Storytelling in a Time of Upheaval
On the scale of things their history was just a half-flick of the switch of truth—simply a memory no greater than two life spans.
—Alexis Wright, Carpentaria
Let’s begin with the observation that evolution and culture exhibit a common pattern: descent with modification. The analogies have been made before. T.S. Eliot conceived the poetic tradition as an organism, a ‘living whole’ passed on and changed as each generation reads the poets who came before. Transmission is at once the technique of recurrence and the process of change. The miraculous variety of life on Earth has been created over millions of years by a still-mysterious cellular urge to replicate, repeated in organisms, generation after generation. Homer’s replicated epithets enabled the transmission of The Odyssey over centuries. A circle of children reciting a growing list of items they went to the shop to buy or singing nursery rhymes hone these skills. Transmission, however, is more than mere duplication. Reproducing proteins are an engine of evolutionary transmission, but transmission also requires creativity.
Disruption is brought by environmental change, the arrival of strangers, genetic mutation and symbiogenesis, and this triggers adaptation and reinvention. Repetition with invention and variation, down the generations, passes the parcel of evolutionary genius and of learned and remembered poetry, place and personhood. It is not clear whether this regenerative pattern will withstand the burning times. The fires consume cathedrals, forests, histories. In Australia, the challenge of transmission is acute but barely acknowledged.
Transmission is a central concept of the World Heritage Convention, which imposes on participating states a duty to ensure the identification, protection, conservation, presentation and transmission to future generations of the recognised cultural and natural heritage in its territory. It’s a concept with which Australia struggles.1 There are 20 World Heritage sites under our care and for many of them, including Heard Island, Kakadu and Shark Bay, our collective failure to prevent dangerous climate change means we are unlikely to transmit them whole and undamaged to future generations. For the Great Barrier Reef, the Queensland Wet Tropics and the Gondwana Rainforests, it seems increasingly unlikely we will transmit them to future generations at all. What stories will our descendants tell in five hundred or a thousand years about how this came to pass?
Intergenerational equity is written into the laws of the country, but in practice, Australia does not give our descendants much thought. Cornucopian economic theory holds that forgoing luxury now for the benefit of those who will come after us would be irrational, since it is assumed that the wellbeing of future generations will only ever increase. This is the defining story of my people and its pervasiveness reflects a more general lack of interest in transmission. We know that koalas will become extinct and that the Great Barrier Reef is dying, but cannot accommodate this knowledge in the story we tell, so we carry on clearing bush-land and selling coal, barely able to record how and why this terrible loss is being brought about. Australia’s chronic cultural amnesia plays its part.
Roughly half of us have been either directly transplanted from another country or are the children of transplanted parents. For half of us, removed from the landscapes in which our stories grew, there is a tug or jostle to join the Australian mainstream in its severance from the past and the future. Mainstream Australia celebrates holidays rooted in foreign landscapes and venerates traditions that are barely of two generations’ vintage. We obsessively retell the Anzac landing and defeat on the Gallipolli peninsula. It has become the noisy miner of Australian story-telling, grown dominant while others contract and disappear. We are ashamed of other stories we might tell, so we leave them unspoken. Meanwhile, we grant mining companies permission to destroy sacred sites of the living cultural heritage of Australia’s First Nations peoples that are five times the age of Stonehenge or the Giza pyramids. For most of us, with our ancestors foreign and our descendants out of mind, the thread of transmission is elusive.
Australia’s goldfish memory contrasts painfully with the ancient cultural and natural heritage of the continent onto which the nation is grafted. One of the Australian World Heritage sites being ruined by climate change is the Gondwana Rainforests. The lineage of these extraordinary forests traverses deep evolutionary and geological time, from the break-up of Gondwana and the chain of volcanic explosions that created the plateaus of the Great Escarpment on the east coast of the continent. The plants and animals of the Gondwana Rainforests harbour a record of the Earth’s evolutionary history over several hundred million years. There are living 2000-year-old Antarctic Beech trees rooted in remote hollows of those mountains. Their scrub-birds belong to the oldest lineage of songbirds in the world. Hoop pines carry on the story of the Araucarian plant family that dominated the Permian period. Their cousin Glossopteris lies petrified as coal, buried in basins such as the Hunter Valley, relics of ancient warm times when the seas were high. Changes in moisture, higher temperatures and cataclysmic fire fuelled by climate change will render these forests unrecognisable. In the bushfire crisis that marked the end of the second decade of the twenty-first century, fire burned in three-quarters of the 40 reserves that make up the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area. Changes we had imagined unfolding over decades took hold in one abrupt season. Yet the nation is barely conscious of the passing of these exquisite islands of evolutionary heritage.
