How White Fella Dreaming awakened to Belonging

Have you ever hit one of those points where you knew the next move you made was vitally important to the rest of your life and you weren’t quite sure which direction to take? This year the White Fella Dreaming project took me way outside of my comfort zone and forced me to rethink the reason behind it: how ‘new’ or non-indigenous Australians feel more at home on the land, so that we treat it better, and achieve a more satisfying and respectful reconciliation with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the process.

Two Humpbacks underewater

The story begins on the remote desert-fringed beaches of the Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, where I spent most of June and July this year. I was a long, long way from electricity, let alone mobile phone or internet networks. I snorkeled, fished, cooked over a fire with my lovely little family, and dreamed of what the sands and salt water would say to me if I could be awake enough to listen to them. I meditated in the sand dunes and heard the rustling of the ocean breeze in the desert grasses. I watched bands of olive-coloured budgies flock overhead, chirping a sussuration across the sky as they headed one day south, a few days later back north, on some mini-migration that remained a mystery to me. As I so often do, I wondered what knowledge the original inhabitants of this land would have had to share, if they still lived here on the land. I saw the occasional ’roo at sunset or dawn and eagles seeking roadkill along the endless highways; but there are not many animals out here, where the land is so sparse and the rain so rare.

budgies

In the water, it is different. I snorkeled alongside a manta ray while it fed in spiraling circles, before tipping upside down and swimming away with its under flank exposed, looking down at the sand and reef below. I flipped around with turtles, avoided a sea snake, kept my distance from the bronze whaler sharks, and marveled at the wild variety of other creatures that shared this ocean paradise: colourful fish, of course, but also sting rays, squid (which look almost celestially radiant underwater), cuttlefish, octopus, giant gropers and cod, flashy mackerel and tuna, harmless and beautiful reef sharks … the list goes on. But one amazing experience will stay with me for life. Around 2km out to sea, while free-diving from a boat, two humpback whales approached me, banked around to keep me in full view, and allowed me to swim by them for a couple of minutes. Those brief moments were some of the most special times that I have enjoyed in the company of other animals. I could hardly believe such magnificent creatures would come to me out there in the middle of the ocean. I wished that time would slow down to a stop, at least just for a while … but of course nature keeps moving, and they soon continued their migration towards the Kimberley, where they would calve some 1000km to the north of here.

manta ray

And it was up in the Kimberley – or at least that most exotic of Australian towns, Broome, which serves as the western gateway to this incredible landscape – that my calling became refined by fire. For here, in consecutive meeting with researchers into indigenous knowledge, I came to realize that I needed another way to teach alongside White Fella Dreaming; a way that did not put anyone off side, as I was told that my usage of the term “Dreaming” would, in terms of Aboriginal feelings about traditional and surviving culture. The Dreaming, for me, is a kind of mythology – or powerful story that links the physical world with a sense of the sacred – that listens to the song of the land and identifies people with the rest of nature, so they we are compelled to protect it as well as enter into conversation with it.

But this didn’t cut it on “country” (the “enlivened spiritual cosmos” of the land, as Deborah Bird Rose puts it). It didn’t matter how well I could defend my understanding or aims; the whole idea of White Fella Dreaming was just too close to cultural appropriation. I acquiesced to this and suggested I talk about “comparative mythologies” – which is technically my area, combined with the ecological humanities – but no go. The Kimberley Aboriginal peoples didn’t want their culture talked about in terms of myth, because this could also lead to misunderstandings. Once again, nothing I could do to help ease such confusions was going to be enough to get over that barrier.

So, I had to quit on the idea of working with this research centre and their people and move on. This didn’t mean the end of White Fella Dreaming, because I had seen this controversy coming, in one form or another, and knew I would have to weather such storms. And I had another set of allies who had also helped me to overcome this kind of challenge from a different angle – beautiful friends who had been advising me to find a ‘universal’ value, something in the human heart and soul that any and all could appreciate. While sensed they were right, the problem was that I still hadn’t found that theme. But now I was frustrated and that kind of energy, like anger, can be very productive when it is chanelled right. I was also lucky enough to be in Broome with another of these friends, my colleague Paul Pulé, who was interested in researching with the same group in his own field of ‘ecomasculinities‘. Together we workshopped my dilemma, using some of the phrases I had been advised to throw around: What is it that I do, everyday, that is behind all my efforts in the world? What is my highest, or deepest, calling? Put another way, what vision do I wish to serve, which will lead to ‘generative’ outcomes no matter what? And what word or phrase best describes this value in a way that does not lead towards possible misunderstandings or political disputes, conflicts or arguments (all that stuff we desperately need to resolve!). Finally, Paul helped me to name it. Regardless of who I am talking to or what the topic is – whether it is an intellectual conversation or an emotional support session, about spirit or football, at work or in the park, there is always one thing I wish to leave people with if I can – and that is a feeling of belonging.

