To Sleep, To Wake
by Kristen Lang
Published March 2021
To sleep within the Australian bush is an uncanny and beautiful phenomenon.
Beautiful because of the bush itself: the zesty Angophora woodlands on Dharawal country, splashed with the red of dancing waratah; or the undulating sandstone of Kuring-Gai, with its twisting cool rivers in stingray territory; or the dappled moist rainforests of takayna, Tasmania, where I have sprawled on my stomach on a sheepskin blanket; or the ochre soils on Arrernte land, where I slept as a child encased in swag, awaking at midnight surrounded by dingoes, who howled in unison beneath the starry sky before tearing into a plate of cold snags…
I sleep soundly in the bush, despite finding it difficult to sleep in city housing.
Uncanny, though, because although I know the bush to be a place of hot abundance, simultaneously it whispers a mourning. The land holds witness to destruction, and to my mind, holds memory of the violence inflicted on the First Peoples, who sustained Country before colonisation, and who continue in strength. The wind blows in the absence of the frogs and parrots, bush mice, bandicoots, ferns, and orchids now gone, or which grow only in parks cut and allocated, where I, human, descendant of migrants, now travel, and lay myself on the earth, to sleep, and to sleep peacefully.
To sleep, to wake. There is a discomfort in it: a discomfort in my relationship to bush, as contested space, as wounded space, and as engrossing, soothing space. But sleeping is not necessarily an act of entitlement. I think about slumbering as a child in a tent, with my family behind the beach at Jervis Bay. In that setting, I always rose early. It was probably just after 6am when I’d tug the tent zipper open, careful not to wake my family, and creep barefoot onto the sand, casuarina needles catching between my toes.
I enjoyed the calm at that hour, the way the light played over the faded camping chairs. The joyful morning magpie chortle. It was a time for listening and observing. This memory arises as I read the first poem of Kristen Lang’s collection Earth Dwellers. Entitled ‘Arrival’, it is a poem of awakening:
The dawn is flame-coloured. Where I have slept,
under trees, my indent still presses on the ground. I lean
into wakefulness, drawn above the mesh of the night:
the leaf falling, the child saying my name, the cobweb
stretched on my cheekbone.
The setting of this poem is likely to be a forest of lutruwita – Tasmania – where the poet resides. Upon waking, the speaker is drawn to observation of minutiae in their surroundings. Like the child, they are rendered open and curious. A leaf falls, the faint touch of a cobweb felt. These are observations of an entwining – like ‘mesh’ – an entwining of earthly species.
It is as if that experience of sleeping and waking in nature allows us to see more fully. With renewed awareness, the human ego drifts within a shimmering, relational world: ‘Two wrens. So close/ I can hold, with my lungs, their sheer hearts, their blue-splashed heads’. Each being is viewed as precious in its place, and place is felt as infinitely various: ‘Wingbeats. Atoms of air. Soil/ and tree-bark/’. Far from an entitled position on the land, and even further from an extractive view of nature, quietness in immersive wakefulness allows for the complexity of the biome to emerge.
I begin to think about immersion as a form of protection. I think about this in relation to the Tarkine takayna, those ancient rainforests in north-west Tasmania which have been cut in swathes and milled into woodchips. Lang writes to this destruction in ‘The trees’:
We are bringing them out.
Forest after forest, the bodies
chipped and pressed
The people at Sumac Ridge Blockade takayna, where I have camped, were the self-described ‘eyes and ears’ of the forest. They dwelt enshrouded by myrtle and lichen, protecting the trees from total destruction. Some slept suspended in floating tents among the canopy. Others flat on the ground nestled with their family. It’s an exercise in changing perspective: be like the bird, floating among the leaves, or the wombat in its burrow.
Moments of immersion and observation comprise the essence of Lang’s collection. It is a book of poetic intimacies with Earth. Where layered, mossy details are rendered gorgeously on microscopic scale. ‘At my side, a black-backed beetle probes the leaf/ that has fallen,’ Lang writes. In sight, spherical droplets of dew levitate in ‘clean, clear weight’. Interestingly, observation of patterns in nature lends itself to a crystalline clarification of self. ‘I gaze and so much blooms and spills/ though it’s I who emerges’, the speaker admits. A human sense of self is relocated within the fullness of a flourishing ecosystem.
If the collection figuratively lays down within the infinitesimal, it simultaneously traverses the topography of the land and arises to all Earth’s magnitude. In ‘Oxygen’, Lang skilfully negotiates a metaphorical push-pull between the microscopic and the macro. Tracing a history of oxygen through evolution, she highlights the relation between atmospheric gas levels and global phenomena:
As the dinosaurs start to emerge
it drops again – fifteen percent and the wildfires
won’t spread …
And with us? Twenty-point-nine-five – toasties
round the campfire, the gas in our lungs.
Lang draws the reader through the immensity of space-time, only to wind up on that gooey mouthful of cheese-sandwich, our senses equally nourished by the lingering scent of eucalyptus from the fire. I’m reminded of the opening lines of Eleni Sikelianos’ poem ‘Oracle or, Utopia’:
No one knows how it began.
