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troublemag | July 20, 2019

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Sticky Beasts

Sticky Beasts

TREADING LESS AGGRESSIVELY IN THE WORLD

by Helen Kelly

It’s Sticky Beast time of year! This tradition is slowly but surely taking root as a seasonal celebration. In our land without snow for snowmen we make do with sticky weed.

Alice Steel and her son Haku make Sticky Beasts out of the abundance of sticky weed that grows plentifully in Central Victoria at this time of year. Haku’s favourite colour used to be yellow “… but now it is green” he informed me when we recently had a chat. Sticky Beasts are not gender specific but Haku reckons the one he most recently made with his Mum is a Grandma. 

The now yearly tradition of Sticky Beast making grew out of fun seasonal picnic celebrations that Alice and her friends organised on a regular basis when they were in their late teens and early twenties – “they just happened roughly around when we could get together and when we noticed that it felt like it was ‘definitely Summer’, or ‘definitely Spring’, and people would bring food that was representational of that time of year.” There was no strict observance of any particular time or ritual; the gatherings were more like spontaneous get-togethers to celebrate the seasons with a sense of respect, fun and creativity. 

On one of their picnics at a spot where two small local creeks meet, they were pulling out piles of sticky weed. As it is a ‘weed’, and they are environmentally active and caring kinds of people, they were cleaning up the area. This was something Alice had been taught to do from a young age. Her Grandmother, Helen Laycock (nee Steel), was a botanist and avid educator in native Australian plants. She fought hard for the rights of local plants and wanted the world to understand the importance of having endemic plants growing where they ‘should’ be. Helen’s views were radical for her time – she hated roses and fought for the ‘underdogs’ of the plant world. She was disturbed by the lack of understanding that the non-indigenous public had about native Australian flora, and did her best to take action to change that. 

Alice recalls having her Grandmother Helen in mind when she first made a sculpture out of stickyweed. “It was growing all around that area where we were having a picnic and although we acknowledged it was a weed and we were bundling it up trying to get rid of it out of this lovely little bush spot, we started to embrace it and realised how well it rolled in to a ball, and we just started going with the flow and sculpted it into this ‘sticky beast’”.

And so, from a spontaneously creative act of love for and connection to the environment, and the fact that, now, Alice has a child of her own and is responsible for passing on family traditions to her son Haku, the legend of the Sticky Beast was born.

Alice’s friends have now started having children of their own and it is more difficult to find the time and energy for the special celebrations they used to create together when they were younger. “But we are all still very keen on creating our own traditions and something that gives us a sense of belonging to our land, because we are not Aboriginal, we are not European, we are somewhere in between, and it’s kind of nice to try and have something we can call Australian. Our landscape is full of weeds – both plant and animal including humans – yet you can’t kind of despise all of those introduced species because for most of them living here is all they’ve ever known, and they are now a part of our ecosystem.”

So without disregarding the sort of botanical knowledge her grandmother brought to light, and while acknowledging the detrimental effects that happen to the environment when certain pest species invade, Alice has found a way to incorporate and accept what is actually growing here into her sense of belonging.  “How we interpret Autumn for example … where the accepted motifs are leaves falling off trees. That’s a very European symbol, and it is accurate in one way because in town most of the plants in people’s gardens and along the streets are deciduous trees. We are experiencing that leaf fall, but if you wander up into the Australian bush it’s a very different process, because it’s only the end of summer. We’re getting the new rains, and it’s actually almost another kind of Spring that’s occurring instead of this ‘becoming death’ that Autumn can mean in the Northern hemisphere. So you walk up there and instead of leaves falling off trees, you’re actually getting trees shedding bark off all their branches, because they’ve had this dry dead skin over Summer and then suddenly they’ve had the Autumn rains and they can crack out a new layer. They look gorgeous! And then there’s new verdant growth and the animals are starting to think about having children again and … It’s about paying attention to actually what is going on around you.” 

Alice does not feel the need to throw the baby out with the bathwater by eradicating all non-native plants like her grandmother Helen may have wanted to in her defence of endemic natives and the wildlife they support. Alice feels it is important to look after the introduced species as well, “because that is now an intrinsic part of our environment”. She wants to work with what is here, “as opposed to merely appropriating these traditions that have come with our [Colonial] ancestors”. When Alice and her cohorts make the Sticky Beasts they use whatever other plants are around to decorate them and give them their individual character. 

