Cultivating Ecological Perception: Creativity within Undergraduate Explorations of Human Ecology and Ecological Agriculture

Ben Gleeson

 

Summary

The Human Ecology subject is a third-year unit of the Ecological Agriculture degree at Charles Sturt University (CSU). Unlike typical agricultural science subjects, this unit provides a major assessment task offering students the opportunity to examine their own ecological subjectivity using modes of artistic expression. Here, I reflect upon my experience as a student of Human Ecology. I outline my creative practice, present some of my results and discuss the ecological learning that flowed from this engagement. Following this, I situate these learnings within a broader context of ecological cultivation, and close with a brief assessment of Human Ecology as a component of the Ecological Agriculture degree.

Human Ecology and the art of Ecological Perception

The Human Ecology subject at CSU requires agriculture students to design and enact a program of artistic practice using one or more modes of creative expression. This practice may occur within, or with reference to, a specific environmental context or organism (e.g. tree, sprouted seed or animal). Students submit a folio of expressive work along with a written report that describes their practice and resultant learnings. Subject materials provide weekly readings associated with ecological science and philosophy, but the theme of the major assessment task is an engagement with five tenets of “Ecological Perception” as described by Laura Sewall (1995) in her essay, The Skill of Ecological Perception. These tenets are: “learning to attend”, “perceiving the relations”, “perceptual flexibility”, “reperceiving depth”, and “the imaginal self” (Sewall, 1995).

This present article contains examples of poems, photographs and ink paintings, along with text-based descriptions and reflections submitted in my final report for Human Ecology. After describing my chosen place and practice, I address each of Sewall’s tenets individually and discuss how my engagement related to them. I also discuss how insights derived from this experience might relate to human cultivation and land management in the Anthropocene with reference to ideas around “auto-rewilders” (Tsing, 2015) and “ecosynthesis” (Holmgren, 2002; Tane, 1993). I conclude with a brief assessment of the efficacy of the Human Ecology unit as a stimulus toward enhanced ecological perception among tertiary-level agricultural science graduates.

Place and practice

Flood Creek is an incised flow line beside the town of Braidwood, New South Wales. It forms part of the catchment of Gillamatong Creek which joins the Shoalhaven River, eventually flowing to the sea near Nowra. Braidwood has a population of 1100 people. It was officially gazetted in 1822. The pre-European vegetation of this area has been extensively cleared, so much so that only one percent of the original native cover now remains on the Devonian granite basin surrounding the town (Appleby, Knowles and Cole, undated). Whilst most of its catchment consists of open paddocks, the peri-urban section of Flood Creek is heavily vegetated. This vegetation is primarily non-native species, but several macrophytes, including: Typha, Phragmites, Eleocharis and Carex, provide native exceptions. The current overstorey consists of crack willows, eastern cottonwoods, Dutch elms, and box elders. Understorey plants include small-leafed privet, broad-leafed privet, and hawthorn. There are various non-native vines and ground covers, especially common ivy, honeysuckle and periwinkle, among others.

Ben Gleeson photo 1

Digital photograph: Pool with exotic forest at Flood Creek

I attended to my practice at Flood Creek twice a week over an eight week period during April, May and June of 2011. I would ride my bicycle to Flood Creek with an ink-wash brush, a jar of black ink, an A5 book of textured paper, and a digital camera. I explored new parts of the area at each visit and selected a location based on random aesthetic allure. I would sit amongst whatever groundcover was present (usually ivy or buttercups), unpack my paper, brush, and ink and arrange myself comfortably. I would then gaze about and consider various aspects of my surroundings until the beginning of either a painted image or poem emerged for me to work with. These were initially sketched using the brush and ink on textured paper and the majority were re-worked to completion upon returning home. Having captured at least one satisfactory poem and one painting, I would take up my camera and wander in whichever direction captured my attention, looking for subjects or perspectives of interest.

