the islands

"A little metaphysics separates us from nature, but a lot of metaphysics brings us closer"

(Bachelard, G. 2002. Earth and the reveries of will. Dallas: The Dallas institute publications)

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In May 2016, Tricia Dobson and I, with a number of other explorers from the islands and beyond, began navigating the shores and wetlands of Canaipa (Russell) Island, where we live on South Moreton Bay. As our ease with this new way of doing things developed, finding access through a shared voice, both fluid and stilted, so also escalated the wonder we felt at each new entry to the wetlands and shores, forests and littorals, and the urge to return became irresistible.  

The meaning of "value" changes, when it is measured on and in the senses. And here, it is incalculable, because when you think of ways of augmenting value, what you are thinking about is deepening the immersion, complicating the tangle with each new meeting. In poetic, responsive encounters, there is no sense that one's humanness is pitted against the natural environment. As I listen, I hear the world about me listening back. A conversation is not marked by opinions and conjectures, truths and fictions, but by a meeting ground of shared sensory alliance. 

More images from these excursions can be found at the Lines in the Sand Website Blog, Canaipa Mudlines.



Mangroves grow in intertidal, or littoral, zones, particularly where there is a large build up of silt, such as estuaries, rivers and island lees. Because of a cultivated aversion, in polite society, to mud, these astonishing plants have received the disdain and even demonisation that can become a habit of spending too much time spent in shoes and socks. Like most marginalisation, it comes down to a lack of appreciation for all that they do, and, from an aesthetic point of view, all that they are as wildly beautiful choreographers of the shore zones. What do they do? Mangroves:

  • are an essential food source for animals and other organisms;
  • protect the coastline by absorbing the energy of storm driven waves and wind;
  • stabilise the seabed and shore;
  • improve water quality by trapping sediment;
  • provide habitat for many species; and
  • help to absorb carbon in the atmosphere.

You can find more information about them here.

Squeamishness about mud, and, by extension, mangroves, has led to the gravest misfortunes that come with misplaced values, such that their removal in the past was seen as an index of progress, Things have changed at the departmental level, with the essential contribution of mangroves to marine ecosystems recognised. However, despite efforts to enforce protection, the sheer fact of residential,  port and marina development, meant a loss of 313 hectares of mangroves between 1974 and 1997. However, you still encounter island residents with an almost shuddering aversion to mangroves, and it emerges that the principle objection is an aesthetic one. It is a difficult line of argument to counter, since to me, they are breathtakingly beautiful. In working within mangrove intertidal areas, perhaps one of the things we can hope to achieve is to interpret, or highlight something of this ineffable mystique that we encounter.







It is as though a house were too big, and clothes too small.




The urge to fashion a dwelling arises at the intersection of exertion and repose: the will to labour, to form, the space that will contain repose..

It is a primary urge of childhood, to form a nest, a nook. Surrounded by open books, an enclosure spread beneath a low hanging bough, behind a draped sheet, under a table. This will may come, one day to be realised in the building of a real house, as I have done. Yet still this need to make a small enclosure, just the size of the body, just big enough to enclose, still it remains alive, even when the real house is complete. It is as though a house were too big, and clothes too small. One desires an intermediate enclosure. Not the cell, no! Because a cell pits the smallness of the enclosure against the greatness of the world. The dwelling that satisfies the urge for autonomy, opens into the world, at the same time as it draws the beneficence of the world into its own fabric. Sometimes this desire has manifest in the smallest place makings, dwellings and chapels for imagined beings, and from these miniaturised dwellings, the forest increases its dimensions. I remind myself: Never cease to build...even the smallest nest, seemingly fragile has its of strength in the twine of fibrous lines. Never cease to recognise the invitation of a branch, a tree top, the folds of an ample curtain.  

In the space between four trees, I sense the absent walls that will be the outer casing of my dwelling.The merest hint of the rhombus is a suggestion of structure, already mapping out the space of an enclosure. It is only a question of filling the implied planes with matter. A different kind of dwelling will be seen from the advantage of low branches, reaching outward, inviting the draped structure, the tent, for example. Here the dwelling is built from up to down, unlike the bricked structure which takes the ground as its logical foundation. Then there is the dwelling which is the ground itself, and no more than a blanket needed to complete the rites of place. The forest provides just such an adornment to comfort, for fallen casuarina needles become enmeshed in layers and can be lifted as a blanket. It is cool and secure. Never will you feel so near to the ground, as when the ground covers. And then, there is the open ended dwelling, that is all stairs and ramps, look-outs and access, with no central heart or hearth. The only interiority in such a dwelling as that, is the contemplation one might bring upon it.




M U D   D W E L L I N G S

If you make a habitation with the dream of dwelling in mind, then you also dream the dweller.

