colour, critical writing, digital image, landscape, nature

on location: Salt Creek in the Coorong

February 24, 2016

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.

 The  concept of nature underpinning  the idea of the Coorong  as a pristine wilderness means that it is seen as a self-contained, harmonious set of internal self-regulating relations that always return to harmony and balance so long as they aren’t perturbed by  humankind.  Because nature is seen as harmoniously self-regulating, any technological intervention in nature is seen as inviting harm, disaster and catastrophe.

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.

at the salt site

at the salt site

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.



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