstanding exemplar of what it means to encounter the variety of species which, night and day, is everywhere around us. Equally, Australia seems to be an ideal country in which to find and absorb the raw energy of the earth. It is a perfectly located island continent. It was far enough away to be left to its own devices by populous neighbours. For tens of millennia its aboriginal population, though it spread throughout the land, was sparse and not prone to building or farming. In the few hundred years since the country was settled by Europeans, their reach has been relatively restricted and their numbers modest given the size of the place. Australia is the planet’s most biodiverse advanced country, with an unfathomable wealth of terrestrial and marine flora and fauna species. The amount of endemism is among the highest anywhere. This richness is largely due to the fact that forty-five percent of the land lies above the Tropic of Capricorn. Here are located, inter alia, some of the oldest rainforests on earth, the Great Barrier Reef, pristine wild rivers and savannahs, deserts, and unique rock formations The remainder extends to just shy of 44° South and includes more deserts, iconic rock outcrops, a wildflower hotspot, glorious subtropical rainforest, alpine slopes and substantial tracts of woodland graced by the earth’s tallest flowering plant, the mighty Mountain Ash, nudging just over 100 metres.
I was educated in one of the most civilized countries on earth and derive inordinate pleasure from living in another. Both are mature liberal democracies. Even with their glaring faults, I am not aware of any other contemporary system of government which I would find more acceptable and which offers individuals, in their hundreds of millions, a happier, more rounded life. I have also delighted in and marvelled at the different civilizations with which I came into contact on my travels. However, it is the most advanced civilizations that have continued to imperil not only humankind, but also life on earth, either via the immediate threat of nuclear Armageddon which emerged within a few years of the end of World War Two; or increasingly since the dawn of the industrial age and the subsequent explosive growth in human population, various forms of ecocide.
My realization of the raw energy of the earth is inextricably bound up with acknowledging biodiversity, which I adore, to the point, late in 1998, when I started to video and later also photograph, the very large number of flora and fauna species on Tamborine Mountain. The result is a record of small events, most of which in turn, result from me looking out for the overlooked. Several years into the project, which is on-going, I started filming the rainforest at night, because so many creatures in Australia are nocturnal. My subject matter is the range of species from lichens and minute bugs to rainforest trees visible to the naked eye. My purpose is to respond to the reality of their very existence by showing what they look like as clearly as I can, and to give people an intimate sense of the enormous variety of living things to be found in one small place on earth. I am filled with a recurring wonder when filming and photographing the kinds of plants and animals which are the content of my project. Nothing is more remarkable about a species than the fact that it exists. I film and photograph species simply because they and I are alive on earth together.
Revised, March, April and August, 2022