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Zen and the City

‘Because the study of the way is like this, walls, tiles and pebbles are mind…At this time a wall crumbling away allows you to study the ten directions.’

Dogen Kigen, Body-and-Mind Study of the Way

‘Dragons see water as a palace, or a pavilion…Now when dragons and fish see water as a palace, it is just like human beings seeing a palace. They do not think it flows. If an outsider tells them, “What you see as a palace is running water,” the dragons and fish will be astonished, just as we are when we hear the words, “Mountains flow”. Nevertheless, there may be some dragons and fish who understand that the columns and pillars of palaces and pavilions are flowing water.’

Dogen Kigen, Mountains and Rivers Sutra

If you’ve ever gone wandering through the nooks and crannies of a large city, loitering with intent and with all the time in the world, attending to unlikely beauties and the aspects of the marvellous that are hidden in full sight right there in the ordinary – then please read on. This is to celebrate the ordinary, under-loved city streets and lanes and vacant lots we keep pushed to the back of our mind, and to praise the human stance of un-knowing that best answers to their presence – which is a friendly, alive curiosity towards even the most humble things of the world. Each act of attention offers a small custodial gesture of responsiveness and responsibility towards a fragment of the collective dream that we call ‘the street’. And in so doing, it offers an antidote to the terrorism of indifference to the ordinary shambles of human existence – those vast and endearing efforts we make to ward off the exquisite spell of life. 

The attentiveness required is not unlike that of a naturalist, excluding nothing from consideration, seeing more with each act of seeing, an endless play with the categories and what they let you see. It doesn’t oppose the wild and the made worlds but conjoins them, finds their overlap and resonance, pays to the rust stains on an old corrugated iron wall the same attentiveness you might give to dewdrops strung in a spider’s web. It includes, but goes beyond, the sharp pleasures of spotting and classifying. Gary Snyder wrote, ‘As for towns and cities – they are (to those who can see) old tree trunks, riverbed gravels, oil seeps, landslide scrapes, blow downs and burns, the leavings after floods, coral colonies, paper-wasp nests, beehives, rotting logs, watercourses, rock-cleavage lines, guano heaps, feeding frenzies, courting and strutting bowers, lookout rocks, and ground-squirrel apartments. And for a few people, they are also palaces.’ 

This play and pleasure of categories can take you far, but in the end it is content to fall away if it can back into the empty, open place from which it all springs: the palace, the place of royal ease. To sense the palace, you must be in touch with the ultimate roundness of things, which knows no categories at all. If Zen is anything at all it is the undoing of knowing, the cessation of that murmuring self-concern that draws everything into its conspiracy to break the quiet spell of life. The natural world in its more remote corners is very helpful to catching the quiet. Unsurprisingly, Zen is replete with imagery extending deep recognition to the natural world – both because of the kind of barely urban world in which Taoism, Chan and Zen arose, and because of the kinds of places in which monasteries, temples and hermitages tended to be built. Mountains, rivers, rocks, trees, grasses, clouds, blossoms and moon richly elaborate and differentiate our own most intimate self – more readily than the world of streets and fire hydrants and electricity sub-stations, maybe.

The flower in the grass may point the way with humble ease. But most of us live in towns and cities. What about wall rubble and discarded plastic toys and a broken tile in the weeds? Every fragment of our regular world of human trouble and riches waits as patiently as mountains and waters. To fail to attend truly to them is to lay waste the place right where we are, where we live our lives. It is to agree to live with habitual distance or indifference, which breaks the spell of life.

In old-fashioned stores, still sometimes to be found in country towns, you could once see a sign in the window that reassured you: ‘Feel free to look around. No obligation to buy.’ An era that obviously still respected dreaming forms of awareness; still respected people; in fact, had not yet invented ‘consumers’. I suggest we pay homage to that old vanishing courtesy by taking its invitation much further, out of the shop and into the street. I’m not speaking of a compulsive looking about to grasp things, not consumer, cataloguer, or strip-miner; it is more subtly the act of not turning away, of not breaking faith with the things of this world just as they are, weathering in time. 

When you give the blessing of inner recognition unawares, like an Ancient Mariner, then you know a thing or a place to be part of you, and something can begin to live there, it has begun to be sung. The concrete canyon of a freeway, the dark, fluoro-lit intestines of a grease-stained car parking station, the urine-desecrated stairwell…Is it possible to feel the propensity of things, to lean into contentment, even here? A home is made, a haven, in the most unlikely place, when recognition is offered. The inner life stirs to meet it without a knowing self standing in the way, like Heidegger’s Gelassenheit, the ‘letting-go-ness towards things’. (Until then, we dump in such places everything that we don’t like about ourselves, and it will seep back into our dreams like toxic waste.) 

