Finding Sophia: Wisdom in the Interstitial Voids

Transept’s 2024 exhibition, (a)void, opens this week in St Andrews. Leading up to the exhibition, artists will be reflecting on their process and work. Below, Benjamin Ong meditates on photography, lockdown walks and urban voids overtaken by nature.

Seventeen years ago, I received an offer—which I eventually turned down due to financial constraints—to study philosophy and theology in St Andrews. Joining Transept and writing for Transpositions is perhaps the closest I’ve come to that version of myself, which probably continues to exist in an alternate timeline somewhere in the multiverse.

Money wasn’t the only factor, however. I decided to pursue my interest in nature, nurtured since childhood, and studied ecology back home in Malaysia instead. As a child, I was quite the avid explorer, drawn to earwigs and spiders and other animal life around me. I enjoyed photographing insects and other invertebrates, such as the one here on a fence in my primary school:

But wait, where/what is it, you ask? A mistake committed by an amateur photographer who did not then understand the meaning of focal length. (Blessed be film. For if this happened today, I would have probably deleted the “failed” shots.) In my failure I inadvertently photographed the “void” behind the fence instead, not realising I would one day be drawn to such urban voids: sites of wild, ruderal, spontaneous vegetation, often known in Malay as belukar.

Belukar quickly overgrows infrastructural voids—an empty plot of land, a wall, a gutter. It is complex and contested, a tropical undergrowth that is dense, thorny and often soggy, existing almost as if to harbour unseemly creatures and keep intruders out. But, to me, it is also a space of creativity and possibility: transient, ephemeral, everywhere, yet nowhere. I am drawn to its energy, mystery and potential.

Sadly, the urban wildlands are unpopular in a country so well-endowed with exotic (rural) landscapes and charismatic megafauna. Often avoided, belukar is grotesque, devoid of interesting species and often overpopulated with alien, invasive species.1 Even in towns and cities we have exquisitely landscaped urban parks and sizeable urban forests. The pursuit of cleaner, neater landscapes reduces the informal, interstitial, almost accidental belukar to an absence, a void.

Become as Little Children

The years leading to, and following, the birth of my first daughter were spent in my childhood neighbourhood, a place called Taman Rajawali (Eagles’ Garden) in Desa Aman (Peaceful Village). During pandemic-induced movement restrictions, I revisited this neighbourhood and its belukar on walks with my daughter. My contribution to Transept 2024, ‘Finding Sophia’ is a collection of photographs in and of voids, most of which were made on these walks. It is an homage to the neighbourhood where I grew up, which arguably shaped my environmental outlook and environmental education ethos in ways I didn’t realise at the time.

These walks were a strange experience, a kind of transposition. I was treading in a thirty-something-year-old body the same paths I trod as a child, this time guiding and being guided by a two-/three-year-old. Our walks were like a duet: I was led by her curiosity, and I “curated” experiences for her—listening, observing, being attentive to the sights, sounds, smells and textures around us. In that way, every walk was different and even the weather actively participated in our neighbourhood explorations. It was an embodied, relational learning experience.2

By placing the photographs on a low surface, I intend for ‘Finding Sophia’ to be accessible to children, something that my kids could relate to and interact with—reflecting also the themes of childhood and play that pervade my research.

Sit, kneel, hold, sift through. Take the prints, shuffle them, move them around, tell a story. Consider the map of our neighbourhood—where would your path take you? Draw or make something.

‘Finding Sophia’ is about seeking wisdom in the landscape: what would the belukar or apparently chaotic voids tell us, if only we let them draw us in, if only we dared embrace them, standing as it were on the threshold of mystery? If the stones could cry out, what would they say?

Take this drain, for example. Merely a passageway for wastewater and grey water, or a canyon flanked by trees and shrubs on either side, a mighty river flowing through? It’s all a matter of perspective and scale. In drains like this my daughter dropped seed pods of the batai laut or yellow flame, watching the water carry them away; in this very drain, some thirty years ago, I encountered my first tadpoles.

In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

– T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’3

I like to think that part of becoming as little children involves acknowledging ignorance—itself a void of sorts—and letting it guide us into a deeper knowing. For the “voids” are replete with a presence that invites us to enter, if we let curiosity lead.

