Nature in Culture: Being and Beings Beyond the Human

Dr Christine Winter reflects on themes of representation and justice in Marind philosophy, as presented by anthropologist Dr Sophie Chao in the first instalment of The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Multimedia Series.

Photo by Dwinanda Nurhanif Mujito on Unsplash.

Sophie Chao’s work is so full and rich that it is impossible in this short space to even begin to do it justice. So forgive me as I constrain my response to a very thin slice of her gifts to us in the podcast. My focus will be on representation and justice, two themes that weave through the conversation. Representation takes many forms in the places to which Sophie took us: maps; human-nonhuman relationships; visual vs aural; political; and activist. And with the help of the Marind imaginary, we can see how the idea of justice extends the subject of justice beyond the human into the nonhuman realm, but also we see how such an imaginary can be used to foreclose justice for Marind. While Marind are modern people, engaging with modern technology, political systems, and modern dilemmas, the authorities, engaging the tools of colonial domination, caste them as primitive and naïve. This rendering demonstrates a (deliberate) lack of imagination on the part of political and industrial negotiators. It is itself based in what might be thought of as a primitive and unsophisticated set of 17th– 18th-century ideas ill-suited to the modern scientific understanding of human beings as multispecies assemblages, trees as complex webs of communicative and symbiotic relationships, animals as sentient beings, and of the immense complexity of the planetary system and layers of interconnected flows. Perhaps it is Marind who are the post-modern persons.

As I reflect on the glimpse Sophie gives us of Marind life coordinates – the things that they see as important to map – I reflect too on the very thin descriptions a classical western map affords. If a map represents that which is important – and I assume that the purpose of a map is to render that which has significant value in the lives of the mapmaker and map viewer to a symbolic form that may be rolled or folded, that guides, informs, and enables – then what we hold important is reductive. When a government, industry or an agribusiness stakes out a claim to a plot of land they map the zone. That map may show the contours, the humps and hollows they plan to acquire, seize, erase, or vivisect, to use Sophie’s word, or a river they will ‘tap’ for their operations, or dam to produce ‘clean’ energy. They may show the contours of the rock and deposits beneath the surface – the oil and gas laden materials, the iron ores, and the gold-bearing quartz, and maybe the waters nestled beneath the land’s surface. Very often these maps ignore the existing flora and fauna that form a network of relationships that make this a place, not space – that is, I am suggesting these maps ignore the meaning that exists in a place, meaning created through relationships, belonging, and in the case of humans through imagination and story-telling. While political, industrial and agricultural renderings may inscribe the natural waving lines of the earth’s surface, may even replicate plant species with symbols, they do so within strict straight lines and the legally designated plots within which they work. Alternatively, we might acknowledge on a map evidence of human habitation – the plots that describe a farm perimeter, the limits of urban spread, the passage of power lines or piped water. They may demark forest, or wildlife sanctuaries or recreation grounds – polo fields, footy grounds, netball courts, golf rinks, playgrounds. However, missing and obscured are relationships: human to human, human to nonhuman, nonhuman to nonhuman, nonhuman to human. They obscure too the flows through the boundaries, across and under the surface – flows constituent of relationships. They erase the spirit of the place.

“[Maps] obscure the flows through the boundaries, across and under the surface – flows constituent of relationships. They erase the spirit of the place.”

What about movements through? And temporary migrants to? What of a lyre bird’s territory, the subterranean wombat tunnels? What of the ghost fish paths within the flowing alpine streams? Where are the movements of bird song, kangaroo runs, babbling streams? Where are the whales passing through, the marlin and tuna? What of the seeds that blow in the winds? The grasses the sway with the gentle breeze that flows across the land. Where are the deep root systems that play host to fungi, mycorrhiza, worms and bacteria that move nutrients through the system?

Where is the wonder? Those things that give us pause, an in-taken breath, a gasp of awe, a wash of inspiration, a tantalising glimpse of rare beauty, a sense of wholeness and connectivity – of the things that inspire and ignite our sense of things at the very edges of our ken? Where are they on the maps the developers and mining magnates deliver to our planning authorities? How can we expose our decision-makers to that wonder – without taking them in busloads to immerse themselves in country for days, weeks, months, lifetimes so they too grow into the land? How do you map the spirit of the land?

