‘We Are Still Here’: remorse, the national psyche and country

In recent times I have been fortunate to have experienced the friendship and wisdom of other Aboriginal people working for the recognition of our culture and history, in concert with environmental protection for both Aboriginal people and the wider community. In a recent conversation with my good friend, Bruce Pascoe, he spoke of the absence of any genuine sense of remorse within the colonial psyche. He was not referring to the momentary guilt that some white Australian experience in relation to the theft of Aboriginal land and a history of violence against our people. I believe Bruce was considering something far deeper. Inhabiting a relaxed and comfortable view of colonisation in Australia requires little thinking at all, let alone responsibility for the sins of the past. True remorse, while asking more of people, would produce invaluable outcomes for all Australians. With remorse comes reflection. With remorse come recognition – and with will – mutual respect. This was Bruce’s point.

[map 22 - Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia]

[map 22 – Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia]

I see strong connections between this lack of remorse, the subsequent absence of thought and Australia’s regressive stance on climate change generally and the degradation of our environment more specifically. I also see a clear connection between a lack of will to protect the environment and the Australian government’s abuse of Aboriginal country. Equally, an abuse of Aboriginal cultural and sovereign relationship to country is ultimately an attack on all Australians.

The Australian government is currently attempting to reverse the World Heritage listing of 74,000 hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania, in order to allow logging to recommence. Within the World Heritage area, important Aboriginal sacred sites will again come under threat if the heritage listing is reversed. This is a shameful act. Considering the history of violence and repeated attempts of dispossession and extermination that the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have faced, one would hope that the wider community would not allow this violence to continue. If we were a truly remorseful nation, hopefully due consideration and thought would result in a more informed view. But in a country that plays lip service to Aboriginal rights, such reflection is not possible.

Reading the newspaper yesterday morning (Age – 14 June 2014), in an essay by Andrew Darby, I read about the courage of Ruth Langford and Linton Burgess, two Aboriginal people, amongst many others, who are fighting to save their country and protect the World Heritage listing of the rain forest surrounding important cultural sites. On a visit to the area recently, the couple ‘called to the old fellas … we let them know we are still here.’

We are still here

Please consider for a moment the deep courage of this act. Consider that the Aboriginal nations of a land that came to be called Tasmania by British colonials, have resisted proactive attempts of genocide for more than 2oo years and today stand tall to protect both their ancestors and their children. Ruth Langford, Linton Burgess and the Aboriginal people of Tasmania are heroes to Aboriginal people throughout Australia. They should also be regarded as heroes to the nation, as they are fighting to protect their country and environment. In doing so, they are protecting the planet.

Next week, Ruth Langford will join scientists and environmentalists at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar, in an effort to stop the Australian government’s move. I wish her, and her brave people every success – always was, always will be.

Tony Birch

 

Remembering Steven – walk number two

[map 33 - Yarra Trail, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

[map 33 – Yarra Trail, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

I set out with the intention to begin my walk at the Kew Billabong (more on that later). I studied the transport maps and worked out I needed to catch the number 48 tram to Balwyn and get off at stop number 33. I’ve been feeling lightheaded and pleasantly spacey. (I have felt the world too big of late, and kept myself small.) I caught the 109 tram by mistake. I didn’t realise my error until the tram was about to verge to the right instead of ploughing straight on. I jumped off the tram and decided to walk the remaining journey. Within a few minutes, I was standing at the gates of Kew Cemetery. Not my intended destination, but the place where one of my closest teenage friends, Steven Ward, has been buried for 35 years. I loved Steven. We lived on the same public housing estate and went everywhere together; most particularly to the Yarra River, the backyard of our childhood.

Deciding I couldn’t walk by the cemetery without visiting Steven’s grave, I went inside. I had visited him many times before, and was surprised that I couldn’t locate the grave. It angered me. I felt negligent. And guilty. It was as if I had forgotten him.

Determined not to give up, I walked the lanes in the section of the cemetery where I knew Steven was resting. I passed the graves of the old and young, married couples and entire families. Just when I was about to quit the search, I found myself standing in front of Steven’s tombstone. It was a bittersweet discovery, like frantically searching for the face of a loved one in a crowd, finding that face and experiencing its disappearance at the same time. I sat down and cried, not surprisingly, and unashamedly. Was it a fortuitous detour? I guess so. After all, I had been heading to our place. There was no question that Steven would come walking with me.

[map 33 - Kew Cemetery, Victoria, Australia]

[map 34 – Kew Cemetery, Victoria, Australia]

I stopped on a bridge above the Eastern Freeway – a river for cars. Victoria has a freeway fetish, matched only by our fetish for cars. I can spit further than the distance some people drive to work of a morning. A freeway flows reasonably around lunchtime when it’s quiet. During peak times, Melbourne’s freeways block up like an old sewer, and the state is forever on the lookout for solutions – of a limited kind. While Melbourne’s public transport system struggles with ageing infrastructure, each time a major road artery clogs beyond repair, we choose a bypass; a new artery with a limited lifespan before it too requires major surgery. Our latest transport solution is the proposed East-West Link, a tunnel that will burrow deep beneath the ground, welding two freeway systems together. Most cars travelling through the link on workdays will carry solitary drivers. I expect that eventually they will spend a lot of time in the tunnel talking to themselves.

