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Sunday 17 September 2023

A Voice for Country: saying 'Yes' to Indigenous ecological wisdom

When I was a teenager, I would go for long contemplative walks in the bush that still surrounds the small town in which I was raised.  This was, and remains, punnilerpanna country even though most all of the punnilerpanna were killed during the frontier conflicts of the 1820s. So, when I was a teenager, even though I knew little of that specific history, I would talk to the ancestral spirits who dwelt in the landscape. ‘Hello, cousin Wallaby’, I would say, ‘how’s the grazing today?’ Or, ‘greetings, Auntie River Gum, getting enough water?’. And they would answer. Not in English, mind, nor even in the lost language of the punnilerpanna. But, if you had the ears to hear, if you had the heart of a contemplative, you could hear them acknowledge and affirm your presence: the appropriateness of your being there in the matrix of that dreaming. For when I came to the bush as a kid, I came not to harm or destroy, as the colonists had done, but simply to commune and to learn. That is what contemplation means, in this tradition. To bathe in the ancestral voices that are forever alive and flowing about you as you walked through sacred country.  But also to learn the way of country—especially its ethic of kinship, of mutual care and reciprocity—that her ways might be imitated and passed on to others.

'Ancestors II' by Sarrita King
For the voices of the dead punnilerpanna were alive in that landscape. The echoes of their sorrow at all that had befallen them in the 1820s, certainly. But there are strains, also, of a yet more ancient choir. A choir of creator-ancestors, the powerful hybid beings—partly human, partly animal—that formed the landscape and now speak from it with wisdom and instruction for anyone who will listen.  These ancestral choirs sing a song of lament concerning the way in which country has been wounded, even crucified, under the impact of European colonisation. But that is not all you will discern in their song. For they sing, also, of the perseverance of life through death; indeed, of the necessity of death and loss to the creation of new life. They sing about the power of compost, and of electricity, that quantum-level medium for both life and communication. They sing about not giving up, even when the chips are most definitely down in the more-than-human world, and life seems spent. 

Sadly, much of the public conversation about the Statement from the Heart and the Voice to Parliament has failed to listen to the song of country, to the cadences of this ancestral choir. Arguments about whose voices need to be heard (or not) in the national constitution and around Canberra very often seem to completely overlook the fact that a voice for Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people implies a voice for country. For we are country’s custodians. We have managed and looked after this country for 5000 generations.  Country is not, and has never been, ‘wilderness’ as a European philosophy would imagine it. Country is not a human-free landscape where ‘nature’ grows wild and according to its own devices. Country is a place where human beings dwell in a symbiotic relationship with our feathered, furred, and scaled cousins. Country is our home, our dwelling place, our mother, father, sister and brother, our kin.  We therefore have a place within it and exercise a sacred vocation of responsibility for it. For country is the arena in which a radically reciprocal compassion is actualised. The dreaming lore that belongs to each particular patch of country and encoded, in songs and rituals handed down from elder to catechumen, are primarily about how to live sustainably, fruitfully, and compassionately within those places: country we are born to, country we carry in our hearts, country for whose flourishing we take responsibility, from the moment we are initiated to the day we die.  This is the way we lived in this country before colonists arrived. By practising a compassion that extended far beyond our human kin, embracing also rock and river and plant and animal in such a manner that country might flourish, not just for today, but for the 5000 generations to come.

What has happened in the last 235 years, however, has been catastrophic. The genocide visited upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has been accompanied by an ecocide visited upon country. According to the Ecological Society of Australia, we lead the world when it comes to species extinction. Since the arrival of Europeans, over 100 species of animals and birds have become extinct and, as of 2019, 1790 species are listed as threatened with extinction. Major threats are invasive species (82% of species), ecosystem modification (74%), agriculture (57%), human disturbance (38%), and climate change (35%). Well-funded protected areas such state reserves and national parks certainly aid recovery, but 52% of species face threats outside protected areas. The Society estimates that Australia needs to invest $1.69 billion per year to recover threatened species through coordinated efforts across jurisdictions. The current level of investment is only $122 million per year, which means that Australia’s extinction crisis will only deepen in the decades to come.  

