Ancient Land - Current Connections
Graham Ellis-Smith BA(AIS),
Previously published in Journeys (Newsjournal of the Victorian Outdoor Education Association), 1999, and currently in press for the book "Views From The Top" edited by Tonia Gray, University of Wollongong, et al.
Copyright Kadjininy Enterprises Pty Ltd
This is a story, a journey. I grew up in a "hunter-gatherer" family of Euro-Celtic origins in south-western Australia. My father worked in the coalmines of Collie to supply our main material support, but at various times of the year we harvested the fruits of the earth for our sustenance and pleasure.
In summer there were marron, perch and cobbler from the river below the house. We caught crabs, prawns, tailor, whiting and mussels from the estuary; kingfish where estuary and river join when the 'yakka' sticks bloom, and a had 2 week sojourn and camp on the west coast to catch herring after the spawning season in May. On land, we hunted kangaroo for the farm dogs and ourselves; wild pig from the forest flats; and rabbits from the multitude of burrows in the bush near our farm. We chewed banksia tips, ate the bottoms of grasstree fronds, collected mushrooms in paddocks, and picked the succulent "snotty gobble" fruits in season. In winter we harvested firewood and wildflowers for additional financial sustenance. And, we were much like most families we knew in the bush.
So what is the basis of the urge to partake in the resources of the land? Is it just opportunistic fun or does it have a deeper base? In operating programs designed to reawaken the deep connection I believe exists between humanity and Nature, we are essentially calling forward something innate in every person at a deeper level.
I grew up with the Jarrah forest of south-western Australia as a playground and learnt many stories and 'secrets' of the bush from a young age, fuelled by parents with a lot of knowledge and affection for the bush. It became my work-ground during winters as I helped my parents collect wildflowers and firewood to supplement our income. In truth, the bush was the most peaceful place for all of us, and the firewood and flowers were merely an excuse to go there. It was the only place I remember hearing my mother spontaneously burst into song, just through sheer happiness. Most of our best family times were in sharing Nature in all its varieties.
As a family we experienced unseen 'presences' in Nature; and this began very early in life for me and continues to this day.
I then went to work for the Western Australian Forest Department which seemed a perfect profession for someone so attached to the bush. The connection experience deepened with an increase in knowledge of natural resource management. With this acquisition came the continuing experiences of other 'presences' in the bush. The absolute surety that, even though no person existed 'in the flesh', nevertheless I was being watched, observed. We would even joke about this as a family over a glass of port at the end of a rainy day in the bush, and call them 'spooky areas'. We had no other reference for them. It wasn't until much later in life that I started to see and appreciate what was happening in a different light.
There were also the peaceful areas; different places would attract us with their look and feel. Blackbutt gullies to this day, give me a great sense of peace and fertility. Wandoo forests always held a sense of mystery, and granite outcrops have always been attracting places that drew us and other people to them. There is a lot of energy interchange in these occasions. We even had mysterious sounding names for some of these spots; Gibraltar Rock, Dingo Soak, Night Soak, Jura Formation and many more were etched into our minds through years of association. Some of my Noongar mates have since spoken about the Aboriginal significance of some of the spots we were attracted to as a family and individuals.
My Government career in the bush continued for 20 years, the latter ten with the Department of Conservation and Land Management(CALM) as several Departments merged to create one land management agency in the west. In the mid '80s I asked the big question, "What does it mean to be Australian and be Spiritual?". I had spent 8 years heavily involved in the church and this hadn't answered the question.
So began the look at my own ancestry in Euro-Celtic origins. Here I found people who were/are deeply connected to Nature. They saw intelligence in all things; plants, animals, rocks and water etc. Deeply ceremonial, they celebrated their connection with song and dance, stories and rituals many times in the yearly cycles. Their shrines are in Nature; rock pools, tree groves and waterfalls. Their clans had distinct rights and connection to specific areas of land and their plant and animal totems guided them in living out their connection. Magic is a part of everyday existence and their 'little people', the carriers of magic and sacred law were and are well known to them.
My ancestors spirituality was deeply rooted in the land and Nature, and I started to gain a new perspective on the unseen presences I had been experiencing all my life in the bush. I had a ‘knowing’ that this was my own spirituality; that my journey in life had brought me to an awareness of the interconnectedness of everything in the visible and invisible worlds. Nature simply provided the window through which to see the connection.
A year later I took up tertiary studies in Human Services, minoring in Aboriginal Studies. This changed around two and a half years later when a Mandjildjara Aboriginal Lawman from the Western Desert took me into his family. To Nanyu I am marlangu(little brother) and he is kurda to me, my older brother. By desert law his family relations are also mine. When I go to the desert, I have a place to call home, a community and a family where I belong. This is a marvellous system of inclusion by Aboriginal people. As it turns out, I don't see Nanyu very often but we both know we are "in each others hearts". This acceptance into kinship has had a profound affect on me and I finished my degree majoring in Aboriginal and Inter-cultural Studies.
