The Spirit of Place


Less than 5 minutes drive from where I live is a park I have gone to in the early mornings for a few years. It has a parking area that faces north, and the eastern end has been my go-to place. There’s something about that area that entrances me.

There’s nothing spectacular or obvious. In fact, one morning the rising sun filtered through mist to create an affect that let me create one of my favourite photos. To take it on my iPhone I had to wait for a guy with a flash camera – a digital SLR – to move out of the way. What he saw, I do not know, but it clearly wasn’t what I saw. He moved on without raising his camera.

A foggy forest with trees

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Developing soft eyes

I have had a passion for photography since my teens, but I never took the straight path that delighted in crisp and technically perfected images. I loved the effect of light, and I developed a kind of painterly passion – expressionistic – rather than a love of the technical potential of the device. For a long time, I relied upon a basic point and shoot Kodak, and commercial processing. I couldn’t crop images until digital came a long, so I had to learn to see the finished image in my crappy little camera.

I bought a Canon SLR in the mid 1990s. It was my second. The first, a Minolta SRT 101, I bought in 1968, and it was stolen a few years later. So, the Canon was an act of indulgence, as modest as it was.

In 1999 I enrolled in a Social Ecology course through the University of Western Sydney. One of the units was A Sense of Place. This involved selecting a place and returning to it for at least an hour for each day for a week or two. I have forgotten the details now. I had to keep a diary and deliver 5,000-word report. With the permission of course convenor I produced a 30,000-word report and a portfolio of poems and photos.

My place was Broadwater Beach, north of Evans Head on the far north coast of New South Wales. The beach stretched south to Evans Head. It was not an area that was safe for swimming, so mostly fishers went there. It had a quality of wildness that domesticated beaches lacked. I went there often to fish. On the rare occasions I could see another person I felt crowded.

I picked an area of around 100 metres to limit any temptation to roam too far. My intent was to make a photographic diary, but 2 things happened. The first was that I got bored quickly, and the second was that a beach and sand dunes do not make for good photographs. I began to rue my choice of place. But, I chose to stick it out – even if my report would be about being bored and not able to take interesting photos. I had to be loyal to my original intent and see it through.

Broadwater Beach is home to what is called ‘coffee rock’. It’s a mixture of mineral sands and organic matter which produces a hard but friable feature that looks like compacted coffee grounds. Portions of the area I had selected featured areas of this ‘coffee rock’ eroded by wave action. I decided to photograph detail in the desperate hope of producing some images that were interesting. Apart from a few possibles, it was a forlorn expectation. 

But what it did do was transformative. It shifted my gaze from the beachscape to particular features and, quite suddenly, I was seeing extraordinary things under my feet. What was a visual desert became a bounty of the extraordinary. I changed the pattern of my visits – arriving just before sun up, and at the last few hours of daylight. 

Ground water seeped through the dunes and created wet areas that intersected wave cut sand structures. In the mornings the reflected light was golden, and in the late afternoons it was silver. 

What was supposed to be a few weeks of visits stretched to several months. I was captivated by the changes in the sands, and the variety of what could be seen. I ended up with over 70 images that I kept. What was beneath my feet and so carelessly walked over was a gallery of stunning beauty.

That experience transformed the way I see things. I had developed soft eyes.

The vision of complexity

What I see and esteem is not something that excites everybody. I couldn’t make an art form of how I see things and expect it would be popular. Back in the late 1960s I took a photo of a fallen log with a background of tea trees. It held a fascination for me that was incomprehensible to others. Where they saw ‘just bush’ I saw elegant complexity. I have recent similar images that fill me with delight, while my arty siblings offer compensatory comments about colours. They do not see what I see.

If bushland is just a chaos of plants, leaves, and branches it has no inherent meaning. A biologist or a botanist will see the same scene differently, but in a particularistic way.

As a coherent complexity, it ‘speaks’. This is something I grew up knowing; but had no frame of reference to articulate it – until Broadwater Beach. That experience took me consciously, step by step, into seeing beneath the habituated surface. Broadwater Beach triggered a flood of animistic poems, though at the time I had no language for that. Animism was an idea I would encounter for the first time a few years down the track.

Broadwater Beach image

The above image is from Broadwater Beach

Places have spirits

In the 1960s I walked in the Tasmanian wilderness as if it were already known to me. I was guided by something in ways that gave me an unwelcome reputation among my walking companions, even in my mid to late teens. My stepfather much later told me I had become known as somebody who could not get lost. 

The not getting lost bit was far more complex than I could let on, but I was also ‘guided’ by soft voices that whispered to me, or triggered visions of what was up ahead. Sometimes a direction simply felt right. I felt at home in the Tasmanian bush. It seemed to embrace and welcome me.

There were some places I was not welcome, perhaps the others were not welcome either, but they did not sense it. I could ‘see’ these places as I approached. They seemed discordant. Staying was not an option. If I tried, the best I could do was drop my pack and walk restlessly around. I’d find an excuse to wander off with my mug of tea in hand and come back only when the others were ready to move on.

On one memorable trip the group decided to camp by a group of granite boulders, but I could not pitch my tent until I had moved away quite some distance. I was chastised until I lied and said I snored badly, and I didn’t want to disturb others. In the morning virtually all those who had camped near the boulders reported nightmares, broken sleep and aches and pains on waking. I had slept soundly and was refreshed.

Sensing and vision

I think now there is a link between seeing complexity, rather than chaos when looking at the bush, and sensing the spirit of a place. Seeing something that seems to have meaning rather than being just a meaningless tangle of stuff creates an opportunity for meaning to emerge – as a sensation or feeling or thought.

The needed ‘soft eyes’ can be developed through intentional practice. When I moved to Katoomba, I saw the sandstone cliffs in geological terms for years. It was actually hard to stop taking photographs that were depicting the normal specific images. In fact, it was almost decade. During that time, I was in head mode – hyper rational and busy. Outside of work I was focused on study and working on the house. I had lost my ‘soft eyes’.

It was contracting Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) in April 2008 that changed me totally. The GBS conferred sudden paralysis, and after 3 months in an ICU, I was transferred to a rehab ward. I spent the first 9 months of 2009 doing physiotherapy to get my body working as well as it could, the last 6 months at home. My outside world was confined to the back verandah, which became a daily sense of place venue through autumn, winter and into spring.

Once I my ability to move was coherent enough to use Canadian crutches, I was able to get outside and get away from the house with a camera. But I discovered I needed to sit or lean to take photos. And not every opportunity accommodated itself to that need. Leaning was perilous in many places, and places to sit were scarce. Once again, I had to learn how to see differently.

Going bush was out of the question, so I learned to value the open gardens of Mt Wilson, which is about 45 minutes drive away. Sefton Cottage was my favourite. It was not the most spectacular, nor the largest, but it had the gentlest and calmest spirit. It was a bit wilder than other gardens – maybe that’s why it felt more at ease. It’s no longer open.

My first photo after recovery - Sefton Cottage Garden at Mt Wilson, NSW

Above is the first photo I took away from home after my recovery. It’s taken at Sefton Cottage garden at Mt Wilson, NSW.


We are mostly moving and thinking, and even when we stop and look around it is easy to be distracted by our chattering ‘monkey mind’. And when we do get quiet and look, we rarely see, because we are still telling ourselves what we are looking at. Part of the trick to developing soft eyes is to change what we tell ourselves about what we see. We can presume a complex order of lives constituting a community, and an entity, and shift our vision to ‘see’ that – and leave ourselves open to an engagement with what we see – daring to imagine it may be two-way. 

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