Tag Archives: Aboriginal Australians

Lively Water

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.

Native well, South Australia
“Native well”, South Australia

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.

Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)
Paddington Reservoir, zenra (CC)

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 Constructed of brick, timber, stonework and iron, the reservoir was superseded around the turn of the century.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.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

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.

Janet Laurence's H2O Water Bar
Janet Laurence’s H2O Water Bar

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.

Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)
Storm building up, Paul Williams (CC)

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.

Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area
Rainbow over Sun Dreaming site, Wickham River area

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.

Eucalyptus flowers
Eucalyptus flowers

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.

Flying-foxes over permanent water
Flying-foxes over permanent water

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.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

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.

© Deborah Bird Rose, 2016

Resources:

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).

To learn more about the Indigenous knowledge of weather and seasons mentioned in this essay, see my article ‘Rhythms, Patterns, Connectivities’.

The quote from Mary White is taken from her book Running Down: Water in a Changing Land, published in 2000.

The relationship between flying-foxes and heat stress has been the focus of several essays, for example ‘Climate Change and the Question of Community‘, and ‘Lethal Heat‘.

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).

For Val, With Love

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.

Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato
Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato

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.

Val's home at Plumwood Mt.
Val’s home at Plumwood Mt.

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.’

Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis
Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis

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.

Jasper Gorge
Jasper Gorge

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.

Split rock in Jasper Gorge
Split rock in Jasper Gorge

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.

Cliff face, Jasper Gorge
Cliff face, Jasper Gorge

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, melalouise (CC)
Uluru, melalouise (CC)

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.

Walking trail, Dot W (CC)
Walking trail, Dot W (CC)

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.

Uluru, sue10749 (CC)
Uluru, sue10749 (CC)

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.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

*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.

Resources:

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).

 

Creature-Languages

Perhaps the funniest words on Earth come from Mundari, a language spoken by tribal peoples in east India, Bangladesh and Nepal. One of the greats is ribuy-tibuy. It means ‘the sound, sight, or motion of a fat person’s buttocks rubbing together as they walk’. Another fine term is rawa-dawa, ‘the sensation of suddenly realising you can do something reprehensible, and no-one is there to witness it’. The Mundari terms belong to a terrific word category that seems to be lacking in English – the ideophone. These words encode sight, sound, smell or feelings within one encompassing term.

Human language is a marvellous capability, both biologically based and socially learned. One of the markers of our being a species is that we humans can all learn each others’ languages. Along with that capacity comes the sense of kinship – we (all of us human language participants) can appreciate the others – their humour, their complexity, their obscurities, their differences, their occasional bizarreness.  And of course we appreciate (or just as often grumble about) the changing vivacity (or, to some, the lack of respect for tradition) of our own language(s).

speech bubble

The capacity for learning is built into our brains, just as the capacity for speech is built into our larynx and windpipe. Actual languages, though, are incredibly diverse in both their structures and their vocabularies. There are languages that pack whole sentences into a single complex word, languages that use sounds that are difficult both to make and to distinguish, languages like signing that don’t use sounds at all, languages that have whole categories of words that other languages don’t have, and a thousand other variations. Of course we love our languages! We learn them and develop our skills with them throughout life; we play with them, and express many of our deepest thoughts, fears, loves, emotions and dreams in them.

In many ways we become ourselves, as individuals and as members of cultural and social groups, through language.

Cricket, by Mulacmail (CC)
Cricket, by Mulacmail (CC)

It is not surprising that for many people language is another of those markers of a boundary erected to separate humans from other living beings. But here again, not all humans take a human-centric view of languages. One of the books I keep coming back to is The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Alphonso Lingis takes this broad and inclusive view of language:

‘Of course the language of gregarious insects, ants and bees, is representational, is governed by correspondence with the layout of things, and is a kinesics of truth. But language begins with the evolution of organs for vocalization among insects not socialised into colonies, whose vocalizations consist entirely of a seductive chant. Their organs … [are] reiterating and reaffirming the forces of beauty, health, and superabundant vitality.’

In brief: human language is one mode of expression within the wider eloquence of Earth life.

Many of the Aboriginal people who taught me were quite clear that other creatures have their own languages. It is not surprising that we cannot understand them; they are who they are and we are who we are. Thinking of them as language creatures is part of the wider mode of understanding the others as creatures not so unlike ourselves.

