Stung! It’s a fascinating book about jellyfish by Lisa-ann Gershwin. Having read Seasick a few years ago, I was well aware that life in Earth’s oceans and seas is suffering deeply. Stung! is nevertheless a shocker – the human feeding frenzy, along with our wilful disregard of marine well-being, is turning this great source of life into a deathzone. With one big exception.
Beautiful, dangerous, prolific, and astonishingly ‘agile’ in the opportunistic sense beloved of politicians, jellyfish are thriving. Many are lethal, and they are everywhere. Here in Australia we are familiar with some of the deadliest. We share the water with wildly toxic box jellyfish, including the ghastly Irukandji whose sting leaves its victims begging to be put out of their pain and terror. And of course there are Portuguese men o’ war, including the small bluebottles that wash up on beaches in our area here in NSW. When I lived in Darwin I regretted the twist of fate that brought stingers to the coastal waters just in those months when the weather was hottest and we most wanted to swim.
At least we humans have a choice about whether to go for a dip or stay ashore. Fish aren’t so lucky. Consider the case of a fish farm in New Zealand. Gershwin describes an event that took place in 1998 and is paradigmatic of similar events all over the world. The fish cages are circular, the fish swim around and around, and they create a vortex. Jellyfish drift, and are sucked in. In this case, a swarm of Aurelia jellies drifted into a bay and got sucked up against the cage and trapped in the mesh. They struggled; what entered the cage was mucus laced with stinging cells. Salmon inhaled the mucus and it stung them as well as blocking their gills. They were frightened and in pain. They suffocated. The more they struggled the quicker they died, which may have been a mercy. About 56,000 salmon, weighing about 3 kilos each, died in about half an hour.
Jellyfish go with the flow. Give them a nice current like the intake pipes for a nuclear power plant and they float in by the millions. The Madras Atomic Power Station in India is not unusual: there have been numerous shut-downs owing to jellyfish clogging the cooling system. Staff learned that there were 4 million jellies over a 15-month period. In 1995-6 the plant was coping with 18 tons of jellies per month. Similar events are taking place all over the world.
There is something awesome about such ancient creatures disrupting technology that is so recent, as my friend the philosopher Michelle Bastian has pointed out. Research is beginning to tell us how they manage to be doing so well even as so many ocean creatures are on the edge of extinction. Not all jelly species are increasers, and not all the increasers are thriving everywhere, but the overall picture is one of massive expansion. The damage humans are inflicting on the oceans and seas turns out to be a fine thing for jellyfish.
Gershwin tells us that jellyfish, in all their beauty and lethality, are weeds. She defines this unexpected term in a technical way. Weeds are not just living things that thrive in places where humans don’t want them, like the prickly asparagus fern I’m always uprooting in my garden. Characteristically, weeds are versatile opportunists. They are generalists in their consumption and tolerant of a broad range of ecological conditions. They are prolific, they disperse readily, and they resist eradication. Perhaps most importantly, they thrive in disturbed habitats. In Gershwin’s words, ‘when ecosystems wobble, weeds flourish’.
As I read this description I started to shiver. There could hardly be a more perfect description of the human species.
This is us: we are generalists and opportunists. We have dispersed rapidly, we live almost everywhere and we thrive in disruption. There are two big differences between the human and jellyfish weedy ways of life. The first concerns reproductive strategies. Very briefly, there are two main types: scientists refer to them as the r and K selection strategies. One involves large parental investment and few offspring (K), the other involves large numbers of offspring and little parental investment (r). We humans are a K-selected species; jellyfish are r-selected. Human women bear one, sometimes two, children at a time. It takes years to bring an individual to maturity, nurturing, socialising and educating them. In crazy contrast, jellyfish have several modes of reproduction; they are able to hold their future offspring until conditions are right, and then release thousands or millions in a new start-up ‘bloom’.
It might be thought that K-selected species would be at a disadvantage given that their reproductive rate is relatively slow; in general they require relatively stable ecosystems. We humans are among the equilibrium-adapted species, but many of us also go for disturbance. We make up for loss of stability by our intelligence. More specifically, we have become very good at both creating disturbances which favour our opportunistic lifeway, and evading the consequences by shifting them elsewhere.
Others suffer, while we flourish, and we have systems that work to keep it that way.
Consider two recent events here in New South Wales. According to The Guardian, ‘nearly 50 new species of flora and fauna have been added without fanfare to the federal government’s list of threatened species, including nine that are critically endangered.’ Among them are mammals, lizards, birds and plants. No new funding is available to help them survive. The main cause is habitat destruction. We humans are increasing both our numbers and our patterns of consumption. Animals, plants and ecosystems suffer. At the same time, NSW is planning to abandon its legislation against land clearing. We keep ignoring connectivities, and favouring ourselves at the expense of others.
One of my favourite thinkers is the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman. He is an old man now, and while his writing sometimes seems a bit rambly, he hits the nail on the head with every book. Recently, in Moral Blindness, he turns his attention to the latest up-grade in the power of greed. He writes of the contemporary loss of moral sensibilities, and of ‘the revolt of the rich against the poor’. This revolt is generally thought to have been given a strong boost in the Regan and Thatcher eras when politicians vigorously thrashed the social contract. Their justification had a moral tenor, so let’s be clear: the hard-won laws and policies that provide safety nets for humans and protections for nonhumans are not acts of charity; they do not steal from the rich. Rather, they involve a vision of shared and mutual well-being. An ecological understanding of this vision reveals connectivities, mutualism, and the fundamental ecological fact that ‘what goes around comes around’. Laws and policies of protection promote the circulation of goods and services with the aim of shared social and environmental good. The underlying premise – that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – accords value to all.
The revolt of the rich has been accomplished by disrupting this social ecology. They claim that a social unit is a mere sum of individuals, and that social relations involve parasites and hosts. There is no circulation: it is all take, take, take. There is no social good; there is just the self-interest of hosts who want to scrape off pesky encumbrances.
This revolt is part of Bauman’s broader analysis of western modernity in which he makes it clear that our species is very diverse; not all people in all times have lived out the practices of destruction that are so powerful today. In his book Wasted Lives Bauman writes about the will to wealth of modern capitalism, with all its excess, redundancy and waste. He notes the practice of declaring everything that can’t be used for wealth to be disposable (‘collateral casualties’). From mining to high finance and beyond, anything that gets in the way (read humans; read plants, animals, ecosystems) is best discarded. The revolt denies any moral connection between consumption and waste, and self-righteously rejects constraints on making waste.
It helps to pause, to take note of the fact that we are trying to imagine the unimaginable. Waste: the oceans and seas, their capacity to sequester carbon and to produce oxygen, their capacity to support webs of life that are diverse, and their regulation of Earth’s chemistry; the atmosphere, the climate, the capacity of Earth to sustain a steady state conducive to life. All this – the very foundations of both marine and terrestrial life – all this is treated as stuff to be wasted. Wreckage creates ‘disturbances’, to use the ecological term, and almost all of us humans are being dragged along in the wake even though most of know that wreckage is neither right nor good, neither smart nor sustainable.
This brings me back to jellyfish. They thrive with disturbance, and they consume voraciously. Most creatures consume ‘down the food chain’. In general, big things eat smaller things, fast things eat slower things, and smart things eat dumber things, according to Gershwin’s non-technical explanation. But consider this strange fact: jellyfish actually eat ‘up the food chain’. In Gershwin’s words, ‘small jellyfish eat big species of clams and crabs…. Slow jellyfish eat fast species of fish and squids. Jellyfish with no brains eat species of snails and crustaceans and fish with brains.’ They eat, and they out-compete. They do this primarily because they eat the larval stages of other creatures. In fact, they take over whole ecosystems, eliminating the competition and becoming top predators. They eat each other, too, so they can keep on eating long after having eliminated almost everything else. Jellyfish are also capable of de-growth. When the going gets tough they shrink and cut back on consumption.
If jellyfish could have designed a disturbance agent to make life better for themselves and worse for others, they might well have come up with humans. We’re doing a great job of making life good for them, and together, as if in collusion, we’re accelerating irreversible changes. When jellyfish take over a destabilised ecosystem, a formerly diverse body of water ‘flips’ to jellyfish domination. As other species become extinct, it becomes less likely that flips can be reversed.
We are a young species, only about 100,000 years old. We’ve been hugely destructive, and we’ve shifted massive amounts of suffering elsewhere. We’ve thus far managed to evade the consequences of the fact that we really aren’t very flexible. We don’t do de-growth. We need exact levels of oxygen; we need fresh, clean water and fresh, clean food and fresh, clean air. We need care and compassion.
But jellyfish – they can handle almost anything. Salty water and fresh water – most of them are pretty adaptable. In the ocean’s dead zones where the water lacks oxygen, jellyfish manage. They handle radioactive waste, heavy metals and all the other terrible pollutants dumped or leaked into the oceans. Climate change, another great disruptor, seems to be enhancing their life prospects.
Jellyfish have been on Earth for at least 565 million years. They’ve survived all five of the great extinctions that Earth has thus far experienced. They’ve outlived the dinosaurs and many others. It looks like they’ll survive the coming extinction as well. This time round they have a bit of help from their friends; the revolting disruptors are definitely good news for jellies.
The article about threatened species that I consulted is in The Guardian (here).
There is a rich literature on the social contract. I am using the term in a non-specialised way, following Bauman, to indicate the general idea that humans give up some freedom as members of society, and that in return they gain some protections. When the rich revolt against the poor they are basically saying that protection will no longer be part of the deal. (‘The age of entitlement is over’ is a classic, recent expression of this descent into willful moral blindness.)
This is a wonderful moment: there actually is some good news to report! An animal that was feared to have gone extinct has been located. Not just an individual, but a whole group, alive and well in the bush.
Let me back track, briefly. A few years ago I had a chat with the film maker Robert Nugent, and he told me that he was starting on a new project focussing on the Australian night parrot. He explained that this elusive nocturnal parrot might be extinct, but that there were unconfirmed reports of a living group. I wondered how he would film a bird that is active only at night, and that in any case hasn’t been seen for sure in a very long time; I marvelled at the ingenuity of the creative drive. Those cryptic birds haunted my imagination and I began to envision them as mysterious and rather glorious mythical beings.
Yesterday I consulted my bird books and found a more prosaic story. The night parrot, Pezoporus occidentalis, is related to the ground parrots (Pezoporus wallicus). There are two main types of ground parrots, eastern and western. My area is home to the eastern variant. I have seen them every once in a while, and although one book describes them as ‘dumpy’, I find them lovely even though they are neither slim nor showy. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction. The night parrot looks pretty much the same and is far more endangered.
The ominous account in the bird books reads: ‘Recent specimen (1990) found dead beside highway near Boulia, Queensland’.
