Borderlands: Disruptions between remote map-making and local readings of place

Dr Tracey Benson, Professional Associate, Institute of Applied Ecology, University of Canberra

This paper was recently presented at the Made of Walking V Conference in Prespes, Greece.

Understanding place from a distance presents many challenges. You can research a location many different ways using a range of tools and technologies. Books, documentaries and local knowledge are established channels and methods of understanding ‘ground.’ With the evolution of handheld devices, Google Earth, GPS and other mapping tools, humans have the opportunity to explore remote places like never before – broadening the myriad of ways we can comprehend place. In this paper, I will explore some of the challenges in reading place by distance using a number of creative examples as well as exploring layered readings of the land.
I am very drawn to Basarab Nicolescu’s notion of the Sacred featured in his text – Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002). In particular, I am interested in how ideas of the Sacred tie in to notions of well-being, grounding and healing which are related to deep listening and awareness of the natural world. The concept of Dadirri (deep listening) is very relevant to my world view and in this paper I would like to explore the linkages between walking as praxis, sense of place and belonging and walking the land with intention.
Deep time and how time shapes the land can provide considerable insight to how we can negotiate the world. There is a need to reconnect with our places as it is intrinsic to futuring shared urban environments. My perspective is very much shaped by work with First Nations people and I am committed to exploring narratives which challenge the Anthropocentric view of an apocalyptic future. Through my creative work, I aim to engage the emotions of reverence, hope and empowerment as a means to provide a different kind of narrative which places humanity as part of the natural world, not as the controller of the earth’s destiny.

This paper is an exploration, a journey to seek better understanding of place. If I was presenting this paper at home in Australia, I would acknowledge the traditional owners of the lands on which we meet – the First Nations peoples and Country. Although in this context of Prespes, I am unsure of who to acknowledge as it is an unfamiliar land with unfamiliar and unsettled histories. I am also without language on these lands and from such a perspective I am very much a tourist, a visitor to this place and outsider. I do not belong.
This notion of belonging and unbelonging has shaped my creative practice. As a 5th generation migrant, my links to my ancestors are fractured, lost in the waves. To add to this scenario, I live in a land which was stolen, for which there is no treaty and no clear way forward to resolve and heal the injustices of the past. Leadership has come from the First Nations peoples, when the Uluru Statement from the Heart was released 26 May 2017 by delegates to a convention held near Uluru in Central Australia. There were representatives from 250 nations. The statement calls for a ‘First Nations Voice’ in the Australian Constitution and a ‘Makarrata Commission’ to supervise a process of ‘agreement-making’ and ‘truth-telling’ between government and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Sadly the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the statement, against overwhelming public support of the statement.
I hold a deep love for the mountains and coasts of the country of my birth, but I walk as a visitor, uneasily on the land. A Māori Elder once told me that if I “walk with good intention, then I could walk anywhere.” Not long after that, I was at an International Women’s Day event where Kerrie Tim, the Special Advisor to the Prime Minister for Indigenous Engagement spoke. Kerrie was raised Kalkadoon on the land of the Mitakoodi in Queensland, my home state. At this presentation she spoke of reconciliation stating that “Our Ancestors mix in the dust.” I later participated in a Women’s Leadership Circle led by Kerrie. These are just two of the examples where I have had the benefit of great wisdom from First Nation elders and leaders. This is wisdom and respect which comes from respecting all of life, not just human. It is about a sense of deep connection.

