Narayani, Autochthony & The Nourishing Terrain

I. Deborah Bird Rose can be found several times in the citations of Hyperecology. Her work has been influential to my own ontological landscapes, so it was wonderful to hear her as one of the keynote speakers last year at the environmental humanities conference Global Ecologies, Local Impacts.

During her presentation, Rose gave us an insight into the background of the title of her book Nourishing Terrains. The term comes from Emmanuel Levinas, a Talmudic scholar and philosopher. He refers to the Bible as the 'nourishing terrain'; temporally transcendent, participatory, relational, enigmatic, a space that lends an ethics and provides a landscape on which culture may assemble itself. Rose sees this concept as analogous to 'land', or country, in the Indigenous Australian use of the word.

Country, says Rose, is far more than a place, it is entrenched in the identity of beings past and future. It is a being in and of itself.

Country is the 'nourishing terrain' - it is the source of the food that sustains us, it is the source of Law - of kangaroos, trees, humans, culture, stars and water. It is the essence of the dreaming. There is no engagement of hierarchy, and no need for a dichotomy of nature against culture.

Rose drew our attention to Psalms 104, which Levinas discusses in his exploration of the nourishing terrain:


"The Lord stretches out the heavens like a tent... he makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind... He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains. They give water to all the beasts of the field; the wild donkeys quench their thirst. The birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches. He waters the mountains from his upper chambers...

The land is satisfied by the fruit of his work."

(Perhaps it would be too condescending for me to draw attention to the obvious, but intriguing, parallels this sentiment draws between the world views of many pagan and indigenous cultures.)


II. Rose introduced us to the term autochthonous - which has since become an important part of my vocabulary when describing the tensions of the Anthropocene. 

Autochthonous au-toch-tho-nous (ô-tŏk′thə-nəs) 

Adj. From auto - self, chthon- earth, soil. That which springs from the earth itself, already born entangled, as co-dependants. Native to the soil. 


However, her talk raised a question for me - how can we be nourished by the terrain simultaneously to our nourishing and caring for it? 
This balance is has been perfected by the Indigenous peoples of Australia and beyond, over millennia. The oneness of being that is recognised in all renders the binary nature vs culture mentality useless, maintaining the human-nature interaction in one cohesive epistemic space, as something in flux, more dynamic and more fluid and more expansive and dimensional even than a 'spectrum', which is equally as reductive. 

The peaceful coexistence of a cognitively dissonant 'nature' and 'human' also in a way separates us from the nourishing terrain, because our defining of the terrain as a distinct entity with which we can have a relationship is a paradox in the purest sense.


However, one cannot exist without the other and it seems as though every time this balance between nourishment and parasiticism is tipped, a cacophony of problems arise. Animals profit from the nourishment of the earth (oxygen, water, food sources and so on), but there is a natural limit - which is determined by how much the animal reciprocates (decaying into soil, pollination, breathing out CO2 etc etc), and, if this balance is in harmony, a coevolutionary symbiosis leads to the mutual benefit of land and flesh, a nourish (ing) and (ed). However, as with humans, the animal may become complacent. Reliance on the Earth slips into exploitation. We become selfish. And, the land reacts. We take too much, pillaging the Earth's bounty until suddenly, we are left with nothing. 

Conversely, however, once we recognise that the Earth is desperately in need of help, we assume another kind of patriarchal domination over it - not of the exploiting master, but that of the caretaker. We focus on how we can change the world, fix it, help it, relate to it within another hierarchical mentality which again positions the Earth as inferior - and we forget what we need from it, in order to maintain the more subtle, spiritual aspect of the relationship's symbiosis. We still need the Earth to care for us, inspire us - we breathe from her, learn from her. 

Even in this time of environmental crisis, we must not forget to surrender to nature. Whether physically or spiritually, our nourishment comes from her terrain alone.



