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Outlier

Earth-writing as survival strategy

Rock figs and eucalypts on the steep sandstone ridge above the Shoalhaven River at Bundanon.


I HAVE BEEN doing this every day now, hiking then scrambling and climbing alone up through the sandstone cliffs and boulders until I reach the last lone rock tower. Most of the time I feel calm and strong, at ease on the rocks and scree shimmering with heat. A few times I fall. The sandstone ridge runs east–west, rising to a hundred metres and with the river on all sides except the north-west. The lower northern slope is dry eucalypt forest, blackthorn and cycads, the southern slope temperate rainforest. The rocky bones of the ridgetop itself are formed of shelves, overhangs and a chain of twenty-metre towers. The sandstone is covered in lichens, mosses, climbing ferns, rock orchids and occasional swathes of yellow-green tussock. It is late summer and there has been little rain.

It is meant to be a meditation, myself being fully present in the time and place, a practice to address the unhelpful voices in my head. It is deliberately a little bit dangerous: I want to displace meaningless trivial worry with some level of real danger and fear. The uncertainty means I have to engage vulnerably with whatever strength and judgement I have in the moment. Each day, when my mind veers inwards to the circularity of past and future recriminations, a creature will come to signal my way back. Many times it is birds – fairy wrens, black cockatoos, wagtails – a flicker of blue in the leaves, slow wingbeats and a wailing call, a dance in front of me on the dirt. I think: they know, they know when I need the sign, and they come. Or I think: it’s me catching myself, and when I look outwards again of course I just see that bird.

When I believe the birds know, and they come to help me, I am reassured, re-centred, my presence here reinscribed into legitimacy. I feel at home, in place, without any need for performance. It is not the individual birds knowing; it is the birds as messengers. Many, many times Aboriginal people have shown me this in the bush: there are always signs, and it is necessary, important and responsible to watch for them and pay attention. Birds, animals, wind, mist – sometimes rock, water, smoke.

I have had many lessons from Aboriginal people in different circumstances around the country, and I clearly still have a lot to learn. One of the lessons is that stories told to me by people are their stories, not mine to retell. My responsibility is to find what the heart of the story means to me. I have many times been shown that deep connection to what people call ‘country’ means the simultaneously embodied and ontological relationship to simultaneously evolutionary and sacred ancestors. And those ancestors extend in a long lineage beyond the manifestation of human form. For people born from that country it is a completely clear and intimate relationship. For other Aboriginal people, often very aware that they are visitors on others’ country, there is often still a strong and clear connection.

For whitefellas of whatever colour, it is an open question.

Climbing, and again lost in the unresolved stories, I reach a point where I have to choose between routes, and three things happen simultaneously: as I focus towards one possible pathway, a sudden scatter of dry leaves and dust reveals a large lace monitor now scrambling up a slender bloodwood trunk. As my eyes follow it up, a wedge-tailed eagle drifts silently in just above the tree canopy. I squat down to watch. There is an infinite variation of brown-red-black-yellow in the leaf litter at my feet. The universe slowly orients into position around the big lizard; many small birds materialise, searching for insects and nectar through the branches. The calls of many others radiate away through the forest. I stay for what feels like a long time, the goanna motionless above me, the eagle sweeping in and out of view.

It feels completely comfortable and normal. As on other occasions, my view of my own body, one arm resting on a bare knee, brings images of all the other humans who have paused here through millennia. This is a biologically rich place – river, forest, rocky escarpment providing shelter – a good place for people as well as all the other beings showing themselves around me. In the tens of thousands of years of human presence, many human feet have walked in this place before, many others have paused and watched and listened.

 

I AM TRAINED as a geographer: geo-grapher, earth-writer. At the ninetieth birthday celebration of the Geographic Society of NSW, guest speaker and Aboriginal MP Linda Burney said: ‘The greatest and oldest geographers are indigenous peoples, and what geographers and Australian Indigenous peoples have in common is a love of country.’ Many geographers might agree with that statement, but we also know of the discipline’s deep implication in the processes of colonisation. The London offices of the Royal Geographical Society, where many of us attend conferences, are right across the road from the Albert Memorial, the great white queen’s husband attended by kneeling and naked native figures from the Empire. I personally embody these contradictions: I was not born in Australia but have no rights in the country of my birth. My ancestors were part of the British colonisation of India, but by the time of my mother’s generation they were materially poor and had more Indian social contacts than British. We left India for Australia, about which we knew nothing, when I was two years old.

