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Visiting a different universe

  • 13 November 2018


German biologist Baron Jakob von Uexküll developed the theory of umwelt. Imagine each organism in the world encased in a soap bubble –– this soap bubble is that organism’s world, or umwelt. Effectively, this theory argues that each living thing exists in a world that is uniquely meaningful to it. Each functional component of one’s world (any organism –– bacteria, tick, human) represents that organism’s view of the world.

I like Uexküll’s notion because it lets us reflect on the existence of umwelten (plural of umwelt). In other words, there are as many worlds as there are species. Nevertheless, it is difficult for us to consider the experiences of others; our worlds a bubble reflecting our movements, our desires.

One Saturday, I entered the world of another. Here, I invite you to do the same.

It's pouring down rain — a Sydney springtime storm. I head to the train, bags heavy with produce; I’m cooking dinner for friends. I walk down the steps of Newtown Station when a man ahead of me, walking down towards the platforms, stumbles backwards. I recognise that this man hasn’t just clumsily tripped. He leans back onto the step, a broken cigarette by his foot.

I walk down to face him. He looks forward; his gaze is one that sees the world through thick, stained glass. He didn’t hurt his head in the fall, but his eyes are heavy with sadness for days.

‘Hey, are you okay? Do you need a hand?’

He looks at me, voice breaking: ‘Yes, I really need a hand, I really need a hand’. He reaches out his arm and I close my fingers tight around his smoke-stained palm. He remains seated, gripping my hand tight. We’re holding on to each other and I imagine how stormy his world is. I stand firm.


"Later, I'll walk into the nearest pub in a daze and wash my hands. It feels symbolic somehow. An attempt to cleanse myself. From what? Why?"  

I ask him where's he's going. He replies he's heading to Station Street. In Newtown? ‘Yes,' he says, 'I need to go home. I just want to sleep.’ 

‘Well, this is Newtown Station, so I can see how you made that mistake.’ I try to make light of the situation. I want to make sure he hasn’t broken anything. ‘Can you stand up?’

‘Yes, I'm lost, I want to go home’.

‘It’s okay. I’ll take you. You’ve got my