Of moths, mystery and meaning
A paper by Michelle Walker published in EarthSong Journal: Perspectives in Ecology, Spirituality and Education, Volume 3, Issue 3 (Spring 2016)
The ‘Earthsong Symposium 2016’, “Celebrating the Life of Insects”, was a transformative event. Nowhere more so for me than experiencing Harry Nankin’s “Moth Liturgy”. Nankin spoke of crisis, journey, mystery and meaning making; the devastation of the Victorian Alps, the iconic Bogong moths within them, and his own journey as an artist, inextricably linked to both.
Nankin’s lifelong connection to the High Country culminated in the 1987 publication of his large format photographic book, “an evocative photographic hymn to the Australian Alps” In the 1990’s as the world awoke to the looming global environmental crisis, Nankin experienced a crisis ontological. Where at one point Nankin would stand back from his subject, in a proprietorial stance, attempting to capture and preserve, grief collapsed this sense of distance.Where before the stance may have been “epistemologically prescriptive”, the singular guiding principle now was “poetic engagement”. Nankin found himself in an “ecological gaze”. Doing away with camera and lens,Nankin moved to the “Shadowgram”. The raw relationship of subject, photographer, photographic paper and light source. Rather than proprietor, the artist now served as witness.
Presented with images of the Bogong Moths, the transformative power of the work became clear. Like many insects, we do not tend to celebrate moths. Nankin describes our perception of these creatures as “insect abjection”, which he defines as “a microcosm of our anthropocentric indifference to the plight of the terrestrial non-human other.” However, viewing the moths in the great detail afforded by the photogrametic technique, we journeyed into the world of these arthropods. Their delicate bodies, their movement, their interconnectedness. We understood these creatures as individual life forms with, as Nankin commented at Earthsong, an individual sense of agency. As we looked, we began to understand, we began to feel.
Journeying into the Moth Liturgy, I recalled a story from Henri Nouwen’s, “The Wounded Healer”. One day in a remote village, an escaped prisoner arrives seeking refuge. The village takes the man in, shortly after however soldiers arrive and demand that he be handed over. The villagers consult their minister who in turn consults his bible. In the morning, to avoid endangering the village, the fugitive is surrendered. The next night the minister is visited by an angel who asks, “What have you done? Do you now know you have handed over the Messiah? If, rather than reading your bible you had visited this young man and looked into his eyes just once you would have known.” Nankin’s work allows us to look into the eyes of this other, and to know.
Nankin and those who write on his work frequently make use of religious terminology. There is no piety here, but earthy evocation of mystery. This is my understanding of the ecological gaze, the poetic engagement. Jean Corbon speaks of Liturgy as “the great river into which all the energies and manifestations of the mystery flow together.” The place of art, theology and science, and certainly the place where these fields intersect is the making of meaning in the presence of this mystery.
At the interface of spirituality and science, evolution theology and eco spirituality have emerged. The themes of eco spirituality resonate clearly with Nankin’s work. The theme of mutuality, of relationality across all elements of the cosmos is one addressed extensively by evolution theologian Denis Edwards. Edwards argues that the fundamental character of reality is relational and that this is a point of contact between theology and biological science. As an Engineer, a Pastoral Carer and a keen environmentalist I find these developments inspiring and hopeful.
Joanna Macy, who has written much on hope in the face of environmental despair, said that the heart that breaks open can contain the whole universe. Harry Nankin’s journey; his love of the Victorian Alps, grief at their demise, and search for meaning in his art certainly point to such a heart. I am grateful to have shared in this journey, to enter into the mystery at the cross roads of my own senses, to discover meaning, to have been transformed.
Review by Klaus Hueneke of Harry Nankin’s book Range Upon Range: The Australian Alps published in The Canberra Times newspaper, December 13, 1987, p 9.
Harry Nankin, “Gazing at Shadow, Darkly” Presented at ‘Transdiscipinary imaging’ conference, Sydney, 2010, peer-reviewed and published 2011, p94.
 Harry Nankin “Minds in the Cave: insect imagery as metaphors for place and loss” Conference paper by Harry Nankin delivered at Monash University in 2012, peer-reviewed and published in AJE Journal, 2013, p8
Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society. New York, NY: Image Books, 1990. p 26.
Corbon, Jean. The Wellspring of Worship. New York: Paulist Press, 1988, p207.
Edwards, Denis. The God of Evolution: A Trinitarian Theology. New York: Paulist Press, 1999, p24.