So you can wander across a piece of abandoned land and begin to discover the fragments and relics of human life preserved in it, partly breaking the surface, moulded into ephemeral sculpture; or an improbable cluster of objects strange to one another but embedded together in a kinship richly directed by time. You can become a habitué of outback rubbish tips, where gadgets grown extraordinary and unintelligible have become welded and melded by rust into things both beautiful and so gone they can never be explained. Many of the beauties that come to you when you feel free to look around are related to a secret love of ruins, and fascination for the sea-change of time; and others come shamelessly close to the sheen of nostalgia – but in its perverse mode, happy for things to weather change and decay, unconcerned with sentimental or ‘heritage’ values. 

A flattened tin can, as blood-red in its rust as the red dust that the heart loves out there among the olive-grey saltbushes, can be a treasure to take home with you – on its upturned base, an imprint of the map of Australia. When you handle it, dust as fine as incense ash, silt-layer memory of an ancient sea, lightly coats your fingers. Nostalgia has, in its older, Latin roots, the sense of our old (sweet) shared pain: the ability to hold the bitter until it joins up with sweetness. Later, a silent little stream of rust and rust-red-earth empties onto your desk among the papers, a soft insistence that lasts for months. 

To take up the street with your imagination and follow its back-ways into time is to allow the overlooked and overgrown and half-ruined to become the topography of your most intimate being. You can step through that dreaming openness into the enchanted region where everything belonging there is completely itself, without apology, and returns you to that in which it rests. The original spell. The treasure-house that opens of its own accord.

Each treasure starts with a sense of the world as distinct and penetrating, a little piece of the world’s grit caught by the attentive eye. It forms, perhaps, somewhat like a pearl. The brain is composed by an infolding of layers of epidermis, skin cells, sensors of touch. Consciousness itself, then, is an extraordinary elaboration of touch. The grain of the world washes in to the tender open oyster of the embodied self and leaves its residue – a kind of suffering accepted, not disowned or repelled. In the depths of psyche, memory, imagination, the abrasions of the world can become many layered and pearlescent – acceptance and curiosity spun around the embedded injury make it no longer alien but tolerable, included, and strangely beautiful just as it is. 

So this receptiveness to the world is a powerful act – accepting the pain of openness and limitedness in a human body, not recoiling but turning that way. The rest is the willingness to play. That’s the inspired move – like soul music, which agrees to suffering, and yet still insists on play, even in the sombre face of mortality.

In my own looking around I have met people who are stormwater-tunnel walkers; people who walk the underground train system in the quiet between midnight and 3 a.m. on Sunday nights, searching for the ‘false starts’, the abandoned tracks, the odd buildings said to have been left there in obscure places; people who visit disused gasworks, brick pits, explore the underneath of old wharves; who boat up old industrial canals, who comb landfill sites and take Sewage Treatment Works tours; who know about the underground passageways linking old Mental Asylums with landing-stages on the harbour. 

I have slipped past the guards of ‘private’ industrial roads, sauntered round the backs of things, poked my nose into the cracks, hung around the parts marked Danger. No Entry Except To Authorised Persons. There’s a lovely freedom in momentarily stepping back into the privilege freely taken by children and withdrawing the diplomatic recognition adults extend to authority, which enables you always to find the gap in the cyclone wire fence, to saunter along in that heightened state of casual alertness, to explore beyond the bounds of official permission, to just have a good look around. 

In Ben Katchor’s cartoon strips collected as Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay, a hatted Jewish real-estate photographer Julius Knipl walks the streets of New York (but not exactly), his Box Brownie camera on his back. Knipl has a sixth sense for obscure bus routes facing extinction, notices how the telephone books in public places begin to yellow and roll their leaves as their replacement date approaches with its inexorable season, finds comfort in the sight of a smokestack standing useless and abandoned in a corner of the city because no one can afford to demolish it, notices how the scar of a sidewalk excavation takes years to completely heal. 

Knipl knows even the hot afternoon smell of dark ice-chest water when the bottles are floating in the ice melt, and the pleasure of fishing out a defunct brand of soda. He might stop to talk to a man whose business is ‘going-out-of-business’ liquidation shops, and how the upper limit of going out of business is around three years, before the credibility of the public has been completely played out…

The Yiddish word for little treasure to put away for a rainy day, little nest egg that the palm of your mind can hold, is knipl. Julius Knipl has an eye that can see all the way down to the early twentieth century strata of the street, and then some. Ben Katchor gives an example of a knipl: ‘The best ones are things I never saw the interest in before. Like, today, I was walking down the street and noticed a very faded, tattered, almost illegible old sign, a sign from – who knows? – maybe forty, fifty years ago, warning about rat poison…I mean, think about it: the rats are long gone, the people who posted the warning are gone, the people they are warning are gone. The sign’s still there. It’s a knipl!’ 

Knipls are always touched by time, carry evidence about its secret tidal shifts that recognition is always straining to catch up with. And each one offers a tiny private joy. When you recognise a knipl, you notice how it opens a private lair for dreaming right there inside the moment, on even the most bleak or shelterless street. 