Now Bush Heritage has announced that a group of night parrots has been located. What is more, they are being protected in situ. The Bush Heritage conservation organisation was started by Bob Brown, our great moral leader. He and a few others conceived the idea of generating a fund with which to buy properties with high conservation value and dedicating them to regeneration (if needed) and protection. The reason was simple: if we waited for governments to take the lead in conservation we would lose too much. Community action was necessary. Bush Heritage is supported by donors and has been going for 25 years. It now owns millions of hectares of land.
The night parrot site involved agreements with the local land owner and the Queensland government to acquire a sizeable block of land. The on-going work of conservation involves liaising with local landowners and with the local Maiawali people. The new property is called Pullen Pullen to honour the local Indigenous name for the bird. It’s location is being kept secret. The birds were important figures in Maiawali culture. Mr Darryl Lyons explained that his people ‘were known in their main corroboree as the rainmakers and were often summonsed by neighbouring tribes to go to their areas to do the rain dance and the ceremonial dress of that corroboree had the Pullen Pullen feathers in it.’
Night parrots were once widespread across arid Australia. They are ground dwellers in spinifex and samphire country. It is possible that they are able to gain all the water they need from Sclerolaena plants (which also produce edible seeds) and therefore do not require direct water sources. It now seems probable that one big factor in the decline of night parrots was the cessation of Aboriginal burning. Spinifex burning is well documented; it was organised to create patches. The effects ensure that there is spinifex at various stages of growth, that there are lots of patchy edges, and that the incidence of catastrophic fires is reduced.
The ornithologist Steve Murphy is in charge of researching and organising protection for the night parrots. He says there is one main threat aside from humans: feral cats. At any time they could knock off the whole population. According to one news report, there are dingoes in the area, and that is probably why the feral cat population is low. No one wants to take risks, however.
I am captivated by the story of Maggie, a one-year-old collie who has been trained to smell and track feral cats. Her human companions, Mark and Glenys Woods take her out early in the morning, and she patrols the area sniffing for cats. Mark Woods explained: ‘Maggie’s sense of smell is so highly developed she can distinguish a feral cat from a domestic cat. This incredible ability makes them one of the most effective tools in managing and eliminating feral cat populations.’ When she scents a cat or a den she sits and waits. That is the extent of her job.
According to the reports, along with relying on dingoes and on Maggie, an alternative mode of control is being used. It is a mechanical device called a ‘grooming trap’, designed to be triggered only by cats. When triggered, it shoots out 1080 poison. The idea is that cats will lick off the poison and die. This device inflicts a terrible death; creatures who ingest 1080 suffer horribly.
Feral cats are the subject of a huge campaign designed to try to limit their numbers. A key element in the campaign is the demonisation of cats. This tends to obscure the fact that many of the causes of death of native animals, particularly birds, are generated by humans. A Bush Heritage publication on ‘Land Clearing and its Impacts’, tells us that Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and that clearing affects not only the trees themselves but also other creatures who live in and among trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:
‘Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing….
‘For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.’ And yet, regulations against land clearing are being abandoned, while feral cats are targetted ever more severely.
The pest industry recently expanded its empire when a gathering of Environment Ministers (in July 2015) endorsed the National declaration of feral cats as pests . This meant that they would ‘review arrangements within their respective jurisdictions and, where necessary, to remove unnecessary barriers to effective and humane control of feral cats’. The site explaining feral cat issues includes details of new methods of using 1080 for cat killing. The short translation of this obscure pronouncement is that the 1080 deathscape expands again.
It is true that feral cats kill a lot of birds and other animals. It is also true that their populations become wildly out of sync when dingoes are killed. The relationship between cats and dingoes is one of those extinction cascades: the effort to kill dingoes opens the way for an over-abundance of cats, foxes, and rabbits. All three species multiply without check when their top predators are gone, and the impacts on native animal and plant species are disastrous.
I write regularly against the use of 1080. Poison is not an appropriate way to address conservation issues. A basic principle of compassionate conservation is that the conservation of one species ought not to be achieved by inflicting dreadful deaths on members of other species. I do not want to see conservation measures contribute to an industry dedicated to death. The pest industry promotes itself by vilifying other creatures; it spreads suffering around the country in the name of land management, and tries to make mass death look like responsible action. I will be writing to Bush Heritage to share my views on 1080. I donate to this organisation because I believe passionately in its aims; at the same time I do not want my money contributing to 1080 or similar poisons.
There are ways to get rid of cats at Pullen Pullen without all the suffering. The dingoes should thrive if the area is kept clear of 1080, and they will take care of the cats. And Maggie and her humans, Mark and Glenys Woods, are on the job. Their cross-species alliance is an ideal to be aimed for in all conservation.
I want to congratulate Bush Heritage for the large-scale in situ approach to conservation. The great merit of this approach is that it enables endangered species to continue their lives in the manner that has evolved for them to live well and happily. A further merit is that it enables humans to facilitate the work of the natural world, rather than disrupt it. It builds on the understanding that every life is an inter-species project, that we live within systems of connectivity. It sets out an ethical project for humans:
to work in alliance with existing systems.
This approach differs greatly from the anthropocentric engineering approach in which humans imagine themselves as the creators of a new and improved nature.
Alliances are the way life works sustainably. The night parrots are embedded in multiple alliances – with spinifex that gives them shelter and food, and with Sclerolaena that give them water and food. The Sclerolaena are terribly annoying to humans, especially barefoot humans; they are best known as prickles, burrs and bindyi. And yet for night parrots they are literal life-savers. These little birds have survived colonisation with its invasive humans, cattle, horses, and catastrophic fires (with the cessation of Aboriginal burning); they have survived many more disasters than I am aware of. Their resilience is their great asset. Our conservation efforts can enhance that resilience by removing feline predators and, as Bush Heritage is doing admirably, protecting them from human predators.
We will know more about these interspecies, biocultural alliances when we get to see Robert’s film. I’m told that ‘Night Parrot Stories’ will be shown in the Sydney Film Festival on 19 June. In the meantime:
There’s a lot of talk about growing inequality, and often we’re confronted with the idea that this is all just natural. Shakespeare said it best, as usual. In Pericles:
Third Fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
First Fisherman: Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones; I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful.
Recently I read Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money, the new book about the Koch brothers. It offers a sober view into the lives and deeds of men of incredible greed and selfishness; men with a totalising determination to treat the whole world – social, environmental, cultural – as a standing reserve which they and their billionaire cronies can devour or discard at will. They are completely unlike whales. Their impacts are disastrous. The Koch brothers are living proof that evil is indeed alive and well, and that it plays nauseating games with U.S. and world politics.
Here in Australia, too, we are enmeshed in systems in which big fish, the wealthy bullies, rise to the top. We are witnessing the abject failure of many key politicians to take action on the urgent environmental and social justice issues that matter for the future of life on Earth. And so I am all the more grateful for the strong moral leaders we do have. Phillip Adams hosted a great panel recently with three articulate, passionate men: Bob Brown, Julian Burnside and Kerry O’Brien. Bob Brown was for many years the leader of the Greens Party in Australia; while guiding one of the west’s first and most successful Greens parties, he became, and is today, an inspiration to the nation and the world. He is breath-takingly honest, and in this recent panel discussion he excoriated the system of powerful lobbyists, describing many current politicians as ‘venal, strong, aggressive people who do what the big money wants them to do’.
Big money, big players, big politics: it all seems to fit, and from a tooth-and-claw vision of the world around us, it could all seem perfectly natural. Recent studies in ecology tell quite a different story, though. Outside the toxic domain of human avarice, living beings are inter-entangled in fascinatingly functional ecological circuits.
Take wolves, for example. There is a perception that wolves and other top predators will have a detrimental impact on other species by the very fact of their food consumption. Recent research, however, is showing a far more interesting story of direct and indirect impacts that work their way through an ecosystem in flows (trophic cascades) that are extremely beneficial.
Top order predators like wolves are key ecological regulators. The effects of their predation are felt all through the system among other animals, plants, and even land forms. The most accessible study concerns wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Here the re-introduction of wolves impacted first to regulate numerous animal populations, including elk. As the elk were forced to move into marginal areas where they were less exposed to wolves, the river vegetation was able to regenerate. As erosion lessened, the rivers stabilised, and species like beavers and birds were able to return. Beavers are notable for altering river flow to produce a diversity of habitats that are beneficial to many species of mammals, fish, and birds. And so it went. The wolves were few in number; they regulate themselves as well as others, and the whole system was changed in the direction of greater functionality.
These top predators brought about trophic cascades of diversity and stability.
Top predators are keystone species: the term concerns relationality and connectivity. A keystone species is one with a greater impact on its ecological community than would be expected given its abundance. Across the deep time of ecological relations these impacts have become mostly beneficial. All top predators are keystone species, but not all keystone species are top predators. This is to say that there are many keystone species whose impacts are large, but who are not big charismatic carnivores like wolves or killer whales.
The wonderfully insightful scientist Stephan Harding explains: ‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’
Harding gives the example of dung beetles in the Amazon forest. These seemingly insignificant creatures are critically significant for the whole forest. Before, when there was greater functionality, they killed off parasites, buried seeds, and facilitated quick and efficient recycling of nutrients. In forest fragments, where the connectivities are coming apart, there is less dung because there are fewer animals. Less dung means fewer dung beetles (fewer in number and fewer in species). There have been extinctions, and the reasons include lack of good quality mates, lack of good quality habitat, and changing micro-climates. The result is that remaining forest fragments are losing their ecological health: more diseases, fewer nutrients, seeds unable to germinate. Harding concludes: ‘Seemingly insignificant, the dung beetles of the Amazon are major players in their ecological community.’ One loss leads to another, leading to more: this is the downward spiral, the loss of vitality, the extinction cascade. It is happening all over the world.
Among the many lessons to be gained from thinking with dung beetles, consider this: to see any living being is to know that there is a story involving others, and that behind them are still more stories. To see the luminous beauty of a forest is to see the work of many others, including insects. Indeed, every vibrant living being and biotic community is enmeshed in looping, entangled benefits, in cascades of flowing life. From a keystone point of view, many big players may barely be visible in themselves, and are best seen through the lens of the wider community whose health tells of their activity.
Australians will soon be heading into a federal election, and the U.S. will have one next year. I would love to walk into the polling booth and cast my vote for dung beetles. I am, of course, attracted to the metaphorical dimension of this fantasy. There is an awful lot of shit in political life, more than enough for an army of insect removalists.
More seriously, though, I would vote for beetles because I would love to vote for forests. Indeed, each biotic community has its species and relationships: I would love to vote for the giant triton snails that eat the crown-of-thorns starfish that damage the Great Barrier Reef; I would love to vote for those great Australian regulators, the dingoes; really, I would love to vote in any and every way for the future of life on Earth. Good votes, like good ecological actions, are complex, as Aldo Leopold told us long ago: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’
There are a lot of bullies who think they’re big players, and they are very good at what they do, which is to wreck things. They have packed huge amounts of destruction into a very short time frame. They are spatially expansive: the cascades of destruction go everywhere. And yet the truth of deep ecological time remains: the wild world is greater than politics, and the big keystone players are doing their best to keep Earth vibrant and dynamic. Long may they live!