The country I write this on, where this earth-writing is done, is one thousand hectares of forest, rocky escarpments and deep sweeping river, with a small part ‘cleared’ and ‘settled’. The Shoalhaven River wraps around three sides, and it links westward into the stone country of Morton National Park. One archaeological survey revealed surprisingly little physical trace of past Aboriginal presence. But large pulses sweep this country: great floods periodically wash clean the banks and terraces even hundreds of metres from the river, covering them in new silt deposits. For millennia, fire was a regular visitor, its traces still visible in old trees high on the ridge. It is just downstream from the highest point of tidal influence, so a daily and monthly ocean rhythm also washes through. When I walk across fields like the ones here, long colonised, I am often uncomfortable, unsure of my welcome. But at the river, where the power of flow and the intensity of life are strong, and high on the rocky escarpments where there is no place for cattle or crops or houses, autochthonous presence radiates out. The shrill rise and fall of the cicada chorus, the haze of heat shimmering over the rock, the glitter and flash of sunlight through tea-coloured water, all feel like communication, like communion. I feel small, humble, careful, respectful, alert. Ready both to respond and to be still.

There is much discussion of how modern humans may be the dominant force in global change. One suggested start date is 1610, marked by a drawdown of global carbon dioxide triggered by the reforestation of the Americas following the deaths of millions of Indigenous people. That change, and the earthly response to that change, including dramatic increases in extreme weather events and cataclysmic bushfires, present paradoxical challenges. On the one hand there is a strong argument that modern humans are the most powerful force on the planet, and on the other, daily evidence that the planet has unprecedented power to create human and other suffering. In both of these there is room for the complementarities of humility and agency, addressing both our hubris and our vulnerabilities. The recognition of our insignificance in the scales of planetary change and evolutionary time is coupled with our ability to act in the interstices of those vast forces, our potential to care.

 

IN AUSTRALIA, CATACLYSMIC changes came with colonisation: human deaths and dispossession linked to vast ecological change. The 230 years of colonial-settler presence is less than 0.5 per cent of Australia’s human history, but in that short window Australia has experienced the highest number of mammal extinctions of any country in modern times. The key causes of these extinctions are debated, but all essentially derive from the displacement of Aboriginal caring for country by a set of much more exploitative practices underpinned by a command-and-control mentality from the colonisers. The colonial impact not only violently displaced Indigenous peoples but also displaced the intellectual structures of the continent, structures that evolved with the environment in all its age and variability. This colonial history underlies the persistent inequities that now face many Aboriginal people.

Parallel to that history of colonial devastation is a story of strength and resilience. People who live on the margins can sometimes have unique strengths. As Patrick Nunn has demonstrated in The Edge of Memory (Bloomsbury Sigma, 2018), people have in the deep past adapted to rapid and significant environmental changes, responses that were reflected differently all over the world. Now, an ongoing history of injustice and inadequate policy response continue to disadvantage many Indigenous people. Some cultural characteristics may mean that Indigenous communities can be well placed to develop effective adaptive responses to environmental and social threats, and Indigenous knowledge systems can contribute significantly to understanding environmental change.

After the almost continent-wide displacement of Aboriginal people from their homelands, social justice movements and legislative change since the 1970s have resulted in a significant return of lands to some Aboriginal owners. Today, more than 20 per cent of the land area of Australia is under some form of Aboriginal tenure. By far, the majority of these returned lands are in regions that are remote from population centres, mostly in central and northern Australia. This reflects what has been described as the ‘residual lands hypothesis’ for the location of national parks: both Aboriginal lands and conservation areas are located in regions that are not useful to the majority population. Such a pattern is clearly inadequate as a social justice response for the majority of Aboriginal people who live in other parts of Australia, including the densely settled coastal and south-east regions. But considered in terms of caring for environments, those lands are complementary to both the conservation reserve estate with which they overlap (20 per cent) and the very large pastoral and agricultural holdings (51 per cent) of the country. In many places, those three tenures are contiguous, offering significant opportunities for cross-boundary approaches to environmental care. The thoughts and actions of the three groups linked to those estates – Aboriginal people, conservation managers and farmers (who are sometimes all the same people) – are possibly key to a continental approach to successful environmental outcomes, and the consequent social outcomes.