On the 18th of March this year, the ABC reported the discovery of a mass fish kill in the Darling River near Menindee in NSW's far west. The kill included several million bony bream, golden perch, silver perch and Murray cod. The overall volume of the kill completely eclipsed similar kills in 2018 and 2019 and was caused by low oxygen levels in the water after recent flooding, combined with atmospheric temperatures in the 40s (Celsius). Previous fish kills were apparently caused by drought and massive algae blooms. Menindee Local Aboriginal Land Council director Michelle Kelly is quoted as saying ‘the river is our lifeblood’,  but clearly that lifeblood is in deep trouble. Joy Becker, an associate professor with the University of Sydney, is quoted as saying that fish kill events could occur due to a sudden, severe or prolonged drop in water quality. "Ultimately, fish kill events happen because the quality of the environment cannot sustain fish life," she said. "Causes of fish kills can be environmental, chemical, or possibly related to infectious disease agents including opportunistic pathogens or a combination of all these factors."  Which is another way of saying that the mismanagement of country is to blame.  Barkandji elders have been saying so for decades, but their pleas have clearly fallen on deaf ears.  Signs of the ecocide that accompanies the genocide.

Similarly, with the management of bushlands, our mobs successfully used fire to farm both forests and grasslands for thousands of years. Using a range of techniques, now collectively known as cool-burning, we used fire to both mitigate against destructive, catastrophic, wildfires but also to cultivate food-plants that would provide for healthy and abundant populations of animals and birds.   Unfortunately, with the coming of European colonists, these lands have been mostly ‘cleared’ of both the people who knew this country best and the techniques we used to sustain its life. Fire-farming and loose-soil agriculture has been replaced by the mass-production of beef, lamb, wool and grain crops.  The importation of millions of cattle and sheep has resulted in the compaction of soil structures, with the consequence that water can no longer penetrate the soil substructure as it once did, and so it dries out and becomes less fertile.  Crop and herd farming has also massively reduced general biodiversity, with the twin consequence that, as many species of both plant and animal are already endangered or extinct, exponentially greater levels of extinction become all the more likely.  At the same time, surviving forests have been neglected as places that needed to be managed, with the consequence that bushfires of the catastrophic kind that we witnessed in late 2019/early 2020 are likely to occur more and more as the planet warms. Those fires destroyed over 19 million hectares of mainly forests and woodlands. In several places, the fires burned so hot that even the deep substructure of the soil was effected, bringing on a condition known as hydrophobia which prevents such soil from ever supporting the growth of plant life again.  The fires also killed well over a billion native animals,  a great many of which died because they could not find a way through the fences erected by pastoralists to keep their domestic animals from roaming. More signs of the ecocide that accompanies the genocide.

Certain parts of the bible talk about ecocide in terms of a 'defilement' of the land. Let’s consider just one small section at the end of Leviticus chapter 18 (vs 24-30), a chapter that appears, at first glance, to be primarily concerned with sex. Here it is, from the NRSV:

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, for by all these practices the nations I am casting out before you have defiled themselves. Thus the land became defiled; and I punished it for its iniquity, and the land vomited out its inhabitants. But you shall keep my statutes and my ordinances and commit none of these abominations, either the citizen or the alien who resides among you (for the inhabitants of the land, who were before you, committed all of these abominations, and the land became defiled); otherwise the land will vomit you out for defiling it, as it vomited out the nation that was before you. For whoever commits any of these abominations shall be cut off from their people. So keep my charge not to commit any of these abominations that were done before you, and not to defile yourselves by them: I am the LORD your God.

The ’defilement’ in the first line refers to sexual practices which are seen, by the editors of Leviticus, as fundamentally abusive. These include various forms of unfaithfulness to one’s marriage partner along with intra-family incest, each of which would accord, broadly, with our contemporary standards also. But the list of forbidden relations ends with a condemnation of what has been called ‘cultic sex’, that is, sexual relations which take place within a religious framework designed to guarantee the fertility of one’s land. This is a concept considerably more foreign to the modern imagination. In the ancient middle-east, you see, there existed forms of religion which posited a close symbolic connection between the human body, especially the fertile female body, and the fertile body of the land. You can find traces of it in any number of ancient sources, but also here in the bible. In this particular passage, the editors clearly assume that such a connection exists, even as they condemn the phenomenon of cultic sex. At the social level they are concerned that cultic sex is inherently abusive because the people who served as sexual partners at the shrines were invariably slaves who earned money for their owners. At the more complex symbolic level, they are concerned that abusing the bodies of cultic slaves is a metaphor for the abuse and misuse of the land.

