“A taste for desert landscapes”

W.V.O. Quine the influential Harvard philosopher of the 20th century is known for his ontological parsimony. That is, he preferred to recognize fewer rather than more things in his official picture of reality and (allegedly) once explained this intellectual stance by appeal to his aesthetic preference for desert landscapes. The thought seems to be that desert landscapes have fewer things in them–perhaps containing only what is essential–and that this is good. Metaphysical good taste is hence dictated by a kind of prior aesthetic minimalism, itself brought on on by the experience of, for example, looking at deserts. Spending a little time in the semi-arid area around Uluru may convince you that Quine is wrong about this. It did me.

For, as the Hales groupies learned on our brief bush tour, this landscape is a very long way from empty. There are epochal ant and termite wars, scorpions that paint smiles on the soil, and many varieties of acacia. There are oaks that are not oaks, and that change in form from a spindly feather-duster sapling to a large and elegant tree–commonly by then having charred bark. There are desert poplars, that (of course) are not poplars, and which exhibits a bizarre (?) reproductive strategy of seeding the ground by toppling over and expiring. There are bitter melons, looking like nothing so much as abandoned strings of pale tennis balls and tasting awful. There is everywhere a spiky grass called spinifex. There are honey ants, some of the workers of which store edible nectar in their engorged abdomens. ¬†There are numerous species of snakes–venomous and not–and many lizards–including a skink with a lively blue tongue. Then there are the native birds and mammals, and all the various invasive species that have gone feral to one degree or another–such as camels, now numbering in the hundreds of thousands. ¬†And there are the remaining Aboriginal peoples and the more or less feral human invaders. In short, this desert landscape–its lethality not withstanding–is simply teeming with life. Quine’s point is hence not well made with respect to central Australia in the area around Uluru.

What misleads us outsiders is the failure to see the particulars, to see the details. In short, ignorant outsiders cannot read the landscape, and will be naturally prone to view this place as a monotonous wasteland. This failure is surely cognitive and aesthetic, yet it can have deadly practical consequences. It is dangerous! Yet this did not prevent some human beings from inhabiting the area around Uluru for the last 30,000 years or so. The key to the success of the Anangu people was clearly their ability to skillfully read the landscape. And part of the special genius of the Anangu and the other aboriginal peoples is their way of instituting and sharing knowledge though the songline. Songlines are guides to navigable tracks thoughout the outback, encoded as traditional songs that reflect on the features of the landscape in ways both mythical and practical. They form a kind of common library across the hugely diverse linguistic communities of the aboriginal peoples, in the absence of a common tongue or even much of a written alphabet. Truly amazing.

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