Opinion

Reflecting on the Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture

A summary of the key arguments and ideas presented at the Nature in Culture workshop.

Ten scholars interested in indigenous justice and the environment from multiple disciplines joined with guests to examine the workshop’s theme, the Re[E]mergence of Nature in Culture. From the urban jungle of Harlem to the Peruvian Amazon, Aotearoa’s Kuku farmlands, and Queensland’s Gold Coast, back to North America’s Great Lakes, speakers explored ways human and other-than-human interact, inter-relate and are interdependent—nature-in-culture-in-nature. And in that exploration, many ‘normal’ practices and concepts were challenged, pushed, pulled and extended.

Over the day loomed the heated shadow of the Anthropocene. An epoch of rupture, migration, disruption, truncated futures, and unknown landscapes, it represents the breakdown of Holocene ‘normal’, because culture failed to work with nature. What, suggested Glenn Albrecht, happens to our focus if we look beyond to an epoch of symbiosis between human and nature? Can hope and action be spurred by targeting the Symbiocene, a return to an earth ethic and earth spirituality? The Life- or Earth-spirituality he calls the Ghedeist, connects human and other-than-human in a symbiosis long-known in many Indigenous Peoples’ lifeways.

This long-knowing continuum of experience was at the heart of Kyle Whyte’s exploration of settler colonialism’s impact on North American Indigenous Peoples’. Far from new and ‘unexpected’ the Anthropocene simply names that which they’ve experienced: forced from traditional lands into foreign landscapes in which they had no extant traditions, lands stripped of native flora and fauna, destabilised culture and relations between place, plants, animals, and future. Indeed, he suggests for his Potawatomi people, dystopia is not a future event, the present lived experience of his people represents their ancestors’ vision of dystopia.

How do you persuade your people to walk backward into the future, embrace tradition landscape management, and reject accepted but destructive agricultural practices? Huhana Smith led us through a contrasting environmental experience, to her hapu’s farm and wetlands restoration project on a dairy farm in Kuku, Aotearoa. A presentation alive with visual material, we shared a visceral connection to place and restoration potential, and the ancient wisdom of working with nature to protect nature-and-hapu within the Anthropocene induced envelope of climatic and coastal change.

What happens to our connection with self, spirituality, nature, and culture when we buy ‘all [our] cabbages from the supermarket’? Alice Te Punga Sommerville took us into the gardens of Māori literature, exploring the sense of connection with the world—human, natural, and spiritual—that acts of food production generate. More darkly, she drew attention to the erasure of deep Māori knowledge, ontology, and cosmology in the re-working of Witi Ihimaera’s story Whale Rider for the international audience. And Vicki Grieves examined lives truncated by the concrete deserts of Harlem, where the nature represented in the stories of African American and Hispanic peoples can be accessed from memory or imagination alone. These people perhaps exemplify why Māori genealogies that twine human and non-human have been expunged from the international edition of Ihimaera.

We were led further into the world of cosmovision by Joni Adamson as she explored her collaboration with the Colombian-American poet Juan Carlos Galeano on the Peruvian Amazon. There philosophies are entangled with the power of Mother of all Waters, Yakumama. Water entities are alive and engaged with locally situated human inhabitants, guiding practices of protection and respect for water and an ethic of intergenerational care.

Can politics and law engage nature-in-culture-in-nature? Michelle Maloney unveiled Earth Jurisprudence, a philosophy and practice of law with that engagement at its heart. It’s a field challenging the very structures of industrial society, promoting a whole-of-earth transition to practices that could support the Symbiocene. In Aotearoa where two geo-regions have been granted ‘personhood,’ I suggested the appointed guardians of these non-linguistic persons must think within the geo-regions’ own ontologies. This provokes a radical rethinking of how we imagine time within justice theory—an imagining echoing Māori understandings of time.

If the land brings us law, Mary Graham explained, that law orders society and culture, guiding a relational and survivalist ethic. Survival and relationships require balance—between place and people, between peoples and power, between genders and representation. Balance might start she suggested with equal human representation, with one female-one male co-chairs for all committees/bodies/organisations.

How often does a question from the floor get answered with a freshly penned poem?  Peter Minter, having explored the imagery of the sacred tree in Australian literature as a device to locate knowledge and well-being of country, did just that.  A stunning conclusion to a day electric with deep wisdom, new connections, and vital academic engagement.


Christine Winter, a Ph.D. student at the University of Sydney and SEI, is originally from Aotearoa and is of Anglo-Celtic-Ngati Kahungunu heritage. Her research is examining the conceptualization of intergenerational indigenous environmental justice.

Image: ‘Country’, 2012 Artist: Warwick Keen (assisted by Noel Wellington) | Hand carved wooden sculptural installation of 24 trees. Courtesy Mosman Art gallery