Chorography and Toute-eau in the Waters of Lower Murray Country

By | 1 May 2019

Breathing air connects (dots); breathing air is the antidote to breaking rhythms. It reminds me of the whole from which the fragments I am scrutinising rose into existence. It also shows me that these fragments are still constantly mutating through the impulsion of this whole. I cannot deter them from moving, for I cannot stop breathing. Breathing air also reminds me that I have a body. I breathe in and through it. Breathing intertwines the rhythms of my voice and watery flows on a physiological, sub-textual level: ‘the writing body must rehearse and recall, or re-enact, its active relations with the world in abstract and attenuated form’ (Gibbs 228). I also won’t forget historian Greg Dening’s advocacy for writing-as-performance. I take it to heart: it is challenging to think of an audience, and probably irrational to attempt to engage with it through an academic product. However, how else could I ‘display … the relationality needed to sabotage colonial systems of thought and power for the purpose of liberatory alternatives’ (Martineau and Ritskes 2)? And so, I cannot help but perform my text as I write it: I am a paper actor, an actor of (words on) paper. I sing-write. I accumulate examples (Glissant is never far); I continue to accumulate examples and turn them into texts. As literary critic Michael Warner writes: ‘(n)o single text can create a public. Nor can a single voice, a single genre, even a single medium … (What does, though, is) the concatenation of texts through time’ (90). As examples keep accumulating, what I perform here is a (re)actualising, self-reflective loop. I react to what I read, to what I see, to the tides of the world around me. I mirror and respond to the sounds I hear while I pause next to the waters of Lower Murray Country. Four of these pauses are recounted in this essay: when near the Murray Mouth, I gather and share my thoughts on the Toute-eau; as I stand on top of Goolwa Barrage, I give some consideration to the power of design; I remember Ringbalin as I cross to Kangaroo Island; and I explore sonic creolisation as I travel back to the mainland. These pauses twirl around one another and address the same question. What can be learnt through sonic stimulation? (What have I learnt?) I must discuss the potential of sound studies as part of a broader practice of environmental awareness and care. This looping essay represents my vision – the ultimate (or concluding) textual performance of my research on the topic over the last three-and-a-half years: it composes a coda which is to remain unresolved, open.

The unity is submarine
breathing air, our problem is how to study the fragments

First Pause: thoughts on the Toute-eau near the Murray Mouth

My first pause is on a deserted stretch of coast between Goolwa and the Murray Mouth. All I hear is the steady drumming of the tide. The lack of fresh water reaching the Mouth intensifies and accentuates its loudness: there is nothing else to hear, but two hyperobjects – colonial mismanagement of water and climate change – beating (on) this coast.

The tide endlessly recesses and progresses.

It gives me the tempo, and I follow its cyclical rhythm. I listen to these drums of water and I am transported elsewhere. I start to hear Pacific tides within them. Author and anthropologist Epeli Hau’ofa’s voice resonates in my mind. It says: ‘Our natural landscapes then are maps of movements, pauses, and more movements’ (44).

The tide endlessly recesses and progresses.

There is a sonic pause in between its back-and-forth dance. A silence that contains the world in molten suspension.

In French, this music symbol is called a soupir (a sigh, or a breath) – in English, as always, is more prosaic: it is a rest. I keep breathing air. The movements and pauses that are mapped stretch beyond the confines of the Australian horizon. I sense a spectrum of hidden sounds under the surface, under my skin. These waters can no longer be conceived in autarchy – they have never acted that way. Spoken-word artist Paul Wamo Taneisi recites while shaking the sonnailles1 attached just above his ankle:

Where am I from? 
I come from my mother’s belly
I come from a Pacific Ocean 
A Pacific Ocean cut in half on all geographical maps 
I come from a forgotten continent 
From the largest and most discarded Ocean of the world 
I come from a little caillou2 dried by the sun
I come from there and from there, I have arrived to here

Colonisation has traditionally isolated Lower Murray Country’s waters. It has negated their belonging to the Toute-eau. Yet, as I stand on the shore, I feel trade routes unfolding over the watery movements that I hear. The waters of Lower Murray Country are Oceanic waters. When around such a watery place, my body falls next to the Pacific rim. I am (in) Oceania: ‘I come from there and from there, I have arrived to here.’ I remember Matthew Flinders’s and Nicolas Baudin’s trips: they both sailed right past the Mouth, failed to hear it, and continued their voyage – en route to Sydney, Mauritius, France and England. Had they been poets, they could have said: ‘I come from there and from there, I have arrived to here.’ The musicality of these waters is interconnected: along watercourses, on the ground and in the sky, it maps a world of relationalities. As I listen to the stories that the tide whispers, my outlook is pan-Oceanic, even global. It embraces the watery environments of Lower Murray Country along with those of other geographically distant locations. I perform a giant aquapelagic assemblage: ‘a radically interdisciplinary writing of the meanings of place’ (Maxwell 23). Yet, despite its global outreach, my assemblage negates the ontological homogeneity that colonialism has applied over waters. It aims to unravel the silencing of these waters. I dive deeper within the Pacific connections I hear in the tide and transpose a form of chorographic variation to Australian shores: I conceptualise the diversity of ontologies which arise when considering specific environments – in all their particularities – as generative contexts. To borrow some of architect Michael Tawa’s words, I perform this chorography ‘as a way of construing and actualising’ waters, ‘of recreating and remembering’ them, ‘of orchestrating and reconstituting’ their fractal parts (49); as a way to speak of watery tales from (t)here. We Are the Ocean, reads the title of a book by Hau’ofa. We are the ocean. And if the ocean dances, I must dance with it.

  1. An instrument made from dried coconut leaves and / or cycas fruits. The performer’s foot stomps on the ground to produce rhythm.
  2. Caillou (‘rock’) is a colloquialism that designates New Caledonia.
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