A few atoms lying in the sun
began to lick and burn.
The playfulness across time and scale in both these works is typical of an ecopoetic trajectory. In ‘Oxygen’, Lang really plays with perspective, declaring: ‘We should build a monument’ – to cyanobacteria, those ‘hellish blooms’ of toxic blue-green algae, which ironically, have been fundamental to human survival in their contribution to an oxygen-rich atmosphere.
The effect of such play between the minute and the gargantuan is firstly one of relationality. Lang distorts an egocentric vision of the world, portraying human survival as but a pinpoint in cellular history. There is humility in a gaze that appreciates its place within the fabric of a woven earth. Further, Lang creates a distinct and intoxicating sensation of movement – both through the poetry and geographically: ‘Our own whirling rhythms/ in the blistering spin of the hour’.
The poetry moves us.
Often, to the summit of mountains, where the light waxes and wanes, and the meeting of stone and sky is stark. Some of the poems lead us overseas, with ‘Everest’, ‘Poon Hill’ and ‘Meteor, Himalayas’ all written in dedication to the Himalayan mountains of Nepal, which began forming 50 million years ago, when the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collided. In ‘Poon Hill’, Lang’s long, prosaic verses ascend steadily:
In the tiny arc of my torch, I am part shade
as if the climb draws me out of the underground, urging me
like some clay beast into the slow-booming sky.
Here, resonance of the speaker with ‘some clay beast’ highlights human grounding to the ancient stuff of earth. Situated between rock and sky’s horizon, the speaker is imbued with light. As dawn breaks, human potentiality materialises ‘into its flow’: ‘The body vanishes’. Light-filled space is a site of becoming.
Recurrent clarification and dissolution of the self here hints at an ecologically-informed spiritualism behind the poems, reminiscent of Gary Snyder (who was learned in many Eastern and tribal philosophies), or even the magnificent Kahlil Gibran, a Sufi-Christian mystic who meditatively wrote:
It was but yesterday I thought myself a fragment
quivering without rhythm in the sphere of life.
Now I know that I am the sphere, and all life in
rhythmic fragments moves within me.
Lang’s poetry celebrates a human-universal connection which swells with future-oriented hope. In the liminal space at mountain’s peak, consciousness moves past the individual, toward responsibility for the entirety of the cosmos over billions of years of changes.
It is a striking, deep-breath vision.
Nevertheless, there is a lack of overt cultural reflection in the poems, as they move across both Australian and Nepali soils. I think to one of Lang’s contemporaries – Australian poet Kate Fagan, who writes in pointed recognition of the difficulties in using language, off the back of an inherited colonial legacy:
Some kind of transplanted integrity
has taken place, the words
and rhymes of older empires
fraying under eucalypts
and fruitless in a country
such as this.
In First Light, Fagan’s poetic task is to dig ‘for a different language,/ a new balm for the bruise/ of lost opportunities’. To write while confronting cultural responsibility across places which have been wounded by colonial violence.
Lang’s decolonial undertaking is certainly less explicit, but repeatedly disperses some egotistical-imperial self, in favour of ‘sky’, ‘shadow’, or ‘star-dust diffusions’. The technique often returns us to a sense of our own apparent nothingness (and sameness). Lang highlights the capacity of language in altering our relationships to ourselves, to other people, and to our own backyard – Earth. In ‘Touching the dark’, immersed in the absolute blackness of a cave, many human bodies are recalibrated in their sameness. ‘You remove distance/ by turning off the eyes,’ Lang explains.
Where I live, in the Blue Mountains, a fog can roll in over the valley so completely and suddenly that within five minutes you can’t see two foot in front of you. The effect is such that you know yourself to be one with the seasons – ‘as near, for a moment,/ to the weather as the rock itself’.
Recently, I had the pleasure of reading a reflection by Wiradjuri researcher, artist and architect Joel Spring, on the role of listening in deep connection to Country. ‘Really listening to it takes time,’ he says. ‘There’s such a generosity in listening again and again and again. There’s something that reveals itself to you the more time you give to it.’
Philosopher and anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose stresses the vitality of listening to all present and past beings and systems. Through listening, the connected world makes itself known. Through listening, we can move beyond a Western perspective that perpetuates human/nature duality. We can understand an interconnected place on Earth. And we can take responsibility for ecological and cultural well-being.
With a dedication ‘for the wombats and the slime moulds… And for all who work to protect the entanglement’, Lang’s collection resonates with the philosophy of Rose and the encouragements of Spring, to listen deeply with revitalised ecological awareness. It contributes to a growing network of contemporary Australian poetics which move outwardly – like a slow-blooming creeper – across the colonial foundations of ‘modern Australia’ toward an emerging, revitalised landscape. ‘Decolonisation can be shared by everyone, not least the hegemony, for everyone needs to take responsibility for imagining their own unique kind of transformation,’ poet and critic Peter Minter writes.
