Caring for Country: Aboriginal culture offers environmental wisdom

Aboriginal culture offers environmental wisdom in an era of climate change and large ecological footprints
As we enter the unknown territory of climate change, Charlotte Francis suggests there's much to learn from indigenous and traditional wisdom.

"Womin Jeka," says our guide Brian Morley, welcoming us in the Wurundjeri language to the Aboriginal Heritage Walk in Melbourne's Royal Botanic Gardens. I have been meaning to do this walk for a while and am thrilled not only to have perfect walking weather, but also the most engaging guide.

Brian strides out with a hand-whittled walking stick (from some kind of gum tree, he says) and a kangaroo skin bag slung across his body. He wears feathers in his hat, which is braided with the colours of the Aboriginal flag; red symbolising the earth, yellow the sun and black the people.

As we head down from the Visitor Centre towards the Oak Lawn, he introduces us to various plants that were used in the native culture for food, medicine, tools and weaving. "The old people wasted nothing," he says, describing Aboriginals as the original conservationists of the planet. "If we look after the land, the land will look after us."

Take the humble banksia tree; we learn that the nectar in the flower spikes - as well as attracting possums, birds and bats - can be made into a sweet drink. The cones can be used to filter dirty water but also work well as slow burning wicks. A little further on we come to a 300 year old banksia tree, a hardy survivor from pre-colonial times.

Sadly, as we all know, huge areas of our native landscape have been cleared over the last 200 years to make way for agricultural and residential development. Since the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788 and the introduction of hard-hoofed animals, our environment and ecosystems have been in decline.

In her book, On Our Watch, The Race to Save Australia's Environment, zoologist and conservationist Nicola Markus spells out just how much damage has been done to the natural fabric of our continent in "barely a blip in the history of the planet." But this blip has proved long enough "to clear vast tracts of the landscape, trigger significant soil erosion, salinity and acidification, degrade wetlands and waterways, introduce foreign plants and animals and cause the extinction of more than 100 plant and wildlife species. Enough time, therefore, to leave an indelible footprint on an ancient and fragile continent."

Brian, a member of the Stolen Generations, was born in Horsham but taken away from his family and placed in an institution when he was just two and a half. He still feels a connection to that area, to the land and to his spirit guides. A psychic once told him that the presence of feathers indicates that his spirit guides are nearby. That's why Brian wears a mix of feathers - powerful owl, cockatoo and black crow - in his hat. The black crow, he tells us, is known as Waa, Bunjil's offsider. Bunjil, the eagle, is the creator spirit of Wurundjeri people and Melbourne's Kulin Nation. According to the Dreamtime story, he created what we now know as Port Phillip Bay.

We sit in a circle on the Oak Lawn, a raised area once used for ceremonies and corroborees, as Brian lights a smoky gum leaf fire. He describes himself as a contemporary songman; between Christmas and February this year he composed 20 songs. Music has been his therapy and pathway to healing; he recently played at the second Sorry Festival in February. Acknowledging fellow musician, Archie Roach, Brian quotes him as saying, "We could have told you folks so many things but you didn't ask." And that was our mistake.

Nicola Markus describes how the Europeans discounted the nomadic Aboriginal way of life and "failed to identify the profound suitability of this ancient way of life in an equally ancient and complex continent." We can perhaps forgive our forefathers their ignorance, but we have no convenient scapegoat for more recent environmental outrages. Markus documents that between 1997 and 1999, the equivalent of 100 football fields of Queensland's Brigalow Belt was being cleared every hour.

The legacy of working against the land for so long is that our footprint - the demands we make on the land - now exceeds what the environment can provide or absorb. Markus points to research that ranks Australia's ecological footprint as the sixth largest among 150 countries assessed in 2006. (1) We like our beef and dairy products - more than 75% of Australia's water is used by the agricultural and pastoral sectors. Our household water use is also high, making us the 13th highest water consuming nation in the world.

Another problem is that our stressed and depleted landscapes are less able to withstand the impacts of climate change. That's why I'm incredulous that the Victorian government recently eased water restrictions - even though the dams are only 5% higher than this time last year - so that we can now water our gardens every other day. Let's be honest, most of the gardens that need lots of water are those that are full of non-native plants completely unsuited to this climate - another colonial throwback.

It is no doubt a political move to earn votes in an election year and owes much to the controversial north-south pipeline and the desalination plant. But it seems crazy to encourage a more relaxed approach to water when the media has been bombarding us with "save water" messages for the last two years. Australia remains, after all, the driest inhabited continent on earth and 75% of our land is arid or semi-arid. In contrast, Western Australia, in recognition of declining rainfall trends in the SW, has recently imposed year-round water restrictions limiting sprinklers to just twice a week. And it's a move that's been generally well accepted by a water-wise population.

