One of the most fundamental differences between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people is the understanding of the relationship between people and land. Earth is the mother. Aboriginal people are born of the earth and individuals within the clan had responsibility for particular streams, grasslands, trees, crops, animals, and evenseasons. The life of the clan was devoted to continuance and still is.
The intensification of resource use, language development and social organisation were in the curve of great change prior to the colonial period because Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were on the same cognitive trajectory as the rest of the human family, albeit in a different stream and a unique channel in that stream.
Perhaps the most significant difference was the attitude to land ownership and resource use. Instead of privately operated small holdings, clans were co-operating to prepare large areas of land for production with burning and tilling methods. There was an underlying conservatism in this approach, a concern for people they might never meet, and a respect for the prey species embedded in the spiritual and cultural fibres.
–Bruce Pascoe, Dark Emu
How many of us still feel the grip of place–the long span of a life traced out in the growth of trees planted by someone you knew, a family history measured in memory and change, the sudden clutch of knowing that it will end, life and memory both, that love and sorrow cannot be separated? To learn the names of trees and grasses, the times of their seeding and flowering, the glimpse they offer into the grand slow cycles of nature, is to see your own life written there, and passing. To know the geography of a place is to know why we have always made stories in which our own human stuff is indivisible from the stones and creeks and hills and growing things.
This is a kind of love story. It is an unrequited love story, because it is between a person and a place, and a place doesn’t love you back. But perhaps that isn’t entirely true. Perhaps its like loving God, and what you get back is a reflection of what you put in. Apart from the deep and unequivocal love I have for my family and close friends, there has been no other love in my life as sustained as the one I have felt for a remote pocket of inland Australia.
–Kim Mahood, Position Doubtful
Sarah Schladow: On the surface, we have potentially opposite poles of Australian culture: Bruce is a Bunurong and Yuin man, and Kim is a sixth-generation white Australian Anglo-Celtic woman. But from reading their books, we can feel and see how they come together.
First of all, they both experienced a remote upbringing: Bruce, on an island in Bass Strait in Tasmania; Kim, on a Tanami Desert cattle station in far north-western Australia. They’ve both won literary awards: Dark Emu, Bruce’s book, won the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards’ Book of the Year and the Indigenous Writer’s Prize in 2016; Kim has also won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for non-fiction, and her artwork is held in state, territory and regional collections.
The final way I’ve seen that they come together isin their love and respect for the spiritual and cultural basis of our country. So I’d like to start with a question that struck me after reading both books, Dark Emu and Position Doubtful: I’m curious to know whether you see any difference, semantic or other, between the terms ‘land’ and ‘country’?
Bruce Pascoe: I don’t really care. I don’ t care for the difference between ‘Aboriginal’ or ‘Indigenous’ or‘ First Nation’, because Aboriginal people want to be referred to by their country. I feel most comfortable being aligned with my Yuin connection, where my family are from. I live on that land currently and that is the culture I know best. It’ s all semantics, really.
We can argue a case—and I’m happy to argue a case—but Yuin people say “Bingyadyan ngallu birrung nudjarn jungarung,” and that means, “We arise from the mother’s heartbeat, and the mother is the land.” We have no other affiliation or responsibility other than to the land. So what you call that doesn’t matter because your responsibility isto ensure the land is looked after, that everything we do toitcan be justified and sustained.
Kim Mahood: In our conversation earlier, you were looking at the way some of us use the word ‘country’ to describe Australia—as in, this is my country —and that there’s something nationalistic about that usage. That hadn’t occurred to me previously. To my school friends—the boarders, the country kids and the day girls—country meant people who grew up on the farms. Then, of course, country became very much the term Aboriginal people began to use to differentiate from ‘land’, ‘landscape’ or whatever. Like Bruce I think it’s semantics, but it’s quite an interesting semantics to tease out.
As a painter, the notion of landscape became quite derogatory; it meant you were looking at rather than being in. The notion was landscape was something you looked at and had this sort of colonial notion of, whereas country was something you were in. So I think they're interesting terms.
SS: In your book, Bruce, you discuss that our early landscape painters weren’t expressing their nostalgic memory of the English landscape, which is what I was taught at school, but that they were accurately depicting what the settlers found.
BP: It was actually Bill Gammage who brought that to my attention in his great book The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia. I’d grown up with an Australian education; I was told Aboriginal people were incapable of building, didn’t have clothes, only walked around aimlessly, picking a grub here and a fruit there, and that they couldn’t build any structures at all. During that education I was also told that the colonial painters were Romantics and Illusionists: they’ d come out here and they couldn’t paint a gum tree, so the feathery tops of these trees the colonial painters were painting were said to be some kind of Romantic extraction from Britain.
Gammage pointed out that that wasn’t true—the widely spaced massive trees, which in fact did have feathery tops, were there. He could take us back to the site where the colonial artists like von Guérard etc. had painted, and he took photos of several of those sites. There was the rock, and there in the distance was the tree, or its stump. Gammage showed that the colonial artists were actually painting what they could see! What artist with any pride in their bones would do anything else?
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #34. Get your copy here.
Kim Mahood is a writer and artist based in Wamboin, near Canberra. Her latest book Position Doubtful was published in 2016.
Bruce Pascoe is a Bunurong man. His latest book Dark Emu shared the NSW Premier's Literary Award for Indigenous Writing, and won the NSW Premier's Book of the Year Award in 2016.