Ben Gleeson photo 2

Digital photograph: Winter willow reflected at sunrise

Sewall’s Tenet 1: ‘Learning to attend’

The initial residential school for Human Ecology, included a group-lesson in life drawing. This was intended to provide a first step on our learning journey into artistic expression. The sketches shown below indicate some personal progress during this initial lesson. “Pear 1” is my first attempt at sketching a handy pear. “Pear 2” is my next effort after feedback and advice from our tutor, Helen Cochrane. The results of this exercise provide a simple demonstration of how the ability to perceive and record ordinary details of reality can be improved through conscious effort and practice in creative modes of attendance.

Ben Gleeson photo 2b

Pencil sketch: first and second attempts at representing a handy pear

Despite this enlightening introduction, my initial ink paintings at Flood Creek were less than satisfactory. I now feel this was due to my elevated anxiety that the practice might not produce tangible results suitable for assessment. I recall I felt a pressure to “hurry-up and do something creative!” My paintings seemed uninspired and forced, and it was only after a moment of deliberate relaxation that my first poem,1 “Sit to paint”, unintentionally came to mind.

Sit to paint

 

I sit down to paint,

… too fast!

Look;

to see,

to hear,

to smell,

to feel,

to taste,

to let,

to learn,

to paint.

Until that point, I hadn’t intended to include poetry within my practice, but I wrote this poem with my paintbrush and ink and continued to utilise poetic expression from that point on. After this, my confidence in the practice grew. I could recognise the receptive state of attendance that I was aiming for and no-longer had to “try” to create. My initial plan to paint realistic pictures gave way to playful doodling. I eventually found myself satisfied with small representational images that encapsulated the “feeling” of certain aspects of my surrounds.

Ben Gleeson photo 3

Ink painting: A rush at the water’s edge

Sewall (1995, p. 207) states that mindfulness can help to attune our attention to new, ecological, perceptions of the world. By reflecting upon our modes of awareness we learn to influence processes of perception. According to Sewall (1995), deliberate moderation becomes a self-reinforcing change as we cultivate neural pathways of attention and cognition. During my practice I learnt to relax away from day-to-day preoccupations beyond Flood Creek, and to attend from a mental state of creative receptivity. This attentive focus required a sort of “letting-go”, and an uncritical acceptance of undirected (intuitive) attention which drifted over the elements of my surroundings. As an artistic novice, I experienced this activity as similar to Tai Chi practice. It required an effort of sorts, but this was an effort to relax my conscious mind and to engage with the relaxation. As a result, I felt I began to perceive and consider details of my environment that normally would not intrude upon my preoccupied conscious thought.

Sewall’s Tenet 2: Learning to perceive the relations

Sewall (1995, p. 208) discusses the need for a shift from perceiving individual objects to an appreciation of the contextual relations in which they occur. As I pondered this idea in regard to my practice, I realised rather than representing distinct objects in my environment, my creative responses could only ever be a representation of relations—an entirely subjective selection of relations within which I am momentarily situated. An image of a forest scene might show components which we name (in English) “trees”, “moss”, “vines”, “leaf-litter”, “sunlight” and “insects”, but all of these must relate together in a certain combination to compose our mental notion of a “forest”.

Each named object-entity itself is composed of a multitude of further relations: evolutionary relations, climatological, historical and geomorphological, specific and general, proximate and ultimate, among an infinite host of others. A particular wasp is a collection of relations between thorax, antennae, eyes, wings and legs; between daily goals and the goals of a life cycle; between the wasp-individual and wasp-others; and between it and non-wasps. Every facet exists in a certain ecological relation to whichever “object” we choose to perceive; be it the wasp’s wing, the wasp itself, the wasp nest, the buzzing tree-hollow, the whole tree, the living forest or the pulsating biotic planet Earth.

