Thinking the gap with the mangroves of Sydney

Judith, Kate ORCID: (2018) Thinking the gap with the mangroves of Sydney. In: Emergent Landscapes Symposium: Exploring Social-Ecological Interdisciplinarity, 8 Feb 2018, Melbourne, Australia.


A landscape is framed but not singular, inviting discovery of numerous paths for the eye or foot or mind to travel. Landscape thus enables our thinking or perceptual work, a virtual laboratory for a theorist, delimiting but permitting rambling along multiple paths using multiple modes of travel. Landscapes are abundant as we frame and wander, reframe and wander across our academic work and worlds. My case study landscape layers mangrove communities, philosophical theories of intersticiality, difference, becoming and emergence, and the history, happenings and culture of the city of Sydney.

Mangroves imagine the edges of the harbour city very differently from humans. They seek the murky settling mud, building silt and refuse into substrate for multitudes of life. They work with movement, currents, tides, varied salinity and the diverse habits of many creatures, to build mangrove landscapes along the edges, in the gaps where the categories favoured by an economic reading of the landscape, clear water and firm land, have not hardened to discernment. The biology of the mangrove tree and the ecology of the mangrove community find ways to build mangrove worlds, with their own rhythms, cycles, complex ecological interrelationships and emergent life stories. Mangrove worlds emerge only where there is that gap, that space that for humans is ill-defined, shifting and unstable, which so often in the city of Sydney has been regarded as requiring amendment to become something clearer, cleaner, with an odour more pleasing to humans and more economically valorisable.

Humans historically have imagined the river and harbour edges either as sandy beaches or straight-edged lines of division for marking property or speeding cleansing water flows. Historically Sydney mangroves were predominantly overlooked as beings in their own right, regarded as already cleared away, uninteresting except that they required some labour to be removed, not removed only where no one had yet found it sufficiently profitable to do so or where they sustained an enterprise such as charcoal burning or fishing. They attracted attention when people complained about their smell or inconvenience and might then be dealt with almost punitively. Additionally, the apparent marginality and otherness of the mangroves placed them outside of the everyday consciousness of the human activity of the city, providing a convenient ‘away’ for those seeking solitude, toxic and other waste and criminal activities.

Mangrove and human sociabilities have tended to not to include each other. Generous to the extreme towards so many other beings that crawl or fly or swim or burrow, mangroves did not welcome humans easily into their worlds. In turn, the human society of Sydney had many reasons for excluding mangroves from their emerging imagined city landscape. Not the least was the stink, but other considerations were mosquitos, river access, mud, and navigability. As world makers, mangroves and human are both reshaping the same sites, but to very different desired ends. City mangroves actively compete with humans for waterfront real estate, and in Sydney at least, the battle is ongoing and complex. As well as competition, there is compromise and co-adaption occurring between mangroves and humans along these valuable waterfront edges.

In some Sydney societies, among the Cooks River fishers community, for example, who catch and throw back because the fish are too toxic to eat, both mangrove communities and humans are participants. In recent decades, educational resources and reserves with mangrove walkways have been established and many Sydney residents have grown fond of the mangroves, to the extent that recent designs for new embankments include spaces for mangroves where they can grow but not spread. Humans are compromising to allow mangroves into their plans and aesthetic values, just as mangroves are compromising to work around the human, incorporating toxins, garbage and increased sedimentation into their enterprise. Mangroves now are becoming increasingly important to human security globally as mounting evidence suggests they offer coastal protection from storm damage. There are mangrove planting projects in many coastal locations where cyclones are becoming fiercer, and where rising sea levels are becoming a more threatening consideration. Mangroves and humans are, in their own ways, imagining the same spaces, and they can, at times and in places, accommodate each other, attend to each other, or as Michel Serres might put it, to parasite each other in ways that permit continued emergence.

My question, at least as it begins, is theoretical one. I am entering this landscape to discover more about gaps, about what it is to not yet be, about the qualities, powers, shape and time of that gappiness. I need a case study from the temporal and physical world and I need case studies from the theoretical world. Serres, Derrida, Deleuze, Haraway, Connolly, Tsing, Massumi, Stengers, Whitehead and Barad, thinkers with an interest in what gaps are, and what happens in them, have opened pathways and I am wandering them. Each brings their own language, viewpoint, speed and frame. Theory and the urban mangrove emerge as one landscape, then another then another, as I frame and wander, reframe and wander in thought and writing. As so many have noted, writing enables worlds to unfold. It journeys me across this multiply layered landscape full of shimmer. My practice moves me between mangroves, stories of the city, theories of traces, gaps, edges, betweens, aporias, differences and chiasmas, my writing a journey across this landscape.

Statistics for USQ ePrint 35103
Statistics for this ePrint Item
Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Commonwealth Reporting Category E) (Paper)
Refereed: Yes
Item Status: Live Archive
Additional Information: Files associated with this item cannot be displayed due to copyright restrictions.
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Open Access College (1 Jul 2013 - 7 Jun 2020)
Faculty/School / Institute/Centre: Historic - Open Access College (1 Jul 2013 - 7 Jun 2020)
Date Deposited: 08 Oct 2019 07:37
Last Modified: 11 Feb 2020 03:52
Uncontrolled Keywords: interstices, mangrove, agency
Fields of Research (2008): 22 Philosophy and Religious Studies > 2203 Philosophy > 220303 Environmental Philosophy
Fields of Research (2020): 50 PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGIOUS STUDIES > 5003 Philosophy > 500304 Environmental philosophy

Actions (login required)

View Item Archive Repository Staff Only