Architects and planners are only the inaugural dreamers of the built environment; what they make are merely the props for all the other dreamers. On the street – and there is a deep well-being in this – all of us have right of way, a share in it. The streets, even the least lovely ones, are stages for our dreaming minds. Streets have life that we share in but do not own. It is a special joy, on the street, to be only one of the dreamers. Some kinds of street are less alive to you than others, but a street has life the moment it grows interested in you, ‘has an interest’, as Katchor said. Then it will catch your eye, talk to you, waft smells at you, and set off trains of inner connection and dreaming. 

The street is a midden of the human world and every thing in the midden has its proper place in our attention as it descends through the layers of time, acquiring ‘pearlescence’. Each thing in the human midden belongs to a natural poetry that the great Yunmen spoke word for word when he challenged his monks with: ‘Everyone has his own light. If you want to see it, you can’t.’ What is it? is the implicit question. Where do we find it? Yunmen responded, saying, ‘The storeroom. The gate.’ The kerosene lamp on the kitchen bench. The box of cabbages. The verandah. The front step. No one can go past poetry of this force – and everyday we do, we pass over it as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world!

A shopping mall is not such a free place for feeling free to look around, for private transports. On that air-conditioned privatised ‘street’, your rights are restricted. The fluorescent bath of denatured light (we’re all suspects) is a part of the trauma, the trapped effluvium of electronic sound is another. You can’t doss down on a bench there. You can’t escape the forced muzak and announcements. In fact it is often frustratingly difficult to escape at all – the rare exits are marked in such very small print. Real choice, real surprise, real discovery is limited – is this why sleepiness falls like a pall? Something has been fatally pre-digested, like the ‘imagination’ called for by a video game. You are welcomed by the Cheshire Cat of commerce just as long as you consume, present a willingness to be consumed.

‘Feeling free’ does not take kindly to being badgered by too much everyday, administered reality, the kind you feel in a mall. However, it can take up even that – the bullying of administered reality – as a perverse pleasure, when there really is no escape from the shopping. And even in the mall, a ruin is in progress if you look, and catch sight of how the maintenance deficit is growing, and interesting little compromises or inventive stopgaps are creeping in: a tile has fallen off there revealing mortar texture and an unintended punctuation effect, and no one has bothered to replace the ceiling panel because the air conditioning breaks down every day and continually needs adjustment…

And you can always walk decisively through any nondescript door marked ‘Exit’ to enter a vertiginous, bland maze belonging to the realm of Services, Deliveries and Security. A rabbit hole in Wonderland. A literal exit to the street is almost impossible to find; instead, you may stumble into a loading dock, or have a door slam one-way behind you and a great deal of time to explore the smells, the strange hot air, the scuffed white walls, the echoey steps and passageways, before one of the attendants of administered reality finds you and shepherds you disapprovingly back to the public side of things like a stray, indeed a bit of a suspect. 

The proper pace of feeling free to look around is lazily slow, idio­syncratically detailed, and half-entranced. It is the pace at which you might stop and stare and see the almost unseeable gap between two buildings, a gap big enough to let your eye look in and grow dark-adapted, and your nose to register the dankness of things down near the mystery zone where a building meets the earth. 

In the 1930s, Walter Benjamin explored Baudelaire’s Paris through the eyes of the flaneur, the idle stroller whose slow and purposeless peregrinations brought the city into full being. The flaneur goes ‘botanising on the pavement’, said Benjamin. And then he notes (astonishingly!) that around 1840 it was briefly fashionable to take turtles for a walk in the arcades. ‘The flaneurs liked to have the turtles set the pace for them.’ 

The pace of botanising – drifting, following no plan, letting things find the interest in you – allows the trance of looking and noticing to overtake your errand, your small sense of self-importance; and this is the pace in which the inventory of loved things has a chance to grow. The French ‘Situationists’ of the 1950s and 60s called it Drifting. Drifting was ‘a sort of free association in terms of city space: the idea being simply to follow the streets, go down the alleys, through the doors, over the walls, up the trees and into the sunlight, etc, that one found most attractive: to wander, alone or with one’s friends, following no plan but the solicitation of the architecture one encountered.’ The solicitation of the buildings, the manhole covers, the stairwell; the ten thousand things feeling free to advance and confirm the empty self.

The deepest level of play with the locus genii of the streets you live on always knows each thing as sacred and speaks the strongest, plainest poetry – a fast-dripping tap heard in the too-thick grass on an abandoned lot, the old tracery of bathroom tiles on a slab lost in weeds, the shape of a smokestack in the last light, the half-inch forest growing thick in the cracks that mark where the tram tracks used to be.

When you touch such an intimate inner perspective right there on the homeless street, even the most routine city moment becomes a journey. Once you place one foot into the unknown and the other in the most deeply recessed self, you are in liminal space, travelling, any day of the week, right in your own home town.

There’s a pilgrimage aspect to this, too. The little ‘stations’ of discovery can be revisited and celebrated – a small and secret homage to the chink in ordinary banality through which the light has shown itself. You can take other pilgrims to share your arcane joys, to strengthen the sacred as it stands up in the ordinary. Walking is a pilgrim’s wisdom. The categories of the ‘ordinary marvellous’ opened up on foot cannot be praised enough.

