“Only Bulldozing the Rubbish”: A Meditation on the Beauty of Chaos

The starting point for this ramble is the unlikely intersection of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, the great artist/gardener Neil Douglas, Facebook and the close of the fire ban season. Recently, an image popped up on my Facebook feed of Douglas – icon of Melbourne counterculture in the 1960s and 70s – resplendent in his home-made hessian suit, addressing a barrage of mundane questions while the abstract expressionist mass of Blue Poles loomed above:

‘Well, as a bush painter I think every Australian should understand this painting. It’s what the scrub looked like to the English settler. It’s what the bulldozer driver means when he says, “I’m only bulldozing the rubbish.” Its what people mean when they say, “This sort of painting is rubbish.” They can’t understand the beauty of chaos. The order in chaos. In the human mind. In the philosophy of life. It’s a very deep painting.’

Douglas’s words are a defense of the painting, controversially purchased by the Whitlam government for 1.3 million dollars in 1973. At the time, Paul Hogan, “Hoges” summed up a popular assessment “Only a poseur and a goose would go for this…It’s a load of…”  Even today focus is still on its (now considerable) monetary value, a junior member of the government declaring in 2016 that “It’ll only be worth something to taxpayers when we sell it.”  Yet Douglas’s words speak of the true value of Blue Poles as a key to an alternate way of seeing. A way that can unlock the chaotic beauty of the Australian scrub. A counter to our plant blindness.

My bit of chaotic beauty is the scrub of the southern Mornington Peninsula. Just like Pollock’s action paintings it defies aesthetic conventions as ways of reading the landscape. There are no clear pathways in. There is little void and mass, but repetition of line. Without clearing, depth is limited. Both Blue Poles and the scrub are a tangle of lines that don’t mark out form – it is hard to make out individual trees and shrubs. The painting records the movement of Pollock as he dances above the plane with his sticks and brushes dripping enamel paint in the air. So too, the scrub is the record of wind, rain and drought, animal grazing, the millennia of management by the original owners, the hundred years of neglect.

Blue Poles and the scrub are both wordless calligraphy full of meaning.”

How do I garden around the frame of this beautiful tangle? Douglas himself lived in mudbrick simplicity amongst the visual repetition of the red box forest at the Bend of Islands.  As a gardener, I have pushed out into the scrub, but find myself reverting to the language of conventions. To make the chaos intelligible I find myself clearing space. The bower spinach that has blanketed fallen trees and bound shrubs together gets raked back. Individual Moonahs get “liberated.” I call in Ben, my arborist friend, and he starts defining and carving out the distinct line and form of the ancient Melaleucas, one so blanketed by vines it had the contorted shape of a bonsai trained and tied down with wire. We both value revealing the base of a tree, more pruning.  Removal of vines and twigs knock holes in the visual plane. Another vertical separation between the canopy and the ground. The trees now have a clear silhouette. The scrub converted, in form, to woodland.

Image of 'cleaned up' tree as climbing frame by Bill Bampton.

Clearing and selective pruning have created clear paths and desire lines, a feeling of space. The appeal is quite primeval – suddenly the kids are running through the area and using the trees as climbing frames. While it feels like we have brought order to the space, it is really, in ecological terms, a disturbance to the order. I am acutely aware that the dense interconnected mass of shrubbery had been the perfect habitat for small wrens and robins. They flit about as we work, I can’t tell if they are screaming at us for trashing the joint, or taking the opportunity to feast on the bugs we have revealed.

I wonder how much I have been “only bulldozing the rubbish?” There is something deep in us that makes us want to clear a space, make a path, create sight-lines to break up mass into manageable chunks. I need a place to walk, somewhere to sit.”

How do we create a place that does not obliterate the language of the scrub yet provides a human space that does not threaten? How do we create places to sit and play? Are there ways of showing “signs of care” that are more than taking the bush and clipping, raking and mowing it? In a world where mass extinction looms and the death of nature seems possible, our deep wired sense of what an ordered landscape is needs to accommodate more scrubby chaos. More Pollock and Douglas thinking. Every path need not be clear, equality in inaccessibility is as valid as equal access.

I don’t have an answer. Ben and I break for the day, I light the bonfire and gaze at the afternoon light drifting through the sheoak, “like a painting” I think,  my mind drifts, “the order in the chaos”. The distant gaze – the essential work for the gardener, the poseur and the goose who loves this ….