Tag Archives: Encounter

Thin places

I was listening to ABC Radio National’s Encounter program today and right at the end of the episode Selling God’s House, Bishop Ian Palmer made this statement about thin places:   

The Celtic church used to talk about thin places and it would have geographical places that it would consider as ‘thin’ where heaven and earth seemed to meet. But also they would cultivate them as well. And through prayer they would create a thin place. Often when they were thinking about putting a monastery in a place, they would go to a bend in a river and they’d camp out there for weeks, often for forty days and they would just pray there, before they even decided to build.

The idea of people camping by a bend in the river, taking the time to sense the spirit of the place (genius loci) or praying to create a ‘thin place’ reminded me of a story shared with me by Yuin Elder Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison. In a conversation about songlines/songcycles, Uncle Max said that rivers form many of the songlines that travel through country. It is in the bends of the rivers, he said, where much of the energy pools, that is why these are good places to go fishing.

After hearing Palmer speak about thin places I did some hunting about came across Corrine Cunningham’s thesis ‘Remembered Earth: Mythopoetics from the American Southwest of the Spirit of Place and the Re-Enchantment of Humanity.’ In her writing about genius loci, Cunningham (2007) beautifully weaves together threads such as thin places, enchantment and the liminal to elucidate the feelings that are so often indescribable about our engagement with sacred places:

Places associated with enchantment are part of the ancient belief that within this earth, there are sites where the veil between the inner and the outer worlds is permeable, and where an individual experiences what the Japanese poet Basho (1644-94) describes as “a glimpse of the under-glimmer” (qtd. in Cousineau: xix). The Irish call these landscapes “thin places”—as in Roadside Well in Leix, home to the spirits of the land. Anthropologist Victor Turner describes these places as “liminal” ” [ . . . ] a threshold, a place and moment, in and out of time” (Dramas, Fields and Metaphors 197). The liminal landscape of the American Southwest was often the subject for photographer Ansel Adams, who described artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s desert home “Ghost Ranch” in New Mexico as “isolated in a glowing world [.. . ] where everything is sidewise under you, and over you, and the clocks stopped long ago” (qtd. in E. Turner: 19). (p. 5)

In particular, Cunningham’s statement, that ‘… the veil between the inner and the outer worlds is permeable’ in these ‘thin places’ reminds me of a metaphor used by Mathews (2007) that is akin to the veil:

… if one somehow managed to slip under the psychic skin of the world, and “enter” its subjectivity, would one experience the “outside” as “inside”? If one stepped inside the world, in this sense, might the trees and grass and rivers no longer appear as external to oneself? Might they – along with oneself – now be experienced as internal to the psyche of the world? (p. 4)

Rather than lean towards the references of heaven and earth, my own reading of ‘thin places’ is one of places in which I feel a sense of resonance, a being with, outside of temporal constraints. These ‘thin places’ beckon me to allow them in. A pause, a deep breath and a lifting of the veil to see through feeling, that which is waiting to be acknowledged.



Cunningham, Corrine Lara. “Remembered Earth: Mythopoetics from the American Southwest of the Spirit of Place and the Re-Enchantment of Humanity.” Pacifica Graduate Institute, 2007. Print.

Mathews, Freya. “The World Hidden within the World: A Conversation on Ontopoetics.” The Trumpeter 1 (2007). Print.


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‘Seeing’ home

I had a conversation with a woman in a dream. She told me that she had seen a mamara (spirit tree) that I had written about (see The Women and the Mamara), but not on the Lurujarri Dreaming Trail. I was confused, I had not written about any other mamara. Which place and which mamara was she talking about? This dream was so hauntingly vivid, I felt as though the conversation had happened during a lucid conversation. The next day as I walked through the native gardens close to where I live I looked up and saw her, as if for the first time. It was her, the mamara from my dream. Fat girth, limbs outstretched and caressing the sky, this mamara was old. I found a shallow dip near the base of her trunk and burrowed in, my back supported by her body.