Let’s take such a walk, along the unintended roadway of a covered sewer in the old industrial Sydney suburb of Botany, right at the end of McFall Street, near the corner of Erith. These were shoreline streets once, but that was before one of many landfill projects that have gradually alienated the original shoreline even from sight, and created the airport runways and Port Botany, which are all very much in earshot, with trucks grinding past and planes lumbering down overhead. Yet the water’s-edge ‘feel’ persists in these parts.

Botany is rich pickings for ‘feel free’ pilgrimage. Its pre- and post-war, semi-industrial architecture is in a state of such urban weathering and physical decay as to be also semi-derelict in places, broken open to new possibilities, blessed by planning oversight, shaped more by neglect, accident, overgrowth and immediate need than by conscious standards of visual grooming. Everything corresponds in some way to that lovely Italian word which English can’t quite match: bruttini, ‘little bit ugly’.

Some of the sure signs that things have got away from the concerns of up-to-date civic virtue: small paddocks of ropey lantana, browned with age, and underneath, a rabbit warren of child-sized tunnels; mature ‘pineapple palms’ seeded by bird droppings, judging by their higgledy-piggledy placement – and besides, they haven’t yet been noticed, and rolled out or craned out of position to be placed in some middle-class median strip or turning circle somewhere, and many of them are quietly dying. Their headless trunks offer a niche to nesting white cockatoos who practise termite mound demolition techniques by tearing off accessible bits of soffit from the surrounding buildings. The graffiti, most of it drawing appreciative attention to the Lord, is old and darkly weathered in, in old-fashioned block lettering. And in the middle of all this, a raised aqueduct for sewage, covered over in a kind of accidental raised pathway going nowhere special.

So much of Botany is reclaimed swamp or bay, that this odd pathway for the idle wanderer winds a good ten feet above ground. From it you can see up into windows and down into backyards of factories, catching sight of things probably never meant to be seen at all. It is clearly assumed that no one will ever walk past, just as most of the backyards bordering city train tracks seem confidently to anticipate that no one will ever look out from the train. That there are not ten thousand pairs of slightly bored eyes cataloguing the cardboard boxes, the splintered, faded cedar circular setting, the dying pot plants, and the miserably chained dog, every day of the week.

If you climb through the rails and walk east from the steps and the bridge which, stile-like, takes you up and over the sewer pathway to the next street, then you soon come to a surface covered in a thick bed of dry casuarina needles that now supports a crop of leggy weeds, forming the approach to a small, intricately locked door, set in a domed wall that bars all further public access to the arcana of sewerage. But if you wend to the west, you are on a broad raised serpentine walkway offering many oblique views into a hidden world, for half a kilometre. This unconventional walkway offers a powerful invitation, to step through the barrier and look around.

What are the unlikely things you can see from here?

First, under the pitch-bending drone of a huge plane, the back of the Schindlers Lift building – not a famous book or film – comes into view on the left. Rather than manufacturing lifts, it is obviously subdivided and sublet these days, with each window suggesting an entirely different world. Window one is glazed with ripple glass. The rack of colourful clothes just visible inside is as vague as a dream. The next window with clear glass discloses a long row of paperbacks along the windowsill, their spines all turned away from us, their pages yellowed to a uniform brown. And the third is the scene of a crime or rapid getaway – one pane broken, and the space higgledy-piggledy with the contents of a violent throw-out crowding against the glass.

The sharp corner of a wedge-shaped building nudging the curve of the sewer just to the right, now, comes down to a single brick-width. The angle formed is so acute that no other brick can be square with the end brick, and the mortar oozes from every gaping opportunity. What could possibly be stored inside the ten-degree corner inside? Needles, perhaps, placed strictly endwise.

Nearby, a corrugated asbestos-sheet wall has acquired some hefty holes nearest the corners, the part most vulnerable to knocks, ill tempers and hastily backed trucks. This is an opportunity to look through into the innards of the wall, the rickety struts, the improvised plumbing, the stuff-holes for empty lunch wrappers and drink bottles, and a sly entry way for rats and mice. The shapes of the holes are oddly like a series of puddles in dimpled tarmac: Miro-esque shapes, alike but unlinked, randomised but somehow a family, each one faithfully disclosing some unofficial detail – not luminous sky, like the three-day world of a puddle – but the darker matters of wall cavity.

Beside it, in the obscure back corner of the factory yard, someone with social goodwill once placed a discarded picnic setting under a drought-ridden she-oak. The tabletop is thickly spread with the amnesia of dropped casuarina needles, each seat is similarly occupied. The original red ply, beautifully faded, has exfoliated to show the sugar-board erupting from underneath as the rain gets to it. It seems to have been a long time since anyone remembered to take a smoko out this way. 

Overhead, a pair of not so old sneakers hang by the laces like a long-forgotten practical joke on the topmost strand of barbed wire. A first tentative tendril or two of honeysuckle enquiry is just reaching into one of the twin hollows.

