‘Welcome to country’ has become a regular fixture of exhibition openings, conferences and gatherings of all shapes and sizes. I find it can transport me quite quickly from the rather clinical interior in which the function is held, to a distant past of pre-colonial settlement, with all the rugged simplicity that landscape brings to mind. One of the reasons this acknowledgement of the first people and their country is so effective and grounding is because when an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander speaks of ‘connection’ it is absolute.

Mundarooroo in ‘Us mob’ described it like this:

‘Our spirituality is a oneness and interconnectedness with all that lives and breathes, even with all that does not live and breathe.”1

This description of unity is breathtaking in its scope, embracing all animate and inanimate life; so there is nothing, in fact, that a person could be separate from. It has become apparent in today’s society that it is our feelings of disconnection with others that fuels our fears – weather they take the form of isolation, depression or anxiety, and it is common sense that we benefit significantly when we feel more connected to nature and even to our own spirit than we currently do. Our seemingly boundless individualism, which has been centuries in the making, has helped us know who we are and to define our differences from others but the accompanying feelings of separation have wreaked havoc on our primordial need for kinship.

Painting by Judy Watson Napangardi depicting the dreaming of her ancestral land ‘Mina Mina’ on the border of the Tanami and Gibson deserts where she grew up in the nomadic tradition with her family.

Painting by Judy Watson Napangardi depicting the dreaming of her ancestral land ‘Mina Mina’ on the border of the Tanami and Gibson deserts where she grew up in the nomadic tradition with her family.

It must have seemed bizarre for the indigenous people that these white foreigners would want to acquire and own land, which then becomes exclusively ‘theirs’. In the book ‘Our land our life’, Knight describes the cultural differences: “We don’t own the land, the land owns us. The land is my mother, my mother is the land. Land is the starting point where it all began. It’s like picking up a piece of dirt and saying this is where I started and this is where I’ll go. The land is our food, our culture, our spirit and identity’. 2

No separation there…

As a landscape architect I have often pondered how we connect with the land, endeavouring to understand nature’s mysterious ways; both from an ecological as well as a cultural perspective, in order to create designs that reflect the ‘spirit of the place’. Visiting the outback and talking to indigenous people and hearing their stories is a good place to start; the other way, is surely through each person’s connection to their own spirituality that will help them relate to the landscape at a much more profound level. By developing an openness and sensitivity to the more subtle realms, opening our mind’s eye to see what lies beneath the surface and listening to our intuition to see where it leads, are I believe, the keys to a closer understanding. This is arguably the ‘holy grail’ of design, sensing the elusive essence of the land and expressing it in built form in such a way, that enhances rather than diminishes the land’s intrinsic beauty.

It could be argued that most places are better left alone, without any human intervention, artfully designed or otherwise, but with our population increasing and our continued desire to connect with nature, this is not very realistic.

Two projects which I have come across recently, that facilitate people walking in the landscape without compromising its natural beauty are Teresa Moller’s coastal walk at Punta Pite between Zapallar and Papudo, north of Santiago in Chile. The second, closer to home, is Craig Burton’s design of Bradley’s Head wharf, on the Sydney Harbour foreshore in Australia.

Teresa Moller Punta Pite 2
Chilean landscape design
Teresa Moller’s granite paths and steps fit easily, even playfully into the existing geology, allowing access along the headland with the minimum of disturbance to the ground plane. There is a video of the project in which she expresses her desire to interfere with the natural rock surface as little as possible and her method of ‘fitting in’ rather than ‘imposing on’ rewards the mindful walker. Photos by Chloe Humphreys.

In Craig Burton’s design, the sinuous curve of the shoreline is extended from the steps into the slope creating grass seating-terraces while delicately tracing the invisible contours below. The sandstone was carefully sourced to weather to a similar patina as the surrounding naval fortifications to help the new steps to blend also with the cultural legacy.

Craig Burton Bradley's Head
Craig Burton Plan of Bradley's Head
So how do you create this in your own garden sanctuary? Have you created something that gives your spirit a lift in your own backyard or have ideas for something that conveys this feeling in mind that you’d like to share? If so, I would love to hear about it and have included my contact details at the end of the article. There are as many variations on this theme as there are interpretations of ‘essence’ and materials and forms to express it.

It can be done quite simply, with a little lateral thinking……. In my garden in Margaret River, WA, I made a spiral of granite stones to encompass the widening of a sawdust path around a young Jacaranda tree. It was loosely based on the shape of the nautilus shell which is similar to the golden spiral numerically expressed in the golden ratio of 1:1618…..or ‘phi’ in sacred geometry. My simple interpretation of this was to trace an arc that was as far around the tree as it was away from the tree to make a wide and satisfying spiral. Very simple to do and voila, you have created a symbol of one of the building blocks of the universe to enjoy everyday.

Spiral at Karri LoopNautilus spiral

The sawdust paths are very soft to walk on, they tend to absorb your footfall so there is a gentle bounce back with each step. It’s not expensive to buy and needs to be laid rather deep, say 300 mm – 400 mm, raked level and should be watered in very well when first laid. I’ve had people ask if lots if weeds come up through it but that’s not a big problem, a few do but they are easily plucked out. It works best on flat ground or on a very gentle slope otherwise it will start to run off in heavy rain. It can also be easily refreshed after a few years of use.

The desire to harness the elusive ‘spirit of place’ comes from my passion of landscape design together with my enthusiasm for healing, and as each discipline enhances the other, the creation of healing gardens was the natural result. The form of healing I practice is called Jin Shin Jyutsu, which is an ancient Japanese art that harmonises one’s mind, body and spirit by supporting the body’s natural ability to heal itself.

To find our more go to the Jin Shin Jyutsu website

Alex Hawthorne is a landscape architect and Jin Shin Jyutsu practitioner who writes a blog on nature, design and spirituality and can be contacted at landesign123@optusnet.com.au or through her website at the Earth Essence Landscape website 


1 Mudrooroo, ‘Us Mob : History , Culture, Struggle: an introduction to Indigenous Australia’ 1995 Sydney NSW Angus and Robertson P.33

2 Knight, S., 1996 ‘Our Land Our Life’ card, Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Commission, Canberra