gillpolack (gillpolack) wrote,

Women's History Month: Tiki Swain

Tiki Swain is a scientist, science communicator and science/environmental advocate, and an urban druid. Her career path's mostly freelance and short-term, allowing her to work on a wide variety of projects as they come up, interest her or become important in the zeitgeist. Her background is heavily oriented towards protecting our land, be it through multi-generational farming or primitive survival and caretaking techniques. She values highly living with awareness.

I can't help but ask questions. I can't help but look at things and try to see them as they are, without the veils of common association and assumption. I'm a scientist. And an artist. Both need that vision, that awareness. One of the first things I learnt when actually “learning” to draw was to draw what was in front of me, not what I thought was in front of me. If you look at a face and see a nose, then draw a nose, you get one result. If you look at a face and see areas of dark and light, or angle and line, or patterns of texture, and draw those as you see them, you get quite a different and often much more realistic result. The aim is always to pierce the veil of habit, to see the difference between what you see and what you think you see. And in that difference springs to life an entire new world. A living one, a challenging one, one that's harder to cope with because there's so much more in it and so much more going on. It's so easy to categorise things and then just let them go because you “know” them.

I have occasionally mentioned to people that I dislike using categories. Which is funny given how meticulously ordered I like things to be (my washing line, for instance, is almost always a carefully created work of art). But most common categories of things are so... so SMALL. So narrow. Take, for instance, the rainbow. “Everyone knows that” there are seven colours in the rainbow. Which is total b*llshit. Have you ever sat and stared at the light passing through a prism, or tilted a CD back and forth to see the colours change? Have you ever looked at a rainbow and tried to count the stripes? As soon as you do, you have the option to notice a mismatch between what you think and what you see. A lot of people excuse away the mismatch – have you ever heard someone say something like “Oh, indigo's invisible”? But that mismatch is important. If there's a mismatch between what you see and what's actually there, then there's something interesting going on. Here's a tip. The “colours of the rainbow” were defined some three hundred years ago by an early experimental scientist. At that time, colours were named differently. “Blue” referred only to light or bright blue. There was no such thing as “dark blue” - it was “indigo”. Look at that rainbow again – indigo's not invisible at all, is it? And then if you could see that rainbow close up you'd see thousands of colours. Our eyes can distinguish so many different shades. Look at the light from a prism, and you see the colours shading gradually into one another. It's easy to say they form stripes, but to do so is to ignore all that beautiful dancing in between.

There's an art to living liminally. I haven't mastered it. But I continue to try. The first step is always, always, to not take things for granted, and the second is trying to notice those questions that are jumping up and down in front of us. My world is not like most people's. It's beautiful, curious, and a little inhuman at times. I like that. The human world is filled with moments that make me want to say “Are you hearing yourself?”. Like radio DJs who every year on the first of September say “Gee, you'd never know it was spring now”. Um, excuse me, if every time a particular thing happens you think there's a mismatch, maybe there's something you believe that's wrong? Australia's seasons are officially defined using premises from our Old Mater Albion, which has a solar-driven climate. The vast majority of Australia has a water-driven climate. That means the seasonal patterns aren't just reversed, they're working on a completely different modus operandi. The whole way they come to pass is through a different set of functions and algorithms. The Aborigines who lived here defined the seasons by what they saw happening year after year rather than trying to make their experiences fit prior assumptions and excusing away the variations, and it's no surprise that their definitions of seasons bear almost no relation to ours in either number or timing.

I spend most of my days at the moment dealing with a toddler, and soon to be a newborn as well. So I get a lot of thinking time (it's amazing what you can try and occupy your mind with while cleaning poo off the carpet), and a lot of child-created opportunities to see the world as it is. Recently I've had the opportunity to ask some very interesting questions, which you'll find scattered throughout my blog (use the memories filters to search if you'd rather not wade through updates about pregnancy and kids). It's funny when you ask a question that people don't really understand why you'd ask. For instance, I started asking why there was ginger in ginger beer. The obvious answer is “well, duh, then it wouldn't be GINGER beer”. I got a few responses like that. But no, really, why? The brewing process involves making a starter culture, then a cordial, adding the two together and letting the mix ferment until carbonated. So sure, whatever flavour you make the cordial will be the flavour of the final drink. But in every recipe I saw, there was ginger in the starter culture too. Every recipe, no exceptions. And also without exception, its presence was unexplained. I'd get some great scientific or practical detail on the sugars or the various yeast cultures and the part they had to play in fermentation, but ginger was just assumed. Taken for granted. And I had to ask, “why”? I could think of several reasons off the top of my head, but without further investigation those reasons just become excuses for not asking. For rationalising away the mismatch, letting it slide.