When Notre-Dame Cathedral burned in Holy Week 2019, an emotional reaction in Australia revealed a deep sense of wanting.
There was real grief for this old church to which many of us have little to no direct connection. Political leaders talked of contributing funds to the restoration effort. Brisbane Archbishop Mark Coleridge remarked, ‘Whoever you are, there is some deep chord struck by what has happened at the heart of Paris’, because Notre-Dame is ‘a vast storehouse of human memory’. The week that fire broke out in Notre-Dame, veteran leaders of Australia’s emergency services sent an open letter to the Prime Minister warning him that Australia was underprepared for the disasters of climate change, particularly bushfire. Former NSW fire commissioner Greg Mullins told the ABC that he and the other signatories were frightened and that we were facing in the coming summer ‘a horror scenario’ of simultaneous bushfires from Queensland to Tasmania.
The Notre-Dame fire and our own bushfire warning occurred during a federal election campaign. During that week, veteran Australian political journalist Michelle Grattan wrote an article in The Conversation that asked ‘Why would any rational voter believe claims involving hundreds of billions and 10-year spans?’ Grattan remarked that to Australian voters the mere ten-year time-frame of the Coalition government’s budget surplus forecast ‘might as well be infinity’. In contrast to the vast sweep of the continent’s landscapes and its ancient natural and cultural history, Australia’s political and social imagination keeps the horizon painfully close. To a people for whom a decade feels like infinity, a living storehouse of meaning like Notre-Dame will never be created or transmitted, just as no coherent story is shared about the origins and meaning of the bushfire infernos that gripped the country in that summer, as had been predicted for a generation.
Australia’s First Nations peoples meanwhile constitute the oldest continuing civilisation on Earth and have achieved cultural transmission across millennia, past ice ages, sea level rise, the cataclysm of invasion and the systematic dispossession and destruction of the two centuries since. These feats of transmission continue virtually unrecognised in the Australian story. Another World Heritage site, Willandra Lakes in western New South Wales, is listed in part for its extraordinary archaeological record of human occupation dating back more than 40,000 years, including the oldest ritual burial found anywhere on Earth and evidence of flour grinding contemporary with the first use of flour in the Fertile Crescent.
Yet the values Australia recorded in the World Heritage register for Willandra Lakes barely mention the Mutthi Mutthi, Barkindji/Paakantji and Ngyiampaa peoples who continue to carry and transmit the natural and cultural heritage of the lakes. This heritage is necessary because it participates in deep continuity though upheaval. When Mutthi Mutthi people first came to Lake Mungo, it was full of water. The landscape dried during the last ice age. A thousand generations of Mutthi Mutthi have lived through profound environmental changes. The invasion of pastoralism triggered an erosion process in the wide dry lakes and their spectacular lunettes that are bringing this history to the surface. Some Mutthi Mutthi descendants have said they believe the remains of their ancestor, Mungo Woman, revealed themselves in order to connect people to their history, unite tribes and educate the rest of us. As the landscape rears and reacts to the heat and turmoil we have wreaked in two hundred years of heedlessness, as rivers dry and seas reclaim their ancient territories, these are stories that we need to hear and share. For World Heritage places at least, this story may be changing. In the past three years, the Daintree Rainforest in the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area was restored to the custodianship of the Eastern Kuku Yalanji, the Butchulla name K’gari was restored to that World Heritage place and the cultural landscape Budj Bim became the first World Heritage site in the country nominated solely for its Aboriginal cultural heritage values.
Our failure in transmission has economic roots. Fervour for continual economic growth is anti-ecological, and cumulatively high annual growth creates corresponding generational social upheaval that we have come to accept as normal, but in reality has only been occurring since the Industrial Revolution. According to the Australian Treasury, growth in Australia’s first century as a federated nation-state averaged 3.4 per cent per year. In my life, that has been more than a doubling, a dramatic change for all of us living through it. We see that change in huge mines and sprawling suburbs where the bush used to be, demolished and replaced buildings, diminishing fish numbers, vanishing birds. We see it in the invention year after year of new cultural norms and practices and the unfamiliarity of the literature of the near past. A 3.4 per cent per annum rate of growth is about average in contemporary economics, but as Thomas Piketty showed, for centuries before the eighteenth century and the Industrial Revolution, annual growth was less than 0.1 per cent. Change was slow. At that pace, you could return to your home district after a generation and it would be familiar. You could tell the stories of your ancestors and be understood.