Ben Gleeson photo 4

Digital photograph: A tangle of relations

As humans, we focus at times upon one or several of these relationships to compose our mental picture of the reality around us. Karen Barad (2003) observes that we take representational “cuts” from reality and perceive only the isolated fragments extracted via this process. In doing so, we suppress a multitude of other relations woven into the fabric of reality. This is a necessary and subconscious habit of our cognition. We focus attention upon certain kinds, and certain levels, of relation and ignore an infinite number of others as background “relational-noise” within any given moment of perception.

Existing attitudes towards the organisms living at Flood Creek seemed to provide an uncommon demonstration of human predilection for perceiving objects rather than relations. Almost all of the plants growing here are officially categorised as “environmental weeds”. But, while it seems reasonable to expect that these species could be a disruptive threat within existing native ecological assemblages elsewhere, the malignance of their presence at Flood Creek seemed muted and questionable given that here they flourish within a sylvan context composed almost entirely of other exotic species. After a few weeks of visiting the site and the organisms living there, I began to wonder, “why is it people can’t see this wood for the weeds?

Weed objects

 

Were these but objects,

so, there be no Union.

No fear that we could destroy the whole,

for there is no whole.

No ‘One’.

Just this one,

and that one,

with no relation between.

Each lumped together,

without any belonging.

My increasing perception of forest-ness at this site was due to recognition of the natural structural composition and inevitable ecological interactions occurring there. I know that from a certain perspective it seems surprising (perhaps even slightly disappointing) that relationships between living entities can emerge without millennia of co-evolution within a “pristine” ecological community. The particular assemblage of species at Flood Creek could be entirely unique, but this self-composed community demonstrates an aspect of existence that is clearly very widespread. There is an ecological principle at-play here—one not so apparent within our abstracted and mythically-changeless ideals of “pristine” pre-European Australia. Toby Hemenway (2009) observes this ecological inclination to relate in the emergence of self-moderating Permaculture gardens. He states, ” … nature adheres to a deep order. It is almost as if living beings ‘want’ to come together into coherent communities. Given half a chance, plants and animals will self-organize into a connected whole.” (Hemenway, 2009, p. 194)

Co-founder of the Permaculture concept, David Holmgren (2002), has, over a long period of time, taken a particular interest in what he calls “weedscapes” occurring in unmanaged pockets of landscape. He and Haikai Tane describe the process that draws organisms into organised and self-sustaining communities as a form of “ecosynthesis” (Holmgren, 2002, 2011; Holmgren preface in Orion, 2015; Tane, 1993, 1999). In contrast with this notion of “synthesis”, many common formulations of ecological and evolutionary processes overemphasise themes of intrinsic conflict in the “struggle for survival”. This struggle is framed as a continuous battle by each organism to control, dominate, or vanquish various components of its ecological context. Such limited perceptions obscure and downplay the demonstrably cooperative outcomes of ecological interaction. Ecosystems exist only because of the interrelations that allow various species components and communities to survive and reproduce. The concept of ecosynthesis describes the emergence of relations between species that might, or might not, have previously formed such ties together. Recent developments in “novel ecosystems” science have focused the attention of a generation of ecological practitioners upon this naturally synthetic process (Hobbs et al., 2006; Seastedt, Hobbs and Suding, 2008). An understanding of ecosynthesis could provide insights which promote further ecological perception and might be used to inform intelligent human ecological interactions. The “struggle for survival” is not a battle for domination, rather it is an ongoing effort to create and occupy an ecological niche, a grand labour towards integration and interrelation.

Three years before I began my Human Ecology practice, I discovered a small Eucalyptus viminalis seedling growing in a pot of parsley that we had transported from former bush-accommodation to our new home in Braidwood. I decided to release this tree “back into the wild” beside peri-urban Flood Creek. I duly planted and watered it, and erected a wire guard around it to protect it from browsing by local swamp wallaby. It grew well and was just over a metre tall when I returned to conduct my creative practice within this largely exotic riparian forest.

Gum fight

 

Lonely new gum.

Caged and protected.

Set apart, and yet,

no hatred for the wild invaders that surround you.

