Looking after country, looking after us
We may not see Closing The Gap in our lifetimes, but we could do this — and together
Most of us have heard of Welcome to Country, where an Indigenous person welcomes a gathering into their country. Most of us have heard of Acknowledgement of Country, where anyone can acknowledge that they and others in their group are meeting or gathering on Indigenous land and wish to pay their respects. Then there's the perhaps less-known Looking After Country, which might just be the most important — at least, practically.
In fact, Looking After Country is arguably acknowledging country and acknowledging the necessity of looking after our Mother because our Mother looks after us. In the words of Kathleen Cox, a Baniol, Bard, Nimanburr and Kija woman, "We have to look after country. It is our responsibility to protect the environment and cultural values because, for us, land is an integral part of who we are. It is central to our culture and wellbeing. She has always been there for us, so we have to be there for her. It is a symbiotic relationship where one is connected to the other."
I would argue Looking After Country for non-Indigenous is also part of being welcomed into country. A first step in our coming to know the land, to treat it with respect, to walk as gently as possible on it. I know I am speaking as a non-Indigenous person, but I wonder how many of us might resonate with that sentiment.
A few years ago, I sat next to a Bundjalung man on a train trip from Sydney to Casino in northern NSW and we got chatting about the land. I commented on all the weed species along the sides of the railway tracks, the thick entanglements smothering all and sundry and how I despaired for the land. It was obvious it made him despair, too. I have no idea if his despair was the same as mine. Given he had history and a deep connection to the land, and I didn’t — well, nothing like his — I suspect not quite! Yet we had something in common. We could at least see the land was hurting.
I’ve thought about that conversation often since then. Every time there’s a bushfire, in fact. Every time I ride or walk past or through a forest, a park, a path, a garden. Australia is not at all like what those first settlers saw and what they described in their diaries two centuries or more ago. (If you haven’t read ‘Dark Emu: Black Seeds’ by Bruce Pascoe, stop everything and go read it.) The land was managed, it was park-like, it was cared for. It was looked after. It didn’t get burnt to a cinder every summer. The all-important canopy didn’t burn.
Looking After Country is ongoing, it is not set-and-forget. For example, it is not enough to plant native species to regenerate an area or to green-up an area to make it look ‘attractive’. It is commendable efforts are being made to regenerate the land. But then to just let it go, not maintain it, not think to take out the weeds that inevitably get in and so often crowd out the native species — that is ultimately not regenerating the land. We see it everywhere. In built-up areas and on the fringes, where our urban sprawl spews into the surrounding bush. Well-meaning councils, governments, businesses, groups and individuals all do it. We ‘pretty up’ an area and think the job is done. Then the weeds come in and take over and spread. We let those weeds escape from our gardens and invade the edges of national parks and smother out the natives.
If we had responsibility for the land — if we took it seriously as an obligation, as custodians — we would know that meant maintaining the land. We would also learn to undertake cultural burns to remove the weed species, to encourage the indigenous native plants and to improve the soil.
Can we afford not to do this? Recovering from the devastating bushfires that ravaged Australia last summer has been painfully slow; many are far from being anywhere near back on their feet. And now we are just a few months from summer and who knows what that may bring. We are already into the next bushfire season: it used to not start until October, now it’s August.
If we want to take up the mantle of living on this land, we must develop a better relationship with it. We must care for it, keep it whole and healthy. Do that, and it takes care of us, at the very least because we're less likely to suffer catastrophic fire.
Closing The Gap to improve the health of Indigenous Australians, reconciling our past and acknowledging the profound hurts and wrongs of the past two centuries, and a voice to the parliament are just three important ways to help heal this country. Given the virulent grind of pushback, they will take time. Many of us reading this may not live to see any of them achieved. But Looking After Country is something tangible we could do that won’t take decades. While it does require a mind-shift and some humility on the part of the majority of Australians, Looking After Country is doable and we can start now. Indigenous Australians are willing. We could come together and learn from those with the knowledge as to how best to manage this land. (And as this economic crisis develops, there will be plenty of out-of-work people to help do just that.) It might also show Indigenous Australians that maybe non-Indigenous Australians can learn for a change, can ask rather than tell. And, maybe, we could start to heal this broken relationship.
Victor Steffensen has been teaching cultural burning for two decades and makes a powerful argument for adopting it across the land. He spoke on Insight on SBS in 2016. Watch a grab from that show. Or, watch the whole show.
Support the Firesticks Alliance