'Brolga Talking' by David Jenkins (CC)
‘Brolga Talking’ by David Jenkins (CC)

Not only language, then, but other forms of culture as well may be part of Earth life. One of the old people from whom I have learned so much in North Australia was Doug Campbell. In his words: ‘birds got ceremony of their own – brolga, turkey, crow, hawk, white and black cockatoo – all got ceremony, women’s side, men’s side, … everything.’ Plants are sentient too, and, according to many Aboriginal people, the earth itself has culture and power within it. In this line of thought, we are all culture-creatures: we are intelligent, we act with purpose, we communicate and take notice, we participate in a world of multiple purposes. It is a multi-cultural world from inside the earth right on through.

My friend Richard Nelson spoke with and from Indigenous perspectives in his recent speech on Earth languages (view here). In totally engaging manner and style, he was making the profound point that Earth’s expressivity includes much that is not alive in the usual sense of the term, like wind and ice. He concluded:

The whole Earth is one great language family.

I can almost hear the sceptics saying that at the very least, our languages are more complex than those of others. Perhaps this is so. A major new study of human languages concludes that we are the only known species whose communication system varies fundamentally in both form and content. The caveat is that very little is known about other nonhuman languages. But does it follow that love of our kind of language means that it is somehow the best of all possible languages?

The poet Peter Boyle addresses these questions as part of a fascinating article called ‘Being Job – In Three Parts’. He is musing on the Biblical Book of Job, and reflecting on the fact that Job addressed G-d, and G-d answered Job. But in what language? Peter writes:

‘It seems reasonable to suppose that G-d has no intrinsic preference for English over Urdu, Pashtun over Aramaic, Sanskrit over Pitjantjatjara. The language spoken by the aboriginal inhabitants of the Canary Islands would seem as close to his heart as Homeric Greek or old Slavonic. It would be difficult not to assert that G-d would be equally at home in the elaborate grammar of turtles as in the speech of finches, that the soaring discourse of the eagle carries no more and no less charm than the meditative vibration of hornets.’

As with G-d, so with Earth: expressivity is the way of life, and we are all part of it.

If language is a mode of expressing and affirming forces of beauty, health, and vitality, as Lingis tells us, must we limit our attention to sounds? After all, some human languages are soundless, so why not other creature-languages as well?

Martin Burd is an evolutionary ecologist at Monash University. Recently he published a report on research carried out by an international team: ‘Colourful language – it’s how Aussie birds and flowers “speak”’. He notes that much of the colour we see in the nonhuman world adorns flowers and birds. But, he says, ‘we are accidental eavesdroppers on the visual conversations in which they are engaged’. Colourful birds are signalling to potential mates. Colourful flowers also search for mates, Burd tells us, but they do so by first communicating to pollinators, many of whom are birds.

The flowers that appear red to humans have evolved to appeal to the visual system of honeyeaters. Burd concluded that: ‘… many flowering species had evolved to “talk” to birds using a very particular set of colour “words”.’ The scientists concluded that this convergence of flower colour and bird visual system had probably evolved independently far more times than would be expected if it were random, and the next phase of the research will investigate these relationships on other continents with other bird-flower mutualisms.

'Honeyeater Heaven', by John Powell (CC)
‘Honeyeater Heaven’, by John Powell (CC)

I love the thought of us humans being ‘accidental eavesdroppers’. It is such a wonderful reminder that the great communicative, expressive Earth is not all about us. At the same time, of course, some creatures do, from time to time, address a human. The invitation to play is well known, while the growl that says ‘back off’ is a readily identifiable example of a great scheme of expressive messages saying ‘don’t touch!’. We are probably hard-wired as mammals to get many of these messages without having to stop and think too closely.

Much of our engagement with the expressive languages of Earth, though, calls on our imagination, knowledge, and, as Richard Nelson would say, our wisdom.

To be part of the world in which others also communicate in their own languages is, for the human, an opportunity to imagine one’s self sharing worlds with others. We do this all the time with stories, jokes, songs, images, and, of course, poetry. Most of the time, it must be said, we do it on our terms.

One of my favourite poems by Peter Boyle refuses the temptation to draw others into our worlds. ‘Cicada’ comes from the prize-winning book Apocrypha. This is a complex book in which poems are presented as the work of various imagined poets whose own imaginings find their way into both lyric and prose poetry. The great theme of expressiveness runs through all the work. The (imagined) author of ‘Cicada’ is Irene Philologos, and her poetic imagination takes her into an insect world.

