Cave of light,
Sets things right.
*Featured image by UrbanTwilight.net
Cave of light,
Sets things right.
*Featured image by UrbanTwilight.net
*I acknowledge Darug Country and the old people, as well as the elders and traditional custodians past, present and future, as co-authors of this blog post. I would also like to acknowledge and thank Uncle Lex, Auntie Corina, Uncle Daniel, Uncle Paul, Uncle Chris, and Uncle Lester as important co-authors in their generous roles as creators, story-tellers, sharers, and hosts. I would also like to acknowledge Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Kerstin Siegmund, Rebecca Scott, Alexandria Pinto, Nicola Fuller, and Brooke Kelly for their contributions.*
As though Country had anticipated the days ahead, an overcast sky rolled away for another time, leaving the endless blue and the deeply warming golden beams of sunshine that enveloped us for the next three days. The week leading up to the Darug Culture Camp had been wet and cold, but now, the weather felt welcoming. In my mind, it was not difficult to consider that Country itself was looking forward to the camp.
Photo by Kerstin Siegmund
The culture camp was something exciting that held a lot of meaning for many people, but particularly for our hosts, senior Darug people Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina. The Country that we would be sharing on and with held ancestral bonds of kinship for them, and they had put much of themselves into caring for it. This would be the first Darug culture camp held here, on Country, in a long, long time, and for Uncle Lex, Auntie Corina and the many Darug men and women who came to share, that was something meaningful.
Held at Yarramundi in Sydney’s West, this was also a meaningful place for me personally. Although not an indigenous Australian, I had been born on Darug Country, and lived much of my life here. All through school, I had been left with the distinct impression that Sydney had no Aboriginal culture – everything we knew about indigenous Australia presumably came from over-generalised ‘outback’ communities, and even then was based on narrow scripts often written from the perspectives of settlers alone, rather than indigenous peoples themselves. I didn’t know the specific indigenous history, culture, or people of the place I called home.
This is an all too common story in Australia, one that was shared by most of the camp attendees – students, staff, family and friends from Macquarie University. We had all had these narrow narratives of indigenous Australia challenged via our education and experiences in different ways. But for many of us, these challenges still came from elsewhere. Despite Darug Country being my home, I can’t help but feel horribly disconnected from the Darug soul of this place. For me, and for many of the attendees, culture camp would be a time of responsibility, a chance to get to know something of that soul and be connected to the heritage of where our lives take place.
Photos by Sandie Suchet-Pearson & Kerstin Siegmund
For Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina, it meant even more, and throughout the weekend it was impossible not to be moved by their emotion, and the heart and soul that they put into sharing with us. I emphasise ‘sharing’, because there was an overwhelming sense of generosity emanating from all of our Darug hosts, and from Country itself. Time and again, Uncle Lex reminded us:
“This is your home too, you’re part of Country.”
Those words were immediately connecting – to Country, and to a sense of care and responsibility that comes with belonging to it. This is not MY home, but rather OUR home: the home of many lives from the past, present and future. We share our belonging to Country in ways that connect us to stories that reach far beyond ourselves and our current time. That sharing was felt strongly throughout the camp.
Photos by SandieSuchet-Pearson & Kerstin Siegmund
On the first night of camp, we gathered around a special fire for a smoking ceremony. The smoke cleanses and welcomes, ensuring that we come to Country free of the rubbish we tend to carry with us. You can feel it. The smoke gets in your eyes, clears your view so that you see only the flickering glow of the fire and the bluish clouds that move over your skin, sweeping you clean as the smoke gets to know you. The smell of the burning leaves in the fire awakens your senses, attuning you to Country. The sound of the clap-sticks seems to speak with voices from the earth, and the beautiful singing of Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina in their language echoes with the voices of their ancestors, who are with us too. We spend the night talking, listening, sharing, and then sleep beneath the stars, where a diligent, honoured Emu ancestor from the Dreaming watches over us.
The next day is all about clap sticks! Uncle Lex shows us how he makes them, and it is incredible to see these humble little instruments emerge from a tree. It is a purposeful undertaking, one of ritual and care. Uncle Lex tells us:
“The more time you put into the clap-sticks, the better they will sound.”
