While I was in Longreach, poet Helen Avery shared her family cattle ranch with me. The cows in-yard provided an incredible opera. Having grown up in rural areas, I’ve heard mooing before – but I’ve never listened to mooing. I spent a long while in close proximity with cattle, recording their polyphony. The experience surprised me, since I could not have anticipated that the soundscape of a cattle yard would become a seminal component of the project.
GN: For someone who has never experienced Iceland and its volcano and glacier-shaped landscapes, I am interested to know whether this project has uncovered any parallels; any similarities in the way these two unique places open up and speak?
a.r: During my second day of the residency, I met you and several other lovelies for lunch. As we ate, I noticed the word ‘ISLAND’ in a large font outside of a nearby building. At first, I read this as Ísland, which is the Icelandic place-name for Iceland. After lunch, we passed by the building and I realised that foliage obscured more text; in fact, it read ‘QUEENSLAND,’ but the bulk of QUEEN was obscured (except for the last part of the letter N). Somehow, the Iceland-of-the mind didn’t feel so distant at that moment.
I’m sure there are similarities – crossover species of birds such as terns, plovers, oystercatchers or that both islands have desert interiors and comparatively lush perimeters – but I’ve noted more of the differences. Iceland is a young country in geologic terms, while Australia is ancient. The flora and fauna that have evolved in Australia are at such different levels of succession compared to Iceland that it dizzies me. My greatest enthusiasm in the rainforest was viewing large epiphytes for the first time. Flora grows on flora here. By contrast, Iceland’s ecosystems are quite sensitive and have noticeably suffered from overgrazing. Trees cover only 1-2% of the island, and so the more common flora to see there is moss covering lava rocks, or grass fields, or introduced species such as Alaskan lupin.
These contrasts led the project development here in an unexpected direction. The Sound Poetry and Visual Poetry series that is Iceland-specific focuses more on abiotic phenomena such as the sounds of waterfalls and geothermal areas. The Queensland SPaVP series (known as GIBBER) focuses on biotic life – bird calls, asemic writing by sand-bubbling crabs, cow opera. Where the Iceland series has luxuriated in a little-known, centuries-old language juxtaposed with its environment, the Queensland series interrogates the placement of a dominant, colonial language in proximity to the landscape it names.
GN: Do you see the work you are doing as part of the ongoing Sound Poetry and Visual Poetry Project as an act of conservation?
a.r: Terms, ‘conservation’ and ‘preservation’ specifcally, put me on alert. Preservation implies that something needs human protection (or perhaps, needs protection from humans). I become concerned about this term when its potential anthropocentric superiority – that humans have the capacity to protect or save something – goes unaddressed. Conservation fires up my red flags with the implication that humans even have the capacity to manage an ecosystem. What we may have the capacity to manage, to varying degrees of sustainability/success and dependent on local/indigenous knowledge of an area, are our engagements with an ecosystem. For me, it’s a necessity to clarify definitions of these words when they arise, so that we understand what one another means before we get too deep into the topic.
That said, Sound Poetry and Visual Poetry intentionally combines multiple artistic media with cultural geography, acoustic ecology, environmental ethics and ecolinguistics. Archiving soundscapes and landscapes via audio recording and photography may tangentially help to raise awareness around the relationship between a language usage and its ecosystem interdependence. As a naturalist, my Museums of Sound could be typed as working in a preservationist mode to document an ephemeral component of natural history using an esoteric method (and through which the museum contents can only be decoded via an act of synaesthesia). There’s room to categorise other components of the project as having a preservation or conservation thrust, but I’d just as soon open that line of interpretation to readers rather than explicitly prescribing the work as such (which could place too much emphasis on a possibly spurious angle of engagement).