[map 34 - Eastern Freeway; Melbourne, Australia]

[map 35 – Eastern Freeway; Melbourne, Australia]

It took me no time to leave the traffic behind and find myself at the Kew Billabong. The billabong is the remnant of a vast wetland that once dominated the landscape. It was home to a vast array of birds and animal species, few of which remain. (Although programs to provide a suitable habitat for birds is ongoing). The billabong is an important cultural and spiritual place for the Wurundjeri people, the Aboriginal nation of greater Melbourne. They are a remarkable community. Faced with the onslaught of the British occupation of their land from 1835, the Wurundjeri’s courage, intellect and ingenuity has ensured that their knowledge of, and claim on land remains vital to sites such as this.

[map 38 - Welcome to Wurunjeri Country]

[map 36 – ‘Welcome to Wurundjeri Country’]

When we were kids, we would ride out to the billabong on summer afternoons. The bikes we rode were put together affairs, assembled from bits and pieces we scrounged from around the streets. There were no bike paths in those days, very few people out walking their dogs, no freeways bulldozing our wayward days, and no signs welcoming visitors to Aboriginal country. But still we played the game of Aborigines every chance we got. Our blood was strong, but our skin, burnt brick-red by the sun, would never do. We would begin the game by jumping naked into the billabong, scooping up handfuls of mud at the water’s edge and smearing it across our bodies. We went black face, I guess. But all for a good cause. We were wild and did not want to be civilised or assimilated. We hid our faces from progress. In the billabong, we were safe. While we imagined spearing anyone who dare invade our country, we were sure we would never grow and never die. As long as we stayed in that water.

[map 37 - Kew Billabong, Victoria, Australia]

[map 37 – Kew Billabong, Victoria, Australia]

The billabong could not hold us, and we did grow. We roamed the river for miles and claimed all of it as our own, with little competition, as the river was unloved and neglected by others. We would sit on along her muddy bank, smoking cigarettes and singing to her. The river wanted to know that we loved her, and tested us at every opportunity. One summer we pledged to jump from each and every bridge from the city centre to the Pipe Bridge, the last bridge along the river before the billabong. Jumping into the water from 60 feet above its surface should have created fear. It never did. Even deep in the blackness and pockets of chill, I was sure the river would hold us true. If you have never jumped, let me share a secret with you.  In the space between your feet leaving the safety of the railing and hitting the water, there is a moment of genuine flight – everything stops, except your imagination.

[map 38 - Pipe Bridge, Fairfield, Victoria, Australia]

[map 38 – Pipe Bridge, Fairfield, Victoria, Australia]

And then the saddest day arrives. Some of your river has been taken from you, and destroyed by those fools in suits who love freeways. And those other fools who would rather sit, stuck, immobilised, in capsules spewing shit into the air. Other parts of your river have been opened up with pathways, bikeways and walkways.

You have a choice. You can share the river with others, and their dogs, and their frisbees, and kites, and expensive baby strollers. Or you can leave and carry the river and the soul of your teenage friend with you. All you can do is leave behind an epitaph for those who will never know the river as you do. Maybe you don’t want to admit it. Maybe you can’t face up to a truth; these new people who come to your river may just love it too. Yes, that’s the hardest truth of all. You do not own this place. And you cannot – if what is left of the river is to be cared for and saved.

[map39 - epitaph to the Lost Boys - beneath Chandler Bridge, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

[map 39 – Epitaph to the lost boys – beneath Chandler Bridge, Kew, Victoria, Australia]

You return home, to the falls. The river you love – this is her heartbeat. As the water rushes over the falls, the vibration shakes the ground. It is good to know that she is alive. Just when you are feeling as selfish as a stupid man can be, thinking, ‘why don’t these people just fuck off and give my river back to me,’ a serendipitous sound shifts against the sandstone steps on the far bank. You think it is a trick. A deception tugging at your deep sense of loss – for your people, for your loved boyhood friend who shared the water with you with his gleaming skin and velvet hair.

But it is not a trick. It is an offering from another visitor, standing by the water offering a song. For the river. And for me. I wave across the water to him and say ‘thank you.’ I leave knowing that I am the only fool today. I am the one who needs to know. I need to know that the places we love are not ours to covet. They are not ours at all. We belong to them.

[map 40 - Sax Man, Dights Falls, Victoria, Australia]

[map 40 – Sax Man, Dights Falls, Victoria, Australia]

An epilogue

I leave the river thinking that thinking about the walk and the river is over. There is nothing more to write about. My journey ended perfectly, at my favourite corner of the world, and with a perfect end to a piece of writing about walking, and places, and generosity – all thanks to the mysterious sax player.

And then I come across a wall. Separating me from the river of cars. And I discover an act, the art of defiance.  This place lives. So, let’s end here instead.

[map 41 - Freeway Wall, Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia]

[map 41 – Freeway Wall, Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia]

 Tony Birch