Photos by Kerstin Siegmund
He encourages us to think about where they are coming from, to consider their lives so far as we work on them now. In my spirituality, trees are sacred beings and I imagined the long-life of the tree that had provided the material for these clap-sticks. I imagined what stories it held in its wood, the hundreds-of-thousands of lives it had nurtured as home and food, the days and nights and seasons it had experienced. I wondered if these stories would be heard in the voice of the clap-sticks, destined to be part of every song that they would now play in? What was my responsibility to these clap-sticks, and to the tree that had given them life? Uncle Lex suggested that responsibility began with the making of the clap-sticks:
“Think about how long that tree took to grow, the patience it put into growing the wood you’re working with now. You’re only being asked to put a small portion of that patience back into making your clap sticks, it’s not much to give back to the tree when you really think about that.”
Later, Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina took us to a sacred family site and explained its significance. The patience, knowledge and purpose of the old people as they carved two kangaroo figures into the rock contributed to the importance of the story the figures themselves told. In modern times, people had come to the site and tried to re-carve the kangaroos to be more visible, but they had done so without understanding the story or the process of carving the lines. Uncle Lex pointed out the changes, saying:
“These lines have sharp edges, but the old people used rounded edges. They’re changing the story”.
Photos by Kerstin Siegmund
That afternoon, we found out just how hard it was to carve into rock! After collecting suitable stones, some of us had a go at trying to grind them into axe-heads! It was a very time-consuming process involving wetting the rock and stone, and grinding away. The patience and effort that goes into carving and grinding becomes part of the story of what is being made, whether it is an image, a tool, or a clap stick. So much care goes into everything, nothing is taken for granted, everything has something to share and to tell. Kerstin Siegmund kindly gives her insights into the lengthy process of grinding axe-heads, a task she undertook with great diligence and commitment:
“After a short demonstration from Uncle Daniel, I perched myself on one of the rocks. “Get comfortable, this could take a while”, Uncle Daniel declared. The muddy water splattered over the rock as I set to work. One minute, five minutes, ten minutes of grinding and I could not see any difference…I realized axe grinding requires a lot of patience. Intently I kept grinding my rock against the sandstone, sprinkling water every few minutes and swapping hands to relieve the cramps building up.
Then suddenly my heart started pounding as I could see a shallow groove starting to form in the sandstone below my rock…The grinding took nearly two hours, but the patience paid off. When I saw the sharpened rock in my hands and the deepened groove in the sandstone I felt happy and proud that I had the endurance to pursue.
Uncle Lex told me that this axe grinding groove is now connected to the story of the place. For Aboriginal peoples, axe grinding grooves are an important link with ancestors and their past and this experience has allowed me to gain a deeper understanding of that connection. I would feel saddened if anyone said it is just a rock. The rock has a story. Just like every rock, every place, every water has a story that go beyond our comprehension. There is no better way to learn about Country and the connections with Country, than being on Country.”
Photos by Kerstin Siegmund & Sandie Suchet-Pearson
Music and dance played an powerful role in the culture camp, too. The sound of newborn clap sticks filled the air, and was accompanied by Uncle Lex on the ukele, and Uncle Lester and Cohen on the yidiki (didgeridoo).
Photos by Sandie Suchet-Pearson & Kerstin Siegmund
But perhaps most intensely for myself, and for many of the women at culture camp, was the evening dance with Auntie Corina. No event during the camp received as much deep feedback as this powerful moment when Auntie Corina shared the story of the dove and waratah, and taught us the accompanying dance. Smearing ourselves in ochre and assembling on the cool earth of Country, we danced this story together in the ethereal glow of torch and firelight, moved by the music and deep emotion of Auntie Corina’s singing. Even Uncle Lex was moved, saying after the dance:
“You ladies have done something so special here tonight, this might be the first time our stories have been danced on Country like that for a very long time. I feel very proud to be a Darug man tonight.”
Indeed, the bonds between the women, and Country, at camp that night became palpable. It highlighted the sacredness and importance of establishing a permanent dance circle here, on Country, a long-term plan for Uncle Lex and Auntie Corina. It was a bond further solidified by weaving together.