And where on those maps are efforts, the sacrifices, the labour of our ancestors? Where are the possibilities for future generations inscribed within these straight borders, political and geographic features, the stratigraphy and isobars? How do we represent justice on a map?

Raja Ampat, West Papua, Indonesia. Photo via Shutterstock, ID1419813350.


As we journey with Sophie into the world of the Marind we glimpse a way of engaging with the world around us that plumbs the depths of multiple relationalities. That allows for ‘thick’ engagement with our world and reaches out with great sympathetic imagining to being and beings beyond the mere human. We glimpse a way of being in the world that evades the iniquities and inequalities that arise from a tolerance– even a reverence – for domination. Late in the piece, she discusses that negotiation and exchange are vital to the Marind life way – and that political and commercial interests curtail those possibilities by casting Marind as ‘primitive’ or ‘unsophisticated’ – unsuited to the modern world. And that casting is used as a rationalisation of and legitimation for relegating Marind to the margins, for stealing their lands, for removing the plants and animals, the interwoven assemblages from which Marind gain physical and psychological sustenance. They legitimate constraining Marind life to a form that is thin, constricted, restricted and constrained. They assume that right by virtue of their own incapacity to hear and see a world that is a rich, engaging set of negotiated relationships of flow and flourishing. And this is a matter of justice, this is the stuff of primitive colonialism no more sophisticated than the colonialism of the second half of the last millennium.

“As we journey with Sophie into the world of the Marind we glimpse a way of engaging with the world around us that […] reaches out with great sympathetic imagining to being and beings beyond the mere human. We glimpse a way of being in the world that evades the iniquities and inequalities that arise from a tolerance– even a reverence – for domination.”

If the endpoint of justice is flourishing, if justice lands us in a place where the ambient conditions enable us to shape a life we have reason to value, we might understand justice in this Marind world rests/nests within multispecies relationships. Justice is not then an endpoint, a dark black dot on a two-dimensional map, cursive signatures on a treaty, contract, or agreement to render equity, but rather, justice lies in the shimmering movement of relationships. Justice like the GPS coordinates of the Marind map is located in grounds and rounds of constant, respectful, imaginative listening to and for difference. In broadening the scope of responsibility we also open our world beyond the thin crust of capital accumulation – our appetite for which can never be satisfied, as Sophie says. Full human flourishing cannot be reached if we are unsated.  Anyone confined by such thin boundaries is denied the opportunity for flourishing.

The gift Sophie has brought us here from Marind philosophic thought is an avenue towards expanding our own imaginative renderings of the multispecies world into which people and human habitats are inserted, and also the parameters of justice that take us beyond the thin human-centric versions the west has inherited, renderings that represent the realities of our multispecies relationships and dependencies about as effectively as a two-dimensional map.

The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture Multimedia Series, convened by Dr Christine Winter and Michelle St Anne, originated from a two-day symposium, the second of its kind. It’s an opportunity for Indigenous scholars and people working with Indigenous scholars and Indigenous peoples to come together, discuss the ways in which culture and nature are entwined in the philosophies, lives and strengths of indigenous peoples. Importantly, we reflect on the leadership these perspectives offer as the world faces multiple challenges such as climate change, pollution and associated biocultural destruction.

Episode 1: Multi-Sensory Mapping with the Marind People
Sophie Chao has worked with the Marind people of Indonesian West Papua for over a decade. Here she shares with us her experience of what was to be a two-day mapping expedition – which grew to a three-week encounter with Marind song, lands, vegetation, bird and animal life and a map of coexistence rather than a map of topography, or ownership, or territory.

Dr Christine Winter is a lecturer in the Department of Government & International Relations at the University of Sydney. Her research focuses at the intersection of intergenerational, indigenous and environmental justice. Drawing on her Anglo-Celtic-Māori cultural heritage she is interested in decolonising political theory by identifying key epistemological and ontological assumptions in theory that are incompatible with indigenous philosophies. In doing so she has two aims: to make justice theory just for Indigenous peoples of the settler states; and to expand the boundaries of theories of intergenerational justice to protect the environment for future generations of Indigenous Peoples and their settler compatriots. Christine is the Research Lead on The Re-(E)mergence of Nature in Culture.