The dog doesn’t know she was a panic buy. She plays, and nips, and pisses on the rug just like any ordinary puppy. She has the bony chest of every kelpie, with a dash of white in the black and tan fur. Her legs and muzzle, a syrupy brown, make her look like she’s been dipped in honey. The rest of her is blackstrap molasses. Her eyes are the kind of warm yellow I long for at the end of winter.
She’s a working dog bought for company, and I’ve had to massage out the herding instinct and hone instead her loyalty. This hasn’t been hard. The heft of her, when she lies on my chest after a day of chasing, feels like companionship. The warmth of her body, impressed into mine, offers solidarity. She knows nothing about the pandemic. What she knows is the route we walk every day, along the dirt roads, to the grey box with the deep cleft in its trunk like Corbet’s model in ‘L’Origine du monde’.
I started looking for bodies in the landscape when pandemic conditions meant I couldn’t touch them so easily. They weren’t hard to find; in the clefts of trunks, in the saddles of hills, in the shape of the clouds, in the curved boughs of Hans Heysen-esque eucalypts. When I walk I recollect the bodies I’ve loved, repeating in my mind memories as a means of catharsis. Perhaps, I say to myself, it’s these memories I see transferred onto the landscape, familiar shapes to keep me company, to keep me going. Hope, Balzac said, is a memory that desires.
An image returns of an ex with head bowed as though in prayer, the shower spray hard on the back of his neck. Or a friend with her strong legs knee-deep in a paddock of capeweed, pollen staining her thighs. I think of a young lover standing at my back with arms tight around me, lips pressed into the side of my face. Or my rangy daughter laughing as she rocks herself on the hammock, legs dangling over the edge. I am remembering, repeating, and working through.
I have needed memories of corporeality as a salve because everything has been ‘self-isolate’, ‘social-distance’, ‘quarantine’, ‘contactless’ for so long, I’ve forgotten the random warmth of others. Some describe the pandemic as exposing crises of public health, of globalisation, of breath, and all of these are indeed correct, but I also think of it as presenting a near-unbearable crisis of touch. I’m longing for gestures of embodied hospitality; the ways we would greet one another in streets with arms outstretched ready to embrace or be placed on shoulders, our eager hands arriving in each other’s palms.
I ache to see expressions on lips, not just in eyes.
Pandemic days meant new rituals, new ways of spending time, of noticing others and propinquity. Many weren’t able to lean back into that routine of commute/work/commute/sleep, and even for those who did persist, their daily logics were all changed. We had to pay attention to different things, like distance, and surface cleanliness, and whether eyes returned unseen smiles. And in some ways we had to reconsider, with the uncertain time that makes it both stand still and multiply, what we ought to be paying attention to now that we aren’t compromised by the busyness of old routines. This in no way means there wasn’t another busyness that arose, the new everything-from-home order many of us found ourselves in. But I do think it’s given us a chance to perhaps reconsider what’s worthwhile noticing.
It is such a funny phrase, ‘paying attention’, as though noticing requires some sort of financial exchange, some risk and investment, profit and loss. It is a graceless way of conceptualising concentration. If we continue with this line of thinking, we might ask ourselves ‘what is worth paying attention to?’, or ‘how best should I spend my time?’ But really, there’s not a cost involved. Paying attention is more about our capacity to be affected, as philosopher Gilles Deleuze defined it. We follow our curiosity, our desire, and we respond to what provokes us by giving consideration, by being affected, by allowing some sort of transformation. We are changed by our attentions, or we ought to be.
Some people argue that ‘good attention makes a good life’. I remember the author Deborah Levy saying that ‘the writing is only as interesting as where she puts her attention.’ Where do I put my attention, now that I cannot touch other bodies, now that I cannot speak to strangers without being muffled? What, I wonder, makes for an interesting life in a pandemic?
The dog and I walk because I need something to do. She doesn’t. Dogs know perfectly well how to be themselves, how to fill the time, how to nuzzle into satisfaction and surrender. I’ve never been particularly good at those things.
When we walk, she busies herself chasing and collecting. She jumps over swathes of gold-dust wattle, which if you’ve seen in late winter you’ll know grow ankle deep on thin soil, and look like oversized golden-threaded handkerchiefs left crumpled on the ground. She chases the bees, and she barks at the white-winged choughs in the red box trees, and sticks at the heels of rabbits before they disappear down warrens. She paces the ringlock fencing wary of mobs of sheep, and always turns back toward me the moment she’s made twenty metres of advance. I watch her, waiting on the dirt road, head cocked to one side, yellow eyes eager for me to catch up.