For more on top order predators, see the excellent article by Ripple and colleagues (view here). I discussed some of these issue in earlier essays relating to Australian dingoes, for example, ‘Partnership ‘Rewilding with Dingoes’ (visit here). The Yellowstone video, ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’, is terrific (view here). For more on dingoes as top predators, see the essay ‘Apologising to Dingoes’ (view here).
To watch a giant triton snail eating a crown-of-thorns starfish, view here.
I couldn’t visit any Aboriginal families last year because I was so ill, but I kept in touch, and some of the news was very bad. In August, one of my young granddaughters killed herself. It was a double grief to have to stay home when I wanted to go and cry with the family; later I sent a message of comfort to be read aloud at the funeral as a small way to make up for not being there in person.
My grief and bewilderment flared up recently when I heard that a ten-year-old girl in the Kimberley had killed herself. This Kimberley death has brought into public view the horrifying statistics about youth and child suicide across North Australia. In the Northern Territory, Indigenous youth suicide was recently reported to be 30.1 per 100,000 people, compared with a figure of 2.6 nationally among non-Indigenous people. A recent report indicates a 500% increase in reports of child self-harm and suicide in NT over the past two decades. Gerry Georgatos, a specialist on Indigenous suicide, describes the problem as a ‘humanitarian crisis’.
Everyone is shocked, everyone wants to understand why, and everyone wants to do something. But what? No one knows exactly how to understand these deaths, and no one knows exactly what to do. I am an ‘everyone’. I too am shocked and want to do something. I too feel baffled and powerless. Even the work of writing becomes a field of impossibilities. To write publicly risks saying the wrong thing. To say nothing is to turn one’s back on suffering, and thus to refuse the ethical call inherent in suicide. The biggest fact, to my mind, is that everyone with a conscience feels implicated. We are called, perhaps more powerfully than ever, to ask what reconciliation might look like – not as a political outcome but as an ethical response.
These recent deaths shine a cruel spotlight on our connections as well as on our inequalities: we, non-Aboriginal and Aboriginal people, are part of the same nation, but in general we are leading radically different lives. Part of the difference concerns health, life expectancy and well-being. I turned to my friend John Boulton for more insight. He worked as a medical doctor in the Kimberley for ten years. His specialty is paediatrics, and his practice has forced him to think deeply about the suffering of children. As he struggled to understand the catastrophes he encountered he found it necessary to consider the intergenerational transmission of trauma. His eloquent words tell a story that is at once biological, social and ethical: for Aboriginal people in North Australia ‘History is inscribed on the body and branded in the mind’.
John was seeing the long-term impacts of two types of trauma: starvation and violence. Both types affect unborn babies as well as everyone else in their grip. Much of the evidence about intergenerational trauma comes out of World War II, and is perhaps best known amongst Holocaust survivors and their children and grandchildren, and those offspring of women who survived the lesser-known Nazi atrocity, the Dutch Winter Famine of 1944-45. The effects of under-nutrition put children who experience it whilst in the womb at far higher than average risk of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack and obesity in later life, with the risk and type of illness dependent on the timing of maternal starvation. In parallel, the trauma of enduring psychic violence leads to alterations in hormone receptors in the offspring’s brain and may lead to low capacity to withstand stress. This can happen throughout life, and typically leads to a tendency toward impetuous and violent behaviour in the face of a level of frustration or stress that could otherwise be managed. ‘Self-medication’ with alcohol or other substances is one of the ways in which people seek to manage repeated trauma. Alcohol regularly leads to more violence, bringing more trauma into more people’s lives. In the Northern Territory and the Kimberley, evidence indicates that suicide rates took off about 20-30 years after the time it became legal for Aboriginal people to purchase alcohol.
Youth and child suicide can thus be understood as part of a great wave of intergenerational trauma which manifests in poor health and shorter life expectancies, and far greater risk of exposure to violence compared with the national average. Self-harm is one of the most dramatic forms of violence.
These facts do not tell us the situation is hopeless; rather they serve to remind us that colonial and post-colonial social relations are key contributors to the contemporary social environment. Violence, trauma and starvation are well documented in the Victoria River region where my young granddaughter lived and died. I know the social history well, having learned about it from old people who had lived through most of it. I also know that across the generations there has been fierce determination: there has been a will to survive, to uphold the meanings of life, to take an ethical stand in spite of regulatory regimes of savage discipline. There is a will to remember; these are strong stories, and so at this time I want to think about three generations of individuals who lived from the 1880s until now. They brought my granddaughter into the world, and I am wondering what challenges they faced, and what sustained them. I called the girl ‘jaju’ in the kinship system, and I will use that term in writing about her.
First generation: Warriors
In the 1880s there was a group of adult clansmen whose country included some of the rough ranges and mesas of the Wickham River catchment. The men were clan brothers but had different mothers and fathers so their ages were widely disparate. I was privileged to meet the youngest of these men, Old Johnson Pitutu. In 1980 he was about eighty years old, and he died not long after I met him. His words have had a strong influence on my thinking; in his succinct eloquence he articulated an ethic of fidelity that is shared by most of the Aboriginal people I have ever met. The old man was living at the outstation, on land that was close to his ancestral country and near a place by the river where his uncle had been killed by Whitefellas. Old Pitutu told me that the ‘Wickham river is filled with blood of Blackfellas killed in those days. Their bones are all broken up along the bottom…. We are camping now on the blood of Aboriginal people killed in those days.’
To return to the 1880s, these Jangala clansmen were warriors; over the next three decades they fought invading Whitefellas and they fought other Aboriginal clans. They took revenge as necessary, killing other men outright, stealing women, and doing sorcery. They were incredibly courageous. They were fierce, prideful, unforgiving, and wildly defiant. As their descendant Daly Pulkara explained, they decided to go ‘for win or lose’, knowing the Whitefellas had guns, but still determined to fight. They were Lawmen, as well, and they struggled to protect the sites and the country, to carry out the ceremonies and to raise a new generation even as they were seeing much of what they had known and valued in the world fall apart. The women in their lives, their sisters and wives, are not prominent in the stories, but the hints are that they were every bit as fierce as the men. It was a wholly unequal war, and along with warfare there were new and deadly diseases afflicting people. In the period 1880-1930 the loss of Aboriginal population was about 93%. This figure is consistent with estimates for nearby regions, and indeed for the whole of Australia, as assessed by Larissa Behrendt.
Conquest and dispossession started in earnest in this region in the 1880s. White people brought in cattle and set up Victoria River Downs station on top of Aboriginal people’s homelands. They had already decided that it was best in the first instance to shoot and terrify people. Clans and tribes whose country was out in the open plains were at a terrible disadvantage in those years. There are numerous massacre sites; the stories are well remembered although the names of individuals are lost. Once the Whitefellas had destroyed the initial resistance, they brought the survivors into the station as an unfree, unpaid (later underpaid) workforce.
The Jangala men were ‘bush blacks’; their country was in the rough ranges, and they carried on a guerrilla war against the Whitefellas for several decades. At the same time, they were defending their country against other local Aboriginal groups who also were seeking refuge. It was war in every direction. The most prominent of this group of clan brothers was a man whose Whitefella name was Gordon; the people who spoke with me about him invariably called him Old Gordon. He was born about 1870. Defiant to the last, he was one of Jaju’s great-grandfathers.
The story goes like this. One day in June, 1910, Gordon had gone out hunting, leaving his wives back at camp. While he was away, one of the Aboriginal men who was working for the Whitefellas, a guy named Murphy, found the camp and ended up killing the two women. We can only speculate about what might have happened. When Gordon got home he found his wives dead. He tracked Murphy back to the station, waited till the man was alone, and threw spears that injured but did not kill him. The station manager sent out a group of Aboriginal men led by a notoriously savage Whitefella. Among the group was Humbert Tommy, a man Old Gordon called ‘son’. One of the Aboriginal men shot him in both legs, crippling him, and afterwards shot him in the head. Between these shots, Humbert Tommy speared him. Finally, members of the group cut off his hands and took them back to the station, apparently as evidence that the job was done. Later, some of the Jangala men turned to sorcery to kill the man who had shot Old Gordon.
The action against Old Gordon seems excessive, but everyone was edgy at the time because earlier that year a white man had been killed. ‘Brigalow Bill’ Ward had taken up a license allowing him to muster cattle at the edge of VRD station. He was a rough and tumble duffer with a poor reputation among other Whitefellas, not only for stealing cattle but also for abusing the Aboriginal women he kept in his camp. The Jangala men tolerated him for a while, perhaps because he gave them tobacco, but in the end they decided they’d had enough of his threats and abuse. They may well have been stirred on by the women. One of them, Judy, hid Brigalow’s gun and alerted the Aboriginal men to come and kill him. A police report says that while Brigalow was dying Gordon cut his throat with a tommyhawk. Judy ripped out his beard, saying ‘good job him dead, mefellow no more like him’. This much is reported in the police files. Local knowledge adds more to this fierce story: as Judy stood over him in triumph, she pissed on his face.
One of the youngest of the Jangala clansmen was a man named Fishhook. He was born in about 1895 during a time of warfare and high nutritional stress. The description of him as a skinny kid with a large belly vividly conveys the effects of starvation. In spite of his tough start to life, he was the father of many of the men who continued the clan by having children of their own. (Judy did not have children who lived.) Fishhook argued against fighting, saying they needed to learn to get along with Whitefellas. Their transition into station life was eased by the fact that in 1919 a new station, Humbert River, was taken up in the area where Brigalow Bill had had his license, and which, cynically enough, had originally been set aside as an Aboriginal reserve. This station was located partly on country of the Jangala clansmen. It was run for decades by Charlie Schultz, described by his Aboriginal workers as a hard but decent man. Life was by no means easy at Humbert River station, but it was better than at many other places in the region.
Second generation: Workers
The people of this generation were the backbone of the cattle industry in North Australia. They became Law men and Law women in the bush, and were skilled at station work. They were extraordinarily secure and judicious in their own knowledge. While stockmen were the public face of the Aboriginal workforce, women point out that they, too, worked hard for Whitefellas. In the early days they were stockwomen, later they were domestics, and all the while they struggled to raise children under difficult circumstances. Mothers and fathers endured the heartbreak of one infant death after another, and across the region many parents lost children to authorities as part of the stolen generation.
