The White Spaces on the Map

Catching a bus or a train through a landscape is a different experience to flying or driving. When flying, the land beneath you (if you can even see it) exists as a sort of backdrop or postcard, as in nature documentaries when they have panning shots of mountain ranges, or an establishing shot of a forest.

Yes, it’s there, but not as a story in itself.

Driving is a little like this too, and one tends to be travelling too quickly or be focusing on the road or be chatting with others in the vehicle or be driving along a fairly ugly road whose flanks are strewn with litter. The drive along the highway between Canberra and Sydney, for example, is not one to lift the soul.

Catching a bus or a train is different, as they tend to go slower and one tends not to be the driver. Buses are higher than cars, so there is a view over the safety rails and above other traffic. Trains wend their way through the landscape on their own terms with such sweet charms (even the demonstrably rubbish ones we have in Australia) that you simply cannot argue with them.

So why this exploration of different modes of transport?

Well, one day late last year I found myself on the Canberra-Sydney bus once more. Usually I eat a book on that trip (like the memorable afternoon I started Oil and Honey shortly after leaving Central and had finished it before crossing the border) but this time I elected to simply stare out the window and try not to be too upset by that raspberry thicket, that paddock of African Love Grass, that deep scar of an erosion gully, those rabbits …

It struck me then – New South Wales exists. Australia exists! The whole, enormous country, every sunburnt square centimetre of it is out there. Not just as a backdrop, or something you fly over, or a vague notion of space between the cities; no, every blade of grass, every rabbit twitching her nose, every pebble, every billabong, every dirt track, every cattle station, every mountain.

They exist. For millions of square kilometers around me, the country was breathing quietly as it has done for so long.

I think Conrad was wrong – a central theme of Heart of Darkness is the white spaces on the map. As a child the protagonist sees all the blank spaces that cover Africa and his heart is taken by the desire to fill them in; to cover this blankness with lines and symbols and things named after various monarchs. Creepy colonialism aside, it’s just wrong, really.

Think of New South Wales. It’s a bit boxy, has Sydney in it, it’s Australia’s most populous state but gets very hot and dry very quickly when you get west of the mountains, so most of them live along the coast. You may imagine it like this:


Well sure, but two years ago I was at the Macquarie Marshes, which are here:


I had no idea that such a beautiful, biodiverse place existed in NSW. I had never even imagined it. When we were there the storm clouds were rolling in and the air was electric with it and the light was watery and orange in that soft afternoon way and I nearly wept because it was so damn beautiful.

mm2 mm1

I’ve also been to Eden, on the south coast. We saw whales, dolphins, and turtles. We caught wallabies, pootoroos, possums, Antichinus, rare birds, and lizards in our traps. We saw seals lying on the rocks and playing in the waves and I squealed like a four year old because they were just so sweet.

eden2 eden1 eden3

I haven’t been to Broken Hill yet, or any of that desert country.


I will though, because blank spaces on the map aren’t blank spaces, they’re just bits of country you haven’t seen yet, haven’t smelt or touched or swum in yet.

bh2 bh1


Soft afternoons, bright mornings, hot suns, crashing waves, breaking ice, trees whistling in the wind, rivers rushing, blue moonlight, rocks covered in snow, stinging desert sand, the cloying smell of rain hitting the tarmac at five o’clock of a summer evening. Every tiny bit of the country exists and sometimes that thought just blows my mind.


Geographer of the Week: Disney’s Pocahontas

Disney’s Pocahontas is a fictionalised person.

So necklace. Such leaves. Many hair. Wow.

There was a real Pocahontas who met the English when they came to north America, who then moved to England and married a bloke named John Rolfe and who died at 22, never to see her homeland again. It’s a slightly sad story, full of lost promise.

The version most of us know is the highly fictionalised account in Disney’s 1995 film “Pocahontas”. For it’s depiction of Native Americans, Pocahontas herself and the actual facts of her life, and the historical context it has been called disrespectful, dehumanising and just plain inaccurate in the decades since it’s release, and these things are obvious upon a critical viewing. (Also, there is no way she’d have the full set of internal organs/ribs with a waist that tiny.)

It’s my favourite hat. – Pocahontas.

However, we can all agree (surely) that there is one outstanding part of the film: Colors (sic) of the Wind is a beautiful song with a great clip/story and it is just lovely.

For her understanding of environmental science and how society should have a healthy relationship with it’s environment, Disney’s Pocahontas gets Geographer of the Week.

Check out the  song here and then let’s go through the song as geographers (song, lyrics & etc. are all copyright Disney).

You think I’m an ignorant savage
And you’ve been so many places
I guess it must be so
But still I cannot see
If the savage one is me
How can there be so much that you don’t know?
You don’t know …

In this first verse she is reminding us that even if you’re “civilised” you might have a rubbish relationship with the natural environment. Her use of the word “savage” reminds us that indigenous peoples all over the world are still treated with racism, disrespect, and are seen as subhuman. This is an enormous problem here in Australia; we treat First Australians so, so awfully then wonder why the land has gone to shit under 200 years of white mismanagement.

