Lifestyle

Life As I Know It: Ashleigh Cummings

Australian actress and activist Ashleigh Cummings - star of television series NOS4A2 (which premieres on AMC UK on August 13th) and upcoming movie The Goldfinch (in cinemas September 2019) - shares her journey in sustainability so far and how her travels and adventures have helped shape her thoughts on climate change and the planet.
By Eco-Age
11.08.19

Lead Image: Photo by Glendyn Ivin

 

You can probably guess the ways in which I try to live sustainably. I purchase Ugly Produce; try to lead a zero-waste lifestyle (and rarely succeed in doing so); eat a plant-based+organic+seasonal+local diet; buy in bulk; only ever buy second-hand clothes; pick up five pieces of trash a day; email companies incessantly about their process and products; divest from fossil-fuel-supporting companies; use a Guppyfriend washing bag; DIY most cleaning and bathroom supplies; and purchase carbon offsets to help counter my inevitable footprint (etc, etc).

I have been uncompromising with my press appearances, solely sporting eco-friendly and ethical products and apparel, and that’s been made possible by my stylist (@lauraleajones), hair artist (@ericka_verrett) and makeup artist (@kateydenno) - explore their Instagram pages for more info!

Oftentimes I am imperfect, occasionally it’s completely grueling, and periodically I feel guilty for inconveniencing others with my requests - but these small bothers are ultimately in service of something mighty important. 

Sometimes, however, I become so absorbed in the statistics, the science and the day-to-day of sustainable living, that I unknowingly sever the umbilical cord between my efforts and the spark from which they were ignited - my deeper ‘why’. So that’s what I shall discuss in this short and swirling dissertation on my Life As I Know It.

Image: My parents always encouraged a culture of curiosity in our family through regular interplay with diverse environs and communities (both at home and abroad!). Apparently I made this face a lot.. (photo by mum)

 

Infancy

Truthfully, participation in sustainability wasn’t an active component of my childhood. My parents hailed from an age and domain where awareness around such issues was limited and undiscussed. However, I was born and raised in the Middle East where poverty occupied a significant arena within the social terrain, so I remember learning to appreciate what I had, never throwing out food or belongings. We didn’t live excessively but we did travel often, and I think regular exposure to the diverse natural spectacles of the earth in combination with my parents’ compassionate and curious spirits fostered a framework within me that was braced perfectly for the sustainability issue. They taught me how to truly SEE the world, in both its intricacies and its immensities, and I think witnessing and engaging with things in that way has been a key constituent of my connection to the cause…

Image: The Intricate (Spiderwebs on a New Zealand beach - photo by me)

The Intricate

I was about 5 years' old when we visited Thailand and my father sat quietly in front of a flower with me for 30 odd minutes. He encouraged me to describe it, to smell it, to touch it and wholly take in its beauty. He spoke about how from one angle it looked like a dragon and from another it appeared to be a withered and unhappy old man. Our lives are so fast-paced and focused upon our pursuits that it’s easy to overlook and under-appreciate the miracles that bloom before us every day; miracles that are so worthy of cherishing and protecting. 

Image: My dad and me during the aforementioned adventure in Thailand. We've since ditched plastic straws of course.. (Photo by mum?)

The Immense

Camping expeditions to the Arabian desert are like little petri dishes where ‘Connection’ cultures rapidly and ‘Perspective' imprints upon you enduringly. There’s the magnitude of it - the dizzying expanse, the archaic rock structures, the ceaseless sky - and the smallness of us. My sister and I would find fossils of shells and small fish from a time when that very desert was submerged underwater. We’d climb bridges formed by lava that had frozen in place after a volcano erupted in that region however many million years ago. There were cobras and scorpions who conducted their daily activities around us, and in their presence, I didn’t feel invincible. I was just another impermanent piece of the puzzle… 

Image: Life in the limitless Saudi desert, circa 2001

All of this culminated in the understanding that I often placed myself at the center of the world, when really I was a part of it - a deeply important part, but no more or less important than the next one. I think, as a species, we have adopted a predominantly ego-centric manner of interacting; one that extends beyond our hardwiring for survival. Our societies and businesses are built on what we can gain, how we can profit, and minimise discomfort in the immediate without much regard for the long-term implications. But the issue of sustainability is larger than our individual and man-made plights, and addressing it won’t always be ‘comfortable’. In the desert, I was reminded that this world existed before us and will exist long after us… and what a terrible thing it is to disrespect and disfigure it; to allow indifference to get in the way of our appreciation for this gift and to allow ignorance, inaction and self-interest to destroy it for others. 

Image: The Immense - Yosemite National Park with my boyfriend and fellow earth-lover/adventurer, Aaron.