She collects all kind of pieces of animal; the disjecta membra of roadkill and the collateral of farming. Sometimes it’s the pelvis bone of a kangaroo, sun-bleached like drift wood, or the vertebra of wallaby spine greyed with age that she carries between her teeth, stopping to gnaw when she’s made good distance. Other times it’s the tail feathers of a cockatoo or a corella, sticking to the black track of her mouth, or a lamb’s tail freshly docked hanging like a woollen tongue from her snout. Once I saw her running with the pelt of a rabbit as though draped like a fur coat across her shoulders, the dainty feet dangling, just brushing the tops of the grass.
I watch her collect up this loss and I imagine she is fabricating some sort of fantastical beast which can withstand these times. As though she is taking this loot and constructing a creature pieced together out of sight, made with all the durable traits that have tolerated hard human ways. An Angel of the Anthropocene is how I imagine it, perfectly adapted to this brutal moment where humankind dominates as driving geological force.
Thinking through the dog’s salvaged inventory, I picture this Angel as having a flexible backbone for adaptability, feathered wings for critical distance, small padded feet that barely impress upon the ground, a woolly pelt for shelter, and a strong sun-bleached pelvis for ensuring life in dearth. ‘Salvage’, I say to myself as I watch her uncover more loss from the long grass, is after all derived from the Latin word ‘to save’.
This creature, in my walking imaginary, is born of the Anthropocene, an era defined by shrewd, relentless cruelty and vanishing repair. It’s acculturated to these characteristics, and manages to thrive in spite of them. This Angel of the Anthropocene would be made from many hardened, embodied lives grafted together in such a way that it can feel the pull of the future, a compelling future, one that is sure to harbour its confounding form. I imagine the curious body it would have, and this, alongside my memories of corporeality, is what holds my attention during the contactless days that don’t end.
The dog’s Angel, I decide, belongs to a different kind of nature, one that is capable of carrying-on in the shadow of species extinction, pandemics, deforestation and climate extremes. This is a nature that is hardy and chancy, akin to anthropologist Anna Tsing’s notion of ‘third nature’, which she describes as being shaped by the dominant practices defining this historical moment. This concept is in tension with the more commonly accepted notions of first and second nature developed in critical social science. They relate, respectively, to the non-produced environment of the so-called ‘natural’ world which includes all ecological relations, and to those environments constructed as a product of human-nature interactions and specifically moulded by the predatory impulses of capitalism.
Second nature derives from first nature via a process of commodification. That is, the transformation of ‘nature’ into ‘resources’ or ‘services’, whereby economic value comes to dominate the object’s other potential uses. Second nature, in this thinking, is shaped by human processes of value extraction for the purposes of exchange, and ultimately profit. These are the precarious, often corrupted landscapes most of us are familiar with. Landscapes produced primarily for capital accumulation, such as the market-driven densification of cities or the agricultural landscapes of industrial farming; the mega-dams and mines; highways and ports. These are landscapes produced to increase the efficiency of our everyday.
Third nature, on the other hand, is the environments, and the socio-ecological functioning associated with them, which manage to survive processes specific to this historical moment. These spaces, lifeforms and relationships require a particularly hard-edged tolerance to capitalism, and are therefore characterised by an uncanny ability to overcome the extreme depredations we know only too well in Australia. More than this, third nature, much like the dog’s Angel, is able to sustain and flourish despite these overwhelming and ongoing despoliations.
Tsing describes these spaces as ‘sites of promise and ruin’. I think of them as pockets of stamina among a brittle, backlashing Anthropocene condition. In pandemic times, when global contagion morphs with climate extremes, I wonder if paying attention to the tenacity of third nature, and assisting its cultivation, actually fighting for it, might be the nourishment needed to get me through. When things start to fall apart, efficiency becomes less desirable.
On one of our walks, the dog and I are joined by a friend. It’s early spring and she points out a stack of greyed, broken branches and leaf litter harbouring a Tetratheca ciliata. Its flowers are small cupped hands, a luminous lilac, rising above minute elliptic mint-green leaves. These pink-bells, hardened and adaptable, grow in the pocked goldfields bushland, where old mining shafts, mullock heaps and coppiced trees are common to the razed, rocky soil. These are landscapes transformed by recent overbearing histories of hungry prospecting.
‘All they need is a little shelter, you see,’ my friend says as we stand side by side, peering down at the soft, unexpected blooms. And although she doesn’t know it, and neither do I at the time, I reflect later that she’d pointed out third nature’s mulish resolve to survive in ruins; its preparedness to flourish and flower and seed even without the promise of stability.
It makes me think of another landscape, carefully curated out of a wasteland, growing not far from a nuclear power plant on the other side of the world. A landscape blazing like another kind of Angel of the Anthropocene, grafted together from cuttings and seed and flotsam jetsam laboriously yet joyfully collected and arranged. This is British filmmaker, activist and artist Derek Jarman’s now-famous garden at Prospect Cottage on the barren headland at Dungeness, Kent. Bought in 1986, the same year he was diagnosed HIV positive, Jarman’s garden became immortalised in photos captured by his friend the photographer Howard Sooley in the 1990s.