Like them, you fight,

in an endless battle,

for harmonious relation.

Immersed in our epic struggle,

simply to belong.

 
Sewall’s Tenet 3: Developing perceptual flexibility

My curiosity regarding the way these wild volunteers had arranged themselves to form a riparian forest structure (over-storey, understorey, shrubs, ground-covers, vines, semi-aquatics and aquatics) prompted me to consider the area more closely. I was fascinated by the forest phenomenon I perceived and yet struggled to articulate. I spoke about Flood Creek to a friend within our urban-Landcare Group, but she shied away from conceptualising this vegetation as anything but a random collection of invaders that had displaced the native ecology that “should really” occur in this location. I recall she said, “I can see how it looks like a forest … but it’s not”.

Within the Human Ecology learning-space, I had recognised an opportunity to explore novel perceptions of reality and I deliberately took it. I know I can look at the vegetation of Flood Creek as a random collection of “all the worst weeds in the world” (I have at times in the past), but I wanted to practice new ways of perceiving it and see what this might reveal. I was aware that there had been little active human intervention at this site for more than sixty years (when the oldest willows were planted to stabilise erosion). On the face of it, it seemed wild and organic, so why should it be perceived as somehow unnatural? It is not as if this community suddenly sprang forth to dominate a pristine native ecology; it has emerged over nearly 200 years following the deliberate removal of the pre-existing vegetation. Its level of diversity is comparable to any degraded and disturbed forest—native or otherwise. So what makes this an illegitimate ecological community? Why is it a forest of weeds? What aspects of the celebrated “natural world” have been banished from this space, and what of nature remains? Even today, I have not resolved my conscious perceptions around these questions; there remains a level of inconsistency; it is as if what I now perceive at this site is not one thing or another, but untidy aspects of both.

Ben Gleeson photo 5

Ink painting: Unnatural pied currawongs perched in a winter willow

Writing in the early nineties, Sewall (1995, pp. 202–3) discusses schools of thought which, she says, are moving towards recognition of “an ecological self”, one not defined in opposition to the outside world, but existing within a “radical awareness of interdependence”. Val Plumwood (2008, p. 328) describes how, “an ecological understanding of the self” may help us to formulate “reshaping narratives and practices” much needed at this time of ecological crises. Similar notions are inherent within Karen Barad’s (2003) concept of “intra-action”, which explicitly acknowledges the formative contextualisation of apparent individuals within a single overarching reality. It seems counter-intuitive, but perhaps the ultimate realisation of “self” leads inevitably to personal dissipation within something even more ultimate, something beyond the deceptive and limited boundaries of our distinct individuality.

At one point during my practice at Flood Creek, I witnessed an autumn leaf falling from a willow tree. This event provoked the first line of a new poem, “Leaf”. This poem encapsulates a moment of pondering in regard to the ecological-self discussed above. Following the thoughts of Martin Buber (1971), our Human Ecology assessment task invited students to explore the use of the second-person pronoun “Thou” within our creative engagement. With this in mind, I used “Thou” to encapsulate the entirety of biotic reality beyond my subjective self. This provided an opportunity to ponder the ethereal and permeable boundaries existing between “us”.

Leaf

 

A leaf falls,

and so starts life anew.

Thou soul encompassed in perpetual beginnings.

Share I too,

this soul of joy and darkness?

Where then is thy end?

As I watched it fall, I realised this leaf would soon be consumed and incorporated as soil biota, so, in a sense, beginning life again. This led to consideration of its “soul” transformed into new life, or perhaps, many new lives, as its essence might now animate multiple microscopic others. It would follow that this “leaf-soul” must have lived on multiple occasions and as many other beings in the past. As such, there could only really be a single animate soul on this Earth—one constantly borrowed and shared between all living entities; continually dying and yet being reincorporated and reborn in new forms. Knowing that I am a result of the evolutionary process—and considering I must then share a common ancestor with all life on this planet—I paused to consider myself as a fleeting participant in this life and death of the one animating soul. This experimental form of self-awareness clearly touches upon insights of a metaphysical nature—no branch of western science presently discusses our universal biotic relatedness as the sharing of a single unified soul. And yet, this ecologically shared animus and our genetic descent from one original replicating ancestor is the undeniable scientific reality for all life on Earth.