Mamara on the hill

How had I not see her all the other times I had passed by? Perhaps I had see this eucalyptus, but I had not seen her, the mamara. With eyes open, I began looking around at the surrounding country and noticed that I could see a long way into the distance, in all directions. This was the highest point for a long, long way. A big tree on a big hill right under my nose and I’d never noticed… From this mamara, on this hill which used to be called One Tree Hill, you can see unimpeded all the way to the Dandenongs, out to the Yarra Ranges, over to Mount Macedon on the western side of the city and a long, long way to the south.

My friend J grew up next to this park. When I asked her about the tree she knew which one I meant in an instant. She told me a story about when she was little… whenever there would be thunderstorms passing through, she would worry that the lightening would strike their home because they too were perched on top of the hill. Her mother told her not to worry, that the tree (the mamara) would protect them.

A week later I came back to the mamara and started to feel another tree calling. Not far away, near the adventure playground I found her. A sprawling coast tea tree (Leptospermum laevigatum) hugging the earth and creating protective caverns for children to hide and imagine in. Her limbs twisted into impossible turns, diving down into the soil (just like the jigal mamara on the sand dune at Bindinyankun) and rising up again. A child discovered me whilst I was meeting this mamara. He had come to visit his ‘magic tree’ and draw a picture of his secret cave in this journal. I asked him if he thought this was one tree or many. He carefully considered my question, gazing and what looked like at least 10 different tree ‘trunks’ (actually limbs) rising out of the earth. I showed him the emanation point, the place of convergence where all the branches came from – the well hidden original tree trunk. He was shocked that this could all be one tree!

To have two mamara (that I know of) close to home has awakened the possibility of seeing other entities in this place. It makes ‘coming home’ feel like a process of renewal; a deepening of my being with this country into which I was born.



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Light on the mountain


As I walked,

I asked there to be light,

so the shadows

would not consume me.

On this shortest day,

a low hanging sun

could not peak above the trees.

But, somehow

a light was shone,

illuminating the white bark of a gum.

To encounter this light,

was to find an opening,

and to feel heard.

Later, in a dance with the tors,

she returned.

Although the shadows grew long,

as the sun


behind the arms of the mountain,

there was

a final gift

of light.

“Remember this”


within me.

Opening into,

and out of,

shadowy places,

a light within.

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On Gratitude


Many thanks to a dear friend who posted this on social media today – an offering on gratitude by David Whyte. It reminds me so much of my seeking to find stillness, which feels so difficult at the moment. I have been rejecting the invitation to be still, to be present and with that which is seeking to emerge. To let go and be in some type of flow seems impossible. I feel like my body is hoarding (ideas, expectations, guilt and intentional blindness) so much so, that I am bulging and about to burst my banks. What is it that I am not paying attention to? I went and sat under the sheoaks at the cliffs this morning, hoping that the wind and trees would whisper secrets into my ears and heart, and help me to be present and still. They were soothing, as are these words from Whyte…

Gratitude is not a passive response to something given to us, gratitude arises from paying attention, from being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us. Gratitude is not necessarily something that is shown after the event, it is the deep, a-priori state of attention that shows we understand and are equal to the gifted nature of life.

… to intuit inner lives beneath surface lives, to inhabit many worlds at once in this world, to be a someone amongst all other someones, and therefore to make a conversation without saying a word, is to deepen our sense of presence and therefore our natural sense of thankfulness that everything happens both with us and without us, that we are participants and witness all at once.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness… Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences (©2013 David Whyte – Excerpted from ‘GRATITUDE’ From the upcoming book of essays CONSOLATIONS: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words).

I am reminded of the words of Abram (1996) and Mathews (2003) about being in silent conversation with things and being present enough to encounter the more-than-human world. To be open and acknowledge with gratitude the abundance of life that we can be with all of the time. To realise we are never alone.

