I have no brothers to lift the sky off my back . . .
Nothing but these homeless clouds — Najwan Darwish, ‘Clouds’
A sugar cane farmer gazed across the flattened FIelds of his plantation after Cyclone Yasi struck down hard over the north Queensland coast in February 2011. Then, from the depths of all human loneliness in times of despair, he offered a piece of ancient knowledge to explain what had just happened to him, and muttered to the television camera, ‘Mother Nature, mate—she’s a good ‘un.’
Days before, there had been an exodus of people from towns along the broad area of coastline in the path of the cyclone, while the whole country also braced itself for yet another catastrophe, one more in a string of extreme weather events experienced over the past few years in Australia.
The whole nation had already learnt in 2009 from Black Saturday to leave no room in their hearts for complacency about major bushfires, cyclones or floods. There had been too much grieving for the great loss of lives in the bushfires that had struck Victoria on a day of extreme heat and strong, dry winds. This nation is now on alert for extreme weather. There is an extreme-weather drill. You are expected to heed warnings and decrease any risk of life—‘there is only one of you’. So with winds of 300 km an hour forecast to ‘slam’ into the coast, if people were not fleeing on foot like those in the biblical story of Sodom up there in far north Queensland, they were leaving en masse via Virgin Blue and Qantas, or in convoys of cars on the road heading anywhere south or west out of harm’s way. There had already been mass evacuations overnight of patients from hospitals in the area who were flown to safety in Brisbane. Emergency portable hospitals were set up in Darwin and Cairns.
Those who remained had to seek refuge in emergency shelters. This extraordinary, category five cyclone was the biggest weather system in living memory to hit an Australian coastline. The next day, the survivors eventually came out from wherever they had been able to take refuge, and described the night of horror when the cyclone ripped through their towns, farms and communities. Their statements mirrored what was expected of Australians, particularly showing the ‘true fighting spirit’ of north Queenslanders:
‘I bunkered it out in my shed with my dogs and the insects.’ ‘It was like being in the ocean on a boat.’
‘It is like getting matches and throwing them around. That is what the trees look like.’
‘It makes you appreciate your friends. It makes you realise there are more important things in life.’
‘It was like a freight train going past your ear.’ ‘The rainforest has been hammered.’
This was indeed a frightening night and one couple described how they fought the cyclone that some called ‘the big, ugly sister of Anthony’—the smaller cyclone that came across the north Queensland coast the previous week. They said, ‘We held the door shut and refused to let this monster in to take everything we ever worked for.’
The day before this ‘most severe and catastrophic cyclone’ ever to hit the Queensland coast moved closer, Premier Anna Bligh told the residents along the far north Queensland coast not to bother packing anything, just to grab each other and get to the nearest emergency shelters set up to protect people from this super cyclone ‘roaring’ towards the coast.
Police drove through the streets of towns with loudhailers, telling people to get indoors and stay there. The emergency shelters filled up and others had to be found very quickly to take care of the great number of people seeking shelter. Never before had a state or national leader shown such stellar leadership in an extreme weather event, and never had a state government seemed so well prepared for what was about to happen: another freak of nature, another extreme climate event, another tick to climate change.
Anna Bligh had already dealt with major flooding in southern Queensland only weeks previously, leading people every step of the way in a style of leadership so rarely seen in Australia today. She was there to the minute, speaking to people, reassuring while leading residents away from the massive Brisbane River pouring over its banks in the centre of the state’s capital, but now, with cyclones bearing down on the flooding state, she remained steadfast. She was on the radio almost every hour of the day speaking to the state, helping people to get ready for the disaster. She warned that people had to be sensible in the face of ‘the display of awesome power’ of the approaching cyclone.
In the days before Cyclone Yasi hit the coast, people had queued up at airports to get out before they were closed, but now a long convoy of cars began heading south and west, some driving recklessly, in desperate attempts to escape Yasi. After a day of Premier Anna preparing and educating those confronting the cyclone, she exclaimed on the 7 o’clock ABC news, ‘Someone up there must have a grudge against us.’
