Our indigenous people and nature itself have much to teach us. Alex explores our connection with the land in home garden design.
Connection and belonging
‘Welcome to country’ has become a regular fixture at the beginning of speeches, art exhibition openings, conferences, and gatherings of all shapes and sizes in Australia in recent years. Acknowledgement of the traditional and continuing custodians of the land has facilitated in bridging the gap between our cultures. Developing a passionate connection to the land, as is conveyed by Indigenous Australians with their characteristic warmth and humour, may be seen as part of our healing process. It is precisely this feeling of belonging, not only to the land, but also to our tribe, that many Westerners yearn for.
The following quote from Indigenous Australian, S. Knight, sums up this connection to land well:
“We don’t own the land, the land owns us. The land is my mother, my mother is the land. Land is the starting point where it all began. It’s like picking up a piece of dirt and saying this is where I started and this is where I’ll go. The land is our food, our culture, our spirit and identity.”
Uncle Graham Paulson gives an even broader overview:
“In an animistic world every thing is interconnected – people, plants, and animals, landforms, and celestial bodies are part of a larger reality. In this world, nothing is inanimate, everything is alive; animals, plants, and natural forces, all are energised by a spirit. In this world, the invisible and the visible pulse with the same life and the sacred is not separated from the secular; they are interconnected and interactive.”
This description of unity is breathtaking in its scope, embracing all life; so there is truely nothing that a person could be separate from. For many people, feelings of disconnection with others can fuel fear, loneliness, depression, anxiety, or any other guise.
It’s my belief that we benefit significantly when we feel more connected to the nature around us. Our seemingly boundless individualism has helped us know who we are and define our differences from others. However, the accompanying feelings of separation from others and nature have wreaked havoc on our primordial need for kinship and connection.
The spirit of country
As a landscape architect I often ponder how we connect with the land. I endeavour to understand nature’s mysterious ways from ecological, cultural, psychological, and spiritual perspectives. This helps me to create designs that reflect the ‘spirit of the place’. I have found that visiting the outback and listening to indigenous people tell their stories is a good starting point. Another way is through our conscious awareness of our own spiritual nature which helps us to more profoundly relate to the landscape.
Developing an openness and sensitivity to the more subtle realms, opening our mind’s eye to what lies beneath the surface, and listening to our intuition to see where it leads are, I believe, the keys to a closer understanding.
The ‘holy grail’ of design
This is arguably the ‘holy grail’ of design: sensing the land’s elusive essence and expressing it in a way that enhances, rather than diminishes, the land’s intrinsic beauty.
It could be argued that most places are better left alone, without any human intervention, artfully designed or otherwise. However, with our increasing population and people’s continued desire to connect with nature, this is not a realistic option.
I have come across two projects recently that facilitate people’s access to the landscape without compromising its natural beauty. Teresa Moller’s coastal walk at Punta Pite between Zapallar and Papudo, north of Santiago in Chile; and, closer to home, Craig Burton’s design of Bradley’s Head Wharf on the Sydney Harbour foreshore in Australia.
Teresa Moller’s granite pathway and steps fit easily, even playfully, into the rocky ground. This provides access along the headland with minimal disturbance. In a video about the project Moller talks about how her design of the trail sprang from a desire to interfere with nature as little as possible. She hoped her method of ‘fitting in’ rather than ‘imposing on’ the landscape would create a more interesting journey. The result is an engaging pathway that rewards the mindful walker.
In Craig Burton’s design of Bradley’s Head Wharf, the sinuous curve of the shoreline is extended from the steps into the slope, creating grass seating-terraces, while delicately tracing the invisible contours below.
The sandstone was carefully sourced with the aim of it weathering to a similar patina as the surrounding naval fortifications. This ensured the new steps blended in effectively and did not stand out as a recent addition to the cultural heritage of the foreshore.
Honouring the land at home
So… how do you create this in your own garden sanctuary? Have you added something that gives your spirit a lift in your own backyard or have you ideas for something that conveys this feeling?
I think it can be done quite simply, especially with a little lateral thinking… In my garden in Margaret River, Western Australia, I made a spiral of granite stones to encompass a widening sawdust path around a young Jacaranda tree. It was loosely based on the shape of the nautilus shell, which is similar to the golden spiral, numerically expressed in the golden ratio of 1:1618… or ‘phi’ in mathematical terminology.
My simple interpretation of this was to trace an arc that was as far around the tree as it was away from the tree to make a wide and satisfying spiral. It was very simple to do. With that stretch of imagination, it allowed me to incorporate a symbol of one of the building blocks of the universe.
Each step a pleasure
Using sawdust for paths provides the additional pleasure of being very soft to walk on. The air pockets between the fine strands of timber absorb your footfall. There is a gentle bounce back with each step.
The desire to capture the elusive ‘spirit of place’ is a rigorous but rewarding exercise. It requires focusing the mind and senses to the awareness of subtler realms; to explore, experiment, and play.
Why do we strive for this connection to nature? I can think of several reasons. One is that it gives us a break from our incessant mind-chatter. Second, this pause between thoughts when we are ‘being’ rather than thinking or doing is where our power lies. When pondering a new design I often ask myself, “What does the land want me to do?” – and hope I can hear the response.
The main image on this article was painted by Judy Napangardi Watson from the Warlukurlangu artists of Yuendumu. It is republished with permission.
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