Then you look down to examine the first of a series of calligraphic inscriptions and low-relief installations upon the fine-grained, silver-grey concrete surface of the walkway. Once you start looking, more appear, a series of found artworks. First is the islanded silver and black map of an unknown country created by a spill of black industrial gunk, its coastline as glaciated as Norway’s. Twenty paces on, also dead centre in the walkway, a small round ‘moraine’ deposit of sand, gravel and tiny rocks, just now being vegetated by a cautious weed or two. Another twenty paces, and it’s a thatch of golden dry grass stems, roughly circular, beautiful in its sea of granulated concrete, a straw star in a dark Milky Way. And even further on, the nameless silver-black gunk is back, this time appearing in a series of graceful swirls and spatters that render a sinuous Chinese dragon glimmering in and out of cloud or water.

Now there’s a glimpse down into another corner of a factory yard, it’s business undisclosed: under a skew-whiff gutter detached from the wall, full of dead leaves, we find a gathering of discarded bits and pieces, some sombrely rusted, others brightly plastic. A red curve of fibreglass worked loose from a boat is propped on one wall, while the other has a battered white mudguard and a huddle of indefinable engine parts – with the odd bit of two-by-four thrown in for luck. Three rusted forty-gallon drums are daubed in white paint with the words, ‘Hot Steel’, ‘Mild Steel’, and most mysteriously of all, ‘Tangy Steel’. 

Directly over the other side you can peer down into the back of a truck parked there so long there are weeds growing out of its load of scrap iron. Across the street, at the foot of a light pole, four white plastic bags of throw-out wait like small roly-poly folk for a bus that seems unlikely to come. One leans tiredly against the base of the pole. They all lean in to talk their private talk. In the backyard behind them, a shipping container completely filled with demolition waste seems parked there for the duration, weathered in, a fixture. This is a very slow corner of Sydney, nothing is moving anywhere fast. Revegetation of stray surfaces frequently manages to begin more quickly than the next thing that’s happening.

The end of the sewer-walk peters out into a marshy and grassy spot beside one of the linked chain of Botany ponds, marked on the map as The Engine Pond. Howling obliviously above it is the rush of traffic on the airport flyovers and beyond that, the incoming planes, but it’s all relatively still down here. Quiet enough to hear the rusty hinge of the dumped white metal cabinet as the wind swings its door open, shut, open…shut. There are signs of a recently abandoned drinking camp strewn around it, and the door serves as a kind of message bank, from one camper to another. Open, the cabinet is entirely innocent, except for a small gathering of mould spores in one corner. Just the brand name, Mace, is visible. Closed, and you can read the legend spray-painted on in a fine graffitist’s hand, We left because you are dog cunts, and then a thoughtful gap left before the last word is delivered, Fuck! The shelter of a road underpass – crawling height only – is right nearby, strewn with bottles, cans and broken glass. The high rim of the fly-over means that none of the thousand motorists speeding by would ever see this place. Right out in the open and right under your nose, a sanctuary, a secret place. 

The ducks have found it, however, and a small family trawls slowly across the water. Another kind of waterway prowler sits on the grass nearby, big, yellow, with the words Better Safe in large red letters upfront. It takes a while to work out what this large contraption could be. A delicately rusting, mechanised yellow yabby? In a way, yes. It has water wheels, and pincers out front wide enough to secure a car body and other junk from a watery grave. It has been parked in its matching yellow trailer and then seemingly forgotten, rust stains dripping down to meet the grass growing up through it. How readily the weeds always take old machinery back into the time that the rocks, the glaciers and the slowly eroding mountains, seem to share. Another kind of safety altogether. Perhaps the best one, in the end. 

Over in the opposite corner of this quiet no-place, a pipe bearing high-pressure oil makes a brief dash from cover from one side of the lantana-fringed canal before diving back down to earth on the other, arching from the earth like a slick industrial leech. A high-security chain-wire fence, topped with three rows of barbed wire, and entered only by way of a locked gate, fiercely defends this momentary burst from cover. All over Sydney, you can find interestingly public and yet menacingly defended little redoubts, their purpose, let alone the hazard they present, rarely explicable. They have the feel of a special enclosure built to contain a wild, endangered or dangerous species of city creature. You can pass by them a hundred times on a busy road and never see them at all. That’s their special charm. 

Beyond any further possibility of approach, as final punctuation to the walk, a serenely formal Jeffrey Smart landscape appears: the edge of the airport lies across a concrete moat, and the vista contains mown green mounds, carefully spaced objects picked out in bright primary colours that betray nothing at all about their use or meaning, and the occasional plane. All the hard, tidy surfaces of late, late capitalist neo-realism, so late it’s been written off, in fact, and has re-surfaced as a hard neo-conservatism designed to break hearts.

And then there’s the Category Game. 