Alice has recently incorporated Sticky Beast making into the children’s art and science classes she runs from her backyard studio. She encourages the children to celebrate Spring with the plants that are actually growing around them, and teaches them about different plant species and flowers as thery work. The act of building and doing something creative and fun related to learning about the plants instils the memory of plant knowledge within the children more deeply. The connection to landscape and the character driven aspects of the Sticky Beasts are in fact part of a wider concept of teaching and memory that is currently a very important area of focus for Alice. 

With a degree in Biological Science, majoring in microbiology and genetics, Alice worked in the field of cancer research and pathology before she and her husband Edgard Campo (originally from Columbia) moved to Castlemaine in Central Victoria. For Alice it was a return to her home town, and once settled back in Castlemaine she embarked on writing a graphic novel and starting up her art and science classes. She then met Dr. Lynne Kelly, a renowned science writer and author of The Memory Code (Allen and Unwin, 2016), a highly influential book that illustrates Dr. Kelly’s groundbreaking theories related to landscape and memory, which attempts to explain the relevance of prehistoric stone monuments across the world such as the Neolithic stone circles of Britain and Europe, and the ancient Pueblo buildings in New Mexico. 

Dr. Kelly is the founder of the Orality Centre, which aims to: “research, develop and experiment with memory systems that bridge the divide between ancient methods of learning and retaining information and the modern digital age that provides an abundance of information.” For Alice, memory, education, science and art are all interwoven in the Sticky Beasts, and she is now working with Lynne and Orality Centre Director Paul Allen, who is also the Malmsbury Primary School art teacher, to explore how Ancient memory techniques presented in The Memory Code may be applied to modern day issues related to education, creativity and the growing social issue of age related memory loss. 

“So much of what the education system does these days is to separate things off into pockets, so it’s like here’s science and here’s art and all the disciplines are in their own little units. A lot of the research on memory at the Orality Centre is incorporating all of those systems into one, and so kids are learning botany while also doing art … science and art are interwoven, which is perfect for me because that is a big part of who I am.”

Alice was intrigued with Lynne’s work when The Memory Code came out, and she was not alone. Lynne was very much in the limelight and although Alice was keen to talk to her, she decided to go ahead and test some of the indigenous memory technologies that Lynne extrapolates in The Memory Code. “A lot of her work is based on indigenous memory technologies, from Australian aboriginals and other ancient cultures all around the globe. She has looked at all sorts of oral-based cultures where they don’t write anything down, everything is remembered and most of the techniques involve art whether through story, song, dance, drama, or actual physical artworks, and of course there is a lot of character driven stuff, costume stuff, and actual mythologies as well. All of that appealed to me … and landscape is also a very big part of it.”

Alice was captivated by the idea of how landscape itself is important to humans on a very deep level. Our need to connect to our local environment and understand it has deep roots within all humans. “Landscape is tied right into the way our minds work. We naturally pay attention to landscape because it is a part of what survival means – food, shelter, water, enemies – how to navigate our environment is something that our brain has evolved to pay a huge amount of attention to, and the cells that do this are actually in the hypocampus, which is responsible for converting short term memory to long term memory. So the way in which we actually visualise knowledge and embed new information is with a kind of internal landscape. We visualise information on a map in our heads to some extent.”

Alice has been researching different memory techniques and how they are incorporated into the culture of these pre-literate societies, and also literate societies like the ancient Greeks “… literate societies did use memory techniques as well, but the techniques were vastly more important if you didn’t write anything down.” 

Through the Orality Centre Alice is working with Lynne and Paul to further research ancient memory systems and study how they may be meaningfully incorporated into current needs. They are honouring the knowledge of so-called ‘primitive’ cultures and helping to redefine the term primitive from its a negative connotation, with nothing much to teach us, to one that is incredibly useful for us to learn from. 

Alice is currently using the concept of a lukasa, a beaded memory board about the size of a large mobile or hand held tablet from the Luba people of West Africa. Lukasa are used in the oral retelling of history in Luba culture. The recounting of the past is performative and includes dance and song. The master who has the skill and knowledge to read the lukasa will utilise it as a mnemonic device, touching and feeling the beads, shells, and pegs to recount history and solve problems. Alice has recently used that idea to make a similar memory device with her students where they learned the Latin and common names of more than twelve acacia plants that grow within walking distance of her studio classroom. They did this in one ninety-minute class. Alice currently runs Mnemonic Arts classes through the Orality Centre.

