Hanuman’s Ocean: Land and water at Rama’s Bridge

On the poet John Keats’ grave in Rome are the words ‘here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ First reading Keats in my late teens, I have always held a mental picture of those words as his name traced on the surface of the sea. It is a wonderful image, the letters written in water, the dark mobile surface swirling and closing over each momentary mark.

Rama’s Bridge, NASA image

My second Asialink Arts writing project with EarthCoLab takes as its focus Rama’s Bridge, a shifting line of sandbanks, reefs and islands traced across thirty kilometres of ocean between India and Sri Lanka, connecting Dhanushkodi to Talaimannar. Continue reading

The Sacred Conch: multi-species explorations in Palk Strait

‘For them the Ceylon diver held his breath,

And went all naked to the hungry shark;

For them his ears gush’d blood.’

(John Keats, Isabella. 1818)

 

At the beginning of the Bhagavad Gita, seven war conches are named as their owners sound them at the start of the climactic Kurukshetra battle, including warrior Arjuna’s Devadatta, and his charioteer Krishna’s Panchajanya. War conches are shankha, the same sacred or divine conch that is used in Hindu and Buddhist ritual, Ayurvedic medicine, Indian marriage ceremonies and numerous other occasions.

The conch seems an unlikely candidate to reach the level of reverence it does in India, and in fact in numerous other cultures. It is a large marine gastropod, a big sea snail. The specific animal revered as shankha is Turbinella pyrum, and is common on the southern coasts of India and Sri Lanka. In its living form it is not obviously attractive, the shell being covered by a dark brown mantle of soft tissue. Once processed, it is a shining white symbol of the divine. Continue reading

Spirit horses

The next minutes are completely mesmerising. The two stallions fight, fifty metres from me. Dust hangs in the air around them, their screams echo off the hills, the impact of their hoof strikes reverberates in my belly. They rear, scream, snake heads out to bite, whirl and kick.

Stallion, Kosciuszko. Image: Dr Andrea Harvey

This week The Conversation published my ‘Friday Essay’ on wild horses in Australia, and the excerpt above describes one of my many wild horse encounters. Horses are the most recent of the main species humans domesticated, and the least different (with cats) from their wild counterparts.

Australia has the largest wild horse herd in the world, 400,000 or more, spread across nearly every landscape in the country, and their presence is deeply controversial. Six thousand of them are in Kosciuszko National Park. The polarised reactions and accusations in the comments thread to my essay demonstrate entrenched views on both sides. Unfortunately, the comments often also demonstrate fairly unthinking responses, with little attention to the substance of the essay. Continue reading

Salt Blood

I have written about freedive research on this blog here, here and here, but only just now managed to publish about it. Freediving is at its most basic just holding your breath and diving underwater. It is likely as old as humans. But in its modern recreational and competitive formation, it has been described as the second most dangerous extreme sport. It is undergoing a dramatic rise in popularity, with PADI, the largest global dive organisation describing it as the fastest growing segment of the dive market. I have been using ‘full-immersion’ methodologies (becoming as close as possible that which I am researching) to try to understand why.

My essay on freediving, ‘Salt Blood’ has just won the 2017 ABR Calibre Prize.

I wrote:

Mirroring our time in the tiny sea of the amniotic sac, freediving is the most profound engagement between humans and oceans: the unmediated body immersed and uncontrolled in saltwater. It is simultaneously planetary and intensely intimate – the ocean is both all around us and within us. That breadth of scale can be terrifying or reassuring. It is not about discovery, it is about recovery: we can freedive expertly from the minute we are born, but slowly forget. Continue reading

Risk Assessment

Pondi Unleashed Bulleteers, south India

I have nervously watched the institutionalised mayhem of Indian traffic for years, ‘safely’ as a passenger: India has the highest number of annual traffic incidents in the world. This year I actively took part – in Pondicherry I rented a Royal Enfield ‘Bullet’. Old style, heavy, single-cylinder 350cc: lovely motorbike design dating from the year I was born.