Photos by Sandie Suchet-Pearson
It has been a privilege and honour to have been part of this first culture camp, one that I believe has been felt and shared amongst all who attended. The experience left many deeply and profoundly changed:
“Being given the opportunity to share stories between ourselves was the most powerful mode of communication. There were a handful of stories that Uncle Lex shared with us that really stuck with me. The “coffee” analogy he used to explain Indigenous identity was insightful. Uncle Lex explained how you start off with a black coffee, over time milk may be added to the mixture; a milky coffee is still a form of coffee. This was used to illustrate how inter-racial marriage between Indigenous and non-Indigenous does not equate to a loss of Aboriginality. He talked about how impossible it was to achieve his one ambition: to be able to live on Country…
The wisdom and inclusivity of Uncle Lex and his family on Culture Camp began the shift in my ways of thinking. This sudden, unexpected transformation was challenging and enlightening. It was something I had never experienced before and allowed me to appreciate the cultural milieus and microcosms within which I had operated, and the cultural stigmas that Indigenous people face.”
– Alexandria Pinto –
“Uncle Lex was explaining how Father Sky, Mother Earth and all people, both past and present, are connected through the land. Indeed, as Uncle Lex stood bare-foot on the land, he was connected to his ancestors, to his Aunties and Uncles, and to Country. Initially, my perception of the situation was that I stood on some dirt with a bit of scattered grass, but as the camp continued, I could imagine that I was connecting to Country. In order to understand Uncle Lex’s way of seeing the world, I had to listen to his view and have a flexible mind that embraced a concept that was completely alien to me.”
– Brooke Kelly –
Most significantly, I feel both humbly and meaningfully connected to Darug Country, the land I call ‘home’, having been part of this experience. I find myself feeling a deep responsibility towards not only following, but participating in the creation and sharing of future Darug culture camps, and Caring for/as Country. It is a difficult feeling to describe – words like ‘meaningful’, ‘powerful’, ‘permeating’, and ‘compelling’ come to mind. But I think perhaps most prominent is ‘love’ – the sense of Country as a nurturing entity with intentions and moods that grow me as a person alongside countless lives, stories, and times that all become entangled as kin. I find myself very much wanting to care for Country. Such a feeling of love and care for Country was a common experience emerging from the culture camp:
“Though I myself have had a relatively urban upbringing, I have always had a very close tie with nature. The relationship between indigenous Australians and nature, one of mutual respect, is one I truly resonate with. Having Uncle Lex share the story that it was believed everyone was once from here and just slowly finding their way back, and that we are all in fact Indigenous, is something that will stick with me.”
– Nicola Fuller –
On behalf of all participants from, and associated with, Macquarie University – our sincerest gratitude and thanks to Uncle Lex, Auntie Corina, the Darug community, and Darug Country for welcoming and sharing so powerfully with us.
Photos, and featured photo, by Sara Judge.
Salama foggy dawn,
Sweet misty-eyed morn,
Where dreams awaken
And shadows are shaken
By the golden light
That bids farewell to night,
Until she sings again.
The recorded presentation giving an overview of the thesis project with Mkuyu Guiding School.
The most important and frequent question that you will ever get asked about any research project is: “so, what’s it about?” It’s a question that I particularly struggle with, not because I don’t know, but because I struggle to actually know how to say it. My Asperger’s brain hasn’t quite figured out where that bridge between ‘thoughts’ and ‘speech’ is, so what tends to come out of my mouth is far less coherent or elegant than what is happening in my head. Sometimes I genuinely worry that I sound far too generalising, and perhaps less intelligent, than what I actually am because of this major issue in expressing myself. Lately, I feel even my writing has been failing to hit the mark.
How exactly do I get these things in my head out, the way they are inside??
Thankfully, my Asperger’s support group have been super helpful with this lately. Every day, someone from the group asks me: what’s your project about? In response, I have to write a fresh answer each time, no ‘copy & paste’ allowed! Tonight, I made two attempts, the second of which I finally feel I might be happy with.