In Call of the Reed Warbler (UQP, 2017), farmer Charles Massy explores his own journey in identifying the modern human separation from what he calls ‘organic mind’, and the impact of his changing understanding on his own farming practices. In The Eye of the Crocodile (ANU Press, 2012), environmental philosopher Val Plumwood used the term ‘ecological animism’ for a similar sensibility. Plumwood provided a unique perspective in decentering human agency from her experience of entering the food chain at the bottom rather than the top – becoming prey, becoming food, in an attack by a saltwater crocodile. Tanya Tagaq, Inuit musician and activist, commented in a YouTube interview with Canada’s Studio Q in 2014: ‘We’re the same. We’re flesh, we’re meat, we’re so stupid to think that we’re not.’

As Tagaq’s comments and many other examples suggest, this indicates that many First Nations peoples, including many Aboriginal people, see themselves in a continuum with other species (and non-animate elements as well), existing in a shared space where all have agency, roles and responsibilities. In contrast, most modern societies see humans as the apex of a hierarchy, with other species cascading below them in significance and agency. Farmers and conservation managers can see animals as a fundamental human resource, or alternatively as a threat to the production of that resource. Conservation managers might also see animals as having intrinsic rights at the species level, and the animal rights movement extends this to the individual animal.

While Indigenous and local communities have particular cultural characteristics adapted to conditions of risk and uncertainty, modern and modernising societies have quite different cultural characteristics that might make them particularly vulnerable to rapid and unwanted change. Modern societies attempt to control change, to maintain stability, to impose a form of order that facilitates predictable outcomes. So modern societies now carry with them not only the technologies and knowledge for control but the forms of thought that make the assumption of control seem inevitable.

The present geological epoch somewhat controversially being labelled the Anthropocene follows the Holocene, the period of relatively benign (to humans) and stable conditions that enabled agriculture. Geographer Lesley Head has argued in ‘Contingencies of the Anthropocene: Lessons from the “Neolithic”’ in The Anthropocene Review in 2014 that agriculture, while typically seen as a threshold moment in human history, is in itself a hugely variable concept with particular characteristics overlapping with and deeply embedded in what are seen as hunter-gatherer societies, the supposed precursors and opposites of agriculturalists. And hunter-gatherer-forager societies have persisted across the globe, with continuities of ancient practice as well as aggressive innovation in response to change. One of the risks of embracing the concept of the Anthropocene is that it tends to entrench human exceptionalism, human dominance, rather than recognising our vulnerability, and perhaps our present ignorance. Arguing from Indigenous perspectives, Soren Larsen and Jay Johnson in Being Together in Place (University of Minnesota Press, 2017) write beautifully of the genealogical position of humans as the ‘junior sibling’, embedded in a reality far greater than us and which we imperfectly understand. They argue that embracing a position of vulnerability brings humans into proper relationship with place and the myriad other beings and relationships always entangled in places. They argue for openly looking into the eyes of others from a position of receptivity, to relearn our place, not insisting on a position of mastery.

 

SINCE I WAS young I have been a planner. I started in my teens, perhaps because of the unpredictability and dysfunction of my childhood, attempting to order an unfolding future. I made lists of books to read, exercises, things to learn and understand, ways to ‘improve’ myself, just like Jay Gatsby. I accumulated qualifications, strings of letters after my name to prove my worth, my mastery of these different knowledges. I still do it, but I believe in it less and less. Increasingly I believe I need to accept my limitations and vulnerabilities instead of trying to hide and protect them. In my professional and personal life I routinely do not have the courage to do this.

In the bush, on country, there is no list to follow, you respond moment by moment, footstep by footstep, you respond to what is responding to you. You move, reach an impasse, retrace your steps, find another route. You put your weight on a hold on the rock face and it comes off in your hand and you slide and fall down the rock. You get hurt. The birds come. The animals come. Reminding you to be present, respectful, alert, not lost in the pointlessness of past or future failures. And, as in geography we know we are always and everywhere ‘in the field’, country is also everywhere, not just the bush. Bushfire smoke and storm winds blowing into cities, skinks poised on concrete footpaths, raucous cockatoos in urban parks – all are messengers telling us that everything can teach us. The threads in the fabric of the life and agency of country reach everywhere we are.