When, in the late sixties, several streets in Darlinghurst became part of a traffic throughway to Taylor’s Square (now superseded by the eastern Distributor tunnel), a pocket-handkerchief remnant park that was formerly someone’s old backyard was left behind at the end of a small, islanded street. Its centrepiece, in fact its only event, was an ancient flowering deciduous tree, utterly collapsed, that has laboured on for decades in its ruin. If you want to see it as bare, abandoned wreckage, impossible to imagine as alive, then come in winter. But spring and summer present resurrection itself. Having fallen down completely at least once, it has been massively propped up by an in­genious home-welded structure, on which it has clearly decided to survive a little longer, and then a little longer still. You can always live another day – the motto of survivor trees, this one picked out in soft, luxurious foliage and blossoms to melt your breath. 

Some survive as stumps not (yet) worth doing anything about. Next to the Mortuary (Regent Street) Station near Railway Square, two live stellae mark its western side: a pair of old palms that have long foregone any attempt at bearing foliage, but still fit the site with uncanny beauty. Near their tips, you can make out several small hollows that have become the nesting spots of white cockatoos; if you are lucky, the dark hollow suddenly blooms with a cheeky yellow-crested head – like you, someone having a bit of a stickybeak.

Sometimes survivor trees are lowering phantoms, skeletons shrouded in ancient Morning Glory or rampant Cape Weed; sometimes they are knobby specimens bonsai-ed and dessicated by their fate of having been planted in an above-ground street planter box where the soil is perennially drought-stricken and sun-baked. Very old cemeteries are full of survivor trees grown fantastically beyond any horticultural intent, but the full spectacle emerges best when the tree is strikingly isolated by its pressing circumstances. 

Compensation for the noble suffering of survivor trees, from a city-wide flora point of view, are the rainforest giants planted so enthusiastically in the 1960s and 70s in the two-metre-wide front ‘gardens’ of inner-city terraces. The house by now has shrunk to being a minor footnote to the tree, which frequently contorts weirdly to avoid front balconies or bull-nosed rooves that proved resistant to pressure. The prouder species, of course, refuse to make any allowances at all, and so certain, prized architectural details of the house simply give way, in favour of the tree.

A related ‘feel free’ category is failed landscaping and dysfunctional gardens. Prime examples are observed around the public aspects of buildings in the inner city or ‘industrial parks’, around freeways or under flyovers, and in the vicinity of drive-in fast food outlets. The paper-bag infested plots around the leggy and dying grevillea specimens that keep close company with car-parking areas of any kind afford only brief and mournful scrutiny. Much more interesting are the odd cement-edged dysfunctional garden plots of the inner city. Many will now be miniature deserts, the plantings long failed and gone. Instead of shrubs, gas and water meters, cable-television installations and miscellaneous plumbing that escapes explanation, can opportunistically revegetate the site, along with hardy weeds watered by passing dogs. Sometimes, the paintwork of the building will extend diplomatic recognition to what has replaced the failed landscaping, matching cement edging to the colour of the meter.

There are many who secretly love the hidden, weathered, old, disused, abandoned and transitional places of the city. Such places are often called ‘eyesores’ by progress associations. Many are behind chain-wire fences and a sign to warn you off. But the children of the area, and the adults who haven’t forgotten their childhoods, can always home in on the gap in the fence draped with Morning Glory, the telling foot-worn path in the grass that leads to it. Walking a dog, exploring by bicycle, wandering at random – many forays wind up in such places quite naturally. For those not dismayed but drawn by things that never pretended to be anything other than what they are, there is endless allure in the ‘little bit ugly’ nature of such places. They are owned in common by unofficial consent, by all who love them. 

Some of the best are found by following unconventional pathways and ‘forbidden’ roadways, although anything marked ‘Private Road’ is already a very promising sign. Other unusual egress can be offered by alleys and back lanes (following routes available strictly by back lane), water, gas or oil pipe embankments, disused train tracks and tunnels, and fire trails.

One of the best forbidden roadways I ever found also belonged to the category of things seen only from trains. It was a hot Christmas Day in the early sixties, and my sister and I wandered off from the post-dinner warfare that always broke out between the Labor Left and Right of our extended family gathering, to do a little exploring. We didn’t live on a train line and knew excitingly little about them, but the scene of the Christmas dinner was near a quiet line baking silently in the still sunlight. We discovered that you could easily get down the embankment in a railway cutting to access those fascinating fibro-cased cables – electrical? I still don’t know for sure. It hardly mattered. For two skinny little girls, they offered a wonderful single-file pathway that wandered up hill and down dale, skirting a thrillingly dangerous chasm through which a train could rush, or amble, at any time. Strangely, I don’t recall any trains, only the endless unspooling of an unrepeatable adventure in an entirely adult-free zone, somewhere between Marrickville and Dulwich Hill stations.