Alice is exploring other memory devices like the ‘Winter counts’ that were made by the Siuox Indians on cow or buffalo hide, with an image representing significant events for the year, which triggered stories and memories that were important to remember for the families and tribes. She has sewn her own personal Sioux Indian-inspired Winter count by hand into a piece of canvas. Each symbol represents a year of her life. “Symbols help me to remember everything … I can imagine a big part of dementia issues, or even health-related issues when older people are moved from their home, where so much of their memory resides … a handheld thing like this Winter count may really help the elderly or people with dementia.”

Alice’s personal ‘Winter Count’ – a memory device originally used by the Sioux Indians.

For Alice the Sticky Beasts are important because they connect us to landscape, and understanding and connecting to landscape supports memory and survival, and a deep human need. It is part of our overall wellbeing. I ask Alice about her Sticky Beast vision: “I would love to see other people making Sticky Beasts. They don’t have to be made out of stickyweed … some kind of celebration that actually identifies with the landscape that we are in and the time of year that we are in. Celebrations are really important. They are a big part of building memories and Sticky Beasts are a really fun thing to do. I compare it to building a snowman, because is a fun thing to do and everybody has got great memories of any snowman they might have built in their life, yet we live in a place where it never snows, really, and so does that mean we miss out on that tradition? Or do we just make these plastic fake ones? Or can we have a similar feeling from something that is actually more meaningful?” 

Alice observes how the character-driven aspects of the rituals we have adopted for traditional celebrations such as Easter, Christmas and Halloween all contain important aspects of landscape in their storytelling and mythologies. “Sticky Beasts have became a lovely symbol of that Christmas time of year for our family, in the same way that building snowmen has become an important signifier of Christmas for many familities in the Northern hemisphere. The way I see it, these kinds of celebrations can become more personally meaningful if we create our own creatures and our own mythologies around them.”

Alice would love to see the tradition of making Sticky Beasts out of the weeds and flowers that grow abundantly and wildly at this time of year grab other people too, and become a way of connecting to the places where we live in a much more conscious and supportive way than unthinkingly adopting the iconic images of snow for Christmas or rabbits for Easter, which instils a disconnection to wherever we are living. “I’m born here. I’m not from Europe, so it’s like trying to find a sense of belonging is an important part of living here … and I understand there is a really deep and meaningful ritual behind that [representation of landscape in the Christmas snow images or Easter bunny icons] but it is disconnecting us from the actual landscape we are in when it’s thirty degrees Celsius outside. We’re not really paying attention to our environment, and therefore not really caring to the extent that we probably should be.”

She spoke about her experience in Colombia where her husband Edgard comes from. Edgard’s family have become reconnected with many of the primitive indigenous traditions in Colombia although they themselves are not indigenous. Alice talks about “a certain type of person globally – we are all realising that these ways aren’t ‘primitive’ – there’s nothing ‘primitive’ about them. In fact they’ve been established over vast periods of time and trialled and proven to work … hugely effective in living a sustainable way of life where you can be in balance with the environment you are in. And somewhere like Colombia, on the borders of the Amazon jungle, where they are dealing with all sorts of issues like deforestation and massive mining, and they’re going through the same things as Brazil with those indigenous communities there, and yet there is something deeply spiritual about a lot of what they are doing [the modernising and honouring of ritual that was important to their so called primitive cultures] and I think that strengthens the practical importance of how we as human beings can tread less aggressively in the world we live in.” 

If you would like more info on what Alice is doing or the dates of children’s classes contact the Orality Centre. You can email info@theoralitycentre.org Alice has offered to send a pack detailing some of the things they do.

This article was written from a conversation between Helen Kelly and Alice Steel in October 2018 when stickyweed covered the ground throughout Central Victoria and beyond. Viva la Sticky Beasts! 

About sticky weed

‘Cleavers’ is another common name for sticky weed. It has a lot of common names actually … goosegrass (cos they love to eat it), bedstraw, catchweed (obviously), stickybud, robin-run-round-the-hedge, sticky willy (I guess more than one little boy could attest to this naming), grip grass (thanks Wikipedia). Stickyweed’s Latin name is Galium apadrine from the Rubiacear family. It is also edible but it is best to cook it because of its sticky ‘barbs’. It has medicinal properties and is a fantastic green manure as well. Alice’s mother Judy uses it to protect her vegetable seedlings from slugs, snails and other bugs by forming a little ring of it around her new seedling plantings. 

theoralitycentre.org  |  lynnekelly.com.au  |  unqualified.com.au