Humbert Tommy Nyuwinkarri bridged the gap between the warriors and the stockmen. Jaju would have called him ‘grandpa’. He was born in about 1894, a son of the Jangala generation. He had tried station life once and ended up ordered to attack his father, Old Gordon. Later, on Humber River station he became drover and a saddler, and was respected throughout the region. Daly Pulkara, Jaju’s maternal grandfather, told me that as a young man he spent time living in the bush with Humbert Tommy because he ‘wanted to learn to kill a man’. When the moment came, though, it was Humbert Tommy who held him back. It happened in 1938, when Daly was 14 years old. There were a lot of people camping in the bush, and a policeman came upon them and shot a lot of their dogs. Daly went wild, grabbed his spear and started to throw it, but Humbert Tommy took his arm and restrained him, telling him ‘don’t do it! Tensions were already high because just days before this incident Humbert Tommy had himself speared an Aboriginal police tracker, although the person he really wanted to attack was the white policeman who had killed his dogs, treated him condescendingly, and hit him in the head. As soon as he threw the spear he took off and hid out; later a more experienced policeman persuaded him to give himself up, and spoke for him in court to ensure that he would receive only a short jail sentence.
Until 1967 Aboriginal people were wards of the state, their rights were massively constricted. Under the regulatory regimes of the stations, their opportunities for redress were extremely minimal. This enclosed world changed abruptly with citizenship, the walk-offs and land rights. The men and women who had learned hard lessons of self-control were the leaders in the pastoral strikes. They turned the cattle station world upside down and brought in an era of land rights. At the same time, their own lives were also turned upside down. Citizenship meant equal wages, and cattle station owners and managers, angered over the disruption of their established way of life, decided to kick people off the stations and replace them with helicopters. Aboriginal groups went from full employment to almost zero employment. Having walked off the stations, they found there was almost nothing to return to.
For decades the Whitefellas in the cattle industry had made money out of Aboriginal labour; they had claimed to understand Aboriginals better than any welfare officer or other government official could do, and to have a genuine regard for Aboriginals. And yet, at the exact moment when they could have worked with Aboriginal people to form a post-colonial cattle culture built on co-existence and shared histories, they chose to opt out. Suddenly, the people they claimed to have cared about were expendable. Many Aboriginal people experienced this turning away as betrayal, as indeed it was. It was also, in many cases, mean-spirited, vindictive, and cruel. Worse yet, it was a foretaste of a much wider national turning away that gained ultimate expression in the ‘Intervention’ with its savage regulatory control over Aboriginal people, and the massive privileging of Whitefellas at their expense.
Third generation: Citizens
Jaju’s mother’s generation was the first to be born as free Australian citizens. I came into the story in 1980 when I arrived to live with people at Yarralin. I was amazed at the optimism people brought to lives that had been filled with so much hardship. They were clear about the injustices they had suffered, and aware of many on-going injustices. At the same time, they had walked off the stations in protest, and had returned home to found new communities, to make claims for the return of at least some of their traditional lands, and to raise a new generation that they expected would be educated in both Anglo-Australian ways and Indigenous ways. The house I was allocated looked out to the hills where Humbert Tommy had speared a police tracker. Soon I was spending time at Lingara, the new outstation on Humbert River station, where I hung out with the descendants of the Jangala clansmen and where I met Old Pitutu, the man who spoke so eloquently about fidelity.
I met the girl who would become Jaju’s mother in 1980. Liribin was about twelve then. She was lithe, beautiful, intelligent, funny, and, I came to understand, trapped. She had been promised in marriage at a young age, and when I met her she was for the first time being required to acknowledge her future husband. She hated having to cook for him when she wanted to be playing with the other kids, and when it was time for her to go away to boarding school for secondary education the family made the decision to keep her home. Everyone worried that she would meet boys and want her freedom. Of course, she already wanted her freedom; she didn’t need boarding school to teach her that. Moreover, she was exactly like her parents and grandparents, Daly, Fishhook and the rest of them – she was always going to be her own person. It took a few years, but she did extricate herself from the marriage and begin to organise her own life. Liribin is strong and forceful. She has immense pride; she can’t bear to be condescended to, and walks away in disgust if she is not treated respectfully. Her lack of education may limit the kinds of jobs she can aspire to, but she also refuses many local jobs, such as police aide, that would put her at odds with her own people. She understands her life in part through the global experience of Indigenous (tribal) people, and she named her youngest daughter, the girl who took her own life, after an African-American pop star. Liribin is a key person in her community, and yet from a bureaucratic perspective she is almost invisible.
The optimism I encountered in 1980 has been eroding. Over the years there has been an accelerating barrage of people telling Aboriginal people that nothing they did was good enough: the missionaries told them that everything they had believed and understood about creation and life on earth was wrong and, actually, the work of the devil; the education department dismantled the two-way education system they were so proud of; the health system trained Aboriginal health workers but kept hammering the message that people’s health was terrible, often undermining their confidence in their own bodies; at one point everybody had to work, and then the local white women were hired to run a day-care centre while Aboriginal mothers worked at watering lawns (which could have been done by sprinklers); later funds for local employment were cut; Whitefellas from time to time found ways to steal community funds. Every improvement seemed to require Whitefellas on high-paying jobs.
Under the Intervention
One day in June 2007 I was chatting with Jaju’s father about some of the changes he had been observing. As we talked, there came a sound of large vehicles, and then the army rolled in. The Intervention had started, and the optimistic community I had been welcomed into in 1980 became occupied territory. The accelerating process of disempowerment flipped into an all-out assault on people’s remaining freedom and autonomy. Over the years violence has become more harmful and more frequent. Whitefellas now live in upstairs houses surrounded by hurricane fences and barbed wire. The dry community rules are infringed so regularly that infringement no longer seems exceptional. There are few jobs, and the young men are in and out of jail, mostly on trivial offenses. Yarralin is massively over-policed and over-scrutinised. The country Jaju’s family had truly desired to regain possession of, the old Jangala strongholds, became a national park; the borders of the sacred and dangerous country they wanted to protect were whittled away, the ranger jobs didn’t materialise as had been promised, a number of Dreaming trees were chopped down. Many young people are cheekily optimistic, but not all: one boy killed himself, other kids were fighting and drinking and doing other bad stuff.
The Northern Territory Emergency Response, generally known as the Intervention, is a federally funded government program addressing dysfunction in Aboriginal communities through extreme management of people’s lives, finances, and communities. It includes a massive shifting of funds; Aboriginal ‘aid’ is a billion dollar industry, a large portion of which ends up in pay checks for Whitefellas. And while the rhetoric addresses improvement, the implications may be genocidal. Ron Merkel, QC, in an oration on Human Rights, quoted (then) Prime Minister John Howard and asserted that the aim of program is to assimilate Aboriginal people into the mainstream forever. With singular self-righteousness, the program has hammered away at Aboriginal people’s rights and freedoms; it is widely understood as an attack on people, their homelands and their land rights. One voice from the bush states: ‘This is our Holocaust’. The Intervention is set to continue until 2022. It is a regulatory regime of savage disempowerment inflicted on people already suffering extreme intergenerational trauma; it treats Aboriginal people as totally abject, and it has actually become one of the sources of contemporary trauma.
There is a monumental disconnect between public perceptions of Aboriginal neediness and the actual fierce pride that animates people. This chasm is visible in the case of the one and only suicide known in this region prior to the current wave. It took place on 28 February, 1965, and it came as a total shock to everyone. No one ever felt able to explain it fully, but the threat of powerlessness lay at the heart of it. That was the day Humbert Tommy shot himself in the head.
This was the son of warriors, a man who had speared his own father and later used sorcery to avenge the death. This was the man who had settled into station life and become respected by Whitefellas, including police, throughout the region. He had kept Jaju’s grandfather, Daly, from ruining his life by killing a policeman, and had helped many young men recover from the psychic and physical wounds of racial violence. Like his fathers, he was proud, intelligent, and wilful. In 1965 a number of things went wrong for him: the young Aboriginal men were not taking Law as seriously as he demanded; the station book keeper appeared to have embezzled his money. The final blow came when the doctor insisted he go to Darwin for medical treatment. In Humbert Tommy’s mind, as Daly explained, leprosy loomed large. Being found to have leprosy had meant that the person would be forcibly taken away and confined in a leper colony until they died. That kind of death, far from loved ones – country and family – was the ultimate form of disempowerment. It is not certain that this was going to happen to Humbert Tommy, but this is what worried him. Like his warrior fathers he took a defiant last stand, choosing to die rather than be taken prisoner.
Humbert Tommy’s death tells us that lessons derived from war are every bit as important as lessons derived from medicine and psychology.
An outline of an ethics for reconciliation starts with remembrance. It embraces both warrior pride and fidelity. It requires non-Aboriginal people to draw insights from complex stories, and this includes honouring the determination never to give in to powerlessness, and honouring the determination to remain close to country and ancestors.
These are not arcane points. They become lost in seas of statistics, and buried under mounds of policy, but they are at the heart of how Aboriginal people will overcome the current state of disaster. They are the foundations of a yet-to-be-visualised post-war reconstruction. At the moment national policy relentlessly and remorselessly inflicts regulatory trauma. Surely it is possible to turn things around, to be supportive without being controlling, to make peace without producing abjection. The allies did this after World War II, responding well to the humanitarian crises of the time. Here at home, today, our efforts toward peace deserve at least that much thoughtful consideration.
Facts and figures on suicide and alcohol are available at a number of sites and documents. The link between suicide and alcohol is found in a report by Parker and Ben-Tovin titled ‘A study of factors affecting suicide in Aboriginal and ’other’ populations in the Top End of the Northern Territory through an audit of coronial and other records’ (here). Georgatos quote is found here. An extremely lucid, recent discussion of violence in Aboriginal communities was on Late Night Live, with Marcia Langton and others (listen here).
John Boulton’s analysis of intergenerational trauma draws on a range of technical literature. I have relied primarily on the excellent plain-English summary he wrote for Aboriginal leaders in the Kimberley who wanted to understand the medical-physiological side of intergenerational trauma (here).
The summaries of historical events I present here are discussed in greater detail in my book Hidden Histories: Black Stories from Victoria River Downs, Humbert River, and Wave Hill stations, North Australia. It was published by Aboriginal Studies Press in Canberra and won the 1991 Jessie Litchfield Award for Literature. Unfortunately it is now out of print. Information on Old Gordon and Brigalow is in chapter 13 (here); the story of Humbert Tommy’s death is told in chapter 22 (here). The gender issues are explored more fully in my book Reports from a Wild Country (UNSW Press). Powerlessness and the question of genocide are explored in a special issue of the journal Aboriginal History dedicated to genocide. My article ‘Aboriginal Life and Death in Australian Nationhood’ is available here. More widely, there are many regional Aboriginal histories, especially from the Kimberley, many of them published by Magabala Books (visit here). Peter Read and Jay Arthur published an excellent set of oral histories collected across the region: Long Time Olden Time. There are two excellent histories by Darrell Lewis written to include Whitefella perspectives: Beyond the Big Run, Charlie Schultz’s story as told to Darrell Lewis, and A Wild History: Life and Death on the Victoria River Frontier. The best source for thinking about Aboriginal-Settler history in national perspective is the work of Henry Reynolds. See, for example, his excellent book This Whispering in Our Hearts. I have published a couple of other essays about land rights on this site, for example ‘Gurindji Freedom Day‘.