City wildlife is the category that would include paper or plastic free spirits that roam the skies on windy days and dance on main roads in the slipstreams of the traffic, ‘dead bats’ on electricity wires (sometimes a single running shoe can stand in for a dead bat), bonsai weed forests in the cracks of city roads where once were tram tracks, moss and fern outbreaks on the high reaches of north-facing brick walls taking root in certain seventy- or eight-year-old mortars…From another point of view, it includes feral or alien species of actual wildlife, and in some moods, especially after listening to the evening news, it can include human beings.

The moment that there is a reasonable pause in the use of almost any place in Sydney, we find the category of the Sleeping Beauty hedge – a lantana thicket to protect the site and its individual secrets in their long sleep. Children see no barrier in a lantana thicket, just a marvellous opportunity for secret infiltration. Lantana walls are as riddled and complex as wombat burrows, with inner sanctums and forts, as well as obligatory defecation areas and disguised entrances. They are a resource in themselves, but also an invitation to overlooked, abandoned or dangerous zones and realms of play. Of course what they protect is even more interesting, usually, than the barrier itself. The barrier is the same as that well-known invitation Authorised Personnel Only – a lure to forbidden country.

The ‘pathway of desire’ is the town-planner’s term for pathways people make despite the actual paths laid out for them – the ones worn by necessity and actual desire rather than the ones planned on paper by others. John Updike has a character say how pleased he is always made ‘by the sight of bare earth that has been smoothed and packed firm by the passage of human feet…the furtive break in the playground fence dignified into a thoroughfare, the trough of dust underneath each swing…the blurred path worn across a wedge of grass, the anonymous little mound or embankment polished by play and strewn with pebbles…unconsciously humanised…too humble and common even to have a name.’ Sometimes they lead you down the quiet backs of things, or advise (slightly dangerous) short cuts. Often they skirt another fascinating category – the post-industrial midden.

The quiet backs of things can be explored by means of back lanes, alleys, canal paths, river paths, abandoned train tracks, lidded sewers, disused viaducts, vacant lots and traffic rat-runs. Their beauty is that they take you by way of where no one thought anyone much would go, they are relatively free of traffic to chew the silence or bother the trance of looking, and so you can look around in a leisurely way at many kinds of things that humbly lack any kind of public ‘face’. Instead you gaze at the backs of things – back entrances, backyards, the behinds of shops (so endearingly tatty and blessedly free of the strain of commerce, with boxes, garbage bins and greying mops wrung out in full view under the mild gaze of the sun), back-lane notices painted threateningly large on gates (one swung open so that the sign now reads ‘No…Anytime In This…’). Their real purpose seems to be to offer relief from the effort of preserving face, keeping up appearances, and enduring the barrage of city noise. Sometimes they afford the pleasure of getting from A to B in an unlikely way. As a child, I took expert pride in being able to walk from home to the Paddington Library exclusively by alleyway and back lane. It didn’t make the trip any shorter at all, unless you count the way that enthusiasm abbreviates all concerns. Quiet backs do not promise to make your journey shorter – only more surprising and curious. Usually, in fact, they are peregrinations in disguise, a trawl in the unknown. By abandoning the main or most obvious route as you take a journey, and ducking and weaving by choice through more obscure byways, you express the essence of feeling free to look around, not to take but to be taken by the journey.

In a street of shops or commercial buildings, not every building shares a common wall. Business grows willy-nilly (from ‘will-ye or nil-ye’), and afterthoughts seized upon are the very motor of commerce. Forms of overgrowth and undergrowth rapidly blur the lines of original planning. So each building sits alongside but irrespective of the next, and gaps may exist, or appear. The gaps between worlds can be as small as a match head (and if the gap is this small, you will, invariably, find matchsticks inserted into it), or as wide as an alleyway or driveway. In a country town or outer suburb, where space is less hotly contested, the gaps are far more casual, even gaping, in size.

The compelling thing about the gaps is that they are apparently invisible. Ask anyone who knows a strip very well just exactly where the gaps are and what can be found in them. The strip and its sequence can be as familiar as a well-thumbed rosary, but the existence of any gaps at all earnestly denied.

In the gaps (that don’t completely exist), you will find: erratic plumbing solutions; mops and brooms; passageways to little hole-in-the-wall businesses not fit for the main street (knife and scissor- sharpening, for example; a brilliantly cheap computer repairs business run by a large extended Asian family; shonky coaching colleges; massages offered, or fortunes told); gully traps; dust; rubbish bins; and of course smokers’ corners. 

In a larger sense, the entire realm of feel free to look around is, itself, a gap between worlds, as it fosters purposelessness and dreaminess, and something approaching invisibility, in a public place that is officially concerned with getting the job done.

The category of ‘overgrowth’ points to the way that new developments or purposes may take place on top of older ones, visibly supplanting, hybridising or adapting them: renovations are at one end of the spectrum, improvisations at the other. The use of pavement-wide awnings on Sydney streets allows this matter to come to light as clearly as rock strata in a road cutting. Above-the-awnings, you can see the older, original dreams of commerce and street life, preserved in ancient peeling paintwork that can gradually become a work of art, and balconies that harbour ancient, shrouded objects under ‘temporary’ washing lines; below-the-awnings, the hopeful, fresh declarations of each successive business make their claims, confident that any dereliction to be found above-the-awnings does not entirely exist. 