It seemed to me that there were a number of references to something ancient in the descriptions of this phenomenon swirling towards the coast. I thought about how people visualised Mother Nature. How do they describe her? Was she the personification of earth itself, or did she look like a prehistoric goddess as imagined by civilisations from many other regions of the world? I wondered if the sugar cane farmer was talking about the great Earth Mother in Australia as being the female Rainbow Serpent, known as the creator of life in several parts of the country, or another ancestral spirit known to cause extreme weather events?
This Rainbow Serpent is sometimes referred to as the ‘Great Earth Mother’, who can cause natural disasters, such as ‘flash floods, torrential rain, or drought’ and perhaps cyclones too, like the work of the Wandjinas in Western Australia. The Gurrir Gurrir ceremony is about a warning to Indigenous people ‘not to forego their culture’. This recent ceremony, which came in a dream to the late Aboriginal artist Rover Thomas, after Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin in 1974, is about a woman who died in the disaster. The dream inspired the artist with the songs, dances and images, revealed the woman’s journey across the Kimberley back to her home in Warmum where she witnessed the Rainbow Serpent’s destruction of Darwin. The ceremony demonstrates the continuing way Indigenous people have retained knowledge through a cultural sense of what the great ancestors in the environment are telling us. This is how the stories tie us to the land as guardians and caretakers, and the land to us as the most powerful source of law.
As the massive Cyclone Yasi ‘stormed’ its way to the coast, Anna Bligh reminded those far north Queenslanders preparing themselves for the frightening night ahead, ‘We are not battle weary. We are battle ready and we are there to protect you.’ This was important narrative in storytelling, now reaching a climax of preparing not only those in harm’s way but everyone in the state and the nation to brace themselves for the onslaught of the ‘predator’, this ‘unknown animal’ of a cyclone. The Premier reminded those waiting for the cyclone that was about to hit them ‘to remember the people of Australia have their arms around you tonight’. Queensland was going to be up to it.
Then the whole country braced itself, urging those stoic far north Queenslanders to meet this challenge face-on like true Australians. To join those in the three eastern seaboard states who already had had their fair share of extreme weather—wholesale flooding across the plains and towns, who had watched and waited with sand bags for sheets of floodwater to hit. Only months before, the whole country thought it would never rain again but now the long thirsty drought of dried-up dams and broken river systems had ended. It had already been raining and raining, soaking the dry earth, and green grass grew and brought a plague of locusts, then floods and more floods that would bring more locusts. I had seen the Gulf of Carpentaria in far north-western Queensland in early December. The country was bursting alive then with birds and wildlife, and I watched the gigantic cloud systems building up late in the day on the long trip back to Mount Isa after our Waanyi Native Title Determination hearing.
These enormous dark clouds struck by the sunset with shades of red and gold were spread across the flat horizon and loomed over the land. The storm clouds danced against each other, and sung over the wide open space of the Waanyi vista. It was a good way of thinking about ancestral celebration for what had just been done. It was a good day for the brolgas flying across the sky towards their nests, as it would be months later for the birds flocking to Lake Eyre for the second time in two years. On my journey, I had many emotional thoughts about our long-sought recognition of native title and some of the very sad stories of our enormous struggles, and thoughts of my great-grandmother Opal, who was recognised as one of the ancestors of contemporary Waanyi. I thought about the beauty of our traditional country saturated with rain, the history of my family and our nations in the Gulf, and listened on my iPod to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’. The lyrics of this song about not knowing clouds stood in my mind. I was also drawn to listen to another song about clouds— ‘Under the Red Sky’, a whimsical story about a girl and a boy living under the big red sky, written and sung by Bob Dylan.
On the night of the cyclone Prime Minister Julia Gillard spoke on behalf of the nation to the hearts of Queenslanders, reminding them that ‘this was a powerful natural force, but the power of the people of north Queensland is even greater’.