The word, concept and spiritual practice that is dadirri (da-did-ee) is from the Ngan’gikurunggurr and Ngen’giwumirri languages of the Aboriginal peoples of the Daly River region (Northern Territory, Australia).
Over the past 5 years, the term Dadirri has become much better known to the broader Australian population. The term was popularised by Miriam-Rose Ungunmerr, who was the first Indigenous teacher in the Northern Territory and incidentally my art teacher when I was in high school. Her influence on me was profound and still resonates through many different aspects of my life. Miriam, in a reflection on Dadirri states “What I want to talk about is another special quality of my people. I believe it is the most important. It is our most unique gift. It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our fellow Australians. In our language this quality is called dadirri. It is inner, deep listening and quiet, still awareness… Dadirri recognises the deep spring that is inside us. We call on it and it calls to us. This is the gift that Australia is thirsting for. It is something like what you call “contemplation”… When I experience dadirri, I am made whole again. I can sit on the riverbank or walk through the trees; even if someone close to me has passed away, I can find my peace in this silent awareness. There is no need of words. A big part of dadirri is listening.”
As walkers, we understand this concept to varying degrees. Sometimes I walk to burn energy, sometimes to get from A to B and sometimes the walk helps to give inner peace and clarity of thought. It is this third type of walking which can shift a sense of place from one of unbelonging to belonging – through the recognition of small things.
Bachelard’s love of nature has long resonated for me. He states “I was born in a country of brooks and rivers, in a corner of Champagne, called Le Vallage for the great number of its valleys. The most beautiful of its places for me was the hollow of a valley by the side of fresh water, in the shade of willows…My pleasure still is to follow the stream, to walk along its banks in the right direction, in the direction of the flowing water, the water that leads life towards the next village…Dreaming beside the river, I gave my imagination to the water, the green, clear water, the water that makes the meadows green. …The stream doesn’t have to be ours; the water doesn’t have to be ours. The anonymous water knows all my secrets. And the same memory issues from every spring.”
Strauss states that “Bachelard uses water here (as he does elsewhere with the other elements) as an endlessly generative image, as a way of gathering language around an image, and re-imagining the world. And, as in all his work, the tension between reverie and rationalism keeps the discourse alive.”
This tension between irrational and reverie is intriguing and one I suspect is prevalent in Western systems of thought. When one considers an Indigenous way of being, those divisions dissipate. Does this happen when we consider the binary of belonging and unbelonging? I was born on the Country of the Kabi Kabi nation. My bloodlines to this land only stretch back five generations not thousands. And although I know some of the words of the lands of which I speak, I can only speak as a visitor, offering respect and acknowledgement.
The stories of my ancestors talk about the old country and the new country, but in fact the new country is very old, much older than all of the treasures and histories of the Western world. But how to I walk on this ancient country? Over the years I have sought guides, mentors and Elders to guide this journey, which I am now realising is also the journey of my own acceptance of place and eldership.
When I walk on the ancient lands of my birth I see the shape of the land and its materiality reminding me of this deep past. These places are everywhere in Australia, if you open your eyes. Fish traps along the coasts and our rivers, midden heaps – a legacy of coastal living and bounty, the tracks of the land. One of the most powerful reminders is our highway system – songlines, trade routes and walking tracks.

Schematic representation of Dreaming song lines or “tracks” (parallel lines) and sites (points) across Australia’s lands and seas (from Mowaljarlai 1992). Ancestral characters as animals or plants formed these sites and/or tracks. The spatial connections show one means by which Aboriginal groups were linked across vast areas through ceremonies and knowledge exchange.

These trade routes and songlines echo the walking paths of thousands of years. In the world of dowsing, these lines are the ley lines, the meridian lines that crisscross Australia, expanding to network their way all around the earth. In sites where the energy lines converge you will find churches, meeting places and ancient sites. For example, Chartres Cathedral in France was also a sacred pilgrimage site for Druids. The Cathedral hides within its walls stories which connect the world of ancient Druids, the cult of the Divine Feminine and Christianity. It is located on a leyline linking Glastonbury, Stonehenge, and the Pyramids of Egypt. As we have journeyed through time, the tracks have shifted from bearing stories and song to becoming bitumen coated highways, emblems of our modern life.

Highway map
This map is not to scale. The map gives an impression that all of these nodes are significant hubs / urban centres. The nodes show where the highways connect and do not represent the size of the population or town infrastructure.