Om Sarva Mangala Mangalye
Shive Sarvatha Sadhike
Sharanye Tryambake Gauri
Narayani Namo-stute.

The one who is the auspiciousness of all that is auspicious (sarva mangala mangalye), the consort of Siva (Sive) who is the means of accomplishing all desires (sarvartha sadhake), the refuge of all (saranye), the three eyed (tryambake), fair complexioned (gauri) mother. Salutations to you, Narayani (narayani namostute).

This ancient sanskrit chant to Narayani has a melancholic yet devotional melody which usually haunts me long after I sing it. Hindu deities are, to be conservative, numerous, and factoring in the multiple reincarnations and images and various forms they take, it can be surprisingly difficult to find any reliable information. As such, Narayani is enigmatic, but as far as I know, she denotes "the innate power behind ultimate god" (as the consort to Shiva, but still so much more in her own right). Narayani is also "she who provides the basis for all living things".

The more poetic translation from my teacher Sharon Gannon is thus:

"I salute the three-eyed Divine Mother Narayani, who brings total auspiciousness and who fulfils the desire for liberations. 
Realisation arises with Her blessing. She is the world itself. 
Only through the experiences of life can the soul be perfected. 
Honour this gift, your life. Bow to Mother Nature."


Bow to Narayani, the infinitely wise, our mother, our nature, our terrain, our refuge, our creator, our consciousness, the nourishing force of the universe.

It is in her that we may find our grounding, our stability and our strength, and to do this, we need to find humility -a word which, not coincidently, traces its origins from the Latin, humus, meaning soil, earth.


IV. I wrote the following after reading an article published in Aeon last year.

When I was in kindergarten, my mother would pack these little biscuits shaped like teddy bears in my lunchbox. Our teachers always checked that we ate everything in our lunchbox, and I vividly remember the agony of having to do so, so vivid was my anthropomorphic imagination. The little biscuits were so innocent and undeserving of their fate, and I would miserably sit on a bench nibbling each of their limbs off as slowly as possible (which for some reason seemed less cruel to me than just crunching on them whole). They were insignificant to my own life, but their deaths, and the deaths of cicadas, frogs and butterflies (my other childhood friends) also seemed to me like cataclysmic tragedies, each worthy of an elaborate funeral in the back garden. 

The reason I found it all so confronting was perhaps that it made me realise, as Shakespeare lamented, ‘as flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods’. This is an angst that has never left me. You can imagine my reaction once I consciously began thinking about the meat and dairy industry.

Time is such an interesting and enigmatic phenomenon... perhaps one of the final frontiers of conscious understanding. Whilst so so autocratic, so capricious, the lineal march of temporality is the also only constant thing we have in life. The ceaseless flow of breath, from our birth until our death. The oxygen we breathe, a conglomeration of molecules which have passed through our ancestors, both flora and fauna, over years and over eons, over arbitrary divisions and eternities. 

A few years ago, I remember lying sprawled on top of my bed, reading, as the sun sank into the horizon. It had been the hottest day of the year, and my windows were flung open, hoping to welcome a twilight breeze. Questions about consciousness and compassion and the rights and responsibilities of humans to other earth-beings had been playing on my mind. In this, the age of atheism, tofu and hindsight wisdom, who could possibly stand behind humanity and justify their superiority, their god given right, or even their intellect in comparison with any other animal? Where precisely is that ostensibly indisputable difference between us? 
A mosquito buzzed past my face and landed on my arm. I usually don't kill insects (In atonement for all the tiny teddies, I spent most summers as a little kid dutifully swimming back and forth in my cousin's pool, scooping out all the flailing christmas beetles) but this time, out of instinct I went to swat it away with the book I was reading (which I promptly set down in shame once I realised the irony of my action) - On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin. The pages were heavy in my hand, pages that detailed the 4 billion years of life here on this planet, and in an instant, I remembered that those years were the only thing that separated me from that tiny, fragile, miracle of a being flying beside me.

Liberty Lawson