So without further ado, here is a summary (at last) of what my thesis is actually about, before I bombard my blog with complicated, confounded ramblings!
“That’s not a very good explanation of it sorry. Let me try again please.
My thesis is a shared project between myself and a Tanzanian man who started a school for young adults out in the bush. He trains them to be safari guides, but there is something special happening at the school, because many of the students go from just seeking jobs to being environmentalists in their spare time as well. Some have even started projects like community clean up days and an environment club for children. My idea is that because the school is Tanzanian owned instead of being based on foreign ownership and values, the ideas generated there are more relevant. We forget that African cultures are different to our own, and sometimes for things to be successful they need to be done in a way that is relevant to the people and places they are for. So together, we are going to investigate how living and learning at the school affects the environmental values and ethics of students, and why. We will then investigate if this is connected to a specifically Tanzanian way of seeing the world, and if so, we will consider what conservation efforts might be able to learn from this in order to encourage greater success.
Most importantly, my project will give voice to ‘the little guys’ who don’t get heard much against the big conservation organisations. I want to show that they too are doing inspiring things for the future, and deserve recognition and perhaps some additional, practical support to make their efforts reach further. But support, not control. I think that’s an important difference to be clear on: support shouldn’t mean unreasonable influence, requests, demands, expectations, or conditions. That’s exploitation for personal gain or agendas, and Mkuyu is not about that. Mkuyu has such a powerful spirit of sharing and working together…that’s the kind of support they welcome and offer.”
If you have ever been underwater, you will notice something immediately: everything is much slower, quieter and all around deeper down there! Maybe my sensory difficulties make it more obvious to me, I don’t know. All I know is that sound tends to be heavily filtered and usually of very low frequencies…the kind that doesn’t hurt all of my senses. Water conducts life – it slows movement to the rhythms of tides, currents and waves. The underwater world is far less stressful for me than the one I inhabit most often. Down there, my senses can be delighted rather than affronted, and
I can hear myself breathing, living, in time with the rhythm of the sea and the earth.
I wanted to share a video I made underwater. I made it recently during a visit back to my childhood home on the south coast, in what I now know to be Dharawal and Elouera Country. As you will see in my video, particular towards the end, underwater organisms dance with light and water. So much of what is synesthesia for me everyday is just the way of things underwater.
I feel like my mind-scape has suddenly become the living land-scape!
Sound and colour, light, movement…they are all connected and interacting. When I see these things, and the striking and/or amazingly camouflaged creatures, who innovate, navigate and illuminate in their worlds, I can’t help but feel that
I am bearing witness to an intentionality and creativity in nature and evolution that does not get the recognition it deserves.
Our world, our home, is beautiful! And mysterious. There is so much we still do not know, and this becomes so clear when you encounter the intricate underwater worlds.
Please enjoy some extraordinary clips of the underwater worlds of Dharawal & Elouera Country (the light show and seaweed dance at the end is just incredible!):
Recently, I had the great honour of being part of a two day workshop with Audra Mitchell and a collective of great minds and hearts to consider how we do work with each other, and with those our work is for – both human and more-than-human. The following blog is the culmination of that workshop. It discusses issues of more-than-human communication, plurality, knowledges, experience, (co)creativity, love, trust, power, hatred, violence, and – perhaps most significantly – care.
Ultimately, we talk about ‘lifework’ –
conducting ourselves and our research work in ways that promote, nourish, and emphasis more-than-human life in plural, multiple, complex and dynamic ways.
For me, it is particularly about not constraining or limiting my work to frameworks of suppression, violence, colonialism, or exclusion, but rather allowing my work to be an act of service towards those that I research with and for. Reciprocity, sharing, patience, humility, respect, love, care. This includes towards myself, as an excluded human person and as a researcher.
Lifework is nourishing, something that grows us, together.
Please do read Lifework – Part II (also below) for a full engagement with our collective ideas.
This mural at Macquarie University, by acclaimed Darug artist Leanne Tobin, expresses Darug eel, goanna and other Dreamings that have shaped Wattamattagal Country
Last autumn, I published a short piece – ‘Lifework’ – that reflected on my ongoing journey towards more committed, responsible, meaningful and respectful forms of research. The post provoked some wonderful responses that gave me the opportunity to learn from others’ journeys towards honouring the life of the work they’re engaged in, and of the other beings with whom they learn and create.