Hanging upside down
perched in its own
Heaven
the cicada sings:
“I have eaten and am full.
This
is good.”
Does it sing for us?
Possibly.
If we too have been touched all over by fire
If we have balanced for hours
on the infinite porosity of earth
and know what it’s like
to be the casket of a time-beat
ticking away at metamorphosis
If at times our head and arms have wavered
like a delicate carapace flooded
by all the sky wants us to take in
If we can imagine the dryness of wind
caressing our black shell
all through the hot days
all through the fire of nights
when our eyes are beads of hard blackness
and our frame
breaks open to the homeless language of wind
If we can imagine ourselves
an assemblage of shell and flesh
scattered by the serene indifference of life
If we can call all this
happiness.

(from Irene Philologos, A poetic journal of ten years in Boeotia © Peter Boyle)

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Cicada, by Colin Howley (CC)
Cicada, by Colin Howley (CC)
ResourcesInformation on human languages is drawn from an article by Evans and Levinson (read here).
Peter Boyle’s essay on Job is found in the book Sacred Australia: Post-secular considerations. Information on Peter Boyle’s book Apocrypha can be found here.
Alphonso Lingis: The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common
Martin Burd’s fascinating article can be found here.
A few years ago I wrote an essay with my colleagues Thom van Dooren and Stuart Cooke called ‘Ravens at Play’ in which we reflected on some of the dilemmas of being addressed by others. (view here)

Can Animism Help Revitalise the Commons?

Wesleyan University,  Long Lane Farm Herb Spiral

Wesleyan University,
Long Lane Farm Herb Spiral

My travels in North America have included a fantastic visit to Wesleyan University in Connecticut where I was hosted by the College of the Environment. My colleague and main host was Gillian Goslinga who has carried out inspiring research in India and writes fascinating articles about communities that include humans, non-humans and spirits. Lori Gruen is another key figure in the Wesleyan community, and a thinker who is leading research and action in the field of human-animal studies and multispecies ethnography.  The College of Environment’s  visiting professor this year is Frederique Apffel-Marglin, whose work on local and indigenous knowledge in the face of development has helped me articulate a number of key ideas  over the course of nearly two decades. She has put her ethics and politics into practice as the founder-director of the inspirational Sachamama Institute in Peru. My curiosity and desire were totally captivated by her news of a week-long workshop she and colleagues are running in December on ‘Tantric Ecologies’. How I would love to be  part of that!!

If you have had the opportunity to hang out with inspiring people, you’ll have a good idea of what a buzz I gained from this experience. Perhaps one of the most wonderful aspects of my visit was the opportunity to learn about the student farm. A future blog will discuss Long Lane Farm in much greater detail – stay tuned!

The specific invitation that brought me to Wesleyan was the opportunity to give a keynote speech in the series organised by the College of Environment, under the heading ‘Where Are Earth Are We Going?’ With that stimulating question in mind, and in dialogue with their theme for this year – ‘Re-Envisioning  the Commons’ – I offered a speech on ‘Kinship with Nature in this Time of Loss: Can Animism Help Revitalise the Commons?’ They have very kindly posted it on the web, so here it is.

Frédérique’s brilliant speech ‘Re-imagining the Commons: Natural Resource Management or Biocultural Generation? is also online.

Flying-foxes in Outback Australia

Black Flying-Fox, photo courtesy of Nick Edards
Black Flying-Fox, photo courtesy of Nick Edards

 

The country was touched with gold by the late afternoon sun as Darrell and I drove the last kilometres of gravel road taking us to Wadeye, an Aboriginal community formerly known as Port Keats. Darrell Lewis is often described as a legendary bushman. He had been in Wadeye a week earlier, and had sent a text saying there was a flyout that surpassed anything he’d ever seen. I knew that anything that awed him must be truly fabulous. The flying-foxes were camped by day in the mangroves. There were probably several hundred thousand of them, at the least. Just on dark they had been lifting off – hundreds of thousands of wings beating through the still air, fanning out across the country to flowering trees and shrubs where they would spend much of the night feasting on nectar and pollen. As the main pollinators and seed dispersers for numerous Australian trees and shrubs, they are identified by scientists as a group of keystone species.

Darrell offered to take me to see the flyout, if I could get myself to Darwin. I arrived a week later, hoping like mad that the flying-foxes hadn’t all decided to go somewhere else in the meantime. Everyone out there was talking about it, though, and Darrell was getting texts saying it was all happening. Still, one never knows with flying-foxes. The scientist Kerryn Parry-Jones and her colleagues reported on a camp of about 80,000 individuals in New South Wales where almost the whole mob decamped on one night in June 1989.

