The Coorong in South Australia is basically a string of saltwater lagoons sheltered from the Southern Ocean by the sand dunes of the Younghusband Peninsula. It is still largely seen as a pristine wilderness rather than an edge land. Nature from this perspective is a by-word for “wilderness areas”.
The Coorong is identified as a National Park, which is then reduced to a pristine wilderness that is a sanctuary for many species of birds, animals and fish. It is held to be a pristine wilderness (an elsewhere beyond human culture and society), despite the existence of walking trails; the waters of the Coorong being a popular venue for recreational and commercial fishers; and it being a remote space where we go to in our SUV’s on weekends and public holidays. The idea of wilderness area is a social/political construction as not all parts of the Coorong are a national park or a pristine wilderness.
This conception of nature as a pristine wilderness goes back to the Romantics, who constructed nature as offering a respite from the transgressions of so-called civilised European society then undergoing the initial phases of capitalist industrialisation. Nature is seen as sacrosanct and is venerated. Nature as “over there,” somehow separate from our daily lives, is then set on a pedestal.
The next step is to argue that the ultimate cause of our ecological problems is modern technology, Cartesian subjectivity, within which we are abstract beings somehow outside nature, who can manipulate nature, dominate nature. Nature is an object of our manipulation and exploitation. Modernity is based on a hard and fast distinction between Nature and Culture, where the two domains are to be thought as entirely separate and distinct.
An ecological perspective, in contrast, highlights the idea of interconnectedness, that all beings are connected, that objects are embedded in relations, and that nature is not separate from civilisation. There is no “over or out there”, but rather that we’re up to our teeth in ecological relations, and that we cannot separate the world of “civilization” from the world of “nature”. Ecological thought is about how these domains are bound up with one another, how they are intertwined with one another. An ecological idea of nature makes more sense of the current Coorong than the pristine wilderness one.
The reason for this is that the idea that the Coorong is a self-contained, harmonious set of internal self-regulating relations that always return to harmony and balance (a warm and fuzzy nature) ignores both the disruptions caused by the diverse interconnections between human and nonhuman modes of life, and the small differences that generate new vectors of becoming that lead in entirely surprising directions. There is contingency, monstrous couplings, drift which evades any smooth categorisation.
Though the Coorong landscape does have a diversity and multiplicity of the continuous becomings of a fluctuating natural reality”, it is also strange or weird or uncanny. This is as a result of being at the end of the River Murray; a river suffering from environmental degradation due to a lack of fresh water caused by irrigated agriculture in the Murray-Darling Basin taking far too much water out of the river.
There is a strangeness of harshness about a degraded Coorong with its limited environmental flows now facing ecological devastation from the effects of global warming. It looks familiar but it is also weird/strange given the degradation to come. This is the mess we are in.