Joining the traffic in the Bullet taught me many lessons – no helmet is better (improves peripheral vision); check the fuel tank (we pushed it down dusty roads for a kilometre the first day); it’s a delicate balance between assertion and deference in Indian traffic, and almost every Indian out-asserted me. Ananth Gopal was the perfect pillion passenger: balanced, navigating, laughing. Risk is broadened on a motorbike: Ananth, me, the people on the bikes next to me I might bump, pedestrians… It is all about flow: after ten days it was just exhilarating to negotiate insanely crowded intersections and nudge through crowded marketplaces. Continue reading

Truganini’s Island: Food, darkness and belonging

I have just spent ten days in Tasmania, presenting at a conference on Food Politics, with prominent food geographer Michael Goodman and RMIT’s excellent Tania Lewis as the keynotes. My presentation was on food and hunting in Australia and Sweden, based on a forthcoming chapter in a book co-edited by Lesley Head.IMG_0463

All the Nordic countries and Australia have traditions of hunting. For most of Australia’s human history, including colonial settlement, wild harvest from the sea and the land formed the human diet, and hunting was a normal part of activity and cuisine. These traditions continue in 2016, but are controversial and contested. In the Nordic countries, in part because of the historic traditions of friluftsliv and allemansrätten, wild food gathering including hunting is currently much more normalized, and in fact valorized in the rise of the ‘New Nordic Cuisine. The percentages of the population that are hunters in these countries are relatively similar, between 2-5%. Indigenous hunters, Aboriginal and Sami, are marginalized and often criminalized for continuing to maintain traditions millennia old. Continue reading

A silver bowl filled with snow, a heron hidden in the moon – full-immersion methodologies

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For the last few years I have been approaching research using ‘full-immersion’ methodologies: ‘the method that requires investigators to become, as completely as possible, that which they wish to understand’ (Desmond 2011,  drawing on Wacquant 2004 – thanks to Christine Eriksen for drawing my attention to Desmond’s phrase). Consequently, my work on hunting (Adams 2013, Adams 2014, and another forthcoming this year) required me to acquire a firearm and appropriate licences and learn to hunt – to become a hunter.

Currently, I am following this approach with freediving research. Continue reading

One Blood

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Illustration for ‘The Jungle Book’, Detmold Brothers, 1908.

This coming month I have an essay published in the Indian journal Seminar, which I consider something of an honour. Seminar, which has a readership in the hundreds of thousands, is legendary in intellectual and policy circles in India. Ramachandra Guha, named as one of the world’s top one hundred intellectuals by ‘Foreign Policy’ magazine in 2008, described Seminar as ‘an indispensable national institution.’

It’s a unique publication: each monthly issue is themed, and contributors are invited by the editors. The September issue has contributions from researchers at Stellenbosch, Uppsala, New Delhi, Harvard and Chicago universities, amongst others. It opens with an editorial called ’The Problem’. The September issue is edited by Gunnel Cederlöf and Mahesh Rangarajan, and the focus is ‘Nature and History: a symposium on human-environment relations in the long term’. Mahesh is a distinguished Indian environmental historian and author of many books on conservation. He is currently Director of the Nehru Memorial Library and Museum in New Delhi, as well as being a regular election commentator in India’s national elections. Gunnel is Professor of History at Uppsala University and KTH, Stockholm, and has published extensively on India. Continue reading

On One Breath

Flying in to the Big Island of Hawai’i, the two largest volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, are capped with snow and surrounded by an aureola of clouds. Driving east to west across the island between the volcanoes, I pass through several climatic zones and multiple ecosystems. The journey takes me from the wet, windward eastern side to the much drier lee coast on the west.

It’s my second time on a tropical archipelago in a few months. In February I accompanied ten UOW undergraduates to India’s Andaman Islands for our pilot iteration of GEOG334 ‘Geographies of Change: International Fieldwork’. A great trip with a fantastic group of students – fun, resilient and very hard-working. Relevant to this research blog because each student completed their first ever independent research project while there, ranging from studying the territorial behaviour of damsel fish, to a detailed supply chain analysis of everything we ate. Great work.

apneista

The Apneista team, Indonesia (http://apneista.com/)

But I’m in Hawai’i to continue research on freediving, which I started last year in Indonesia. Freediving, or breath-hold diving, is at once a commonplace and unique form of engagement between humans and oceans. Continue reading

Caught in the net of life and time: hunting

Last week Meanjin published an essay of mine. The tagline they used was ‘Michael Adams reflects on the relationships between hunters and their prey’. The Guardian has just reprinted it in their Comment section. The essay explores modern hunting, with some of it focusing on my own hunting. My thinking continues to evolve on these issues, and recent media indicates they continue to be important and controversial. Continue reading