There’s a moment in The Road to Patagonia when Matty Hannon – protagonist, film maker, surfer – stands, surveying the damage to his kombi van, which has just flipped and rolled off a remote Alaskan highway. He’s unscathed, but in the background of the shot, transporting oil to Valdez, lies the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. It’s a neat, if accidental, piece of symbolism: even in the wilderness, we’re never far from the long reach of exploitation.
Be it in the jungles of the Mentawais or the coastal scrub of Chile, the theme of taking – by corporations, governments and ideology – is central to the film. But there can be no taking without giving, and at the documentary’s heart is Matty’s deep commitment to something more tender, too – a generosity of spirit, of the collective and of nature. Arcing from pounding surf to environmental degradation, mental health and rebel resistance, the story is an unhurried, unpretentious look at how humans and the earth coexist. Surfboards strictly non-negotiable.
I watch the premiere in a packed theatre at Byron Bay International Film Festival, a bobbing line of babies in arms making up the back row of the audience. One of those is Colt, Matty and his fiancée Heather Hillier’s one-year-old son for whom the story is a parable and a love letter, a philosophical cornerstone and a paean to a future well lived. As we watch Colt’s parents meet, fall in love and travel down the west coast of the Americas, we see colliding worlds, crumbling cultures and the potent and hopeful connective fibre of something more spiritual, to something bigger than you and I.
But the story begins some nine years before that kombi crash and epic two-and-a-half-year journey south to Ushuaia. It begins with a Sony camcorder, bought towards the end of a five-year stay in the Sumatran jungle, where Matty “disappeared” with the Salakirrat tribes of the Mentawais.
There, the ecology degree he studied at Deakin University was no longer theoretical. Cut off from roads, electricity and phones but connected to culture, community and pristine waves, he filmed to share his life with family and friends at home in Melbourne, but also to capture something that he knew was special and threatened. His tribespeople friends weren’t financially wealthy but lived in abundance, intertwined with the land. They took only what they needed from the jungle and the sea, humans and nature living as one, resolutely traditional despite being well-aware of the outside world.
“It totally opened my mind to a different way of life, one that is dedicated to community and family and the environment. You’re incredibly time-rich over there,” he tells me as we talk in my home on Bundjalung Country a few days after the premiere. We drink tea and are interrupted by an obsidian crow who hops through the front door. Big Scrub rainforest isn’t far from my veranda and the ocean is less than a kilometre away, but Matty and his tribal chest tattoos seem a long way from the unknowns of the road.
It’s an exercise of my imagination, then, to picture him in Melbourne working a city job when he returned from Sumatra. “I just felt utterly out of place,” he remembers as he recalls the immensity of the city and its effect on his identity. He was diagnosed with anxiety and, for all its trauma, that moment gave life to the idea to surf his way from Alaska to Patagonia, filming the odyssey as it unfurled in no hurry and with no particular plan. Instinctively, he drives, then motorbikes, then horse rides his way south, stopping to sample some truly singular waves along the way. With each starry night, a bigger picture comes into focus, as if his own health is a fractal that can be multiplied to a universal scale: how did we lose the way when it comes to looking after our planet?
The first child of four, Matty was born in London, moved to Victoria as an infant, then to Jakarta and the Dandenong Ranges as a teenager. Those hills gave him a vantage point from which to understand the creep of urban sprawl and by the time he left, the “soul-destroying mediocrity of suburbia” had swallowed his teen home.
In the Mentawais, he saw coral bleaching, cyanide fishing and palm monoculture. Later, he and Heather witnessed the extent to which Canada’s old growth forest has been axed. But what they came across on Chile’s coastal spine is what he calls the epitome of industrialised monoculture. “They’ve literally just wiped the surface of the earth clear and planted pine trees in identical rows,” he says. Between an Indonesia striving towards development and communities torn from their life sources, he saw that “what we consider to be good quality living is not necessarily the truth”.