(Be) Still and Still Moving

Such voids have had a profound impact on my profession as an environmental educator, and on my current balancing act of being a PhD student and a parent.

At the heart of it is this idea that whatever interest or care I have for nature, whatever effort I have put into its preservation, conservation, education and advocacy comes not from daily communion with the extraordinary, with the rare and spectacular species, but with the ordinary. I care about nature, not because elephants and orangutans visit my garden, but because snails and millipedes do.

Belukar may be of little value to the expert conservationist or landscaper, or to the layperson, yet it has been the crucible of my environmental education practice. The voids, the interstices, allow for movement and connection. Like tears or cracks across the fabric of the city, they are gaps in which human breath pauses, and through which the voices of others—the foolishness of God Himself—may enter. In the voids I have seen His glory, His glory in the ordinary, full of grace and truth.

Exotic and endangered species and landscapes notwithstanding, there is still plenty to discover, plenty to surprise us, here in the urban centres where nearly four-fifths of Malaysia’s population finds itself, and where I have found my calling. While I started out more as a nature guide imparting scientific knowledge, over the years I have turned towards leading people into an experience—creating space in the most ordinary of places for discovery, learning, insight and revelation.

Bringing this experience into a PhD has meant trying to make sense of it through the ideas of philosophers. But with one foot always in the material, I couldn’t help seeing the Deleuzian metaphor of rhizomes4 in corporeal root-and-stem tissue around me. There were certainly lots of those—various wild tubers and rhizomes, locally called ubi—growing in the belukar around us.

Rhizomes are nonlinear, and through my daughter I was able to bend time and reconnect with the child in me. In a glossary-like section titled ‘neither one thing or the other’ in Amanda Thomson’s Belonging, she defines words like coconut, coexistence, ecotone, hybrid, interstice, liminal, margin.5 All of these are present in the urban belukar, in the neighbourhood that shaped my childhood. The things that are neither/nor and both/and.

I am both the adult and the child.

Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion

– T.S. Eliot, ‘East Coker’6

The ordinary and the everyday drew me in all those years ago, and they still do today. Raising a young family often feels like walking in circles—a very middling feeling—but where we find ourselves is where we enact life and love and purpose and passion.

In thinking of the voids as “middles” of sorts—yet another Deluzian concept—there is something beautiful about being “here,” enveloped by God’s magnificent creation, not being over or outside, not developing mastery and conquest, but instead nurturing an intimate relationship with the “here.”7 If the foolishness of God is wiser than the wisdom of the world, then perhaps finding sophia is about seeking treasure in jars of clay—the raw, unbridled beauty in the mundane; a meaningful and purposeful presence in the voids.

Author

  • Benjamin Ong is a PhD candidate at the School of Geography and Sustainable Development, University of St Andrews. His research lies at the confluence of urban ecology and environmental education. An occasional poet and photographer, he is a co-founder of the Urban Biodiversity Initiative (Ubi) in Malaysia and received the 2019 Marsh Award for Education in Botanic Gardens.

1. For a recent treatment of the “native vs. alien” debate, see Charles Warren, ‘Beyond “Native V. Alien”: Critiques of the Native/alien Paradigm in the Anthropocene, and Their Implications’, Ethics, Policy & Environment 26, no. 2 (2023): 287–317. https://doi.org/10.1080/21550085.2021.1961200.
2. This echoes the spirit of Assemblage Pedagogy. See Greg Mannion, ‘Re-assembling Environmental and Sustainability Education: Orientations from New Materialism’, Environmental Education Research 26, nos. 9-10 (2020): 1353–1372. https://doi.org/10.1080/13504622.2018.1536926.
3. Thomas Stearns Eliot, Four Quartets (San Diego: Harcourt, 1943), 29.
4. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004).
5. Amanda Thomson, Belonging (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2022), 196-200.
6. Eliot, Four Quartets, 32.
7. This essay by Tim Ingold provides a nuanced rebuttal of mastery and conquest: Tim Ingold, ‘Anthropology Between Art and Science: An Essay on the Meaning of Research’, Field 11 (Fall 2018), https://field-journal.com/issue-11/anthropology-between-art-and-science-an-essay-on-the-meaning-of-research.
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