As we drove we saw smokes on the horizon where people were burning the country. Closer at hand, the fires had been and gone. The sun lit up the black trunks and brilliant new branches of cycads. We raced past ant hills with fluted tops, and past black and green cycad groves where new fronds formed shapes like wine glasses resting on top of tall black stems. We slowed down through paperbark swamps, and crossed small, clear running rivers. Through hot scrub and entrancing flats, we chased the lure of flying foxes.

Once we got to Wadeye we positioned the video camera, almost holding our breath as we waited. I filmed the sunset, and still we waited. The sky became a deeper mauve, the blue vault grew darker, and still we waited, watching the line where the mangroves met the sky.

When the first ones finally appeared, it felt like a treasure box had just sprung open. The horizon was almost black in intensity, and then it started to fragment as flying-foxes in their thousands separated from the trees and from each other, taking flight and heading off toward the west. Some travelled low across the sky, while others fanned out over our heads. The sky was thick with them, and we could hear their wings fanning the air. From time to time, one would turn and go back, but the vast majority kept going in the direction they had chosen for their night time feast. We were looking at ‘blacks’ – Pteropus alecto – one of the four Australian species. It is possible that ‘little reds’ (P. scapulatus) were there too.

We had no way of knowing how many there were. It is impossible to gauge the number of individuals in a fly-out unless one is an expert. And yet, large numbers are by no means impossible. Even in NSW where the numbers are in decline, there are reports of camps of 200,000 individuals as recently as the 1980s. I was reminded of what the naturalist Francis Ratcliffe wrote about his experiences with flying-foxes in his 1938 book Flying Fox and Drifting Sands. He described a cloud of grey-headed and little red flying-foxes in southern Queensland in the 1920s. At that time the populations were in decline because settlers had been killing them in large numbers. Here is his description of a flyout:

The scrub by that time was belching forth foxes. They rose up in thousands circled once or twice, and then joined the southbound stream. In three or four minutes a column of the beasts about a hundred yards wide was stretched away across the sky as far as I could see.

From a very rough census I estimate some of the flocks which congregate together for shelter in the daytime number hundreds of thousands. Not so long ago a few must have crossed the million mark.

Ratcliffe was writing at a time when flying-foxes were being heavily persecuted. He had, in fact, been brought out from England to carry out research with the aim of eradicating flying-foxes. Orchardists in NSW and Queensland had tried many methods; they’d they shot, poisoned, gassed, and burnt flying foxes. They’d cut down their maternity camps, created a great variety of forms of harassment to drive them away, paid a bounty for scalps, and even bombed them. In recent years other cruel methods have been used with the result that many flying-foxes live with increasing conflict and terror. And of course they are not alone in this: many animals, including humans, are today afflicted with terrible violence.

Like many people who spend time around flying-foxes, Ratcliffe came to respect and perhaps even grow fond of them. And so it was with a touch of regret that he concluded that while efforts to eradicate flying-foxes would probably not be successful in the short run, the populations were in steep decline and it seemed possible that ‘the problem’ would take care of itself. Today both grey-headed (P. poliocephalus) and spectacled flying-foxes (P. conspicillatus) are endangered, and are protected (in theory) in accordance with the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The awe I felt at seeing the Port Keats mob was tinged with the knowledge that in many parts of Australia flying-foxes are reviled and persecuted. Even as I treasured every moment of the flyout, I couldn’t help but hold in the back of my mind the sense that someday this sight might no longer be possible. For the moment, though, the experience was exhilarating.

We were not the only ones to feel the excitement. Darrell’s friend Mark Crocombe lives there, and he told Darrell that the previous night the flying-foxes had varied their track and flown directly over the community. The children were out playing, getting the most out of the last light of day when the flying-foxes flew over. The kids stopped their play, and they cheered!

Wadeye has its problems, as do many communities, but it also has its strengths. The great flyout was a wonderful moment for realising that this is how life is meant to be: country that is well cared for; animals free to lead their own lives of purpose and beauty. And amidst all this splendour, humans who respond in kind: the cheering children, the watchful and awestruck adults.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

The Home Video is now available!

References

Parry-Jones, K. A., and M. L. Augee 1992 ‘Movements of Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) to and from a Colony Site on the Central Coast of New South Wales’, Wildlife Research 19:331-40.

Ratcliffe, F. 1938 Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

For a longer essays on flying-foxes, see:

Rose, D. 2012 ‘Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time’, Environmental Philosophy, IX, 1, 127-140. (See: https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time)

Rose, D. 2011 ‘Flying Foxes: Kin, Keystone, Kontaminant’, Australian Humanities Review, 50: 119-136. (http://epress.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/ch076.pdf)

For a conversation with the legendary bushman, see:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/conversations/darrell-lewis/4766348