Sacred ground
Nan Shepherd in her beautiful text The Living Mountain related the importance of having a spiritual and mental connection to the land. Walking features strongly in her work and in particular how this is a process of reconnection to place and to spirit. She states that “I have walked out of my body and into the mountain.” In nature she found joy in walking and in the mountains themselves. Her work focuses on the importance of just “being”, seeing a meditative and spiritual connection to being absorbed by the land. Her work also reminds us that walking is a practice which ignites all the senses “Walking thus, hour after hour, the senses keyed, one walks the flesh transparent. But no metaphor, transparent, or light as air, is adequate. The body is not made negligible, but paramount. Flesh is not annihilated but fulfilled. One is not bodiless, but essential body.”
Shepherd also reminds the reader that a deepening knowledge of the world around us is not an end in itself, as this knowledge unfolds into greater and more intricate mysteries. She writes, “The more one learns of this intricate interplay of soil, altitude, weather, and the living tissues of plant and insect…the more the mystery deepens. Knowledge does not dispel mystery.”
Walking the land opens both mind and senses, providing an opportunity for deeper listening and richer understanding. Sometimes the messages we are being invited to see and hear though are not comfortable. Just as the lands sovereignty can be contested, so can the rights of its people.
As I present this paper I am mindful that we are located close to a lake which demarks the borders between three nations. In Australia, the government claims more of the ocean territories as belonging to the nation, in essence an imaginary border not found on Google Earth. For both this region and at home, the reality of these constructed borders of nationhood create chasms which divide and dislocate people from their stories. As these stories become lost, so does the understanding of the land, its seasons and its secrets.

Layered knowledge
The land has many layers of strata. We know this from the earth sciences and from how we record history. For many cultures the land is inscribed through song, dance and onto the body. For other cultures, those stories are fragmented, lost or actively hidden or obscured. My 1995 performance Scalpland explored the correlations between body and memory, history and identity. It was a response to witnessing the loss of bush around my suburban home in Brisbane. The work also explored colonisation as it related to the body – how bodies are mapped, colonised and inscribed as acceptable and normal in society. In the performance I defer the gaze, clippering my hair with my back to the audience, using images of Phrenology to make connections to the mapping of the body and mapping of land in the European context.

Scalpland 1996
Scalpland 1996 – performance, Tracey M Benson, Institute of Modern Art

An audio piece plays in the background of me reciting a poetic text. Here is an excerpt: “Mowing – A suburban weekend ritual – Up and down – in neat, straight lines – A suburban expectation – When I mow the lawn, I make spirals – Starting from the tree trunk and slowly working out – This practice invites friendly criticisms from neighbours, who all own their share of the urban sprawl… I only rent, a nomad – When I was a kid, the end of the street turned into bush – We lost hours there – As an adult, I returned to that place – Now a new estate – Red brick structures on land totally cleared – Progress? Surely not – Why didn’t they leave some trees? Did they have to clear the surface so they may draw their new maps?”

This work and its relationship being experience, memory, mapping and land continues to resonate for me as an artist. In some ways, the layered meanings of this work seem more powerful in the current context, as we become more and more vulnerable to the changes we have made to our places.

Augmenting reality – ideas of time
In recent years I have continued to explore ideas of mapping story and strata through the creation of a number of augmented reality walks. These walks in a range of locations take the audience along a guided walk where the history of sites is revealed.
My first Augmented Reality project, Finding Balance: Mura Gadi was also my first walking project. This 6 month project tacked a number of walks in national parks close to my home in Canberra. The walks came about as a need to manage mental health – literally to find balance. The Ngunawal words “Mura Gadi” translate as pathways for searching. At this point in my life I was searching for meaning and a reconnection which my creative practice, which had slowed since graduating from my PhD.

Book cover, Finding Balance: Mura Gadi, Tracey M Benson 2014

This project played with ideas of temporality, presence and experience counter positioned with the use of augmented reality with print and screen based media. The landscape as a motif in visual art is always an abstraction from the land itself, as the place is told through the subjective understanding of the artist. In this project I sought to focus on the topology as well as the track as this also reflected my own personal challenges with the rugged mountain region I lived in, so far from tropical and subtropical places of my childhood.
The coastal lands of my youth were flat, open to meandering; with horizons which infinitely expanded as the sun set into the ocean. This new land was difficult and demanded attention – walking carefully along rocky paths and steep hills. Sometimes hidden dangers were just out of view. I grew up in Crocodile and Dugong Country, and knew how to look for these creatures. My eyes were not well trained to detect snakes in the dense bush. Palm trees and mangroves contrasted strongly with eucalyptus forests with their mulched forest floor. My feet were used to no shoes along the beach, not wearing heavy boots designed to stop me from slipping and falling over on the path.
Subsequent walking projects sought to design augmented reality walks from a distance – as attempts to understand a place as it was mediated through my screen, through Google Earth and Street View. This series of walks broadly titles as “Finding Ghosts” explored the idea of time by taking screenshots of city streets and then layering images from the past onto the contemporary streetscape.