Most of the English literature with which we are familiar was created during our current age of acceleration, since the invention of the steam engine in the late eighteenth century, and seeing that heritage in a longer context alters our understanding of it. It is difficult to maintain the thread of transmission during such cultural churn. Victorian novels, for example, seem alien in a contemporary context. Dickens is as insightful about foible and corruption now as he was when Australia was a penal colony, but the social and cultural universe of Victorian England is increasingly foreign to us, as is the Australia to which Magwitch was sent for the term of his natural life. Even modernist literature, barely a century old, is receding into strangeness.
Viewed in this light, it begins to make more sense that much of what we of the Anglo diaspora consider to be our literary inheritance is characterised by an anxiety about dislocation from the natural world and the turmoil of rapid change. It is a literature immersed in what Amitav Ghosh in The Great Derangement calls ‘a habit of mind that proceeded by creating discontinuities’, one that ‘deliberately excludes things and forces (“externalities”) that lie beyond the horizon of the matter at hand: it is a perspective that renders the interconnectedness of Gaia unthinkable’.
When he composed sonnets before the era of cornucopian growth, Shakespeare was confident his work would be transmitted ‘So long as men can breathe, or eyes can see’, and endure the effects of ‘devouring Time’. In Sonnet 60, human lives are as brief as waves, but form part of a sustained pattern that connects each to the past and the future:
Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end
Each changing place with that which goes before
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
The place of the poet in this continuity is to transmit threads of words and stories like energy from wave to wave. Two hundred years later, in the era of acceleration, Wordsworth was afraid his people had broken with the rhythms of nature:
The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
Far from conceiving himself as a wave in a continuous series, Wordsworth gazes on the non-human part of the world as a wistful outsider. The Industrial Revolution has taken his people ‘out of tune’ with the world that made us. A hundred years later, in the time of the Modernists, this breach was utter. The American poet Ezra Pound observed in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley that ‘the age demanded’ of its poetry and arts not continuity and transmission connecting the past to the future through the present, but rather ‘an image / Of its accelerated grimace’. The qualities of change and the poet’s relationship to it have altered in this era of compound growth:
All things are a flowing,
Sage Heracleitus says;
But a tawdry cheapness
Shall reign throughout our days.
Since accelerated growth began, we have been missing the waves of past and future, marooning ourselves in a storyless present. Bruno Latour has argued,
The perversity of the modernization front was that, by ridiculing the notion of tradition as archaic, it precluded any form of transmission, inheritance, or revival, and thus of transformation—in short, of engendering. And this is true for the education of human offspring as well as for landscapes, animals, governments, or divinities.
Australia suffers particularly from this failure because too many of our stories bear no relation to the landscape and heritage of the places where we live.
All things are flowing, and change is fundamental to the world and to our lives, but it is harder to recognise and adapt to change if it churns so quickly that no trace of old ways and old stories remain. When the koala is extinct, will our descendants pass on its story? I hope there will be songs about them, but as their forests are altered by fire and heat in the decades to come, even the thread of landscape will be lost. We will not only drive them to extinction, but we will then forget about koalas altogether because we lacked a shared story about what they mean to us. An Australian environmentalist I know was once challenged by his father, ‘Why would it matter if koalas became extinct?’ If our answer to that question is merely personal, or even worse, commercial, if we cannot coherently answer as a people, it seems unlikely the story of the koala will persist.
Australia’s First Nations peoples tell shared koala stories, though, and could show the rest of us how to transmit stories about large-scale environmental change that offers the hope and meaning of survival and memory. Researchers have cross-referenced oral traditions about rising waters and changing coastlines in places such as the Spencer Gulf, the Tiwi Islands and the Great Barrier Reef coast with the dating of sea-level rise after the end of the last ice age, concluding that these stories have been transmitted over thousands of years—and in some cases, more than ten thousand years. Contemporary mainstream Australia doesn’t bother to imagine any story of ours would last a fraction as long. And so, the Great Barrier Reef perishes before our eyes and the meaning of this cataclysm eludes us.
Transmission underpins our understanding of the world we live in, as well as our self-knowledge. Without it, we cast ourselves adrift upon the currents of what scientists call ‘the shifting baselines’. The term was coined by fisheries scientist Daniel Pauly more than 20 years ago to describe why young fishers were satisfied landing catches whose size would have disappointed their elders. The previous abundance of wild fish is remembered by old people but the old people are disbelieved. Pauly has partly attributed that disbelief to the arrogance of contemporary attitudes to data: like Aboriginal stories of sea-level rise, old stories about big fish and big hauls are not treated as credible because they are anecdotal or orally transmitted. Yet the understanding transmitted by such storytelling can enable us to make sense of the changes taking place around us now. In Australia, the brevity of most of our relationship to the country means this understanding is only possible if Indigenous ecological knowledge is made central to the story we tell about the place where we live— and without it being cynically appropriated. Lacking this knowledge, we are barely able to describe, let alone understand, the upheaval that we have wreaked. Climate change will further loosen our grip on story. Waanyi novelist Alexis Wright warns that in the era of climate change:
The world is at risk of losing the epics of cultural knowledge and survival that enlighten and enrich all of humanity, by the great numbers of the world’s population moving from homelands where they can no longer live, because so too are these stories of place being uprooted, as they move in ever increasing waves of migration to reach faraway places where they are either not welcomed or are struggling to survive.