Figures for population loss can only ever be estimates because it is not known exactly how many Aboriginal people there were when the British first started to settle. Larissa Behrendt’s median figure of 90.% is published in her book Indigenous Australia for Dummies.
The most detailed and informative set of information on the Intervention can be found online (visit here). The quote ‘this is our holocaust’ is published here, and there are several excellent videos. Rev Dr Djiniyini Gondarra OAM has made a very powerful statement against the intervention (read here). Ron Merkel’s Oration can be read here.
An excellent new resource on the Intervention is the Report issued by the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. The figure of 500% is taken from this report (read here).
For a lively and positive ‘take’ on young people’s lives, YouTube has videos of the White Water Band, including their educational song about buckling up to survive. (view here).
The story I tell in this essay has many parallels with Richard Trudgen’s book Why Warriors Lie Down and Die, published in 2000. His area of focus is Arnhem Land. There are also important resonances with Colin Tatz’s recent essay ‘We need to move beyond the medical model to address Indigenous suicide’, available online.
Jila is a place of ‘living water’. It identifies fresh water that never dries up. Often unprepossessing, perhaps the water is secreted deep in a well that has been dug and maintained for generations, perhaps it is a spring that bubbles up quietly, or maybe the water forms a pool that remains after the flow of a river or creek has disappeared. Jila, the place of living water, commands respect and care; it gives life and thus is a source of life. Here on the driest inhabited continent on earth, knowledge of living water can truly make the difference between life and death. Living water is cherished; it is a blessing.
If water is living, can it also die? Is water caught up in precarity, is it vulnerable? Is water, like life, variable and diverse; in this time of ecological loss, is it threatened? The great Sydney artist Janet Laurence says ‘yes’ to these questions. Water, she wants us to understand, is fragile and complex, precious and threatened. This message was offered in her recent installation ‘H2O: Water Bar’, set up in the Paddington Reservoir. Janet’s stated aim was to bring people into appreciation of water’s variability, and to raise questions in their minds about its fragility.
In the 1860s the city of Sydney built an underground reservoir to augment its water supplies. Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century. For decades it was used for storage, then part of it collapsed. Finally in 2006 part of it was redesigned as a sunken garden and part of it was preserved as an historic site; it is only open to the public on special occasions. We were there on a very hot evening. The reservoir was cool and elegant, and beautifully peaceful; the city seemed to evaporate. The arches woke up memories of Roman water construction. We breathed the moist, earthy garden air, and in spite of the solidity of the construction materials, we felt surprisingly buoyant.
The water bar, gleaming with glass and mirrors, was set up at one end of the enclosed area. There were shelves of vials, each containing a different water, and each carefully labelled both for origin and for trace elements and pH factor. Janet’s assistants, wearing lab coats and managing all the vials, beakers and shot glasses, offered us water and engaged us in conversation. We were invited to taste and compare, to bring our own bodily sensorium into encounter with water’s diversity and charms. I was particularly taken with spring water from Mt Warning (in NSW). This volcanic water contains fluoride, manganese, magnesium, calcium, zinc, cyanide, silica, sodium and copper and is pH 7.3. Its taste on my palate was lively, with a bit of zip (cyanide, perhaps?).
The best art works a kind of magic, bringing us to experience the world unexpectedly. Janet’s water bar, with its hints of alchemy and its commingling of quantification and qualitative experience, transformed a glass of water from everyday necessity to precious experience. Without having to say it, the water bar reminded us that all too often we take for granted this glorious, life-giving flow; we forget its individuality, its relationships with place, its flowing nature.
My friend Luke Fischer organised an evening of readings on ‘The Language of Water’ to coincide with one of the water tasting events at the H2O bar. The aim was to honour Janet’s work, and to bring words into the celebration of water’s liveliness. I was invited to speak, and I drew on my experiences over many years with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory in order to address this question: if water is living, does it have a voice and does it have a face?
The area where I lived in the Territory was in the catchment of the Wickham River, a tributary of the great Victoria River. This is monsoon country, where rivers flow episodically and the extreme aridity of the dry season is counter-balanced by the massive downpours of the wet season. Across the course of a single year the extremes are enormous. And of course there are larger fluctuations linked to the El Niño Southern Oscillation and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Sun and Rain, dry season and wet season, each have their moment. Sometimes they balance each other well, but in many years the usual extremes became even more wild. This past wet season the monsoon failed and life became very tough. Heat and humidity were intense, and the blessed relief of rain was largely absent. When it came, though, it was caused by a cyclone, making sudden, localised floods that killed people. In other years, though, the rains go on and on, floodwaters rise everywhere, communities are evacuated, and it takes most of the dry season for the country to dry out enough to be able to travel off road even in four wheel drive.
The great seasonal forces are for Aboriginal people expressions of the power of on-going creation; they are part of the eco-cosmology. Wet season and Dry season: Rain and Sun. The great life-shaping powers wrestle back and forth, Rain and Sun, Sun and Rain: living beings have learned to live with extremes, from the desiccated aridity of the late dry to the swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people do actually die.
The North Australian monsoon region is its own thing, but it also needs to be said that Australia is its own thing! Water in Australia is governed ecologically by the reality that this continent is the ‘driest, flattest, most poorly drained, and in fact largely inward draining land on Earth’, according to Mary White. Most of it is arid; rain is wildly variable, as I’ve said, and global warming is almost certain to exacerbate the unpredictability of water. Here in Australia ‘normal’ is already a set of extremes, and it is hard to imagine what may be coming.
And still, water flows through everything.
It flows through you and me, through soils and trees and rocks, through all creaturely bodies and through its own ever-shifting pathways. And everywhere it goes it is connected with life. When the rain falls, living beings respond: plants and other creatures liven up and new generation are begun.
Aboriginal eco-cosmology is expressed in the medium of kinship, and conveys the underlying knowledge of connectivities. Across all the big players like Sun and Rain, across species and landforms, across seasons and generations, patterns of connectedness reproduce bonds of enduring solidarity. One big social division in the Victoria River area is based on the Sun/Rain dynamic. People are born into one or the other: either Sun, along with earth, ground, the dry season and associated animals; or Rain, along with light or dark rain and associated animals.
I was privileged to be incorporated into the kinship system, and the perspectives I know best involve my close kin: dark rain, along with the flying-foxes (Pteropus alecto) who hang upside down over the water.
Dark rains are fierce and erratic. They can come as thunderstorms, sometimes they come as cyclones. They descend on the land, they fill up the billabongs and move into the underground waterways and aquifers. They get the rivers flowing, often get them running bankers and flooding far out across the land. And then they go away, and sometimes they don’t come back for a very long time.
Sun and Rain wrestle it out, and where they meet and join, there you see a rainbow. Pattern and connection: out of difference comes something new and powerful. The Rainbow Snake is the great being associated with all water: all rains, all rivers, but most of all with every permanent spring and waterhole. The fact of permanence is living proof that something powerful is there. That ‘something’ is the Rainbow Snake. Furthermore, the Rainbow snake embodies the idea that water is both a powerful presence and an ethical subject. What I mean by saying that water is an ethical subject is that it is enmeshed in, and responsive to, calls for care and responsibility.
Aboriginal stories really draw this out. Let’s go back to those flying-foxes hanging down over the water. Late in the dry season, when country is becoming almost unbearably hot, they come to camp above permanent water. Why do they do this? It is pretty dangerous – one false move and you become dinner for the hungry crocs that patrol up and down beneath the pandanus trees. One reason is that they need the humidity to counter the heat stress they experience as the Wet season (summer) approaches.
Another reason is told through Aboriginal story: they are calling out to the Rainbow Snake, telling it to bring rain. The people who taught me said that they are ‘mates’ with the Rainbow, and their calling out is a central part of the relationship. There is a pattern that works like this: flying-foxes live by following the successive flowering of Eucalypts and Corymbias. The flowering starts in the higher country away from the river and works its way across the land until it reaches the river banks. Flying-foxes follow the flowers, and when they get to the river they have reached the last of the blossoms. It is late in the dry season and there will be no more flowers until the rains come and renew the country. So they call to their mate, the Rainbow, urging it to get up and get going, and bring the rain. Others join in: the frogs shout their crazy chorus, waterbirds come flocking in, cicadas are shrieking. It becomes very noisy, there is heteroglossia to the max, and most of the time the Rainbow Snake responds. Across this continent of heat, dust and fires, the rains do come.
Water, I am saying, has a face, using the term as developed by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. In his studies of ethics, to have a face is to be an ethical subject. Ethics arrive as a passionate call for connection. The flying-foxes call to their mate the Rainbow, and the Rainbow responds. Those responses bring life. We ourselves are expressions of water. All the creatures who live because of water, from frogs to birds to turtles and flying foxes, to you and me, all of us bear witness to water’s gifts of life.
Earth has been a watery planet for 3.5 billion years, and in all this time the relationship between water and life has been symbiotic water sustains life, and life sustains water. And yet, the liveliness of water is not faring well. Eileen Crist writes vividly that ‘human beings have taken aim at the very qualities that define the living planet, dismantling, with an intent that seems paradoxically both blind and demonic, the diversity, complexity, and abundance of life on Earth.’
We are water creatures, all of us. Life evolved in salt water and stayed there until about 400 million years ago when plants and animals ventured on to land. Terrestrial mammals such as ourselves recapitulate this history, floating in our own little sea of amniotic fluid until being thrust out and required to breathe. We are 78% water as babies, and drop to 65% (give or take) as adults. Many plants are 90% water; other animals vary around 60%. Even in the driest places, where living things have become incredibly adept at living with minuscule amounts of water, the story is still the same: no water no life.
The voices of water are around and within us, and they are passionate. The appropriate response is to join in. To celebrate and protect water, to taste and treasure its diversity, to delight in and defend the creatures who call on water, to be awed by water’s power, and to cherish the connections: this is the work of life; this is the work that really matters.
A beautiful account of jila places can be found in the book by Pat Lowe and Jimmy Pike: Jilji: Life in the Great Sandy Desert, published by Magabala Books. I learned about the sacred qualities of living water in my work on Aboriginal claims to land throughout the Northern Territory; a great many of the sacred sites we visited were water sites.
A description of ‘H2O: Water Bar’, and a video of Janet talking about the work, is available online (visit here). I have written about her work in other essays, for example ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’. Jim Hatley has an absolute ripper of an essay online (visit here).
A brief description of ‘The Language of Water’ can be found here. To learn more about Luke Fischer – poet, scholar, writer and organiser – visit his website (here).
The quote from Eileen Crist is from her essay ’Intimations of Gaia’ in a book she has edited: Gaia in Turmoil, published by MIT Press in 2010. This book contains an excellent essay on water. Numerous websites offer facts and figures relating to water problems; a good start is with the WWF (visit here).
I wanted to do a bit of sorry business to commemorate the day. Val Plumwood died on February 29, 2008, and although we only get to mark the anniversary every four years, she is certainly not forgotten. The impact of her feminist, ecological philosophy continues to grow, year in, year out.