These images show the modest cottage, black roof with tarred-timber walls and butter-yellow trim, surrounded by a garden of changing blooms and foliage grown from shingle. It is never a fussy garden by the looks of it, but rather a sparse, riotous wildness. Giant sea kale, sedum and gorse are constants, but stands of foxgloves, borage and flowering valerian change with the seasons. It is a garden cultivated from nothing, with sheer will and affection.
Sometimes in the background of Sooley’s photographs you catch a glimpse of the nuclear power plant sitting on the horizon. Its straight, bleak lines and boxed form loom over Jarman’s sculptures of beachcombed objects placed throughout the fenceless garden. There’s driftwood, flint, rusted tools and curled wire, piled upon bricks, wave-rubbed rocks and much miscellaneous detritus scavenged from the shore. These sculptures, anchored in flora, stand like crowds of odd-shaped, misfitting bodies peering into the future, while the hulk of the power plant squats at their back.
As I flick through Sooley’s photos and read Jarman’s accompanying text, I can’t help thinking that this wild combination of passionate labour producing an exuberant garden against a borrowed landscape of industry, offers an ideal image to Tsing’s notion of third nature. For me, this is an image symbolising a hard-fought carrying-on, a passionate paying attention, in the shadow of ridiculous, destructive enterprise.
In one of his journal entries written in 1989, Jarman recounts a conversation with the artist Maggi Hambling. He is telling her of the garden he is tending, and mentions his desire to write a book about it. ‘Oh, you’ve finally discovered nature, Derek’, Maggi replies. And Jarman describes refuting this, because in his mind he’s thinking of the great Romantic landscape painters and their depictions of a perfect nature so contrary to the chaotic crafting of ‘a wilderness garden’ he’s cultivating in Dungeness. ‘I don’t think it’s really like that,’ he responds. And Maggi, with a knowingness that Jarman felt worthwhile documenting in his diary, says ‘Ah, I understand completely. You’ve discovered modern nature.’
I read that journal entry several times and conclude that Jarman’s modern nature, improbable and profound, is about collecting the future. It has nothing to do with idolising the past, or fearing it. This modern nature, I decide, is what I have to work with.
I speak about Jarman’s garden with my pink-bells friend. I read her a line from the last book he wrote which includes Sooley’s photos titled Derek Jarman’s Garden: ‘Twilight here is like no other. It lingers in a perfect calm. You feel as you stand here that tired time is having a snooze.’ I tell my friend that I am tired; I am so tired of these unending, distanced days. I tell her how I wish I could dig life into thin soil and make a space where time was tired too, and slunk off for a while to give us all some rest.
I tell her that during that terminal moment, those pandemic days, I tried to focus my attention on practices that collect the future, that feel its compelling pull. I too want to be affected by the improbable and the profound I say. Colluding in acts of salvaging is one way to make the pandemic interesting I’d decided, to make the violence of the twenty-first century almost bearable. Otherwise it’s all loss and burial and mourning, and that morbidity takes its toll. And I mention to her the Angels I’d been imagining, born from the dog’s gathering on our daily walks and those I recognised in gardens grown from wastelands that I read about, and she looks at me as though I’ve gone mad.
I’m certain, though, that I can’t be the only one to want for Angels in the Anthropocene after a year when bushfires drove many from home and pandemic locked so many down; Angels that inspire with their ability to thrive in unprecedented conditions. I can’t be the only one, I’m convinced, to have welcomed visions of spectral bodies, phantasms, grafted from memory and loss, during the seemingly ceaseless crisis of touch.
In the same book in which Anna Tsing describes her concept of third nature, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins, she launches with an ever-relevant question: ‘What do you do when your world starts to fall apart?’
Looking back on this scarring year, and from the comfort now of lockdowns-lifting, I can answer that by saying I put a great deal of my attention to the daily practice of walking, and made the resolve to garden furiously. I thought often of a line from Deborah Levy: ‘A gardener is always a futurist with a vision of how a small, humble plant will spring up and blaze in time’. I remembered, repeated and worked through the awful loss of intimacy. I imagined Angels salvaged from the wreck, and dreamt up different natures that inspired me to nurture promise, to work hard for it with my body, to maintain the pull of the future despite the urge to retract and retreat and forgo any possibility of moving onwards. I confided in my dog about all of it, and somehow, we got through.
Lockdowns-lifting, I decide, feels a little like the relief of expelling another body from one’s own. That exhilarating consolation before you realise you have to take the baby home and care for it, and wake to it and clean it, over and over again. Lockdowns-lifting is a somewhat fleeting relief in the Anthropocene, to be savoured for sure, but attention ought to stay focused on that work of salvaging futures. I can’t say what this means for different people, but there’s the common desire for collective, urgent work pushing us on.
Claire Collie is a landscape sociologist, writing about spatial justice and the Anthropocene. She lives in central Victoria, where she gardens.