(‘Telling the Untold Stories’, Overland 234, Autumn 2019)
I grew up in Newcastle and have lived here for 40 years but my knowledge of Muloobinba, as it is known to Awabakal people, is shallow and patchy. I know the hills, headlands, winds, swamps and birds, but their meaning eludes me. My family have been here for three or four generations and we have barely had time to get to know the place while our cumulative growth has transformed it around us. There are many aspects of the land that raised me for which I have no words or names and which I can evoke only with approximate descriptions. The stories I know come from other places and that heritage doesn’t much help me describe how the winds and moods of my home are changing now using shared naming, ritual, images and stories. Not knowing local ancestors and spirits means not having myths and allegories to call up to help the people understand the change taking place around us and come to terms with the hard times we are walking into. During the bushfire cataclysm of Australia’s summer of 2019–20, as the ancient forests burned, I turned to Judith Wright and her prophetic poem ‘The Two Fires’:
And walking here among the dying centuries—
the centuries of moss, of fern, of cycad,
of the towering tree—the centuries of the flower—
I pause where water falls from the face of the rock.
My father rock, do you forget the kingdom of the fire?
The aeons grind you into bread—
into the soil that feeds the living and transforms the dead;
and have we eaten in the heart of the yellow wheat
the sullen unforgetting seed of fire?
And now, set free by the climate of man’s hate,
that seed sets time ablaze.
The leaves of fallen years, the forest of living days,
have caught like matchwood. Look, the whole world burns.
The ancient kingdom of the fire returns.
Wright’s prophetic register resists the cult of ‘relevance’ and relentless progress that demands poetic images only of the accelerating present. It takes her imagery and insight out of its particular time and place, where she was grieving the all-consuming fire of nuclear bombs, and passes it like a gift to us, half a century later, grieving the fires of climate change.
Judith Wright and Alexis Wright both offer hope that transmission is possible. It is certainly indispensable. As Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe has said, transmission of stories is ‘the memory which the survivors must have, otherwise their surviving would have no meaning’. The first act in creating meaningful stories in rapidly transforming Australia is creating a space for memory, truth and retelling, particularly for the continent’s First Nations peoples. To be earthbound in a colonised country demands this. The next act will be for our descendants, changing the way we live so that they will be grateful to us. That means telling ourselves a different story about who we are, what the natural world means to us and how we live in it. The story we have been telling, about human genius and progress, about growth and separateness, is a terminal mutation.
There is now a reckoning for that, and as the storyteller Martin Shaw has observed, we won’t get a story worth hearing until ‘we witness a culture broken open by its own consequence’. Reviving a self-regenerative, landscape-based story and philosophy for contemporary Australia means creating a relationship with the land that has meaning for us, carrying the ecological as well as the cultural heritage of our home, and writing and telling stories that are rooted in it. It will be an unsettling process.
The ten generations since the Enlightenment have broken the thread to the past and burned up the future. It happened in an instant of geological time and now we feel trapped in a cyclonic present, reinventing fashions, in thrall to transient obsolescence, remembering nothing and consuming everything. The times are tipping over into disruption and we are riding on a hinge, with civilisation swinging heavy around us. There are ten generations behind that made, enjoyed or suffered the Industrial Revolution, and a thousand ahead that will reap its legacy. We are here at the pivot, in the first quarter of the twenty-first century, being broken open by our consequences and searching for a story. Unlike those who came before, and unlike those who will come after, we hold both the knowledge of what all of this means and the power to change it.
Our descendants will look back and tell some kind of stories about us, there’s no doubt about that. The urge to transmit is part of who we are. We can imagine or create what that story might be. A biological urge to reproduce and to nurture reproduction began narrowly, with cellular replication, but we have expanded that instinct beyond the relentless self and into the world. We have within us the capacity to apply our reproductive and nurturing instincts to the natural world, to culture and ritual, to accumulated wisdom and enlightenment. The attention, the will and the compassion required to do so seem beyond us, but they are not. We must listen for the transmission, and pass the message on, before it is too late.
Georgina Woods is a poet and environmentalist living on Worimi and Awabakal land. Her poetry collection, The Tide Will Take It, is published by Puncher & Wattmann.