For the land has agency in this passage. It is not just a thing that is without animus or life or intention. She is able to expel, to ‘vomit’ out from her body, any object or person that might threaten her life.  She is able to fight back against abuse.

Surely there is a parable here for those of us who stand at the edge of an environmental apocalypse. If the land is truly alive and has agency, as both the Hebrew and Indigenous imaginations would have it, then our continued abuse of country will have its consequences. There will come a time when we have so poisoned the well on which we depend that our own lives will be at risk. Country may well vomit us out, judging that our rapacious presence is ultimately a threat to her capacity for fecundity and renewal. 

There is a little-known appendix in the 2017 Report of the Referendum Council (which also gave us the Statement from the Heart and the roadmap known as ‘Voice, Treaty, Truth’) entitled ‘Rom Watangu – the Law of the Land’. It was written by the late, great, Yolgnu elder, Dr Yunupingu. I’d like to read just one paragraph from that work:

There is always something wanted by someone who knows nothing of our land or its people. There is always someone who wants us to be like them, to give up our knowledge and our laws, or our land. There is always someone who wants to take something from us. I disapprove of that person, whoever he or she is. There is no other way for us. Our laws tell us how to live and lead in the proper way. Others will always seek to interrupt my thinking, but I will tell the difference between their ways and my laws, which are the only ones to live by. I am mindful of the continuing attempts to change all that is in us, and I know that it is not workable at all. It cannot work. We are covered by a law of another kind and that law is lasting and alive, the law of the land, rom watangu – my backbone.

Here the great man is speaking from the very heart of his Yolgnu culture and spirituality. His words remind us that any formal voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is always, already, a voice for country. For those of us who are Indigenous do not speak primarily for ourselves, and our own merely human interests. We speak for country—for its spectacular plethora of plants, animals, waterways, landcapes, heavenly bodies. We speak the wisdom we have seen and heard from walking in country, the wisdom whispered in our ears by the Old Ones, the ancestral creators who yet live and are one with its body. We speak of the necessity of caring for country, after the manner that country cares for us, so that we might continue to share a life of joy and abundance together.  We speak of the pain and the suffering of country under settler colonial management, and the need for a compassionate response from human beings so that country may be healed of its grievous wounds. 

In all this, First Peoples acknowledge that we are too few to accomplish this healing on own own. Especially when so many of our young people languish in schools and gaols and other institutions designed to draw the very life from one’s spirit. We recognise that healing must be the responsibility of everyone who now lives in these lands, whatever the legitimacy or illegitimacy of that presence historically or ethically.  But that is why the call to support a body which can offer a more substantial voice for our people is so centrally important. A voice for us, however conceived, is also a Voice for country. We are her voice, the voice of our mother earth. An invitation to say ‘Yes’ to the voices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is also, therefore, an opportunity to say ‘yes’ to country and to exercise a commensurate compassion for country.  If you hear that voice at all, even faintly as a whispering in the trees or in your hearts, I beg you to take is seriously. To listen, to learn, and to act for our common future in this communion of being to which we all belong, whether we are aware of it or not.

Garry Worete Deverell

St Michael’s Uniting Church, Naarm/Melbourne,
October 10, 2023

Sunday 3 September 2023

Voice of Country, Voice of the Divine

Texts: Isaiah 55.10-13; Mark 9.2-8

Last night I made an airport run to pick up Lil. The plane was running late, as usual, so I parked in the official waiting area which is adjacent to a large field of grasslands. No doubt, before too long, the grasslands will be lost to parking or some other kind of built encroachment. But, for the moment, the grass survives. And so do the wallabies that depend on its being there.  Last night a mob of about six or seven of them chose to graze right in front of me, occasionally raising their heads when there was a loud noise or a flash of lights, but otherwise entirely engrossed in getting some nutrition on board. The mob remained there peacefully until a carload of humans decided that snapping some photos was the thing to do, at which point the wallabies bounded away.

There's a little parable in this, for those who have the ears to hear. The divine is like these wallabies grazing on the edge of town. They are unique and beautiful in form and movement. They move together as one, each individual tuned in to the extended senses of the mob as a whole organism. They are one in purpose. They take what they need from country, but no more. They live together in peace, looking out for each other. They have no interest in fighting other species. When danger arrives, they move on. They look for another place of safety. Most interesting of all, to my mind, is the fact that wallabies have no loud voice or call of their own. Their vocal cords are barely there, so they communicate by making soft clicking noises, or by gesture or posture, or by pounding the ground with their feet. So wallabies are truly creatures of the margins. They live on the edge of town. They communicate with still, small, voices. They move on when they sense danger.  There is surely something of the divine in this marginality. For have we not exiled the divine voice to the margins of our human concerns, to the darkness at the edge of our towns?