Patterns

 

We are but patterns,

carved by process,

into matter.

Becoming and unbecoming,

simultaneously in synchronicity.

Again,

and again,

and again,

and never again the same,

but always,

and forever,

patterns,

fitted together.

 
Sewall’s Tenet 4: Learning to reperceive depth

I chose Flood Creek for my practice largely because of previous engagement as a Landcare volunteer in this area. However, I was also persuaded by Sewall’s framing of a descent into the Grand Canyon as conducive to reperceiving ourselves existing “within a biosphere, rather than “on a planet (Sewall, 1995, p. 212). Somewhat contrastingly, our Human Ecology study materials contained a discussion of Deep Ecology written by Arne Naess (1989) and I was interested to note that much of Naess’s work on this topic was completed in a mountain cabin, high above the snowline in Norway. I found the notion that deep ecology had been formulated from a position of significant altitude an amusing juxtaposition—a deep ecological philosophy formulated in elevated isolation.

Initially, I considered climbing Braidwood’s diminutive local version of a mountain (Mount Gillamatong) to conduct my ecological practice, but, in the end, despite the allure of the mountain-top perspective, I chose the more accessible position amongst the exotic forest that lines the Flood Creek incision. Whilst the banks of Flood Creek are not so incised as to compare to the Grand Canyon, some of the trees stand around 40 metres tall and I thought this would promote a similar perspective. Enveloped by towering vegetation, it is easier to perceive the biosphere surrounding and supporting us in every direction.

Ben Gleeson photo 5b

Colour photograph: Winter-dormant poplars framed by ivy-clad willows at Flood Creek

According to Sewall (1995) we may experience “psychological repercussions” following an ecological reperception of depth. Situating ourselves within our living planet, we become aware of our relative insignificance and must accept the limit of our ability to dominate this biosphere. This can lead to a joyous freedom from our “need to control”, and may prompt, instead, a reverential communion with the ecological world around us (Sewall, 1995, p. 213). Working amongst the wild exotic vegetation at Flood Creek, I often thought of our ongoing efforts to eradicate many non-native organisms from within Australia’s national borders, and pondered our escalating passion for “biosecurity”. In light of the increasingly militarised terminology of our endless “war on weeds”, I need no further demonstration of the human aspiration to complete ecological control.

As a student of ecological agriculture, I recognise this same aspiration in our maintenance of modern agricultural monocultures—which Donna Harraway and Anna Tsing reference within the notion of “the Plantation-ocene” (Lassila, 2015a). We inflict these impoverished ecological spaces upon our living Earth despite all biological imperatives to diversity and complexity. Our lack of awareness regarding our place as embedded components within the landscapes that we cultivate leads many to misperceive the relative depth at play. In real life, we are enveloped by this biosphere, not standing over and looking down upon it. Our illusory perception of control is a result of determinedly myopic cultural narratives. We repetitively misconstrue unsustainable abuse and ecological degradation as triumphant human mastery, but forget that “control” and “abuse” are two very different things.

Sewall’s Tenet 5: Intentional use of imagination

Although it is often assumed that artistic endeavours require an indulgence of the imagination that would be inappropriate elsewhere. This is not an accurate representation of imagination or how we use it. In “Imagination: Creating a New Reality”, Sewall (1999) describes picturing the whole moon using her imagination whilst only a half-moon is visible. This simple example demonstrates that imagination is not all fanciful concoction; much of our normal rational experience of reality relies upon it. Imagination is a vital part of perception, and deliberate imagining can be a valid tool for aligning our ecological worldview.