What surprised me was that in studying Aboriginal spirituality I found the same basis as my own ancestors. Land centred; song, oral, dance and art expression; totemic, magic and powerfully psychic/intuitive intelligence in all things. Later as I sat and learned with Cherokee native American people; spoke with Shona in Zimbabwe; and Lua, Kikuyu, Masai and Meru in Kenya, I found the same base for their spirituality. All of them spoke of their land as a living intelligent being that was enhanced and enlivened by ceremony and ritual. The common response to me speaking about Aboriginal culture was "Same for my people".
I now knew that Aboriginal people in remote areas still celebrated their connection with the land, and that this practice was also shared by many indigenous groups around the world including people of my own ancestry. However, what of Aboriginal people living in heavily settled and farmed rural areas? How did all this relate to them?
I worked my last 4 years with CALM as a Project Officer in Aboriginal Programs. My primary task was to find out what Noongar Aboriginal people in the south-west of Western Australia are currently doing with Crown land. What sort of activities are undertaken? Shooting the occasional kangaroo or wallaby was known about, but very little else. The south-west is like most heavily settled areas of Australia in relation to Aboriginal people. Most of their traditional lands have been cleared, farmed, towned or put into various Government reserves for other purposes. For example, by 1903 there were 56,000 hectares cleared for farming. By 1914 there were 567,000 hectares cleared. With this went hunting and gathering areas, camp sites, sacred places, totems and Dreaming trails. The loss was devastating on Noongar people, made more so by the laws of 1905 and 1936 which produced the 'stolen generation' and decimated family life, kinship structures and land affiliations.
As I spoke and listened to people in meetings, they would berate me for an hour or more for every Government person who came and promised them lots and gave very little in the end. After that they would begin speaking of places they go hunting, camping, gathering plants for food and medicine, and still taking their koolanga's (children) to the bush to teach them. Cooking kangaroo and damper on the open fire and telling stories around the fire until well after the kids go to sleep in their arms. When I asked why they did this, they looked at me as if I was strange, shrugged their shoulders and said "It's Noongar Way". After this happened many times I finally figured out this was about identity. In essence they were saying,
" If we don't do these things then we are just black white-fellas. This is what we do because of who we are. We want white-fellas to know about these things we do in the bush because it's the only way they'll have any respect for us".
Therefore, Noongar people, for all their losses and what went with them, still carry this sense of connection with the land.
It became clear to me that we have many indigenous cultures with different expressions depending on geography, but one Truth of relationship and connection to land and Nature. In essence, we have common ground.. The deeper I delved into this hypothesis the stronger and clearer it became; until it seems that the Earth carries the Truth of who we are and our connection to her and each other. I use 'her' because this is the gender most often ascribed to the planet. This Truth expresses itself in each place through song, symbol, dance, story, rocks, water, plants, birds, animals and landform relevant to that place and it's people.
Many indigenous cultures say that we do not die, but live many times and often are reborn into the same land and cultural group. For example, our Celtic ancestors were absolutely fearless in battle because to die was an honour; from which you would soon return to your land in another life and start again. Often in Aboriginal communities when a child is born, one of the elder women will recognise the spirit of the child as that of someone who has recently died; "Hey..there's that fella back again!".
What does all this mean for us of various ancestral origins? Two points are worth considering. Firstly, it is only 10,000 years since farming began; before that, we were all hunter-gatherers, physically and spiritually in touch and in rhythm with Nature and her cycles. Science has just confirmed something that many indigenous people have known for eons and that is: we carry the memories of our ancestors in our bones and blood. The strong beliefs, actions, emotions, ceremonies etc. are written within our genetic structure in blood and bone. We now call it cellular or genetic memory. This influence plays itself out in many ways in our everyday life. Music that inexplicably stirs us to dance; images and shapes that draw deep emotional responses from us; art that attracts and holds our attention with a sense of knowing there is something familiar and connected in the scene.
Secondly, as a particularly powerful 70 year old Ngarinyin Aboriginal lawman from the Kimberley who was a philosopher, poet, author and artist once told me and a group of other non-Aboriginal people,
" If you are born in this land then you belong here as much as any Aboriginal person. When you are born, the Spirits of that place surround you and welcome you in. If you are not born here but come with an attitude of respect and care then you are welcome. As soon as you eat the food of a place, drink the water and breathe the air and 'be there', you start to become part of that place. I'm telling you this because my elders told me I could".
When I later sat in the bush near Perth with this man and discussed and planned ways of working together to bring these truths of connection and belonging to non-Aboriginal people he said,
"Graham, we gotta do this soon, this is important and I don't know how much time I got left".
He left the physical world six months later.
These two facets illustrate our physical and spiritual connection to the earth, wherever we are born. Connection Consciousness is a frame of mind that sees the web of connection existing between humanity and Nature at physical and meta-physical(outside the physical) levels.
The question may be asked, " How does this affect participants in outdoor education, and how can Connection Consciousness be enacted or pursued?" I am receiving an increasing number of requests from Outdoor Education Coordinators to present programs with this content to their students. For example, all Year 3 to Year 9 students from Scotch College, a private boys school in Perth, spend time in the bush with me going through these concepts of indigenous use of the land, relationship and responsibility. Combining both ‘Science and The Sacred”, we are developing a journey in environmental, cultural and self-awareness for the students; encouraging them to see their place within their community from a different perspective. We are also building similar programs with several other Private Schools in Perth; and some State schools (such as Palmyra Primary. School near Fremantle) are also on this journey,.
