Understanding human relationships to the environment is the big picture. Inside is everything from my current PhD work right through to my imagery while at art school in the 90s.
Actually, awareness of the desire to understand this relationship began as a child: seated with my elderly neighbour in his kitchen, I used to watch him gaze across the Tamaki estuary to the line of clouds clustered along the horizon, gauging their colour, texture, shape and a hundred other subtle variables besides. With a quick glance at the barometer, he’d make a casual comment about what the weather would bring next. This fascinated me. It hit home early that knowledge of place relies on regular, keen, long-term observation.
Often it’s a challenge to tease apart exactly which cues are being observed to create opinions of what and how the landscape is changing. Substitute cues for indicators and we’re in research mode, but either way, be it cues, clues, indicators or variables, these are the means to explore that relationship between ourselves and the environment. Some years ago I spent many hours with Otago and Southland farmers trying to tease out their words for describing the process of informally gauging soil health. I realised that for some, the verbal reticence wasn’t a lack of interest in being a research participant, but the challenge of fitting language to a process that was internal, intuitive and rarely expressed.
This theme of relationships emerges again in my current work – actually it never really goes away. Talk to community environmental groups on the subject of monitoring their restoration projects, and these connections between people and places well-known, well understood are emphasized though so are their dynamic complexity. I’m currently poring over interview transcripts from very loosely structured conversations with DOC and regional council staff, community groups and NGOs and it’s obvious that ‘ways of understanding the environment’ is very fertile subject area. I’m mining text, digging through paragraphs, sentences and snippets of phrases trying to find the ones that best illustrate the evolving narrative on monitoring restoration success. Distilling it all down into an academic text may lose some of the richness but simultaneously cuts to the chase.
Meanwhile, I’ll keep that image of being in my neighbour’s kitchen in mind – it gives me mental clarity. I’d like to think we’re in for some good weather.