At times, I deliberately practiced using imagination amongst the Flood Creek vegetation. Having allowed my attention to settle upon a willow trunk, I could extend my focus beyond what I saw using my eyes to consider aspects of the tree that I can know only conceptually. I imagined the flow of sap up and down within the trunk of the tree; I imagined the stress of physical loads placed upon it as it supported and anchored the swaying canopy, towering above; I imagined the tree’s roots spreading through the soil; and I imagined the multitude of other organisms living in, on, under, and around it.

I used imagination in other ways too; ways that enabled entirely speculative reconfigurations of reality. Sewall states, “… there is an art to this. It is the ability to free one’s view from the conditioned and programmed worldview unpatterning the assumed world and then to artfully stitch it back together through the power of cultivated imagination.” (Sewall, 1999) At one point, whilst observing a stand of leafless winter-dormant willows, I imagined them as people reaching their branch-arms towards the sky and I decided to explore this image on paper.

Ben Gleeson photo 6

Ink painting: Trees-as-people, people-as-trees

Painting these tree-people, I realised a conceptual shift; playing with words, I considered “trees-as-people”, but then also “people-as-trees”. Following this, my painting became something different. Instead of seeing trees as people (i.e., anthropomorphised trees), I imagined people as trees—Homo sapiens so integrated into their environment that, like trees, they become supportive keystone components of the surrounding ecology. This resonates with the way that Bill Gammage (2011) describes Aboriginal cultivation maintaining pre-European ecologies in Australia. According to Gammage, Australia’s indigenous people played a vital role as cultured and cultivating participants within landscape. Other living presences co-adapted to the activities of the people, and novel Australian ecological communities wove themselves together, with humans and their cultivation as intrinsic features.

Ecological perceptions of human cultivation

For me, this embedded perspective of human cultivation contrasts with the oppositional way we often perceive modern agriculture in Australia today. The general expectation is that cultivation is properly and entirely an unnatural aspect of our biosphere, separated from the ecological reality that preceded deliberate human modification. Would it alter our modes of cultivation if we could reformulate our current self–perception to acknowledge that we are, in fact, intrinsic components of the ecologies that we cultivate? From the perspective of evolutionary and ecological science, it seems foolish to pretend that we could be anything else. So, how long will present-day agriculturalists (and the urbanised populations that rely upon them) imagine themselves and their actions as somehow detached from the ecological world? Furthermore, how long will our ideals of ecology in Australia be reduced and compartmentalised as everything that is “pristine”, “untouched”, and pre-European, that is, never us today, but always a sub-set of idealised and supplanted others?

It is as if ecological processes were extinguished (like native title perhaps?) at the time when Europeans arrived upon Australian shores. The exotic species that dominate Flood Creek are condemned to the same meta-ecological space as any human arriving after 1788. Human cultivation is relegated in this way too—as if somehow supernatural. This explains why authors like Bill Gammage (2011) and Bruce Pascoe (2014) struggle to establish the notion of Aboriginal people as cultivators of Australian landscapes; the practice of human management in pre-European Australia does not sit comfortably beside fabricated ideals of a “pristine” natural world existing before the arrival of “civilised” and “enlightened” human cultivators from Europe.

As part of current discussions around the impacts of the Anthropocene, and calls for a “rewilding” of the Earth’s landscapes, E. O. Wilson has recently proposed that an entire half of the planet should be abandoned by humans in favour of “wild nature” (Mingle, 2015). Within the context of our thinking about Human Ecology, it seems important to ask whether an evacuation like this would leave Homo sapiens better-integrated with the planetary biosphere, or would reinforce the idealised separation so typical of dominant scientific epistemologies. Would this segregated rewilding significantly alter humanity’s self-perceptions and our attitudes towards the nonhuman presences of this biosphere? Or, would it simply lead to more corporate conservation, with more herbicide and poison baits, and more human “biosecurity” of wild spaces ad infinitum?

