The animist lives of Val Plumwood and Deborah Bird Rose
A research project tracking the philosophical animism of Australian ecofeminist philosopher Val Plumwood and anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose. Via their published works and stories from their lived lives, the research will attempt to map a constellation of influence between these two incendiary thinkers, the effect their thought had on each other's thought, and the interventions of more-than-human agents; forests, wombats, crocodiles, dingoes & flying-foxes.
Plumwood Mountain, December, 2022
Around my ankles, a thick, luminously green, ground hugging weed that tangles about and snaps on my boots; everywhere, a lush carpet, soaking my socks in droplets. I can’t see the tops of the trees for the mist – great tall Brown Barrel eucalypts, like the heavy legs of some mammoth, its body far off in the sky. Lyrebirds can be somewhat haunting in the mist; when they are on the move, scooting over the floor of the forest, their calls a looping mimicry of their surroundings, trailing behind them. It’s like a nursery rhyme drifting out the mist: saccharine and off-kilter familiar. A long rectangle of black water, a swimming pool built from stone, golden bricks that wouldn't look out of place in the garden of an 18th century manor. Sylvan swam laps here every day, but when he left it was let back to the plants and animals. Ferns lean to dip into it, frogs dart away from my shadow underneath the water, their tadpoles a flock of commas, scurrying behind lilies and clumps of reedy grasses. At its edge, a spear lily is about to flower – endemic to the east coast of Australia, this plant sends a single stem teetering meters high, bursting into a flame like flower – a spindly, defiant torch held above a crowd. From the outside, the stone cottage looks like a spaceship, its octagonal green roof topped by a small, central glass prism. A little spaceship that has got itself embedded in Earth, sunken into rock, boarded by moss and lichen.
When the mist clears, the view from the edge of the escarpment reaches the ocean, so that, stood back, I could be standing on a cliff at the edge of the world. Ruby, who lives on the mountain as a caretaker, tells me that before the fire, the forest was thicker, and there wasn’t such a clear view out to Batemans Bay. When the mist clears, I can see that the towering Brown Barrels have become even more Ent-like since the 2019 bushfires, their epicormic growth keeping their leaves in close contour to their limbs, like so many fists shaking. The house miraculously evaded the bushfires, despite them coming within ten meters of it – it was designed and built by Plumwood and Sylvan with fires in mind.
On the front door to the stone house are the scratch marks of Birubi the wombat, who enchanted Plumwood’s thinking with his incessant personality and his otherness, living between his burrow and Plumwood’s bed for a decade. The one octagonal room of the stone house contains many of the apparatus of Plumwood’s life: her bed, working space, kitchen and living area. Her desk stands weighty and deep, as though she had just walked away from it, with its shells, pebbles and lyrebird feathers, a framed postcard of Frida Kahlo with parrots. On a windowsill are her many crocodile figures, brought to her by friends while she recovered from her crocodile attack in a Darwin hospital. The philosopher’s armchair is a fuchsia coloured velvet, repaired with hand stitched patches at the places on the chair arm where her hands rested, wear attesting years of contemplation. At the center of the round bungalow is an impressive hearth which, although formidable, never quite drew properly. A pleasing contention that a philosopher may build a simple house, but there remains knowledge that is specific and other-than-intellectual. No one can know everything. Beside it, the caretakers have installed a cast iron stove for contemporary heating.
Since Plumwood’s death in 2008 the land has become part of the adjoining Budawang National Park, as was her wish, and the stone house and its adjacent gardens are kept by a committee of Plumwood’s friends as a place of education, hosting workshops and residencies. In her life, as in her philosophy, she lived in reciprocity with the piece of land she built on, not much leaving it. Plumwood Mountain was her source of inspiration for human embeddedness in the natural world; a playground for thought; a site of interplay between her theories and the place itself, which she came to understand as an animate and intentional partner. Just as it nurtured her and her ideas, it carries on now as a site of nourishment. The house is a living archive to Plumwood’s life and work, and the enlivened objects of her life have a place in ongoing, emerging environmental thought.