Event 4: Child, birds, stones, soundings
For Event 4, the girls again choose the river. We walk to the river and this time they both want to cross over the slippery water-covered stones onto the little island to play there. Unlike other events, there is no getting ready time, maybe this occurs as we are making our way across the slippery stones. They both need help and attention with the crossing. Once there, Lulu immediately busies herself sorting and arranging stones into different sizes, colours and patterns. Charmaine picks up a stick and moves into the water upstream of the island, balancing along stones that protrude from the water. She flails the stick around, then balances back to the island where she plays with her own pile of stones. I am almost irrelevant to this activity until I incidentally become a baby kangaroo in Charmaine's story. I record the event with a short video.
It is not until I return to this video later that I begin to wonder about Charmaine's verbalising within this event. Typically, accounts of intraaction focus on the intertwining of matter, the forces of different bodies. I had been so focused on the children's physical responses to these that I had failed to notice the ways that language was implicated. The focus of my review was on the multiple bodies and materialities produced in and producing their play. When I return to the video, it is apparent that Charmaine is singing, talking, humming, making sounds, telling stories throughout the video in contrast to the silence of the last encounter. It is the vocalisation that is most interesting in this event and this changes the way that I think about their playful intra-actions and the emergence of language. I am used to transcribing language and stories in conventional research interviews and focus groups but it takes many times of listening and watching the video to transcribe the exact aural sequence from this video. The sounds of the place and the sounds of the child's voice are so intermingled. River gurgles over stones, birds twitter, chirrup and trill loudly or softly as Charmaine vocalises her way through this event, all the while totally immersed in the place and the play. I transcribe the video as accurately as I can to represent the intertwining of multiple bodies and materialities, sounds and language.
(Water gurgling, birds twittering child singing high bird-like sounds walks into water with fine stick balancing on stones flicking stick at water and at stones wobbles back to stones on island, humming) that's a daddy (low sing song voice, lifting a rock), that's a daddy, that's a daddy, that's a bigger daddy (patting a rock each time)
that's a little baby (picking up a small pebble), that's a little baby got babies cousins dadda (arms wide open in expansive gesture walks away lifts hands to sky, loud sound to sky comes back to rock pile singing)
a-gugu a-gugu a-gugu (sing-song to birds trilling)
you're a baby (to me), and I'm a mama
I'm a mama kangaroo, you're a baby kangaroo
that's my fire (loudly, pointing to stones)
that's my fire, baby kangaroo, that's my fire, baby kangaroo
that's my fire, baby kangaroo.
Initially my ear hears only the meaningful human word sounds when I transcribe this video. When I actually force myself to hear and write down all of the sounds as well as the words I realise that the sounds and words are formed together and they are all in a musical sing-song rhythm. There is no separation of the sounds of birds and water and the soundings of the child. The place is singing to the child and the child is singing to the place. She is also simultaneously playing with stones, telling a story about stones, talking to the sky, opening out her arms and hands and calling out loudly, just to the sky, just to call to the world. When I come to transcribing 'a-gugu a-gugu a-gugu' I can hear a bird trilling in unison, the two songs coming together. I recognise them both as just a small incidental song to the world, with no meaning other than sounding the place but this meaning all of a sudden appears transformative. What if we imagined all of language as derived from these intimate embodied relations with our local places?
Tuning my ear to hear the more-than-human sounds as well as the non-meaning human sounds gave me quite a different sense of what was going on in this event of place. I became aware that the vocalisation in this story is emergent with the place so if I transcribed only the actual words they do not make sense without the presence of all of the elements of that place and the sounds of those elements. The child sounding the place is also part of those elements and it is not only words but sounds and bodily actions of the child in relation with all of the elements of the place that become meaningful. The vocalisation emerges within the entangled materialities of bodies on the little island, of water, stones, sticks, birds and child, and the sounds each makes to the other.
All of the research that I have read about intra-action focuses on the mutual relations between different sorts of bodies and I wonder what it might look like to consider the emergence of language from within new materialism? According to Karen Barad (2007), discursive practices and material phenomena do not stand in a relationship of externality to each other; rather the material and the discursive are mutually implicated in the dynamics of intra-activity. Neither discursive practices nor material phenomena are ontologically or epistemologically prior. Neither has privileged status in determining the other. Neither is articulated or articulable in the absence of the other; matter and meaning are mutually articulated (Barad, 2007, p. 152). The corrective move in response to poststructural research with its over-emphasis on language has been to focus mainly on the material but what if we make yet another move and view language itself from the perspective of material intra-activity?
I think about this question in relation to our walking stories. Walking is a different sort of action in relation to the events of place, it is made up of ongoing movement and talking. I do not take photographs or videos of our walking because of its ongoing nature but I begin to notice that there are ongoing stories that grow and change with each of our walks to the river. After we walk down the hill where the stones are embedded in the dirt, we pass by a very big tangled clump of tall trees, bushes, weeds and vines growing densely together in a small patch at the bottom of the hill. As we near the mass of bushes and tall trees the girls put their fingers to their lips, we have to be completely silent, we must walk on tip toes with an exaggerated care in our step. We soon catch a glimpse into the dark inside space where the monster roars when it rains. Deep inside is a drain that catches the water when it rushes down from the ridge towards the river in heavy rains. The girls tell me it's a monster cave.
Once we crawled through a narrow opening to go a little way inside. We have to be very quiet or the monsters will get us. Lulu says, 'they're good monsters (reassuringly), and they've all gone out to bath their babies. They've gone down to the river. They push their babies right down underneath the water (both hands flat, pushing) and the babies
have to blow bubbles to keep from drowning. They bath the babies____'
In mid sentence a twig falls, Lulu looks around anxiously; 'We have to go, the monsters are coming back'.
The monster cave stories change every time we walk past, depending on the season (the trees lose their leaves), the weather (rain and clouds make it more ominous) and the emotional weather of the girls (anxious, angry, confident). The stories grow, elaborate, change, and new bits are added each time. They are stories that could only arise from this place, the place itself calls forth the stories from the particular conjunction of wetness at the bottom of the hill with its rampant growth of trees and weeds and presence of storm water drain.
There are other stories that equally emerge from the places of our walking that are more ephemeral. They are called forth in response to singular events or encounters. One day the council had mown the pathway to the river leaving large swathes of drying hay like grass. Lulu began to gather up the grass into piles. 'This is for the wild horses', she says. As the flies buzzed around our faces on this hot summer's day, they became part of the story too, 'the wild horses feed on flies' blood'. Just as the story of the monster cave emerges from the dark inner space of the tangled clump of trees and bushes, so the wild horses that feed on flies' blood can only exist because of the newly mown grass on that hot summer's day. Without the newly mown grass, the tangle of trees and bushes, the flies, these stories would not be possible. It is logical to ask, then, how do the grass, the tangled bushes, the flies call forth language?