Sometimes overgrowth declares itself as riddle. A staircase rises to meet a blank wall. Bricked-in windows, their sills still showing, form a guesswork pattern of irregularity under the paint. A Moreton Bay fig is seeded by a bird in a chimney, and begins to flourish vigorously and ominously, a dark green blot against the western sky.

‘Undergrowth’, on the other hand, is whatever succeeds in the niches left open by insufficient vigilance, or when new developments are too slow to commence or reach completion. The most spectacular example in downtown Sydney is the World Square Tower, which replaced the old Anthony Hordern buildings on Brickfield Hill. The original buildings were a supreme example of both undergrowth and overgrowth at once, where dozens of fly-by-night improvisational uses thickly coated the maze of corridors erected inside the old emporium, like endometriosis. When they were pulled down in a cloud of ancient brickfielder dust, obliterating the network of nefarious illegal parking spots in all the internal laneways that serviced the old palatial shop, a truly elephantine hotel-shopping-office tower was commenced. But that was more than a decade ago. The reinforced concrete base and the skeleton of the tower became snap-frozen in time due to an industrial dispute that is itself now coated in another layer of old dust. Irregular and unlikely parking spots, it seems, die hard. Someone turned the lower depths of the behemoth into a parking station – for the time being. 

The time being can be very long sometimes.

And so letting the streets flow like water, mutable and empty, and entering the flow, mutable and empty as water – this is to encounter walls, tiles and pebbles as mind. ‘They passed eons living alone in the mountains and forests; only then did they unite with the Way and use mountains and rivers for words, raise the wind and rain for a tongue, and explain the great void,’ says Dogen of the old Zen hermits and teachers. In the hermitage of the everyday, we have to learn the words and become the silence not just of mountains and rivers, but also the median strip between the sucking slipstreams of the traffic, the flare of neon in the mist, the rain staining a concrete apartment block, the broken tile in the weeds… 

And then the plastic bag pirouetting beside the grinding tires of a semi-trailer is redeemed in a profound act of counter-terrorism; indifference is dropped away; boredom is a sheer impossibility; and general amnesty is proclaimed by each thing that is cherished just as it is. Just – follow the little tug of curious interest somewhere in your chest, and curl your palm inward around the knipls as they collect you into the treasury of the ten thousand things. 

It takes little more than missing your bus and walking in the rain those five blocks, finding the streets are black mirrors and the rain light deforms each thing just beyond its habitual invisibility. Enter there.

But finally, a word of caution: Go softly. Once noted, things easily grow twice shy. Once photographed, they can vanish completely behind hoardings and chain wire overnight, raising brief clouds of bulldozer dust. One day, those manhole covers can be magical portals to the underworld; next day, you’ll discover, they’re just blending back in and going about their business.


All Dogen Kigen quotes are from Moon in a Dewdrop, trans. Kazua Tanahashi (Element Books, 1985). The Gary Snyder quote is from The Practice of the Wild (Northpoint Press, 1990) – see also his A Place in Space (Counterpoint, 1995). Ben Katchor is quoted in Lawrence Weschler’s Profile ‘A Wanderer in the Perfect City,’ New Yorker 9 August 1993. For Walter Benjamin’s Paris Arcades project, as it surfaces in Susan Buck-Morss, see her The Dialectics of Seeing (M.I.T. Press, l989). The John Updike piece is ‘Packed dirt, church-going, a dying cat, a traded car,’ New Yorker 16 December 1969. 

See also James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (Fontana, 1991); Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa and Murray Silverstein, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (Oxford UP, l982); Mike Davis, City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in L.A. (Verso, 1991); Jonathon Hale, The Old Way of Seeing: How Architecture Lost its Magic (and How to Get it Back) (Houghton Mifflin, 1994); James Hillman, A Blue Fire, ed Thomas Moore (Routledge, 1990); Tony Hiss, The Experience of Place (Knopf, 1990); Ivan Illich, H20 and the Waters of Forgetfulness (Boyars, 1986); Ben Katchor, Cheap Novelties: The Pleasures of Urban Decay (Penguin, 1991); Russell Lockhart, Words as Eggs (Spring Publications, 1989); Susan Murphy, Upside-Down Zen (Lothian Books, 2004), Chapter 9, ‘The Hermitage in the Street’; Susan Murphy, ‘The Sydney That Has No Postcode,’ ABC Radio National: Radio Eye, May 2003, and ‘Feel Free to Look Around,’ ABC Radio National: Radio Eye, November 2004 (Writer and Producer), and ‘Under Rookwood,’ 17 minute poetic documentary, 1996; Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (Penguin, 1995); Robert Sardello and Gail Thomas, eds, Stirrings of Culture: Essays from the Dallas Institute (l990); John R. Stilgoe, Outside Lies Magic: Regaining History and Awareness in Everyday Places (Walter, 1998); Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1977).

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