Water was a prominent theme at a recent talk by Dr Kate Auty, Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability, magistrate and founder of the first Koori Court in Victoria. Kate talked about riding with her brother through the outback from Bourke in NSW to Melbourne as a teenager. They followed the stock routes from bore to bore. The trip and the daily need to find water (at one point, they couldn't locate a bore) instilled in her an understanding of the importance of water and the fragility of our ancient environment.

Inspired by Kate's recommendation, I read Cleared Out, First Contact in the Western Desert by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson and Yuwali (a Martu woman). The book documents the clearing out of Western Australia's Western Desert in preparation for the launch of the Blue Streak rockets, a joint British and Australian government project in 1964.

Two Patrol Officers were charged with patrolling an area larger than France with the aim of moving the Martu people out of the danger zone. Cleared Out tells the extraordinary story of Yuwali, a Martu girl aged 17, and her own and her group's first encounter with the whitefella.

Yuwali and her grandmother, mother, father's sister and a large number of children (they had become separated from the men for various reasons), lived in camps clustered around salt lakes in Wirnpa country. Wirnpa is a rainmaking snake and, along with Karparrti and other Dreamtime beings, formed the country around the Percival Lakes (the Canning Stock Route passes through the eastern fringe of the lakes).

Following the story of the cat and mouse pursuit of the Martu people by the Patrol Officers reveals the Martu people's deep understanding of their natural environment and how to read it. They needed to know the location, nature and condition of all water sources in their country at all times. The location of wells and soaks (claypans that hold water during the rains) was known precisely, as they frequently required digging out - to a depth of several metres - before the water was found. What's more, each water source had a name, a story and each line of waterholes was part of a larger Dreamtime story. The Martu also had an expert knowledge of weather systems; it was not just a case of reading the weather - perhaps rain - but knowing the effect of different types of rain on the land.

What seemed an empty and unforgiving stretch of desert to the ministers in London and Canberra was, to the Martu people, a place of prosperity with ample food provided by bush tomatoes, seeds, bush yam, wild onion, lizards, snakes, emus, kangaroos, goannas - and since the advent of the white man - feral cats and rabbits.

It is hardly surprising that the Martu were afraid of the strangers in their moving rocks (the Patrol Officers in their trucks). One of the women's (Junju's) sons made drawings in the lake's crust of Wirnpa as a way of enlisting the help of the rainmaking snake to scare off the intruders.

Learning a little more about our Aboriginal heritage, I was interested to read new research on native cultures and their knowledge systems presented by Lynne Kelly, science writer and doctoral student at La Trobe University. Her paper examines how hunter-gatherer cultures stored and preserved their knowledge, rituals and traditions. Taking Stonehenge as the core of her discussion, she argues that knowledge was not just passed down via the oral tradition, but also encoded in sacred monuments and structures. In the case of Stonehenge, as the hunter-gatherer culture moved to a settled farming community, they needed a way of retaining the knowledge once they no longer visited the sacred sites and so the monumental architecture represents the sites and sequence of their traditional annual cycle.

Her paper draws on many different examples of mobile hunter-gatherer societies using mnemonic (memory aid) devices linked to ceremonial sites and performances as the focus of knowledge exchange for a variety of purposes. These include dispute resolution, ritual performance, mythology, matters to do with law and initiation, and records of plants and animals, as well as how, what, where and when to hunt and gather.

She describes how highly decorated posts represent the art of the Djungguwan ceremony of the Yolngu people. The posts tell the story of the mythical ancestors and their travels across the land. The bee fly is represented visually in bark paintings, but knowledge of the native bee and how to detect a hive by observing the hovering of the parasitic bee fly is also captured in song and dance.

She also demonstrates the widespread use of landscape tracks as a mnemonic ordering device for songs among mobile cultures. "For example, the Australian Aboriginal Dreaming tracks serve to map the landscape, record ownership, link the sacred places visited and act as a table of contents to the huge indigenous knowledge base, each place becoming a subheading for the songs, story or ceremony performed there."

We have over 40,000 years of indigenous knowledge systems to draw on and much of that knowledge provides the key to understanding how to work in harmony with, and harness, the elements of our natural environment.

So it's heartening to see that several go-ahead conservation organisations are working with indigenous groups tapping into traditional knowledge and community-based models of "caring for country". It's not too late for us to learn from the traditional owners of this land and to find innovative ways of drawing on traditional and science-based methods of managing our natural resources.

More information:

Cleared Out: First Contact in the Western Desert by Sue Davenport, Peter Johnson &. Yuwali. Canberra: Aboriginal Studies Press, Canberra

On Our Watch, The Race to Save Australia's Environment by Nicola Markus: Melbourne University Press

(1) 'WWF Living Planet Report 2006' WWF World Wide Fund for Nature