The Spectral Field—

Polly Stanton

It’s early evening and the summer sun still burns the ground below. The hard pink surface of the lake gleams and the air is dry and warm. This is Maligundidj country, the unceded land of the Wergaia peoples. A country now situated within the so-called Murray Sunset National Park in Victoria’s distant northwest; an expansive region formed in 1979 that covers over half a million hectares of earth, salt, scrub and sky. The wind has dropped, and the surrounding countryside has fallen quiet; only the persistent sound of flies punctuates the stillness. The shoreline of the lake crunches underfoot and the sound of my movement’s cuts through the lull as my footsteps leave deep impressions in the ground behind me. Listen- ing to the sounds of my feet I look down and notice emu prints cross the salt in front of me and then disappear into the tall white grass that covers the surrounding hills. I decide to follow. I push my way through the grass and soon lose sight of the emu’s steps. A nearby stand of bull oaks hums suddenly into life, their long thin needles vibrating in unison in the warm breeze. It’s an eerie sound. Deep and soft but with a hint of foreboding, its musical tones seeming on edge amongst the flies and quiet.

The Mallee wilderness is an undefined place, corre- sponding to the bounds of an ancient inland sea. Its loca- tion is a shimmering expanse always somewhere in the distance – somewhere beyond the seemingly unlimited patchwork of agriculture, dusty satellite townships and dark highways that cut sharp lines through the subdued bush. It’s a landscape that plays with notions of the macro and micro through its unimaginable distance and scale.

Yet on the ground the Mallee is vital and finite, teem- ing with life and movement. Salt is a mineral that seems to define this place. It crunches underfoot and seeps out from the soil at irregular intervals conceiving new terrains and defying cultivation. It moves yet is static also, its passage creating frozen shorelines that shift with the changes of precipitation which in turn cause the surface of salt to swell and shrink from day to day. The land seems to operate in this constant binary – new and mutable but ancient and fixed, with its shorelines fluctuating back and forth with the seasons for a thousand years. Dotted around the circumference of the lake are the remnants of a salt mine, once briefly a thriving industry that is now a collection of rusted remains and broken jetties that rot in the muddy salt. The salt engulfs this debris and hardens around it, consuming the remains with an unyielding force. Broken logs jut from the surface and crushed iron objects lay broken along the shore, their surfaces eaten away by salty crust.

These are inescapable components of this country – temporality experienced through the expansion and contraction of salt and a sense of deep underlying time that is subtly played out through its primordial shore- lines and salty dry lake beds. The lakes themselves seem to lie somewhere outside an order of knowledge that contains past, present and future. They form an interval of continuous spectral moments that offer an openness rather than a determined knowing. To attend to these moments is to attune to a space bristling with material relations, contested histories, conflicting forms of knowl- edge and shifting bodies. As I walk along the shoreline at the end of the day, I trace my path back towards my car only to discover that the harsh outlines of broken salt that were my footsteps have now softened and congealed, a thin layer of new salt crust forming in the impressions. Another day and my movements across this surface would have vanished as though my haphazard traversing never occurred – a spectral drift that reorders the land through a constant worlding of earthly materialities and oscillating timescales.

This work was supported by Creative Victoria. The Spec- tral Field was filmed and recorded on the territories of the Latji Latji, Ngintait, Nyeri Nyeri and Wergaia Peoples. I pay my respects to their elders past and present. Sover- eignty of this land was never ceded, resistance is ongoing.