The idea of ghosting was also a connection to how I was also going through a process of seeing the streets whilst not being present in that location. In many ways these works were more about imagining the city rather than revealing the city of the past. This was because I had no knowledge of context of history that connected me to these sites. The above image documented an augmented reality walk I created for Mesh Cities in Auckland where we were led by a local historian. In this particular project some of the challenges of other projects were able to be managed by having a local guide who could verify the location of old buildings as well as other details of the site. This collaboration underscored how important local knowledge is to create narratives of place and time. Incidentally, Karangahape (K) Road was a walking track for the local Māori tribes for over a thousand years.

Why is it important for us to make connections between our places and their stories? What does this mean in a world where massive transmigration, climate change and the homogenization of culture are the tenets which define the age of the anthropocene.? The strata layer of plastic will be our lasting legacy, eclipsing the diversity of our humanity, our stories, languages, customs and places. Are we ok with this materiality shaping our story on this earth? I don’t have an answer to any of these questions. The words do not come. For some reason these questions also seek to envision another way of walking, of being on this planet.

Photograph of Kate Vega and Tracey Benson at Crawick Multiverse, September 15, 2017. Photograph by Gian Pietro.
Photograph of Kate Vega and Tracey Benson at Crawick Multiverse, September 15, 2017. Photograph by Gian Pietro.

What I do know is that it is important to smell the air, to look for the flow of the river and to make those connections to the deepest parts of our inner world through all of our senses. And as I prepare to walk the labyrinth at Chartres, I am reminded that a labyrinth is not a maze as it seeks to give clarity – not to create confusion. As the South East Queensland Anglican Labyrinth Resource Group state:

The point of a labyrinth is to find your centre… your true self… the person you are called forth by God to become …

And although I come at this topic from a perspective of walking as a discursive field and not from a religious context, I find these words from the book of Jeremiah resonate “Stand at the crossroads and look … and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” If we follow the pathways, perhaps the road will lead us home. If it doesn’t then perhaps how we imagine home needs to be re-imagined…
It is critical that we see ourselves as part of a system, a much bigger system under threat from the actions of humans. As a researcher who travels regularly, I am very mindful of how my travel has an impact and that my freedom to travel is a privilege that many people do not have. Our actions every day have impacts and it is not enough to be aware, we need to connect and see the future of possibility.

Dadirri is a word from the Ngangikurungkurr language. Miriam Rose is an Elder from the Nauiyu community, Daly River, Northern Territory. Permission to use Dadirri was given by the Miriam Rose Foundation.

Much gratitude to Raphaella Davies for presenting this paper on my behalf as I was in transit.

Anglican Labyrinth Resource Group (SEQ). (2019) “Why become an ARLG member?” Anglican Labyrinth Resource Group

Bachelard, Gaston; Gilson, Étienne; Stilgoe, John R. (1994). The Poetics of Space. Boston: Beacon Press. ISBN 978-0-8070-6473-3.

Bachelard, Gaston. (1963). Water and dreams : an essay on the imagination of matter, translated from the French by Edith R. Farrell. Dallas: Pegasus Foundation

Carter, Paul. (1987). The Road to Botany Bay: An Exploration of Landscape and History, University of Minnesota

Markale, Jean. Cathedral of the Black Madonna: The Druids and the Mysteries of Chartres, Inner Traditions

Ockman, Joan. (1998). “The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard”. Harvard Design Magazine,

Strauss, David, L., (2017) Reflections on Bachelard’s ‘Water and Dreams,’ for Dore Ashton, art News

Ungunmerr, Miriam-Rose (1988). Dadirri: Inner Deep Listening and Quiet Still Awareness, Miriam-Rose Foundation

Event details: In the frame of WAC – Walking encounters/conference in Prespes Greece, July 1-7 2019. 30.06 > 07.07.2019. Walking Arts Encounters Conference, Prespes, Greece. Department of Fine and Applied Arts of the University of Western Macedonia and Made of Walking (V) / the Milena Principle.

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