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name

You think the only people who are people
Are the people who look and think like you
But if you walk the footsteps of a stranger
You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew

When the British landed in Botany Bay in 1770 they decided that the land was ‘terra nullius‘; a land belonging to no-one despite that fact that First Australians were living there very happily, and had been for up to 60 000 years. Pocahontas reminds us that we should respect every part of the environment  and that we need to listen to the knowledge of those connected to the land if we’re going to manage it properly, rather than being bigoted fools.

Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon
Or asked the grinning bobcat why he grinned?
Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?

Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest
Come taste the sunsweet berries of the Earth
Come roll in all the riches all around you
And for once, never wonder what they’re worth

Here she sings about experiencing and enjoying the natural world, thinking about it and connecting with it, without trying to make it a commodity.

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends


How high will the sycamore grow?
If you cut it down, then you’ll never know
And you’ll never hear the wolf cry to the blue corn moon

For whether we are white or copper skinned
We need to sing with all the voices of the mountains
We need to paint with all the colors of the wind

You can own the Earth and still
All you’ll own is earth until
You can paint with all the colors of the wind

She’s so, so right.

You need to paint with all the colours of the wind.

Book Review: The Declaration of Interdependence

This tiny little ink-green and pastel-yellow book is one of the best things I have ever read in my life.

Such book. Excite.

Written by Tara Cullis and David Suzuki, and with help from Raffi Cavoukian, Wade Davis and Guujaaw, it is yet another wonderful publication from the David Suzuki Foundation.

the book

Basically, in the lead up to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992 Cullis and Suzuki et al. wrote the beautiful, poetic Declaration that espouses the need for creating “a new politics of hope” of interdependence between humans and our natural home, i.e. Earth and all her systems, including other species.

The Deceleration is set out in three parts that your high school English teacher would be proud of: it has a clear beginning which sets the context (This We Know), the middle which presents a problem (This We Believe), and an end which sets out a solution (This We Resolve). All in all, it’s less than three pages long but the complexity, subtlety and emotion set therein seems to extend not only to the time of “the firstborn cell” from which we are descended, but also reaches toward “all those who walk after us”.

The book also contains a short essay by Suzuki explaining the history and meaning of the Deceleration and another by Cullis which describes the David Suzuki Foundation and it’s inspiring history. It contains beautiful ink illustrations by Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas which successfully represent the flowing yet solid tone of the text. It’s the kind of writing that catches in your throat, speaks to something in you that you’d forgotten, and Yahgulanaas’ Haida inspired drawings express this perfectly.

“We are the breath of the forests of the land, and the plants of the sea.” One of the book’s illustrations.

the book and geography

So how does this wonderful little book relate to geography?

Well, in every way possible really. It discusses pretty much all of the themes most relevant to the study of geography. Remember that we take geography to be the study of how society (human geography) relates to the Earth system (natural geography). A traditional, cartographic understanding of geography is the ultimate expression of this as it literally is the study of how society sees the Earth’s landscape; the interface of the society/environment nexus.

The book’s central thesis is that we need to stop thinking of the environment as ‘the environment’; something that exists externally to us, that’s outside or in a National Park or is somehow apart from society. We need to stop thinking that we need to control, subdue, contain, dominate, economise, or stand apart from it. We need to stop thinking that we can extract and extract and extract in order to consume consume consume with no heed to the toxic and horrendous waste and destruction that that creates.

We need to stop thinking that we can extract and extract and extract. A coalmine in the Latrobe Valley, Victoria in 2009. For a sense of scale, see the 4WD in the bottom left. Picture: Paul Crock.

Here’s an excerpt from Suzuki’s essay:

“There is no separation; there is no environment ‘out there’ that we have to regulate our interaction with. Air is in us and circulates throughout our bodies at all times, we are made up of more than 60 per cent water by weight, we are built of the molecules of food we consume – most of which has come from the earth – and every bit of the energy that we need to grow, move, and reproduce is the fire of the sun captured by plants through photosynthesis. We are the earth, and so whatever we do to it, we do directly to ourselves.”

Basically, it’s calling for a re-assessment of how we as a society relate to the Earth system and all her squirrels and sea cucumbers and trees and ice bergs and creeks and so on. That’s geography, dude.

As a student of geography at the Fenner School of Environment and Society reading this book I felt as if my entire university education had been summarised in three pages.

tldr: Very insight, such wonderful. Wow.


Name: The Declaration of Interdependence: A Pledge to Planet Earth

Authors: Tara Cullis, David Suzuki, Raffi Cavoukian, Wade Davis and Guujaaw

Illustrations: Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas

Date: (first ed.) 2010

Publishers: Greystone Books and the David Suzuki Foundation


Rating: I give it ten out of ten Earth systems

*I just love metadata! Even saying it is fun. Metadata. Meta. Data. Meh-tah. Dah-tah. Aw, yiss.