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Encountering as being with

A flash and a flicker outside my office window caught my eye yesterday. There, on the leaf litter before me, in its sleek form, was a Monitor. It spotted me, froze and slinked off under a grevillia bush. Not long after, a Grey Goshawk landed on the same grevillia. It too had spotted the Monitor and was sizing it up. In the seconds before it flew away, our eyes met and I was filled with a sense of being with this life form. Whilst our meeting was fleeting, I was left with a sense that we had bridged a perceived space; we had encountered one another. It was synchronous then that I was in the middle of reading Freya Mathews’ (2003) descriptions of encountering; people encountering people, non-human life forms and ‘inanimate‘ aspects of country. She writes about encounter as a way of relating to the world, which is potent with the possibility of being with if we invite those ‘things’ that we see as objects to become subjects. 

A question that Mathews (2003) raises which caused me to pause and wonder was

‘But how are we, in our present cultures of disenchantment, to understand encounter with the non-human world? What forms of response might we expect from nonhuman subjects? Is it perhaps not too difficult to imagine the responsiveness of fully sentient beings to our overtures. But the barely sentient, or altogether nonsentient? How might encounter with plants, for instance, be imagined?’ (p. 81).

Is this calling of non-human sentient and nonsentient beings and entities into the subjectival realm really a question of agency? If we assume that everything that is present in and on the land (e.g. trees, animals, rocks, water, spirits, people) has agency, does that make all of these entities subjects?

I am reminded too of the words of Paddy Roe and Frans Hoogland (1999) who write about country as a living entity…

‘… where the land is whole and complete; where the interaction between people and land is alive through law and culture; where the spirit of the land is ‘standing up’, and ‘vibrant” (p. 30).

I feel as though I am being invited to see the whole of country as something to encounter, to be with. 

The final thread that I want to weave into this conversation is the Yolngu pronoun ŋayi (ngayi) which is used to refer to he/she/it. Is the between gender and sentient/non-sentient/inanimate a deliberate attempt to shape perception of everything as subject? To all my Yolngu teachers out there please comment! 


Mathews, F. (2003). For love of matter: a contemporary panpsychism. Albany: State University of New York Press. 

Roe, P., & Hoogland, F. (1999). Black and white, a trail to understanding. In J. Sinatra & P. Murphy (Eds.), Listen to the People, Listen to the Land (pp. 11-30). Carlton: Melbourne University Press.

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Rainbow serpent in the sky

It has been a while since I last visited Yuin country on the south coast of NSW. I didn’t revisit Gulaga Mountain, but I felt her presence. Not far from there, up the coast a little, a friend and I were talking about stories that people from different cultures might have about the same country/place. We were sitting on his back verandah with a clear view of a point (headland). He then pointed at the point and said something like, “For example, the Yuin Nation might say that the Rainbow Serpent created that headland over there,” then we continued our conversation.

About 15 minutes later, on this very sunny day, his wife ran up from the beach and called out, “Quickly, come and look, your grandson wants you to look at the Rainbow Serpent in the sky!” We both jumped off the verandah and went onto the grass and looked up at the sky. Right there in front of our eyes was a long snake shaped cloud running up and down the sky, with a rainbow right over the top of it and it was directly above the point! We just looked and each other in amazement. The cloud even had the spine of the snake in its formation. I have never seen a cloud like it before. There was no rain and no other rainbows in the sky that we could see, just the one rainbow on the snake cloud.

There are many takes on how one could interpret this happening, for example, coincidence or simple physics and meteorology. But I want to explore the possibility of having a dialogue with country. Is it possible for two non-Indigenous Australian people to be part of this type of dialogue? Regardless of what it meant or could mean, this happening opened up a space for my friend and I to talk about our experiences of feeling and being with country. Again, it is that which words cannot articulate, (a loose sand slipping through fingers kind of feeling) which I am challenged by in trying to write about my own being with country.

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