So I floated the question out there, and eventually gathered enough commentary from various friends who've brewed their own anythings to push one believable scientific reason to the top of the list. And now I'm experimenting with what I've learnt to see if in practice the same effects show up. I'm also asking a second question that came up in the course of the research: which is, why is there ginger in ginger beer? It's not the same question. It's a question of why ginger beer is so commonly produced, consumed and assumed to be part of life. If you read Enid Blyton books as a kid you'll remember descriptions of mouthwatering feasts, which almost always included “lashings and lashings of ginger beer”. There are historical descriptions of it around England for ages, it was a standard drink to make. It's still a common thing to substitute for children when the adults are drinking “real” beer (if less so in this last decade of “nutrient waters”). But – why ginger? Why a flavour that a lot of people don't like in strength, and that comes from a plant that isn't easy to grow in England, when there are plenty of other things you could brew from? I don't know the answer to that yet. I hope to.

I'm also investigating self-watering trees. After working with water tanks, water filtration systems, stormwater and rainwater collection systems and waste-water treatment for fifteen months in my last job, I had a lot of info about water stuck in my head. Then I was watching the effect of the heavy rains here in Melbourne's western suburbs with their heavy clay soils, the places that flooded over and over again for a month or two including the front yards of most of the new townhouses with their magazine-style stapled-on gardens. I find it somewhat offensive that builders think that they can design a garden based solely on drawing a picture and then copying that onto the front of each house without any consideration to climate, soil type, or even house aspect. No awareness of “how it works”, just stick the plants in, put some coloured mulch and river stones down in a pretty pattern like on the TV shows and it's done. I watched several of these gardens floating around their yards during the summer rains and just laughed. It's not like there's no reason that we used to talk about digging over the garden bed ready for spring. There is history and science behind everything we do, and ignoring all the “hows” and “whys” for appearance or convenience (the “whats”) has its perils.

So I was thinking about self-wicking garden beds and methods of soil treatment and structure, and found myself asking if we couldn't just build a water tank under each of our trees. Fruit trees are lovely, they do need water in summer, but what if instead of relying on our river catchments (which are a natural way of spreading and delaying water arrival so that we're not held to only watering when it rains) we could capture the in-situ rainfall and store it where the trees could tap it themselves? Ideally, using no man-made items at all, but simply through creating the right kind of soil structures that would catch and hold water. I spent some time looking into “primitive” (i.e. pre-fossil-fuel) irrigation methods, most of which were river-dependent. And came up with a lovely gem where our own Alfred Deakin in the nineteenth century was promoting irrigation as a method of improving Australia's agriculture and economy that was perfectly suitable for Anglo-Saxons and not just those primitive tribes. Can you imagine anyone now needing to say such a thing? If anything, it's the opposite – people are calling for irrigation to be rolled back and overallocations cut. Our assumptions about the common things change so much with time, and yet because they're common we rarely remember that they were ever any different. That's one reason that as a scientist I have to keep challenging assumptions. They may be right, but for what value of time and place?

My design process is moving slowly. But I hit paydirt with the Nabateans, they who built Petra. Ancient history, and their agricultural techniques are mostly lost to time, but it's been rediscovered that the arid landscape they grew their food in was heavily microsculpted to capture and store rainwater. I have more questions to ask, more things to investigate. But I hope to come up with a design that I can use in various parts of Australia to help build food security in the face of climate change. And I'm doing so by asking questions, not relying on prior assumptions, and not just taking our existing climate and water systems for granted.

Engage with life. It's out there waiting for you.

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