Ash, as soft and white as talc and ochres from pulverised earth, carbon black from the tindered trees: something happened here. A fire blazed across the southern half of the island, isolated it, made an island within the island. This forest, giving onto the tide, land as low as the water's edge, and to whose water's edge the fire burnt: this became the place for dwellings in mud and sticks. We come to these places and, not knowing at all what we will do, we present ourselves as a question, beseeching the forest: make some use of me. Beneath the dry surface, my searching fist encountered moisture, extracted a mix of clay and mud, sand and fibre. Bricks were, by the combined design of hand and humous, rounded and small, as two cupped palms. 

To make an interior, you must first go to the open. Then you will find that the exterior invites the interior space, by arrangement of its trees, by the softness of its earth, by the hollows deep in fallen logs. 

A desire to labour grips me. I set myself to work. There is work to be done here. I fashion a rudimentary basket from found chicken wire to transport the mud-clay-humus from the shore, back into the forest. Each time, I squint to locate the building site. I shape the bricks, mixing the plasticity with ground fibre, then squash them into position, flecking them with ash. Then all over again. I am a work horse, and the toil becomes apparent as grime builds up on my skin from head to feet. 

Read more about Mud here.


To make an interior, you must first go to the open




T R E E  H O U S E


I have watched how children take to the act of building. That is, how they will put two or more things together. They will search the ground and not take too long about finding a thing to add to a thing. On it goes. It balances! That is good. It falls. Let it be and dig it in. It is easily placed and small: place another and another. Soon the branches of the tree begin to feel like my own limbs. A bend in a branch is the kink of my elbow. Its firm trunk is my own secure form, feeling the earth rise up through its axis. We are of a single species, tree and me: a poetic provenance links us, skin to bark, fibre to flesh. 

A child will place a daub of clay, then note how it sticks, and something will stick to it, into it. This frond, that seed, this scrap of frosted glass, this mangrove pod. It is not a house in the usual sense, because all the activity is taking place up above, and under, it is cool and shaded, but, all the action is up above. The ramps go up, the ramps go down, criss-crossing the tree as it the tree house were not so much a point to be reached in the branches, but a structure that climbs, and in doing so, mimics the tree. 


How to build a tree house


How to build a self climbing tree-house: Go down to a place that grips your soul with wonder. Distrust your own tendency to design, to function. Let function be a self-climbing thing - it works itself out by the standards that reveal themselves in the making. Look closely at the most abject thing, but not for long. Just...put it there! Laugh at the sheer folly of what you have done. Exercise the right to originality, because the only one to take up residence here is your good soul. Practice assiduously, what Robert Penn Warren called Democracy, a responsibility of selfhood, to know the world in a way that establishes the locus of self in the practice of poetic responsiveness. Like Warren, (in Democracy and Poetry), I use the term poetic, to refer to all art forms, to establish a coherence of all that is art. The poetic is the revealing of a thing in an orignary way::  

Each of us must live his own life, assess his own world, and discover his own satisfactions — and dissatisfactions. 

Democracy, for Warren, is not simply a system that is conferred upon us, but a responsibility to selfhood, that we can only claim ourselves, each and everyone, and such democratised selfhood pours back and enriches the collective. Such is to be kept in mind, when building your tree house. Make it a dwelling place for the soul, a claim of democratic necessity, and if the weight of the body is accommodated also, well and good, but your poetically guided structure will dwell in you with the firmest of foundations, regardless of the bearing capacity of twigs and leaves. 


A bend in a branch is the kink of the elbow. 



T W O   C H A I R S


A chair, is an island for a single inhabitant. It could be imagined as a rudimentary technology that raises upward, the ground, to meet us half way, neither on the ground, nor yet our head in the air. Perhaps because of this, it has long been an ideal place for thought, that is neither completely inward looking, nor entirely elsewhere bound. It is a piece of horizontal surface, a portion of ground that isolates the stage of one's position. "Here you sit", says the chair. No other. It is the receiving shape of a single being and gives me the evidence I need to know I am one and not many. In this regard, the chair is the ideal image of the aloneness of a person. I sit in my chair, made for the size and folds of a human form. Where the back of the chair meets the plane of the seat, there we know, without being told, the back bends at a right angle to the legs. The height of this plane from the ground, given by the legs of the chair - four of them - measures the knees to the feet. The differences in each human body are measured by the degree of difference to these idealised angles made in the accommodation to this piece of raised ground. Thus when we see a chair, we see the negative space of the human form, which is the not its opposite, but its spectral equivalent.



On my arrival at Adam's Beach, that gentle arc just south of Dunwich, before the long stretches of mangrove shore begins, I spied twin chairs, backs and seats gone, lingering in the long grass, beneath serpentine limbs of an aged cotton tree. Metal frames they were, rusted beneath the remains of flaking white paint, and arced backs. I knew at once...