Instead, while Matty and Heather camped and foraged, spoke with locals and took on perilous mountain passes on their way south, an observation slowly condensed, then crystallised. “In their own different cultural ways, everyone was saying the same thing,” he recalls. “Up until a very short time ago, we all experienced the world through almost the same lens, albeit with a different cultural veneer over the top. We all saw the world as being animate.”
Heather and Matty’s recordings explore the theme of resistance, gently telling the stories of violence and revolutionary tactics of those who have fought for their lands and communities. Zapatista members speak about the power of the collective. Mapuche rebels recall fighting, arson and kidnappings. One Mapuche interviewee claims to have been sent to jail for opposing large-scale industry – not a world away from the treatment, closer to home, of Adani protester Ben Pennings. But, bewildered and dispossessed as some of their interviewees are, they have in common a deep respect for relationships that go beyond the human.
“It’s almost word for word,” says Matty, describing the similarities between those he met in Chile and Indonesia. They talked about the spirit of a volcano or the spirit of their vegetable garden, or the spirit of a river. Derived from the Latin for ‘breath’, animism attributes sentience, or soul, to other beings, forces of nature and things. Matty quotes scholar Graham Harvey when explaining the concept: "Animists are people who recognise the world is full of persons, only some of them human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others." It is practised all over the world, from Western Apache to Siberian Eveny people, and has been for many thousands of years. Anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor labelled it “primitive”. Today, it is a counter-cultural misfit in an empirical, solvable world.
Still, it comes unbidden. At my mother’s funeral, I spoke about her soul living on in the jacaranda trees and the scudding clouds, in the chilli I chop for dinner. She is them and they are her. Here at Roaring Journals, Ella Noah Bancroft writes of a crying planet who “pleads for her children to return to a world of reciprocity”, as does Linley Hurrell, who shares the deep and ancient connection of Gunditjmara people, kin to koontapool, or southern right whales.
At one point in the film, the couple desperately search for water as they trek through Chilean dunes. They and their four horses haven’t drunk for a day and the humans are starting to panic. The next morning, the pack sets off, rounds a corner and finds a spring, fresh water dripping from grassy outcrops overhead. At its base is a religious shrine. The horses drink, Matty and Heather drink. Their relief fills the moment, and it’s easy to see why humans have come to worship a place where water gives life to animals and plants. Not far away, entire forests are being razed.
Might a lost sense of devotion be at the heart of environmental degradation? Perhaps we can learn to live as better humans by taking animism as a starting point and unspooling from it a thread that weaves being into all that surrounds us. “We’re immersed in a story that says we are separate and superior to nature right now,” Matty says. “If we were to stop for a moment, we'd realise that the most intelligent species in the world shouldn’t be the ones destroying it.”
We’re also the ones attempting to save it. Just as interconnected as the planet’s problems are, so might be the ways to counter them. Technology, be it in the form of wind farms or copper batteries, must only form a fraction of the recovery plan. (Matt is currently making a film about copper mining on the Clarence River and much of the resource’s demand comes from the renewable energy sector). Indigenous philosophy is also part of the answer, along with social and behaviour change, legislation and a lot of imagination. Pausing to assess our own behaviour must feature, too. “We’re ingenious,” Matty adds, “but we’re really only going to find success when we stop to analyse our own story.”
His own version of salvation was to slow down and connect. He and his family live on Gumbaynggirr Country on land he owns with his brother and sister. They’re plugged into local permaculture and a tight community. Connection means immersing himself in the ocean, eating local produce, walking, gardening. It means going out and canoeing the rivers and being conscious and building a home. Lacing the everyday with awe. Living with a long-term mindset. And what will the everyday look like in, say, 50 years’ time, when Colt’s 51? “I guess what I would want is that he grows up with a sense of wonder and a sense of hope,” says his father. “I don’t think there’s any way you can shelter him from the realities of the world and the problems we’re seeing.”
Perhaps, a little like frogs or earthworms, those communities in Sumatra, the Amazon and the Andes behave as sentinel species, sensitive to the changes wrought by globalisation. The world is alive and beloved, they taught Matty. And everything worth loving is worth fighting for.