I stand still on the bank of a creek. It is quiet only in the sense that I don’t hear cars. But the honeyeaters and wattlebirds are busy, and swamp hens set a languid pace through the reed. I am transfixed.
In the shadow of river red gums, I could not help but be convinced that someone else was standing there, taken by the moment, too. The sun shimmers in the water. Time runs thin in certain places, I think.
Cattle and sheep used to drink from this spot. The pastoral scene is evoked on interpretive signage for ‘Tuckers waterhole’. I can only think of hooves and muck, the bog that would have been made of the spring-fed section of an ephemeral creek. A Wadawurrung-speaking clan relied on that water supply in summer.
There are things in the landscape that I do not know how to read, and places that have been written over. I can only cobble rudiments of vocabulary, coming so late to this continent.
It starts with birds, since they are ubiquitous in daytime, but I slip into conservation spaces and learn about native mammals and plants, too. What’s that called, and this? – me, every few minutes on coastal walks and in woodlands, like a toddler.
I look up older names, from before and still could be. In country where I am but a guest, the bandicoot, dingo, emu, kangaroo, koala and wombat are known by other names: in sounds that call up subterranean borders. I think about the people who have known these animals the longest in all of humanity.
There was a time when we drew conclusions of providence from nature. We took in its orderliness, how it enabled us to attend to our needs, and arrived at mother as the closest approximation for the experience. It might be the most persistent understanding that humans hold about anything. By this I mean that many oldest-continuing societies still refer to nature in this way.
Mother Nature, Mother Earth, earth mother, mama. I hear it in much the way one detects the same sequence of notes across different songs–that frisson of recognition: there it is again. A Goenpul academic, a Xakriabá activist, a Shoshone teacher.
Mother is a gendered word, and there is decades-long discourse on ‘mother nature’, including the usefulness (or not) of ecofeminism and ecospirituality. I arrive late again, tearing like a klutz through webs of understanding that have long been spun.
But the time spent learning about wildlife leads me at every turn to the long toll of colonisation. So I take Indigenous peoples at their word.
I try to mind my place. I am a Catholic writer who grew up in the global south, living on land not for ceding but taken. I know how language can fall short of the sacred. I think that is how it is when we say mother to mean nature.
Our earliest societies invested power in words, setting down pictograms and graphemes, the refrain and refraining from, and the songs. These lent permanence to practice that became tradition that became a mechanism for moving together through time.
Time itself was read in attention to shifts in nature: the stars that rise at sunset, the first manna gum blossoms, the urgent bellows of a koala in the night, the emergence of brown butterflies, the migration of eels.
This is the site for matriarchal modes of being: generative, ordered. Even in the country I come from – that is, on the land of indigenous Lumad peoples in the Philippine south–women were weavers, healers, diplomats, protectors, and keepers of memory.
I can’t help but think about how we were made to say father. God in the masculine, represented by a male clerical class, installed by men by book and blade.
A woman minister and theologian tells me: wisdom was personified as woman in the ancient texts. God was described there also as a mother bear, a mother eagle, a mother hen, a woman who gives birth and nurses. Did Jesus not feed people and wash their feet? He wept.
I trace a line from the Biblical injunction to subdue the earth to a (white male) Enlightenment compulsion to improve upon, to tame many things: women, animals, dark-skinned people, the wilderness.
To tame the earth. It feels like a category error. How can mother be for taming?
I think about diversity as the underlying code in nature; the interdependence of all living things–do we count ourselves?–and the specificity of temperatures that engineer reproduction.
Animals are made comprehensible in relationship with other species, in connection with botanies and material conditions. Like the lead-up to winter that induces torpor in some (bearded dragons) and horniness in others (quolls). Or the dispersal of fungi that benefit orchids and trees, facilitated by nocturnal marsupials that turn over soil in in search of grubs and bugs that feed on plant matter.
Along the creek where I stood, I have seen the same river red gum host at different times breeding pairs of rosella, rainbow lorikeet, and galahs–splashes of colour against pale bark. It is a type of tree that can take a millennium to die, but we don’t accord trees that time anymore.
So what do we actually hear when Indigenous peoples say Mother Earth?
I note an aesthetics of nature: background to Instagram selfies, replicated in our homes via potted greenery, coded in the marketing of products to mean authentic and safe.
I recall how the first wave of lockdowns in the pandemic highlighted the role of local parks in our sense of well-being. I wonder which way treechangers vote, and what they think about climate refugees. I think about the privatisation of beachfronts and islands.
Mother Nature. Perhaps the term is problematic in societies with a history of diminishing women. Where binaries are enforced so that men may keep an elevated status. Where femininity is taken to be soft and delicate. Where women are treated as vassals. Vessels.
I still struggle to understand. I have few memories of having been mothered, though I’ve been mothered by friends, including men. I know that in the natural world, behaviours associated with mothers can be seen often enough in fathers.
It feels difficult in a desacralised world to keep from othering knowledge that is Indigenous, when it is human first and longest. I think in this instance about how mother is taken with the distance of metaphor.
I return to the creek and think about how the state of wonder self-generates, and the way love propels and dismantles understanding. I think about reciprocity. I think about trying to live the least extractive life. I think about how country calls for people, too.
The development of ideas in this piece was made possible through Wyndham City Council arts funding.