Distillation

Later in life, I acquired an even deeper respect and connection to the environment by spending my time between jobs living amongst tribal communities in Africa, where one’s relationship with the land is direct, and often at the heart of life itself… The Masaai tribe I was living with in Kenya was experiencing issues such as suicide and alcohol addiction in the face of climate change. Their cattle (aka their means of survival) were dying of starvation due to an unprecedented drought in the region. Later, I worked at a wildlife rehabilitation centre in the Zambian jungle where I helped to raise and reintegrate a sick monkey, Nova, whose mother was killed by poachers. And with a Berber tribe in the Moroccan Sahara, I garnered a newfound sense of humility regarding my place in this vast, vast planet.

In these landscapes, the architecture of axioms and beliefs we’ve erected around who we think we are and what we think we need simply fall away.. and life is distilled down into its most essential state. It’s just you and the planet and its inhabitants, and honouring and celebrating those extraordinary aspects of life is what matters most.

Images: (Above, Left) My Masaai brother loungin' around at home. These Kraals are built by women and are scientifically ingenious when it comes to temperature control and weather proofing. A lot of these homes were damaged or washed away by dangerous and intense flooding after I left. It’s normal to have dry and rainy seasons… but the tribe I was living with said it was becoming more and more extreme each year;  (Above, Right)  My Masaai grandfather and tribal elder at a village meeting about how to address the lack of rain and its devastating impacts upon the community; (Below) Nova and me in the Zambian jungle.. (While this looks cute, monkeys are NOT pets and I only interacted with her until she was healthy enough to be integrated into a new vervet community in the wild).

Image: When I was 19, I spent a Moroccan winter living with a nomadic Berber family in the Sahara. The woman pictured is Khadija - a powerful 17 year old who took care of the children and domestic duties while her other siblings and parents were out herding the livestock. She was as vibrant and spirited as the home she meticulously designed and created out of discarded clothing.

The Inextricable

All of these vivid and exhilarating adventures coexisted alongside some bleak and heartbreaking experiences… I recall the three-legged elephants I met as a child in a rehabilitation centre in Sri Lanka; they’d stepped on undetonated mines that remained in the ground after the civil war. My dad befriended a beggar who dragged himself across the street because he had no legs for the same reason. We returned to Saudi where bombings and shootings were more than a weekly occurrence, and it terrified and baffled me that we could do be doing such things to each other.

Image: I spent the first half of this year attending college in Morocco and later stayed with another Berber tribe - this time, in the Atlas mountains.

Image: A journal entry from when I was 19 and living with a nomadic Berber tribe in the Moroccan Sahara (khubz = bread!)

And the reason I’m speaking about war in an article about sustainability, is that - to me - they are inextricably connected. It seems to me that a significant part of the destruction that occurs on our planet - whether it be towards the environment, animals or other humans - arises from a disengagement with essential values, either consciously or unconsciously. I believe in compassion, I believe in equity, in care, community and in connection - for all members of this ecosystem we operate within. Sustainability is not just a practice for me, it’s a value synonymous with respect and love and this is the place from which I choose (or at least, try) to engage all life - including myself. I’m entirely imperfect and despite my fierce passion, I have ended up with two shiny new plastic spoons this week - but beating myself up about it is futile, so I just keep trying. 

 

Image: At the Elle x Conservation International Gala, wearing ethical and eco-friendly Studio One Eighty Nine. This outfit was hand-woven + assembled by various communities in India, Ghana + Burkina Faso using recycled cotton + natural dyes (photo by Getty)

I do want to emphasise that this lens of living isn’t limited to people who can travel to remote locations, or who are more comfortable existing without showers and cell service for 3 months than they are with Instagram and pop-culture. Despite what these images and this article may suggest, my life in the U.S. is characterised by escape rooms with my friends and an arguably unhealthy obsession with Elton John (I’ve definitely seen Rocketman seven times at the cinemas). Sometimes I wear linen but most often look like “a colourblind 5-year-old heading off to kindergarten/joining the circus”, according to my boyfriend. This compassionate place of operating and interacting with others and our environment is accessible and universal to everyone. And truthfully, I’ve found life to be far more meaningful and fulfilling when I’m swimming along that particular current, looking through that particular lens. There is an invisible conduit that inherently connects us to our earth and each other, and ALL parties are actually enriched - indelibly and immeasurably - when we acknowledge, nurture and protect it.

 

All photos by Ashleigh unless otherwise stated.

Catch Ashleigh in NOS4A2 on AMC UK from August 13th 2019. 

The Goldfinch is in cinemas September 13th (US) and September 27th (UK). 

Read more inspiring stories from our 'Life as I know it' series.

Life As I Know It: Ashleigh Cummings