All activities and programs show the relationship between humanity and Nature. At one level, there is basic material Aboriginal culture in bushfoods, medicine, tool making and basic land and resource use. This is presented with a spiritual dimension emphasising the multi-dimensional character of the relationship. Community roles, sharing resources, land-human connections, personal and group responsibilities and ancestral cultural connections are all explored in context of relationship throughout the activity programs. At the 'deeper' end of the continuum, I take participants through activities that honour and exercise all six senses. Each activity program is unique as each group calls forward choices of over 50 activities, depending on their need.
Initiation or 'Rites of Passage' is another concept we have been working with for many years. Our cultures, like any indigenous culture, had constructive rites of passage marking the changes in our lives. Most of these have been lost and replaced with nebulous rituals that do not speak of self and community responsibility, or are of high-risk -taking nature to prove one's worth to a peer group.
We have been involved in several development areas in rites of passage. A group of us designed Kidz Earth - a 6 week totally interactive program for 12 year olds emphasising the participants relationship with Nature, at the physical/mundane and non-physical/spiritual levels. Initiation camps for year 10 students going into year 11 at Helena College near Perth have been designed and run by staff for several years. I participated as an elder this year to bring a deeper spiritual and ceremonial focus to an already brilliant program.
I co-presented a workshop at an inter-generational conference called "Growing Into Wisdom". This conference is focussed on growing older with strength, dignity and purpose; and bringing together multiple generations to deal with these and other related concepts. "Elders" is the main group responsible for organising this and have done a workshop with me titled 'Elders: Prestige, Place & Process', which looked at indigenous eldership and the difference between elders and old people. Various parts of the Men's Movement are also showing interest in re-introducing some form of initiation to help boys become men in a society where they have little sense of how to be responsible adults in a complex and changing world. The Men's Health and Wellbeing Association in Perth has also addressed the subject in several ways.
More recently; in 2002, sixteen Year 6 & 7 students from Embleton Primary School with a population of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal students went through a day and evening of learning and ceremony to look closely at men’s & women’s business and what it means to grow into adulthood.. They created a ceremony of their own. A group of Aboriginal kids from a metropolitan high school spent 3 days rediscovering some of their own cultural gems, and their own place in the land. One hundred and fifty 13 year old private school boys camped on Wadjemup (Rottnest island) go through a ‘mens business’ experience; gaining new perspectives on themselves, other people and their worlds. In 2003 another 111 from a another school did the same; and we are developing a ‘rite of passge’ weekend for their Year 11 students this year.
Facilitators Role and Preparation
The Outdoor Educator can act as a guide for the 'initiation' of participants into a greater understanding of themselves, their relationship and connection to Nature, land and other people. This is a powerful and often pivotal role in participant's life, and deeply rewarding for the facilitator. This can occur through "soft option" activities which de-stress the participants as much as possible and allow peoples own inner-knowing, connection and Truth to come to the fore. The facilitator's role is to guide participants through their process, not to prescribe what their outcome should be. The facilitator's own view of their connection to the earth, nature, land and other people may be strongly challenged in preparing for this process. There may be a need to provide professional development in these areas for facilitators.
It appears our connection to Nature goes beyond travelling through or working in the land or natural environment. If the life experiences of our ancestral cultures, many current indigenous groups and some 'western' peoples are a reasonable guide to this relationship; then we share connection that has both physical and spiritual roots. This is our common ground, which we share with all humanity and Nature.
Outdoor educators can play a significant role in facilitating the awakening of this connection by the way they conduct programs and the activity content used. This quickly becomes a reciprocating process as the facilitator will discover and recognise more of their own connection while taking participants through such programs.
Shared Dreaming-Common Ground
And so who holds that Dreaming ....that Song? Who feels in their very being the bigness, the connection? Is your heart the only one that beats to the sound of an ancient drum? Are you the only one with Ancestors?
The campfires of the Ancient ones are in the Milky Way...maybe that is the union of our ancestry. If our ancestors share a common campfire in the stars then can we do the same here? Your blood carries the stories of your Ancestors, your Dreaming and the many paths of your soul on its journey......so does mine.
The Earth, she is my Mother as she is yours. Her love for both of us is full and unconditional. You have a need to express that connection. So do I ....feel it as the incessant pulse of the Mother herself.
Again, there is union.
I do what I do because it is my choice and Dreaming. I came to do this ...to remember who I am, to express the memory fully, and to share this with who so ever chooses. It is my purpose in this 'lifetime', this brief experience of my total being.
I am remembering......old feelings, senses, wisps of information, barrages of experiences; all serve to remind me who I am. I am not alone in this. We share the outcome, the expansion, and the change. We may not recognise this fact, but it does not alter the truth of such.
If that is the case then let us share the outcome of Dreamings wonderfully lived. Let us share our common heritage and source; and then we Know that we are One. There is no separation, only an illusion that we have believed.
So be it