This next ‘seasonal’ work in our yearlong series is structurally grounded by a significant body of biological survey work undertaken by Dr. Peggy Eby and her collaborators. Peggy’s work sought to understand the migration patterns of Grey Headed Flying Foxes across Australia’s eastern states as they follow the changing fruiting and flowering patterns of favoured native trees – a critical project that forms the rationale and argument for a whole of landscape (holistic) scale vegetation conservation program. As with all ecological survey work, Peggy’s work is at heart a profoundly complex study of interconnecting systems of animal, environment and culture.
The complex seasonal variations that mark the eternal evolution of our continent’s unique ecologies pass mostly unnoticed, at least for many of us. The dulling of our capacity to perceive such changes parallels our inability to work proactively to sustain these ecological connections – attested to by disconnected, remnant patches of vegetation that we humans have left spread across our entire landscape.
Few things can now easily maintain future-proofing connections between such islands. Creatures that can safely travel between them by air are clearly the exception. The Australian Flying fox is therefore ecologically invaluable in that it practically enacts such connections through its endless foraging habits that follow continent-long flowering and fruiting ‘pulses’ – and as such the species stands as a potent beacon of hope and a powerful metaphor for connective possibility - and yet also a proverbial ‘canary in the coalmine’.
Peggy’s work therefore suggests a profound story of connective possibility and resonates with how we have been thinking about seasonality to date. Such seasonal change impacts upon us all in the here and now (the micro/local) but also via continent wide change (the long ranging/ the macro). Critically it also reminds us that the face of ‘seasonal disturbance’, commonly known as climate change, is our own.
The idea of four seasons is an imported cultural construct that came to Australia with its early settlers. The way in which plants or animals behave in our continent rarely concurs with this idea or number of four relatively fixed periods. Seasons here morph with on ground realities, and are best characterised by tangible activity rather than blanketing names. For example the arrival of particular wind conditions, or the shifting of temperatures, may herald the activity of particular plants (i.e. blooming of a flowering tree) – which may then affect the activity of the animals. Seasons therefore remain contextual upon certain change-observations in the landscape –focused by historical experience and what we can predict about future disruption.
There are significant differences between high latitude northern hemisphere and lower latitudinal Australian seasonal rhythms in terms of there being a ‘reset’ phase each northern winter – during which plant growth essentially stops and as do reproductive processes. Temperatures then warm until they reach a point at which growth and reproduction can commence again. So over there there is an annual pause – an end and a beginning - which resets the timing of these processes.
In the regions of Australia commonly inhabited by flying-foxes, there are discernible seasonal cycles (associated, for example, with flowering schedules of different plants) but no absolute stop point. This allows the influences of environmental conditions experienced at one point in time to be manifest over extended periods. For example, the 18 month lag between initiation of budding and flowering in Spotted Gum could not happen in the northern hemisphere because of the winter ‘reset’ – which would put an end to bud development. The potential for this flow-on to occur allows for layers of ecological complexity not experienced at higher latitudes.
Of course, the absence of an annual period of nill nectar during winter is also crucial to the evolution of local, nectar-dependent fauna. There is no need for cross-hemisphere migration to maintain access to resources.
Thought in such ways, our plants and animals (and plants) act as potent barometers that suggest seasonal time to be a ‘medium’ - that is something relational and contingent.
It becomes clear therefore that the irregular flowering of Australian Eucalypts and the vagaries of precipitation are but two factors that connective species, such as FFs, have to daily navigate - placing them on an increasingly tenuous track as we erode their vital capacity to be able to continue to ‘join the dots’ for us all.
Seasonal works such as ‘Dark Nectar’ therefore seek to become catalytic forms in that they connote relational ways of thinking about seasonality. In our over-connected culture of manipulable symbols, abstractions and concepts, our lived experiences of being embodied and embedded in place and time are increasingly lost. This so called ‘extinction of human experience’ concurs with John Thackeras’s assertion that
We miss phenomena that are invisible, such as energy; We are unaware of things that are somewhere else, such as resource flows; We miss all sorts of natural phenomena because we use so few of our senses; And, because of our education, we fail to experience the planet as a living system of which we are a part.
By locating within physical sites, seasonal works ensure their conditions of enactment are already sensorily powerful (unlike the arguably sterile cube of an exhibition facility)- allowing them to augment what can already be sensed about that environment by layering through additional ‘images’ in sound, physical action and image - that speak to what is, and what are the relationships currently in play. Thackera continues,
If those are perceptual dead zones, it follows, for me, that the actions we need to take are those that re-connect us – viscerally, and emotionally – with the living systems we’ve lost touch with.
The aim of seasonal work therefore, particularly when set in the more ‘threatening’ context of night, is to enhance that lost sense of ‘belonging’ or being ‘at home’ set in what has for many become a quite unfamiliar ‘world’. Thackera suggests we will gain much if we “focus attention on the positive qualities of often small, humble, living things that surround us. Actions that create space for people to experience relationships with living systems no matter how small the scale.”
.. reciprocity is the very structure of perception. We experience the sensuous world only by rendering ourselves vulnerable to that world. Sensory perception is this ongoing interweavement: the terrain enters into us only to the extent that we allow ourselves to be taken up within that terrain. (Abraham, D.)
Therefore the place of works such as Dark Nectar are ultimately to inspire sensuous interest, redirect attention, and ultimately catalyse conversations – conversations about re-connective ways of living/being – in ways that are “embodied, situated, and (relatively) unmediated”.