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|
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