In Aboriginal English, sorry business refers to the social process of grieving. It includes not only the actual funeral, but also the on-going work of remembrance and of cleansing and renewal. The term sorry business can also be used in re-establishing peace after violence, and can thus refer to rituals of remorse and restoration.* As a writer, I often turn to the written word to express my feelings, and this year I revisited Val’s essay ‘Journey to the Heart of Stone’. The essay is pro-stone, so to speak, and rests on the point that stones and other ‘inorganic’ matter have not been well-served in western dualistic culture. In her words: ‘The culture that refuses honour to stones refuses honour also to the great earth forces that have shaped and placed them. The eviction of spirit and honour from stones and from the earth is one of the greatest crimes of modernity.’
Toward the end of her life Val was increasingly interested in forms of writing that would help readers think beyond and outside the ‘sado-dispassionate rationality of scientific reductionism’. Her question as a writer was: ‘How can we re-present experience in ways that honour the agency and creativity of the more-than-human world?’ Her stone essay offered two fascinating stories of her relationships with stones.
The first story tells of how she got to know stones in the course of building her home with foundstones. As she walked the country around the mountain looking for stones, she also contemplated another dualism: between respect and use. The logic of this hyperseparation is that things which are used (by humans) are positioned as mere matter or, in the case of stones ‘dead matter’, and thus are placed outside the realm of respect. Val learned both to respect and to use the stones. She writes: ‘The foundstone worker must be sensitive both to the individuality of stones, in shape, for example, and to their membership of a kind, to differences in parent material indicating strength and malleability.’
In the second story Val writes about bushwalking in the ‘stone country’ of North Australia. She had great respect for Aboriginal culture and country, and while she detested appropriation, she was keen to move her thought closer to Indigenous ways. Through her own philosophical lens and lived experience, she was seeking a practice that would free us western folk ‘to re-write the earth as sacred, earth exploration as pilgrimage, earth knowledge as revelation.’
The ’stone country’ story woke up vivid memories for me. My most profound engagements with stone have taken place during decades of living with and learning from Aboriginal people. In the course of travelling in country, and in the course of working on land claims and documenting sacred sites for registration, I have witnessed the respect with which Aboriginal people engage with country and with sacred sites. I have been privileged to visit many sites, many stones.
Sacred sites are non-ordinary places, and most are places where the evidence of creation endures. I’ll share a brief example from one of my most beloved places. In Jasper Gorge (NT) the brilliant sandstone cliffs were formed by the Dreaming (creation ancestor) Black-headed Python as she came travelling through the country. The shape of the gorge is identical to the tracks snakes leave in the ground, but of course much larger. Throughout the gorge there are individual stones that show evidence of her actions. A split stone, for example, was formed when she cut it with her string belt.
Here and at many other sacred sites throughout Australia stone does what it is so well known for – it endures. In a world where living beings have short life-spans, coming into life and leaving again like ripples on water, stone holds the stories and the evidence from generation to generation. My Aboriginal teachers were very explicit about this. Someday we’ll be dead and gone, they’d say, but look! That stone [or that hill, or that cliff face] will still be there. People said that Dreamings came out of the ground, and that the Law is in the ground. Creation’s bedrock stands as foundational and enduring testimony.
The most iconic stone in Australia is, of course, Uluru. Formerly it was known as Ayer’s Rock and now is known colloquially as simply ‘the rock’. It is near the centre of Australia in the midst of arid, red-soil country with dusky green and yellow spinifex. Uluru’s dignity and presence, the profound wonder of its size, and the striking country that surrounds it, combine with the fact that it is a major sacred site. The legal status of the rock is testimony to an era in which Aboriginal people’s aspirations for self-determination were taken seriously. It was claimed under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976; Uluru and surrounding area was returned to Aboriginal Traditional Owners, Anangu people. They agreed to lease the area back to the government as a National Park, and to retain joint management of the Park. This happened in 1985, and the area now also has World Heritage listing.
Uluru is awesome in every way.
People come from all over the world to visit. Uluru inspires reverence, and while reverence is experienced in much the same way by all humans, it can be acted upon in different ways. Anangu have asked people not to climb the rock. They regard the practice as disrespectful and irreverent, as well as dangerous. And yet, many visitors actually want to express their reverence through climbing. There has been no resolution to these conflicting views about climbing, but Anangu people have invited visitors to walk around Uluru rather than climb.
Many visitors souvenir a small piece of the great rock. No one knows how many pieces of rock and baggies of soil are taken away each year; people don’t announce that they are doing this. It is illegal, and large fines apply. But it is known that this happens, because every year stones and soil are returned. Often the person includes a letter expressing their regret at having taken a piece of the rock. Some people state that they had bad luck after having taken a piece, but many others simply say they felt sorry about what they had done and wanted to return the piece of rock.
The returned fragments are called ‘sorry rocks’. The term is a local invention. Sorry rocks arrive from all over the world. And then there are the offerings. No one knows how many pieces of crystal or other offerings are buried around Uluru. Whether people take fragments of the rock away or bring offerings to the rock, they radically testify to the power and presence of the great rock, and undermine the idea that this stone is ‘dead matter’.
A French visitor took away two stones. They returned 220 grams of material, along with a letter addressed to the rock itself:
“I wanted to take away some of your magic with me for the rest of my travels, for the rest of my life even. I realise it was wrong to do so, therefore I am sending both pieces back to you. Forgive me for being foolish and thank you for letting me spend time with you and absorb your beauty.”
The term sorry rock taps into remorse and a desire to put things right. Sadly, sorry rocks can’t be returned to their precise place of origin. No one knows exactly where they should go, and in fact some of the material people return hadn’t come from Uluru in the first place, according to geological analysis. Anangu people don’t want unsourced fragments dumped at the rock, and there may be quarantine considerations, so sorry rocks are used in road building. They end up as rubble. It seems that aabout 350 parcels are returned each year, an unknown fraction of the amount that is taken away. The largest stone to be returned was 32 kilos (70 pounds). But numbers are not really the story.
The gleaming presence of Uluru draws visitors to itself and sends them away feeling profoundly moved. You don’t have to be Aboriginal to know that here you are at a source, a foundation. Uluru, and all such sacred sites, are bedrock from a western philosophical perspective as well as from Indigenous perspectives. I am drawing on recent work with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and his insight that ethics is at the foundation of everything. When people are moved by the presence of the rock, they are summoned into relationship and thus into the realm of ethics. Creation – the coming forth – is already an ethical call. It is a summons to consciously recognise the power of creation, and it offers no justification. There is nothing subtending it, as Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower write: ‘Nothing is beneath – not objects, Gods, force fields, or language – not knowers, actors, beliefs, or doctrines.’ One cannot go deeper than this.
People come face-to-face with Uluru, and something happens. Here one is acted upon. The face of the stone summons people, and they are touched. How beautiful it is to sit quietly at the base of the rock; to know that here is the deep of the deep, the foundation of the foundation. From creation until now and for generations to come, here is life’s meaning, its power and beauty.
*In Australian national life, the ‘Apology’ for the suffering of the stolen generations has merged Indigenous uses of the term ‘sorry’ with public issues of apology for past wrongs. Feeling sorrow and saying sorry seem to have been conflated, and I agree with the view that the practice of saying sorry is not large or generous enough to re-establish peace.
To gain a better understanding of Val’s work, a good source is Eye of the Crocodile, a collection of her essays that was assembled and edited after her death by Lorraine Shannon. It is available online (read here) and includes an introductory essay telling more about Val’s life and thought. Her heart of stone essay is published in 2007 in the book Culture, Creativity and Environment, edited by Fiona Becket and Terry Gilford.
A recent book of short essays, also available online, owes a lot to Val’s philosophical work (read here).
Two essays of mine give in-depth accounts of Jasper Gorge and of the interplay between the ephemeral and the enduring (read here and here).
To hear one of the Anangu Elders tell some of the Dreaming story for Uluru, watch here. A ‘fact sheet’ about ‘sorry rocks’ is available online (read here).
My words about creation and ethics are inspired by Jim Hatley’s work, for example , his essay ‘The Original Goodness of Creation: Monotheism in Another’s Voice’, published in 2012 in the book Facing Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley & Christian Diehm. The quote from Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower comes from their essay ‘Witness to the Face of a River: Thinking with Levinas and Thoreau’, published in the same book.
Val’s analysis of the respect-use dualism is discussed in recent comments by Russell Edwards and Jim Hatley, and will be the subject of a future essay.
Russell Edwards’ comment (below) contains a link to a remembrance article that Jackie French wrote in which she describes Val’s house building skills (read here).
Is it appropriate to be finding goodness in ecological systems? Many people say ‘no, absolutely not’. ‘We can’t look to nature for guidance in human values’, they say. ‘We are humans, nature is different.’
I had a colleague once who was very keen on this point. He was utterly convinced of his basic view that we cannot and must not try to derive values from nature. His clinching argument was the praying mantis. The reason: because after sex the female kills and eats the male. His shudder was thoroughly genuine!
Well, I have to agree that this is not a good model for human life. From a biological point of view, though, it tells us something interesting about mantises. There are over 2,000 mantis species (Mantodea) on Earth, and in all of them the female lays her eggs and then walks away and leaves them. There is no nurturing of the young. She puts all her effort into building up her strength so that she can lay lots of healthy eggs. And given that a female can lay up to 200 eggs, a lot of food has to pass through that little body.
Females can eat, for example, sixteen crickets per day, and in addition to their preferred insect food, they are known to eat mice, frogs, birds and newts. In the time of egg-formation, the female has two main needs: to develop her own strength and to attract a partner to fertilise the eggs. Once that is all in place, death is the next step: lay the eggs, walk away, die and be done with it! After eggs and sex both partners are expendable.
There is no way humans could live like this even if we wanted to. Our young require years of care. It is true that a child can be raised without a father, but it is equally true that it takes a community to raise a child. We are not alone in requiring social co-operation to raise the young. Many mammals do likewise, and so too do many birds. None of us creatures who care for and socialise our young for long periods of time would be wise to take lessons from mantises.
The meaningful division in this context is not between humans and ‘nature’ but between high levels of care and low levels of care of offspring. Both strategies are viable, but they are in no way interchangeable. Scientists refer to them as the r and K selection strategies. One involves large parental investment and few offspring (K), the other involves large numbers of offspring and little parental investment (r).
The r/K difference positions humans as a ‘K’ type of creature; we are like some creature and unlike others.
To return to the joy of sex mantis-style, recent evidence offers a more complex and therefore more interesting story. For a start, it turns out that female mantises only eat their sexual partners if they are hungry. The experiments that showed cannibalistic females ripping into their mates used mantises that were starving. Research outside the lab in fields and gardens did not discover strong evidence for cannibalism.