In ‘The Trees’, Lang’s engagement with listening echoes through the ‘weeping’ of the ‘bodies/ chipped’ and the ‘hammering’ of the sky ‘on the trees’ ripped ground’ which pounds in our ears, long after we have finished reading. In the aftermath of destruction, the speaker is haunted by memories of sight, touch, sound and smell: ‘leaf scents, the touch/ of trunks, rustlings, wind-/ bent shadows, bird nests…’ These are imprints from an immersive relationship with nature. Sleeping. Waking. Watching. Listening.
Kombumerri and Wakka Wakka woman Dr Mary Graham writes: ‘For Aboriginal people, the land is the great teacher; it not only teaches us how to relate to it, but to each other’. In reality, contemporary ecocritical ideas of attentiveness seem to be fundamentally derived from Indigenous philosophies whose teachings arise from the land. In Australia, Graham writes, an Aboriginal worldview emerges largely from the axioms that land is law and you are not alone in the world.
Earth Dwellers tries to acknowledge those ancient philosophies which course through Australian soils, and from which we might learn. The island of lutruwita has a violent history and still struggles against colonial powers. Palawa people are persistently engaged in protecting places of environmental and cultural significance, like the Tarkine, from threats of logging and mining. In a video for the Bob Brown Foundation, Palawa woman and manager at the Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre Raylene Foster compels us to visit the temperate rainforests of takayna: ‘Actually come and have a look,’ she says. ‘Actually hear and see and feel it’. Behind her, small children skip through the light-dappled ferns or gaze upward at the 40-metre canopy.
Foster’s invitation to immersion is a worldview which Lang’s poetics elegantly uphold.
How can poetics work to recover meaningful spaces of ecological acknowledgement and encounter? In Earth Dwellers, Lang demonstrates the complicity of language in severing the Earth from ourselves:
We were never alone. So much
pushed to the point of falling now, rising in our sea of selves,
our weight crushing the wilds. Not deaf to it. Never,
but by our own tongues.
Historically, language has destroyed. Our tongues gave us dominion over the beasts. Our tongues declared terra nullius. Our tongues othered ‘the wilds’ to make way for destruction. But our tongues can heal, as much as they have harmed. In ‘Origami with sunset’, we see the poet equated with maker:
Fold corner A to corner C,
the glow of the sun’s fusion
to the blue’s
Lang entangles the literary word in the craftsmanship of poesis as an organic response to climate: ‘tug/ gently, the burning/ sun, the unrolling night/ in the tips/ of your fingers’. The poet wields how the evening will unfold. Perhaps the poet will also play their part in writing a more sustainable future.
I’m thinking again of the poetry of Eleni Sikelianos, whose collection Make Yourself Happy includes the materials for assembling a DIY paper globe, mapping some of Earth’s extinct animalia. In Sikelianos’ case, making of the animal globe is something of a preservationist technique. For Lang, the artist’s response to a planet in crisis is to create: ‘A brushstroke. An embroilment. The intricate warmth/ in my veins over the hues of these peeling gums’. Painting, writing, to create feeling in the veins. To create movement in the world. To create the conditions for change.
‘In the Yugambeh there exist three genders: male, female, and a gender used specifically to refer to trees,’ Melissa Lucashenko writes in ‘Numinbah Valley in Spring’. The poem opens by describing the traditional language group, whose relationship to trees is closely revealed in their choice of linguistic referent. Language here is an act of care. Poetry is an act of care.
Kristen Lang’s collection begins with an arrival – perhaps a nod to settler consciousness – and follows with an awakening, then moves us to words. To stories. For every creature. ‘A notch. A foothold. The words change.’ To create change on this disturbed land is to listen, and to write – even as we live through what seem to be just the beginnings of climate catastrophe:
I’ve been told
the season can change
even while the snow
In the age of human impact, poetry might awaken us. Poetry is a redbelly slithering through gums. It’s a ‘slight/ tilt in the way/ the breeze/ wraps around’ us. It’s listening to what came before. It’s writing for community, and for those in power. In the words of Gagudju poet Bill Neidjie: ‘White-European got to be listen this culture/ and this story/ because important one this’. It’s doing the work that’s required of us.
Bob Brown Foundation, Tasmanian Aboriginal Centre visit Sumac Blockade Camp, takayna / Tarkine, (Youtube, 2020).
Kate Fagan, First Light (Giramondo, 2012).
E Fishpool and Joel Spring, ‘The absence of sound,’ Art on View 107 (2021) 46-49.
Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam (Knopf, 1926).
Mary Graham, ‘Some Thoughts About the Philosophical Underpinnings of Aboriginal Worldviews,’ Australian Humanities Review 45.45 (2008) 105–118.
Melissa Lucashenko, ‘Numinbah Valley in Spring,’ Cordite (2016).
Peter Minter, ‘Decolonisation and Geopoethics,’ Plumwood Mountain 3.2 (2016).
Bill Neidjie, Story About Feeling (Magabala Books, 1989).
Deborah Bird Rose, Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation (UNSW Press, 2004).
Eleni Sikelianos, Make Yourself Happy (Coffee House Press, 2017).