Belonging-02c_1800p

When people feel they truly belong, they are comfortable in their skin. They are at ease with their community. They feel loyal to the earth. They are more likely to do good work, to try and resolve conflict rather than inflame it, to protect what is worthy – including fresh air, clean water, healthy soil and other animals as well as all people (especially the defenseless or oppressed) and other manifestations of life (beautiful buildings, art, the scientific mind as well as the spiritual life, creativity as well as critical thinking – the list could go on forever, to include anything you stand for and love and wish to protect). In belonging I find what is most meaningful to me and to my work – something that underscores and takes priority over the intellectual labour of university life, something coded into the DNA of great stories and humble truths, a feeling that can emerge out of any compassionate interaction between myself and others. When I feel I belong and I share that feeling, all levels of possible conflict can be dissolved. The sense that we don’t totally belong in our bodies? Melted into a tangible sense of at-one-ness. Our experiences of conflict with others in our community, close or far afield? These can lead to a more robust order, a higher level of communications, better ways that allow for opposing perspectives. Our alienation from the rest of nature? Even this dissipates in the face of belonging, like a bad dream that fades as we awaken to a new life, transformed back into what we once and always were – at home, here in our bodies, with each other, born to this incredible fortune on our beautiful jewel of a planet.

For those keen to work with these ideas in a supportive environment, Geoff’s inaugural workshop on Belonging will be held on Saturday 10th October at CERES Environmental Park in Brunswick East. For more information and booking details please go to belonging.org.a

Stop the closures of remote Aboriginal Communities in Australia

Why is it so important that we stop the closures of remote Aboriginal Communities?

communities2

Australian Aboriginal people have given a new meaning to the word “country.” For them, it means a “spiritually enlivened” world, filled with different types of life, each of which has its own intrinsic rights to be there.* Aboriginal connection to country informs a culture with a proven record of sustainable habitation. By building relationships with country – the land, the other creatures, the sea and fresh water bodies, the ancestral spirits that formed these different varieties of life – Aboriginal peoples could remain in conversation with nature. Their place in the world was significant, meaningful; Aboriginal people had responsibilities to country and held it in an attitude of gratitude, for it had given birth to them, the people, just as it had birthed the landforms and other creatures. This is a loving relationship between subjects, or people, of different kinds, all of whom play their part in the biodiverse ecology of any place.

 Communities

This is the relationship we need to learn from, not break. We should not only be calling to stop the closures of remote Aboriginal Communities; we should be calling on increased funding, which would allow true self-determination, so that Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples can continue to rebuild their timeless cultures, strengthen their connection with country, and teach us white fellas (or kardiya) the wisdom of their ways. We haven’t done a very good job of this since our own ancestors, the British of the late 18th century, landed here and declared the great southern land Terra Nullius, a Latin expression deriving from Roman law meaning “nobody’s land.” This means they assumed that the new territory had never been subject to the sovereignty of any state, or over which any prior sovereign had relinquished sovereignty. It’s a pretty poor take on the complexity of the Aboriginal people that inhabited the land, the complexity of their political systems and processes, the ingenuity of their technologies and ways of being with country.

 Pilbara Language Families

But that’s the past. Let’s not repeat it. Further dispossession on the basis of poor economic figures is unfair and unjust. Let’s fix this situation, by asking how the people themselves would like to see it fixed, rather than acting paternalistic – or even worse, acting ruthless – from the governments in the cities. This situation reminds me of the doco shown recently on SBS, Contact. This was the film about how the Murtu people were found living in the area where the rockets from Woomera were going to land in the 60s. Most of the tribe, including all the men, had left the traditional lands (presumably to chase work, though this wasn’t mentioned). A group of around 20 women and children remained and the scientists realized this with little time to go. They raced against time to move the Murtu along, in their trucks, which the children thought were monsters. The group ran away, hiding in caves, asking Yimiri the great ancestral Serpent to protect his people. They asked for a storm to “drive away the devils” who were chasing them; and it worked. A huge storm rolled in, and the rain washed away all their tracks. Ironically, this victory made them impossible to find; and horribly, the British and Australian scientists fired anyway. The rocket failed, however, breaking up in the sky, and falling on some other “unoccupied” land. With a little more time, the white fellas were able to find the group and dispossess them to Jigalong, further south in Western Australia.