Tsing seems to offer an alternative to this vision in her discussion of “auto-rewilders” (Lassila, 2015b; Tsing, 2015). This concept points to an ecological persistence and recovery that is not excessively delineated, managed, or controlled by human biosecurity forces. Furthermore, it attributes an explicit agency to the non-human inhabitants of Earth, an agency that is never acknowledged within present narratives of weed and pest management. Auto-rewilding perfectly describes the formation of the forest within peri-urban Flood Creek: a reassertion of riparian ecology incorporating the wild genetic material at hand. There are strong parallels between this auto-rewilding and the notion of “eco-synthesis” described by Holmgren and Tane (Holmgren, 2002, 2011; Tane, 1993, 1999). Whilst other visions of rewilding seem based on an expansion of existing management programs (where nature is maintained in an ecological stasis representing the ideal pre-human condition), auto-rewilding offers a potential to embrace novel eco-synthesised landscapes, and to recognise the legitimate agency of “weedy” other-than-human actors which form functional “wild” landscapes even in the presence of human cultivation and modification.

Daisyworld Police

 

Why now?

At the end of the world,

so many paper-trail storm-troopers,

all ‘just doing their job’.

The budget is spent,

and all contracts extended,

and every single moment of existence here on Earth,

requires another meeting,

a new policy,

a new program,

to maintain our compartmental fervour,

and to run this dear,

desperate,

daisy-world into the ground.

To the right thinking,

all human narrative seems entropic,

antibiotic and unreal.

Still your mind,

you chattering monkey,2

and the Earth will speak for itself.

Weeds of the world, rise up!

Agriculture is fundamental to human existence. Whether as a fatal error in our ecological interactions, or as a potential solution to all of our present ills, cultivation of the ecological systems around us will continue for as long as we draw breath upon this Earth. Even as idealised hunter-gathers, we must inevitably cultivate via our interaction within surrounding ecologies, and we must learn to do so in an ecologically-integrated manner. But what we need today is a transformational ecological shift in our mode of agricultural activity. To achieve this we may first need to nurture a capacity to reflect upon our own acquired beliefs, motivations and worldview. Above all else, we will need to situate ourselves as ecological participants.

Logically, this will require an expanded ecological ideal—one that also includes the various animals and plants we currently discount because of their association with our own species. In particular, this means domesticated organisms, whose agency, ethical treatment and happiness may depend upon being cultivated as components of diversified landscape ecologies. But it also means our wild familiars, the weeds—the unmanaged and unmanageable—those organisms whose rampant agency and undeniable intent are a lesson in ecological interaction. As Tao Orion (2015) notes in her remarkable book, Beyond the War on Invasive Species, “The presence of invasive species is not necessarily a problem to be solved, but rather an invitation to delve deeply into understanding the complex ecosystem dynamics to which they are intrinsically related.” (Orion, 2015, p. 43) As with any conflict, the annihilation of perceived enemies may seem desirable, but transcending the “war on weeds” will require more thoughtful integration than is currently in evidence. This is equally true for both agriculturalists and environmentalists. Instead of war and destruction, successful ecological practitioners may need to wage a little more observant creativity.

Human Ecology and Ecological Agriculture at CSU

Much of the thinking behind the Ecological Agriculture degree program has been documented elsewhere (Cochrane, 2006, 2007; Cochrane, Raman and McKenzie, 2007; McKenzie, Morgan, Cochrane, Watson and Roberts, 2002; Raman, 2013; Raman, McKenzie and Cochrane, 2006). Human Ecology is just one of the units offered as part of this degree. The range of topics enable knowledge and experience across multiple areas of understanding, including standard mechanistic and reductionist agricultural foundations, as well as more socially, ecologically and holistically integrated fields.

