First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee contemplates her mortality in Bushland
When I’m in a garden or out in the country, I’m reminded of how beautiful the world can be. Birds and fresh air, bees and other insects, a kind of bustle that, unlike the city, doesn’t stress me out. When I was a child in the country, my family and I rescued young birds and set them free. It wasn’t always successful: for every bird we saved, there was another that was too ill to make it for longer than a couple of days.
I used to be terrified when burying the birds, or any of our beloved pets, because the first night of rain absolutely broke my heart. The idea of their bodies being left alone to disintegrate gave a bitter twinge to my love of the natural world.
To be honest, I’d never thought about human bodies in the earth, out in the rain, until I went to a performance of Bushland. It was a weird synchronicity: the previous night I had watched The Hamlet Apocalypse, in which the audience witnessed desperate people in the moments before their death. Bushland takes us past that point: here the story is about the body that remains, past any pain, after life.
In association with Arts House, Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria is presenting Rebecca French and Andrew Mottershead’s audio piece Bushland. It’s part of their Afterlife series, which also includes Waterborne, performed at Dark Mofo this year. Waterborne has a similar premise, in that it explores the body’s decomposition, looking at what happens to a body in the ocean. They consulted with science advisors Dr Carolyn Rando & Professor Shari Forbes to ensure scientific accuracy, and the amount of detail in their descriptions is impressive. And yet the narration makes it somehow beautiful.
We meet in the Botanic Gardens, and are each given devices with headphones, with instructions to follow a map to where the performance is to take place. Walking through the gardens is a valuable part of the performance: it gives us the chance to look around, to take in the beauty of something Melburnians take for granted. I wished I could find the time to come here more often.
When we reach our destination, we’re led to a listening area beneath an umbrella of trees. We are told to find a place to lay down, and we all scatter into our own places. We are given plastic sheets to protect our clothes from the leafy bed.When we look up, there’s a gorgeous framing of leaves and branches. The air is fresh, a mixture of living leaves smelling of the colour green and the soggy dead ones around us. It feels apt to be listening to a narration of our own decomposition among the rotting leaves.
Through the headphones we hear a woman with a calm voice describe a body in a forest. We are taken through a story of its decomposition: how bugs and animals visit the body for nourishment, until its torsos becomes tense with gas and oozing liquid. It’s a hauntingly beautiful journey full of surprising facts, such as how our organs and skin harden around our bones as we dissolve into the ground below us. Contemplating how our bodies nourish a world of plants, birds and animals, makes death less scary.
Emer Harrington, the head of Programming and Audience Development for the Botanic Gardens, said programming Bushland was part of their desire to connect people to nature, rather than just use the Botanic Gardens as an event venue. Through this emotional and imaginative experience, they hope that people may more deeply consider things like climate change, which threatens the natural beauty that surrounds us, and perhaps inspire us to take action.
The Botanic Gardens are a beautiful setting to think about our mortality: and not only our own. It also reminds us that nature’s mortality is in our hands, through how we live and how we die. This audio play takes us past the frightening part of dying by revealing the mechanics of everything that happens afterwards. It’s a peaceful contemplation about how we become just another part of the land. To become a part of something bigger than ourselves is a very mortal desire. Bushland shows that in life, we can work to maintain the world around us, and in death, we get to become a part of it. And that’s nothing to be afraid of.
Bushland, written and devised by Rebecca French, Andrew Mottershead, Science Advisers
Dr Carolyn Rando and Professor Shari Forbes. Bushland at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria, in association with Arts House. Until December 2. Bookings
Bushland makes references to themes of death, dying and decomposition that may not be suitable for children. Please call Arts House if you would like to discuss further. We recommend you dress for weather and walking.