Males want to copulate every bit as fiercely as females want to lay strong eggs. If there is to be a new generation, the female needs both nourishment and sex. It is rather a happy adaptation that males can, if necessary, provide both. They actually can continue their sexual activity, and may even copulate more rapidly, when their head has been bitten off!
Most creatures are choosy about who they mate with, and mantises are no exception. Females put out a pheromone to announce that they are ready for males, and then it is up to the guys. Male mantises do approach females cautiously. Scientists describe courtship rituals for some species in which the male comes toward the female waving his antennae and wiggling his abdomen. The two of them stroke each other and then mate, perhaps for up to six hours. However, other species take a fly-in-fly-out approach, with the male arriving, having sex, and departing as rapidly as possible.
Out in the garden mantises are doing what mantises do, but inside a high-powered research institute a scientist shudders at the thought of ruthless and predatory females. The insect femme fatale is a prevalent gender stereotype, and apparently a fearsome one. In her human form, she is a beautiful ball-breaker, intent on destroying men while taking all she can from them. Thanks to feminist analysis we now understand that such gender stereotypes are part of patriarchal power. They rationalise control over women, excluding us from full humanity, and they embed the imagery in the realm of nature where it can seem to be incontrovertible.
There is always a fine balance between prejudice and humour. Character types and popular imagery are a significant part of our cultural lives, and a lot of them can be quite funny. I’m rather taken with the kinds of lessons we could share based on male mantis behaviour. Most of us will be aware of the fly-in-fly-out type, of course, and who could fail to recognise the brainless guy who would go on fucking even if his head did fall off!
We learn a lot about humans by examining the stories we tell about nonhumans.
Surprisingly, though, there is actually a lot of positive mantis lore in the human world. In a completely different frame of reference, a northern Chinese style of martial arts known as Tang Lang models itself on mantises. It recognises that mantises are fierce little predators. They are swift and precise, shift from immobility to action instantaneously and take their prey completely by surprise. According to Wikipedia, ‘One of the most distinctive features’ of Tang Lang ‘is the “praying mantis hook”: a hook made of one to three fingers directing force in a whip-like manner. The hook may be used to divert force (blocking), adhere to an opponent’s limb, or attack critical spots (eyes or acupuncture points).’ The basic idea is to work with the principle of overcoming weakness with strength.
So, is there a problem with finding goodness and other blessings in nature? The question goes beyond stereotypes and joking. There is a lot to be learned from the natural world, but learning should not be confused with mindless mimicry. The fact that some females kill their sexual partners is no more a guide to human behaviour than is the fact that some males take an f-i-f-o approach to sex.
The most interesting examples, like Tang Lang, show humans carefully observing and translating other creatures’ knowledge and behaviour into forms that are suited for human life.
Along with martial arts, let us think about translation arts.
When poets translate poems from another language, they have to think about the meaning of the words in the poem and about how to bring that meaning across. At the same time, a poem has sound, rhythm, tone and other characteristics that are part of its power as a spoken form of art. The ‘soundscape’ or ‘music’ is integral to its overall poetic effect. Can a soundscape be brought across from one language to another? Is it better to have a literal translation that closely follows the words but loses the music of the poem? Or should the act of translation try to recreate the music, perhaps changing the poem radically in order to do so?
There are no absolutely right or wrong answers to these questions. Each poem in translation is a unique event. The main point is that translation is itself an art, and thus requires thought, creativity, passion, and strong understanding.
Thinking like a mantis requires far more creativity than simple copying. Interspecies translation is like poetry translation. When humans seek to learn from nature, we need to work like poet-translators and think in terms of art, not imitation.
Think of Earth creatures and systems as poems in languages that are foreign but not entirely incomprehensible. Our task as humans is to translate: to find the meaning and the music, the ways of life and life’s poetry. For we are part of the music of Earth and our capacity to join in harmoniously depends on both the accuracy of our knowledge and the skill of our translations.
There is a highly informative documentary about mantises, and although the narration is astonishingly anthropomorphic it is nevertheless fascinating (view here). It describes itself this way: Published on Aug 26, 2015. Taking a close look at almost hundred days of a Praying Mantis’s life, the movie tries to bring about some incredible images of the creature’s lifestyle, as well as eating and reproducing habits. It covers the whole cycle of laying the eggs, hatching and growth of the insect. This feature changes a lot of theories that have been set about the Mantis.
To learn a bit more about the feminist analysis of mantis-stereotyping and to see some hilarious cartoons, visit this site.
The field of translation is huge. I have learned something of the arts of translation from my partner Peter Boyle, a poet who also translates. For analysis of translation issues, a classic text is the 1921 essay by Walter Benjamin in which he worked with the idea that translation is itself an art (read here). Willis Barnstone provides an interesting and accessible overview of poetry translation issues (read here).
There is a fascinating field of biomimicry which finds technological inspiration in the natural world; it is not the focus of this essay.
r/K selection theory has undergone numerous critiques and refinements since it was first posited. It remains a useful tool for drawing broad comparisons.
Recently Sydney had a wild event that felt even crazier than usual. It was hot and sultry, 38°C on the balcony. The pressure was building. The sky got darker and darker, and with a bang that shook the house the thunder and rain were upon us. It was torrenting down, there was lightning, there were big drops threatening to turn to hail, the wind whipped all about and a strange darkness enveloped us.
At first the air remained hot in spite of the rain, and it all felt perfectly tropical, but then the temperature plummeted. As the storm moved on, little falls of rain continued; the day slipped away, and we hoped not to get soaked and chilled as we walked from the train station to the opera house for a performance.
We were actually pretty damp and chilly but it felt okay because we had gone to see ‘Cut the Sky’, a new production by the Marrugeku dance theatre group. The performance was described as ‘a dynamic fusion of dance, song, poetry and breathtaking visuals, featuring … heartfelt poetry and music’. It lived up to, and beyond, its promise.
The group is based in Broome (Kimberley region, Western Australia) and is made up of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal creative artists. The title refers to the ability of the Elder rainmakers to call up the rain, and to send it away again, too. I guess the rainmakers thought a good drenching was in order for opening night, perhaps to cheer on the performers, perhaps to remind the rest of us that these are great forces, not to be taken lightly.
The Kimberley rainmakers have been part of my cultural world since I started living with Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory back in 1980. In that arid region of the tropical savanna the monsoon rains come from the west, that is, from the Kimberley. People in the Victoria River region of the Territory were somewhat in awe of the rainmakers.
The Kimberley coastal mobs experienced most of this rain first, and they were said to have the most powerful songs and rituals for rain-making. Their power was that of life and death: if no rain came in the wet season the country would suffer terribly, for there would likely be no rain until the following year.
I was interested in my Aboriginal teachers’ understandings of seasons, of course, and it was not too surprising that in this hot, dry country their annual cycle works at one level between the two big powers: sun and rain. When the sun is in the ascendence (the dry season in local vernacular), rain is hidden away. When the rains re-emerge and gain ascendence, the sun is hidden away (although rarely for long). Rain is understood as the action of the Rainbow Serpent, a figure of life and death throughout Australia.
These two great powers wrestle back and forth, and living beings have learned to live with extremes: from the desiccated aridity of late dry season to the flooded billabongs, swampy ground and rushing rivers of the wet season. You could die of thirst, or you could drown, each possibility is totally real and almost every year a few people (often but not always tourists) do die of failure to understand one or the other of the demanding regimes of this country.
Extremes are normal here, and they are interrupted occasionally by titanic events.
This is how it is: Australia is impacted by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and by the Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD). Monumental droughts and massive cyclones are part of the story. As I write, Cyclone Stan is leaving the Indian Ocean and heading across Western Australia. My friends in Broome are at the edge of it, but many coastal mobs will be well awash in strong rain.
One of the most famous is Cyclone Tracy which slammed down on Darwin on Christmas Eve (1974). It crossed over, turned around, and slammed the city again. Its energy, its focus on the major site of white Australian habitation in the far North, and its timing all marked it as something way out of the ordinary.
Why did Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin? Local Larakia people had an answer: in their view it was a hit against Whitefellas who were refusing to grant the Larakia people land rights. In other words, the cyclone had a social context.
Across the region from Darwin through the Kimberley, the cyclone became part of Aboriginal people’s repertoire of stories. Outside of Darwin, people also identified a social context for this titanic event, but they found meanings relevant to themselves. Over in the East Kimberley they made a whole corroboree about it. Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) tells the story of the Cyclone through song, dance, painted boards, body paint, and tall headdresses. It is a wonderfully vivid corroboree in a region where Indigenous culture is already rich with ceremonies.
Gurirr Gurirr was taught to Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas by his mother a few months after she died. She told him of her travels, how she had seen what the Cyclone had done to Darwin, and how she wanted the story to be remembered by being performed. Aboriginal Elders in the Kimberley said that Gurirr Gurirr would teach Aboriginal people, young and old, to take the cyclone as a warning and to keep their knowledge and culture strong. Thomas’s work hangs in the National Gallery, and some of the paintings depict Cyclone Tracy.
Gurirr Gurirr is vivid, beautiful, energetic, and very much in the classic style.
Now: imagine a new Kimberley corroboree. Imagine a multi-media modern dance-theatre performance dedicated to rain and cyclones. Imagine that it addresses multiple dangers – climate change, mining, extinctions, exploitation.
‘Cut the Sky’ draws inspiration from the power of the rain and sun, the power of country, and the power of the Kimberly rainmakers and song makers. Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain are the collaborative creators of this awesome work. They write: ‘There is a sense that the cyclone has been circling us as we work. That it, in turn, has been listening to us, causing us to dance at the edge of the apocalypse.’
The performance has a direct focus both on ecological processes that degrade life on earth, and on their social corollaries: dispossession, violence, deceit and trauma. Throughout the five acts of the performance the dancers brought breath-taking energy to everything they did. Even the quiet moments were astonishingly intense.
Dalisa is a member of a gifted Broome family and the descendant of Bardi rainmakers. She holds and focuses space with every movement. To watch her solo work was to be in the presence of mesmerising artistry. She transformed herself and her connection with her audience, going beyond performance to become something far more rare, and beautiful, and sacred. Throughout her main solo, the anguish and anger of people who are under the weight of destruction came forth, and so did the defiance. ‘I was born for a reason’, she called out, moving in a heart-grabbing stretch between earth and sky. We were with her.
That place of connection became real and the dance became transformative. No longer was it an enactment of the powers of life, but rather it inhabited those highly charged powers. We were there.
There was a time not so long ago when most western-educated people would have scoffed at the idea of connections between human action and weather events. Now our knowledge of climate change reveals the hubris of thinking that our impacts don’t matter. The connectivities are clear, and so too are the responsibilities. We can’t honestly imagine that these big changes have nothing to do with us.
We are in the midst of extreme events, and on this continent the extremes are becoming gargantuan. We are in the midst of violence against the earth and earth’s living beings that seems almost (not always) impossible to stop. We are in the midst of on-going dispossession, greed and deceit, and in our bad dreams we know the frenzy, despair, defiance, and power that ‘Cut the Sky’ brings to life for us. We know it, we need to know it, and we need to be sure that we remember what we know along with recognising that there is much that we don’t know.