I have spoken with other students about their experience of Human Ecology and, as might be expected, opinions vary. My impression is that not everyone is comfortable in the unashamedly expansive learning space provided by this subject and its creative major assessment item. My own perspective is that these aspects offered an unusual opportunity to examine our personal epistemologies and ontologies under an ecological lens. Such an examination seems essential prior to any attempt to understand wider systems in light of ecological science. The threads that bind this world together are not all “out there”. Those who aspire to ecological thinking without considering the ecology of mind and culture will very quickly find themselves mired on the beaten path of reductionist fragmentation with a wilfully limited understanding of reality.

Almost as a postscript to this article, I recently heard that CSU administrators have decided to discontinue the Ecological Agriculture degree. Despite some sadness, I feel this may be a good thing. From my personal observations it seemed that CSU never understood the degree that it accidentally acquired from the University of Sydney when it purchased the Orange campus in 2005. After many unsympathetic alterations of the curriculum, and a notable change in overall outlook, student demand is reportedly no longer what it once was. Fortunately, a new Ecological Agriculture degree program is being developed at the National Environment Centre (NEC) in Thurgoona, NSW. Given the outlook and previous activity at the NEC, this development offers significant hope for the application of ecological science to future agricultural learning and endeavour in Australia.

 


  1. Poetry presented in this article is essentially unedited from the originals submitted for undergraduate assessment. As such, I appreciate it may transgress some conventions of ecopoetry and ecopoetics. I hope professional readers of Plumwood Mountain will indulge any disciplinary naiveté on my part.
  2. The expression “chattering monkey” is intended to reference both our primate heritage and certain thought processes encountered and moderated during meditative practice. In meditation, the term “monkey-mind” is sometimes used to describe the overstimulated and unfocussed “chattering” which can pervade human narrative consciousness.

References

Appleby, Mary, Judy Knowles and Rebecca Cole (undated). Revegetation for Braidwood: A Guide to Selecting and Identifying Appropriate Native Trees and Shrubs. Upper Shoalhaven Landcare. http://www.uppershoalhavenlandcare.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Reveg-for-Braidwood-booklet.pdf

Barad, Karen (2003). “Post-humanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of how Matter Comes to Matter.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28(3): 801–31.

Buber, Martin (1971). I and Thou, translated by W. Kauffman. New York: Charles Scribner’s and Sons.

Cochrane, Kerry (2006). “Is Agricultural Education Heading in the Right Direction and What Direction Might That Be?”. In Organics – Solutions to Climate Change. Proceedings of the 3rd OFA National Organics Conference, edited by Paul Kristiansen and Cheryl Kemp, 62–66. Bellingen, NSW: Organic Federation of Australia.

Cochrane, Kerry (2007). “Artistic Expression as a Means of Creating Holistic Thinkers in the Bachelor of Ecological Agriculture”. International Journal of Environmental, Cultural, Economic and Social Sustainability 3(1): 63–70.

Cochrane, Kerry, Anantanarayanan Raman and Anthony McKenzie (2007). “Agricultural Management Education in Australia: Genesis of a New Degree Programme in Ecological Agriculture”. Environmental Education Research 13(3): 349–66. http://doi.org/10.1080/13504620701430547

Gammage, Bill (2011). The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Hemenway, Toby (2009). Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd edn. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing.

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Acknowledgements

Many thanks are due to Kerry Cochrane (as Human Ecology subject coordinator) for facilitating an exceedingly rare and precious experimental space for students of the ecological agriculture degree. Thanks also to Helen Cochrane for her role in encouraging our first steps into artistic expression.

 

Following early studies in Politics and History and Philosophy of Science, Ben Gleeson worked for 15 years in conventional horticulture and viticulture. He has been intensively involved as a Landcare volunteer in and around Braidwood, NSW. His academic background consists of a Bachelor of Ecological Agriculture and Bachelor of Science (Hons) from Charles Sturt University. Ben’s honours project focussed upon the ecogeomorphology of incised floodplain landscapes following European occupation. His research has consistently framed humanity and its agricultural pursuits within an evolutionary and ecological perspective.

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