When I believe that the birds I notice are random occurrences that I am inscribing patterns upon, attributing meaning to, I lose my place, I become an interloper. The logical, rational, scientific frameworks help me see country in a Western way: I understand ecology, botany, animal behaviour, geology, climate patterns and how these combine to render unique biomes, habitats and smaller-scale life places. Indigenous societies also use these knowledges, and in many elements Western and Indigenous sciences are highly congruent. But the way they are commonly taught obscures my place in this. I feel (I am told) that I am looking in from outside, and that this version of country is indifferent to my presence or not, my living or not. It is an object I observe and act upon.

I notice also that when I am with other people I am mostly not good at letting myself feel the strength of country, I often veer into some kind of performance of my knowledge. I am either embarrassed by my small acts of ritual respect, or feel I have to exaggerate them. As a whitefella, I do not have any rights to the spectrum of Indigenous cultural connection and belief here, but I try to learn how those principles and practices can inform my life and behaviour as a person present on this country. At its most basic, it seems appropriate to be respectful and ready to learn from an intellectual canon that likely comprises 99.5 per cent of the continent’s human history. As Hugh Brody writes in The Other Side of Eden (Douglas & McIntyre, 2000), ‘all humans have been evolving for the same length of time’ and the Aboriginal people here have coevolved, co-operated and negotiated with country through vast climatic, ecological and social changes across an enormous time scale, and continue to do so.

Where I write this, many people have been working actively with cultural and ecological processes to help support a place for diverse life and diverse creativity. They find threads and fragments of meaning, strength and life, and help weave them together into a new fabric. Part of that fabric is in the landscape itself, woven and sewn together in new ways; part is in the sociality of the humans and non-humans here; some is taken with people to other places. It is not perfect and it is not large and they are still learning. Recently, a process was commenced to start to replace chemical weed poison and other landscape management with cultural fire, inviting the skills and knowledge of Aboriginal people back to burn this country.

Caring for country is one way we might be able to embody action, but we have to first listen to country. And fundamentally both listening to country and caring for country has to be led by Aboriginal people. Elements of the whitefella tool kit are very likely useful, likely complementary to Indigenous tool kits, in responding to a changing country. But the underlying beliefs may be more important. Non-Aboriginal people have long appropriated aspects of Aboriginal culture, and my argument here risks being another version of that. Whitefellas do not have rights to Aboriginal beliefs, but we could seriously consider the tenets of respect, humility, restraint and the agency of country to recognise that humans are not the only beings with a subject position on this planet. Reconsidering the way we tell the stories is part of this. ‘Management’ is a very different word to ‘care’.

 

LAST YEAR, WAANYI writer Alexis Wright published an extraordinary reflection called ‘Hey ancestor!’ In this prose poem she passionately excavates the power of country, unravelling the relationships between hubris and environmental catastrophe, the simultaneous arrogance and flimsiness of whitefella law and policy, ‘the little pieces of paper’.

Ancestor, you are exploding the wheelie bin. The plastic crap stuff is all over the place and flying with the seagulls in the storm, slapped amongst filthy kimbies, the polystyrene meat trays and empty beer cans, thousands spinning in the atmosphere. The poisonous fumes and acid unleashed. A wild wind is screwing off the tops of trees for kilometres around, and bashing the tree trunks into the ground. Ash clouds preceded a wall of mud water rushing over country, carrying cattle and sheep with trucks and cars past flooded houses. I am only an old man with poor eyesight, but I get the picture. Bloody oath. Country time every day.

Many people do not get the picture, not that picture. I and perhaps many others grapple with a deep psychological discomfort about our presence here: for many of us, we perhaps continue to embody the exile of the migrant, as well as the knowledge of our complicity in dispossession. Few of us eat, drink, and breathe country, walk country or sit in the dirt listening to the messengers. Instead we fill our bodies with adulterated food from all over the planet, breathe air mediated by machinery, drink water processed, purified and packaged. We walk carpeted hallways if we have to walk at all, our messages are from electronic screens, not living and sacred animals. Many Aboriginal people also have this experience.