I don’t want to spoil the ending of ‘Cut the Sky’, but I can say that leaving the theatre I felt strong. The final act, ‘Dreaming the Future’, put us in the midst of the enduring presence of country, this time overwhelming us with the power of this land of gift. I came home feeling blessed.
*Photographs provided by Marrugeku. All rights reserved.
For a discussion of Gurirr Gurirr (Krill Krill) see this article (view here). To see some of the art, view here.
To see a clip of ‘Cut the Sky’, including a small segment of Dalisa’s solo, view here. For more on Marrugeku, view here. To see a clip of Dalisa’s solo Gudirr Gudirr (not to be confused with Gurrir Gurrir), view here.
Singer and songwriter Betsy Rose has been visiting for a few weeks. She is travelling for eight months on a journey that will take her around the world, singing as she goes. Betsy is my sister, so of course it is wonderful to have her here, and in good sisterly fashion she’s given me the opportunity to pick her mind. She is a Buddhist, and I have saved up some questions about compassion.
The term ‘compassionate conservation’ hit me like electricity when I first heard it. How exciting it is to encounter an alternative to the treadmill of killing that claims that the only way to achieve healthy ecosystems is to kill everything that appears to get in the way of a pretty narrow human vision of what belongs and what does not. Compassionate conservation takes us right away from a suite of practices based on suffering and death, inviting us to think and act differently. The convergence of ecology and compassion is a truly significant direction for major change in our world today, but what is compassion, actually?
Betsy’s mode of engaged Buddhism draws inspiration from the Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. He teaches a basic message of mindfulness and peace that is becoming more profoundly urgent as our species’ penchant for violence erupts into an accelerated, global, multispecies rampage. From an ecological point of view, Buddhism offers a particularly significant human response to violence because it links individuals into wider networks of living beings and aims for the well-being of all.
Many Buddhist prayers ask that all beings be free from suffering. There is, of course, no way to eliminate suffering from life – the two go hand in hand, just as joy and life go hand in hand. But we human creatures have it within us to change our own behaviour so as not to cause suffering needlessly, and it is possible to work toward more peaceful, less brutal societal relations between humans and other creatures. The emerging field of compassionate conservation aims to accomplish this manner of social change in the domains of ecological management and conservation. And yet …
the Buddhist idea of well-being goes way beyond welfare.
The provocation to western thought is huge! Welfare can be understood as freedom from suffering, whereas well-being implies that beings are actually capable of experiencing the goodness of life. This is so significant that it can be hard to take in. One has to pause for a moment to consider what the experience of well-being implies. In ecological terms, we would say that all beings have their own life-world, and they experience it subjectively. Creatures, whether large or tiny, are not machines, but rather are subjects: they have ways of life, modes of being, forms of action and interaction. Worlds of subjectivity include time, place, mobility, sustenance and much more.
One effect of the Buddhist commitment to well-being is that it calls for commitment to ways of life. And in this world of connectivities, commitments keep expanding. For example, commitment to a migratory species must surely include the path of their travel, and commitment to species whose strong site fidelity brings them home to reproduce must involve commitment to those home places. We might think with others in terms of their precious well-being and be reminded of salmon running up their specific streams to spawn; or the lovely synchronicity between flowers, nourishing pollen and pollinators as butterflies migrate from Mexico to Canada and back; or turtles returning to specific beaches to lay their eggs.
Buddhist commitment to well-being apparently involves a lively, unlimited recognition of the connected world in which creatures are capable of experiencing joy in their own well-being. A short section of the Buddhist prayer of universal love reveals this:
May all beings everywhere,
Seen and unseen
Dwelling far off or nearby
Being or waiting to become:
May all be filled with lasting joy.
I did a short interview with Betsy (view here), asking about her travels and her activism. We filmed at home with the relentless rain contributing a little hum in the background. Betsy had encountered a multispecies zone of compassion at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, and she offered a vivid description of the thrill of being in an animal-centric place. There, humans are just visitors, and the focus, organisation and management of the place is dedicated to the well-being of the other (non-human) animals. To close the interview, Betsy sang one of the songs she wrote expressing Thich Nhat Hanh’s Buddhist teachings. It is particularly moving to me because it is about breathing. Breath is immensely inclusive: all the myriad creatures (plants, fungi, animals, many bacteria) breathe in one form or another, and the wind is the breath of the world. Wind, breath, life, well-being: it flows through us all.
For more about Betsy and her music, visit here. To follow her travels, visit here. Her first posting, from Thailand, tells of how she was honoured with the ‘International Tara Award’. To learn more about the Elephant Nature Reserve, visit here.
Thich Nhat Hanh’s work and teachings are well documented, for example at the site for Plum Village in France.
The west’s understanding that creatures inhabit their own worlds of meaning owes its recent history to the continental biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944). Brett Buchanan has provided an excellent analysis of Uexküll’s influence in more recent philosophy in his book Onto-Ethologies. Thom van Dooren and I have developed some of this thought in relation to how two types of animals, penguins and flying-foxes, create worlds of meaning that focus on place. Our article is available on the web.
Our festive season here in Sydney was mostly damp: sultry and tropical at times, at other times chilly, but persistently wet, wet, wet. Whenever the rain carries on like this I think of Seattle in all its watery glory, from salt water to fresh, and from drizzle and showers through to sudden squalls and wild horizontal lashings of the most torrential rain. Love them or not, these rains are essential to the bountiful, moody, temperate rainforests that make the Pacific North West so special. The greatest concentration of biomass on earth is found in these forests, more even than in the Amazon, and one of the great scientific questions has been: how do the trees do it?
David Suzuki offered a surprisingly elegant and complex answer. He pointed out that while rain is essential, it is also the case that it washes nutrients out of the soil. Those months-long downpours take away nutrients at a rate that would seem to make huge forests impossible. So: where on earth does the actual fertility come from?
The Answer: Salmon! And therein lies a true story of life’s goodness.
The scientific analysis of the relationship between forests and salmon is fairly recent. The evidence comes from nitrogen. It is possible to distinguish two types of nitrogen, one that is land based (14N) and one that is ocean based (15N). Analysis of the forest, from trees to soils, shows that the main nutrient is ocean-based nitrogen.
Salmon hatchlings make their way to the ocean and live there for several years, consuming foods such as plankton that are rich in ocean based nitrogen. When it is time for them to spawn, they return to the river in which they hatched, swimming upstream in order to reproduce and die. Along the way they are prey to a great diversity of animals, especially bears.
Salmon and bears – how iconic! Bears grab fish out of the water and take them back into the forest for a private feast. They gobble up the choice bits and then return to the river for more. They transfer from river to forest upwards of 60 million kilos of salmon every year in British Columbia alone! The forests become rich in salmon carcases, and all manner of birds and other scavengers eat the remains.
The bears go on their way in the forests, pooping nitrogen rich fertilizer. The last remains of the salmon become food for flies; the flies lay eggs (on both salmon remains and poop) that hatch out as maggots and transform into pupae. Then, in a moment of perfect synchrony, zillions of nutritious flies emerge just in time for the annual northern migration of many insect-eating birds. Among them are the beautiful little olive-sided flycatchers who fly from Central and South America to the northern forests and back every year.
And so vast amounts of ocean based nitrogen are transferred to the forests, their inhabitants and their visitors. Indeed, the scientists have learned that they can correlate tree rings with salmon runs: the wider and healthier the tree ring (indicating greater annual growth), the bigger the salmon run that year.
Salmon not only benefit a great diversity of other creatures, including the mighty rainforest trees, they also benefit their own offspring. After spawning, the adults die. Their bodies are consumed by fungi which are themselves consumed by bacteria and other micro-organisms. Later the young salmon feed on these same micro-organisms, building strength for their journey back to the ocean. Indeed, salmon are food for almost everyone – in the course of their travels not only are they prey to bears and birds and humans, but also to whales, seals, dolphins and sea lions, and to larger fish including sharks; their decomposing bodies are consumed by micro-organisms; as youngsters they are scooped up by snakes and water birds ~ everybody eats them! And still they thrive, and still they carry the ocean’s bounty into the freshwater rivers, and into the forests, and into other land, sea and sky creatures.
The scientific analysis is fascinating, but it barely begins to capture the wild exuberance of this story. The transformation of fish into food sustains bears, humans, eagles, crows, otters, trees, microscopic river organisms and much more. In these transformations life itself is shifted across plant, animal, fungi and other kingdoms. The great nutritional loops conjoin land, sea and air, seasonal and migratory cycles, birth and death.
David Suzuki wanted to make a point about management. With all the connectivities and transformations that loop through species and individuals to form ecologies, it is clear that a forest is not just a collection of trees. And yet, from a management point of view, trees are to be managed by one bureaucracy, rivers by another, oceans by another, wildlife by another, fish by another; forestry, fishermen, hunters, and a myriad other human-centric interests argue passionately about their particular part of the great system. The real issue, however, is that the health of any part of this vibrant system is integral to and dependent on other parts of the same vibrant system. In Suzuki’s words, ‘… if we keep looking at our own self-interest without seeing the big picture … we are going to screw it up for sure.’
More than forests are at stake here – more than trees and salmon, more than bears and micro-organisms. The wildly entwined loops of transformation are the very practice of goodness in Earth life. The goodness of salmon, as with all goodness, lies both in their lives as lived for themselves and their offspring, and in the benefits others gain from them.
In a human-centric world of narrow ‘self-interest’ and stubborn resistance to recognition of entangled connectivities, it is good, I find, to think of the philosopher Lev Shestov. He argued for a kind of craziness that is exactly what is needed here. Craziness for Shestov meant that a person would immerse themselves in life that is specific in its time and place, situated in awareness of its entanglements with others, and fully committed to the complexities of birth and death. His craziness is a commitment to transience, flux and uncertainty, and perhaps part of the craziness is that none of these qualities offers a promise that leads to human complacency. Rather, uncertainty means that nothing can be taken for granted. And so craziness goes hand in hand with Earth’s exuberance. It offers joy in the form of commitment to transformation, metamorphosis, synchronicity, and shared, looping connectivities.
For us humans, to become crazy-in-love with the living world would mean becoming crazy for salmon and crazy for bears, crazy for forests, fungi, clear running rivers, healthy oceans, migrating birds, nitrogen and much more. We would become absolutely crazy for goodness.
At the end of the day, goodness is the way and the truth of living creatures, and craziness is a human being’s way of remaining part of it.
I find it hard to imagine becoming crazy for rain. Even while I treasure its gifts of life, the truth is that day after day of the stuff makes me fretful. It was a great delight, therefore, when the sun returned for a day or two. And so it is in this world of flux: nothing lasts forever, except perhaps the great earth herself, and change is yet another aspect of goodness.