To my mind, the piece that is missing in the shouty debate about the Voice to Parliament is the relatively still, quiet, voice of country: of the lands and waterways which, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander dreaming stories, are fecund with the wisdom of the ancestral beings who gave life to us all. We hear these ancestral voices in birdsong and the breezes though the trees, in the rush and trickle of water, and in the clicking of wallabies as they talk to each other. Their voices speak to us of Anaditj,* the 'way things are', and our right and proper place in this way. They show us, if we will trouble to learn their language, how to live sustainably in country as kin or family, rather than annexing, using and exploiting country as though it were our slave. The voices of the ancestors show us how to take from country what we need, but no more. They reveal to us the dangers of making ourselves kings over country rather than citizens of her commonwealth.  

It is intriguing to me, as a trawloolway man, that the wisdom of the Christian Scriptures so often aligns with the wisdom of country. Consider, for example, the last part of Isaiah 55, where the word of God is compared to the rain and snow that water the earth and make it fruitful. The joyful return of the exiled Judahites to their own land is compared to the restoration of a ravaged and neglected countryside to its former glory. The trees are said to 'clap their hands' and the mountains and the hills to 'burst into song' when country is restored. There is divinity in country, you see. When country is alive and well, when we as human beings are singing with its songlines rather than against them, the presence of the divine is easily discerned and celebrated. But when we ignore the voice of country, when we can barely remember its ways, country languishes and then we languish. And the still, small, voice of the divine is exiled to edge of town.

When the divine voice calls out, atop a mountain in St. Mark's Judea, saying that Jesus is the beloved of God and that we ought to listen to him, Aboriginal readers hear a call to listen to country. The usual historical-critical reading of the story is that Jesus, having preached and healed his way around Galilee, here consults the law and the prophets to figure out what he ought to do next.  The law and the prophets, here represented by Moses and Elijah, tell him to turn his face toward Jerusalem, and to do so in the confidence that his death at the hands of evil men will nevertheless reveal a persisting divinity, a fundamental perseverance for life, that even death cannot overcome. Thus, the transfiguration is understood to be St Mark's version of the resurrection. A momentary shining forth of the promise of things to come.  Which is all well and good, if you think this story is primarily about human beings.

Walls of Jerusalem national park
But this trawloolway reader thinks there is something else going on here. For the story takes place in the mountains, which are usually alive with ancestral presence. And there Jesus meets with the 'old people', ancestor-creators, who share with him their knowledge of the ways things are, of the dreaming, of things that were, and are, and are yet to be. And Peter recognises that they are divine beings, and that Jesus is a divine being, for he proposes to make a tabernacle for each of them, that symbol of divine dwelling from the history of the Exodus. And the voice that addresses the disciples, at the apotheosis of this strange encounter, comes not from a person at all, but from a cloud. It is the voice of country, of the other-than-human world, who identifies Jesus as it's voice, it's kin, it's wisdom made flesh.

So, as the referendum on a voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people approaches, let us indeed listen to Jesus. For, in his parables, he speaks for and from country, he speaks of country as the place where the will and way of the divine can be discerned. Whether his metaphors are taken from the birds of the air, or the fig tree, or the making of pearls, Jesus assumes that country is our teacher. And when he speaks of himself as the seed that must die to live and be all the more fruitful, he identifies himself with country (Jn 12.24).  That is why, in the theo-poetics of native peoples, Christ and country stand in for one another, represent one another, speak for one another.

That is why I say to you now: to listen to Jesus is to listen to country. To listen to country is to listen to the oldest and the wisest of our First Nations elders. To listen to the oldest and wisest of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders is to give country a voice. And that, I would submit, is the most important thing to realise about the coming referendum. For, in the colony of Australia, we lead the world in destroying our environment and endangering the future of our furred and scaled and feathered kin. It is time we stopped. It is time we listened. It is time we wised up.

Garry Worete Deverell

* 'Anaditj' is a concept in  Adnyamathanha language, brought to my attention by Auntie Denise Champion in her book of the same name.

First preached at a gathering of SCM Melbourne,
at St Stephen's Church, Richmond,
on Sept 3, 2023