 Jigalong sign

This isn’t the time to mention how much such dispossessions have cost all Australians, especially the Aboriginal peoples, in terms of their health and welfare, and their ability to care for country and to pass that knowledge on down the generations. But it does seem a fair time to point out how many natural resources are under the ground in WA; just in case there’s a link between mining futures and clearing the land of its native people.

Mineral prospects in Oz

This has been going on since large-scale civilizations began. It’s time it stopped. There is hope. At the end of Contact, those children, now grandparents, are showing the old film to the new generations; to show the kids their old families, but also to show them the “waterholes, where the stories come from,” so they can help to “keep the law strong.” Let’s help them. See the site at http://www.sosblakaustralia.com/  and show your support on the page at https://www.facebook.com/sosblakaustralia

* See Deborah Bird Rose on this.

The Old Ones

100_7829Stone circle, Loughcrew, Ireland

 

Deep within our own codes – soul shapes and DNA – lie the memories of the Old Ones; the Ancestors who got us here, who survived the hard times, who inform our own behaviours and predispositions. At our best we recall them, give thanks, even revere the memory of these beings, who can be human but are also other kinds of inner guide, including the wisdom of cellular memories, which are informed by interactions between waters and salts and earth matter, by the evolution of animate life, by the historical play of light and darkness, by the creative spirits that lay down the paths across the land upon which we walk and breathe.

 

100_7845Petroglyphic carvings, Loughcrew.

We have our parents, theirs, and so on back to the ancients; European ancestry, Chinese, African, Native. These people got you here, so it seems only fair to respect their fighting spirit for life – it wasn’t always easy. But deeper behind this, who or what gave rise to them? Primates that came down out of the trees in the Rift Valley, evolved the opposable thumb, began to use symbols to communicate strategies to overcome their relative physical weakness in the face of the other giant predators; or who awakened as if overnight having been gene-spliced by another, more evolved race; who grew out of the swirling mud of the earth or fell from the sky, or both; and anyway, what about all the other animals and beings along the way? Didn’t the amoeba that began to divide and become more complicated give rise to more life from the oceanic abodes of earth’s earliest history? Ancestors arise from the cosmic soup, the swirling chaos out of which life emerged, in the newts and frogs and toads and salamanders closest to life between land and liquid; in the other mammals that teach us how to watch and listen carefully … the timid deer and painstaking owl, the insouciant yet speedy kangaroo or emu, the burrowing wombat or the roaring lion or the bull or cow or horse whose powers join ours in the flux of life.

 

100_8180Section of Sargon’s Gates, ancient Mesopotamia

 

All life gives life to all other life, in a co-creative dance of mutual support and, if we are open to it, lifelong learning. Trees emanate oxygen and we breathe it in; trees die and parrots nest in them; rodents eat acorns and butterflies feast on the bugs that live on the leaves; and as for fresh water … we are nothing without it. Even light, radiating out from the stars, the original life force, is part of the life and breath of our ancestry, as is the darkness that is its relief. The Old Ones, our ancestors, are everywhere, still, and they are also buried deep in the past. If we listen to the power of the stars, the wisdom of the animals and plants, the silence of the stones and the burbling of the waters, we can still hear new ways of thinking about current ecosystems. These stories are myths, in the best possible way – powerful narratives and symbols that are capable of tying us back to the great magnificence, reminding us of where we come from, what we rely upon, how much we love what we seem to be losing, how sad we need to be at the destruction of the earth, how much we need to then let go of that sadness and remember again our fortune, forever in a cycle of giving thanks and fighting for what is right and what supports more life …

 

shutterstock_69675613-sunOur local star, flaring with the stuff of life, light and warmth (if you’re lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time).

 

 

I give thanks to my ancestors, the Normans and Celts who lived across western Europe, who eventually joined with the Anglo Saxons and other moderns to emigrate to Australia; to the ancestors of this land, who cared for it and lived on it and kept their ancient ways as strong as possible, while also remaining open to new ways when that became the most intelligent and sustainable option, who still work with creativity and tradition in dealing with the colonizing force of the modern west, just as native people all over the world deal with invasive forces from larger, more technologically developed societies; to the ancestors of the human race and to the other animals and plants who helped give rise to us, who give rise to themselves, who work in co-creation to support life even as they consume it, to earth creatures of all stripes and to the stars, the furnaces of life, the great, deep, celestial intelligence of light that fires our planet every day and drives cellular growth and wires motor neurons together so that we can comprehend and compute and cry and be awake and love and feel and think. I give thanks to the ancestors.

All of them.

 

dugong-hunters-150x150This image is from an Australian Aboriginal “Dreaming”, or songline, or country line (story to come soon).