We continue nevertheless to embody the Earth, our bodies like all other living things made up of the elements of the planet, and simultaneously strong and vulnerable. How those strengths and vulnerabilities are expressed is in part an outcome of our relative positions of privilege or precarity. I see Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal friends and co-workers simultaneously strengthened, buoyed and made happy by loving family connections and time in the bush, but also struggling with mental illnesses, with finding meaning in our lives even when we do apparently good work. Thoreau’s comment that most men (and women) lead lives of quiet desperation is persistently true.

On the sandstone tower late in the evening as the light thickens, heavy wings sound in the still air: a lone crow rows north across the river. The skyline is split diagonally: a low black silhouette of eucalypt forest and ridge; a mosaic of luminous, moonlit clouds above. In the darkening landscape there is both peace and risk: the soft dusk is gentle and quiet, but will shadow my route down through the cliffs. In recent years, and possibly for all of my life, acute depression has been a regular companion. Sometimes when I lie down on rock, my heart next to the Earth, it does not help, I am too committed to belief in my failures and limitations, unable to hear country. I cannot feel even the love of and from country.

While there are clear indicators from my childhood why I might believe those failures, I increasingly see this as reflecting my search for an unfindable home. Like many people, I have lived in scores of locations in Australia and elsewhere, so nowhere has been home. The closest I come to it is alone on the land and sea where the demands and judgements are not economic and social but ecological and spiritual. Am I competent to be in the actual physicality and sacredness of this place? Can I bring thought, creativity and strength together with vulnerability, humility and respect, to see and hear and feel country? Sometimes I feel I have almost grasped it, almost glimpsed the real meaning of my life here, a deeper layer obscured under the layers of trivia that pass for importance.

High up on the ridge and alone, the moss and lichen made slippery with afternoon rain, I find myself hyperventilating with fear as my feet repeatedly slip out from under me, sending me careering down rock faces into jumbles of boulder and branches. When I stand I am dizzy, weak, nauseated. I lean forward on the rock until my vision steadies, then climb again through the crags and overhangs. Cognitively, and also deep in my core, contradictory visions form: I am not young and my body is failing in some deep systemic way, and I am still strong and agile and can do much of what I did years ago. I climb on through the sandstone, standing above high drops, balancing down narrow inclines. Periodically the dizziness returns, or I am suddenly out of breath, lungs labouring. I wonder if there is a place on the planet where I am meant to be, and if I will find it before my molecular structure returns to its ancestors. When I steady my breath, I see I am once again surrounded by tiny forest birds, fantails, silvereyes, treecreepers.

The position of the edge, the margin, can help perspective. In fading light a path can more clearly be seen in peripheral vision, a faint trace on the edge of sight that disappears when looked at directly. Aboriginal people are marginalised in much of mainstream Australian society, but many are centred on country. Non-Aboriginal people might be centred in mainstream society, but most are marginal on country. Many whitefellas are taught to ‘take only photographs, leave only footprints’, not engaging, not competent to live from this land.

From the last sandstone rock tower, the outlier, I have both a long view across distant landscapes and a fine-grained close-up of lichened and crystalline rock structure. Water-seeking roots of rock figs twine around stone, ant armies march at my feet. Smoke rises lazily in still and distant air, forested ridges recede into blue distance. My first draft of this earth-writing is scribbled in pencil in a notebook while high up on the outlier. Graphite on paper, charcoal on rock, ochre on bark, shark tooth on shell – the marks of our ancestors and ourselves telling stories through word and image and pattern for half a million years.

If humans are the storied animal, I believe two things: we are not the only storied animal, and the stories are not our struggle to inscribe meaning on a random world, an impersonal and ecologically mechanistic landscape. Country tells stories. True stories are the beautiful, whole, purposeful world, the intent and watchful country, revealing meaning gracefully to us, if we are quiet enough to hear.

 

Author note: Very many thanks to Vanessa Cavanagh who has been a patient and persistent teacher for twenty years; and to Bundanon Trust for two artist residencies that facilitated this work.

Image courtesy of the author.


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