On a recent research visit to Darug Country (Australia), on the land of the Wattamattagal/Wallumattagal clan, I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop on the theme of ‘Lifework’ with a talented group of Masters and Doctoral students from Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales. The workshop was jointly hosted by the Environmental Humanities programs at each of these universities…
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The building of the project that will very soon constitute my thesis has been a lengthy process steeped in meaningful relationships with people who I feel as ‘family’, and a place that I increasingly recognise as ‘home’. It has always been undertaken with love, excitement, enthusiasm, and friendship, with goals and hopes attached to it from all sides. But at some point when undertaking research, things quietly shift from conceptual into phenomenal, sometimes in such subtle ways that it happens unnoticed. Twice now, in the past week or so, I have been hit by the gravity of realisation around this shift.
What can I tell you about Mkuyu Guiding School? Sometimes I feel that my descriptions are so lacking – they never seem to express the fullness of the reality. I will attempt to write a separate post, because here it would simply be far too lengthy and take away from the experience I need to record now, in this moment.
All I can say now is that the humble determination, the cheerful resilience, the love and care that stretches through time, the visions for the future, the persistence against the odds, the deep sense of responsibility and the nourishment of acting on it…make Mkuyu a deeply felt place. For me, for those who know Mkuyu as their home, and for those whose lives have been enriched and nourished by what is generated at and by Mkuyu. And there are many – both human and more-than-human.
I just made a draft of my literature review for the research project with Mkuyu. I started to cry, looking at the headings and what we hope to achieve together. I feel so much about this project, and about the African continent, people and ecosystems…I have wanted to contribute something meaningful, just, empowering and responsible for so, so long. When I look at this project and see it beginning to take shape, so many thoughts and feelings flood in. I recall the photos that were just sent to me yesterday via WhatsApp showing the guide students teaching children about the environment, sharing their incredible, experience-based knowledge and passion, being inspiring role models for future generations. I recall conversations with Mkuyu teachers that have blown my mind and filled me with excitement and hope for the future.
But I also think of the challenges and opposition we have faced, the doubt and dismissal – because Mkuyu is not a Western registered organisation overseen by Western conservationists. It is Tanzanian. Humble, and largely unknown. But it is Tanzanian, and that is so unbelievably important. Anyone with an honest eye on conservation in Africa – and anywhere, really – ought to be able to recognise that importance. We care for what is our own; we love what is part of who we are. It is Tanzanian, and it is successful and working, and it is achieving incredible, tangible, practical things for an ecological Tanzanian future.
And they are doing it so damn well, it moves me to tears!
I am just so humbled and so honoured to be witness to it. I am slow working on this project most days, because there is such a huge responsibility to give Mkuyu the position they deserve. Every word is so delicate, so important…this project needs to be loved, nurtured. I feel that together, we have planted a seed that we are now caring for and encouraging to grow. In which case, like the growing of a tree, it is a sacred task we have ahead of us…one that calls for both responsibility and often overwhelming joy. The growers grow with what is grown.
Here is a much nicer, much better quality recorded lecture that I gave recently in an environmental humanities class. It is based on the Languages of Sensing: Bring Neurodiversity into More-Than-Human Geography paper that I wrote last year, and triggered some really interesting questions from the students. For the purposes of the unit, I really tried to focus on aspects of what it means to be social with beings and entities that are not human, and what it means to be reduced to ‘less-than-human’ because of this, and because of the myriad of other deficits both impaired humans and non-humans have imposed upon them.
Also, this lecture is SO MUCH BETTER than the one I did for the Geographical Society of NSW, because I have learnt some new speaking tricks to help with my sensory challenges associated with my voice and verbal words: throughout this whole lecture, I had headphones on playing music that triggered positive sensory experiences that ground me and blocked out my unsettling voice! It seems to work well for me, and I am hoping to get to a point where I can use this method face-to-face for presenting, finally!