After the cyclone hit the coast and caused considerable devastation, Yasi then took her magnificent weather system—those homeless clouds—onwards to the interior of the Australian continent. I have never heard of a category three cyclone reaching inland Queensland where I grew up. Never as far as the semi-arid regions of Julia Creek, Mt Isa and Cloncurry, and reaching even further inland to Camooweal on the Qld-NT border. But this was cyclone Yasi, the biggest weather system known to Queensland, capable of traveling 400 kilometres inland before ending up as a rain depression in Central Australia.
‘There’s not going to be anybody who’s witnessed such a thing in this way,’ said Ben Callcott, the mayor of the regional town of Charters Towers. I was reminded of stories I heard about how cyclones could chase a wrongdoer inland, that there was no escaping a cyclone if it was after you. Inland towns and communities near the Qld-NT border braced themselves for a cyclone for the first time in their lives, which eventually reached them as a great low-grade weather system and brought rains and floods that extended far into Central Australia.
As we witness extreme weather events one after the other, I seem to have heard more and more people talking about the work of Mother Nature. This is not new. For years many of those people living on the land have given the forces of nature the name Mother Nature. When you live with the land and regularly see things happen that are often beyond rational or logical explanation, then where do you turn for an answer? How can you explain the feeling that something is responsible for causing such a long hard drought, extreme heatwaves that helped to create one of the worse bushfires in living memory, then widespread floods that engulfed towns and sent a tsunami-like wave through the main street of a regional city?
I am sure that countless people have thought, when confronted with extreme weather events that have affected them so personally, that this was the work of Mother Nature. For many, it offered them consolation, a reminder that there is a greater force, more powerful than anything that humans can offer no matter how great or powerfully we have been able to apply our intellect, imagine or create from our brilliant ideas. She caused the cyclones, floods and bushfires that have tipped the country over the edge and left people trying to fathom what was happening in a country where their recorded history extends over only the last two centuries or so.
Was it possible that Mother Nature was tempted to take up the nettle of fire and brimstone as a result of global warming and greenhouse gases? Certainly, the places she passed through now look like the work of the brow-beaten Mother whose untidy children got the better of her one day. And was her wrath, in return, far mightier and more full of havoc then it ought to have been?
I am reminded of the famous line in Said Hanrahan that most children of drought-time Australia half a century ago will remember, ‘We’ll all be rooned.’ John O’Brian penned this poem in 1921. And how could anyone ever forget Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Beach Burial’, telling of a dismal beach burial of an Australian soldier even though most of us had never visited a beach in our lives. These were the most memorable and nightmarish works that we listened to while allegiance to state and nation was being drummed into our heads, that forced us to stare absentmindedly out of the classroom window at the vista of drought-stricken Queensland. It was like a miracle when the gloomy literary torture in the classroom eventually ended, so that we could go out in the heat and play rounders in the schoolyard and up and down the streets until parents called us in for dinner. No wonder Queensland became a place instilled with the tough mentality of dealing with doom and ruin, and of fighting time and again for the livelihoods built on this land.
But even more peculiar about this literary education to develop a form of patriotism was the strange contrast of Tennyson’s often-read The Lady of Shalott, a poem that seemed so strange to the children of a drought-stricken world. It sent our dry river imaginations of doom and gloom and foreign beach burials spinning on a journey to an almost unimaginable, fairyland place that was poles away from a childhood spent in drought. Could this poem containing thoughts of a long-ago place and time be tied to that far-off inheritance of a Mother Nature and what she might look like?
There are others who have seen Mother Nature not as a destroyer but as their helper in times of great need. There was the Mother Nature who helped firefighters against a ferocious blaze threatening houses recently in suburbs of Perth by throwing a heavy storm across the day. Then, in a bushfire in another place in the country, Mother Nature sent the wind in to keep the fire away from houses. ‘Certainly Mother Nature helped us out with that,’ a senior police officer claimed, ‘by pushing the fire into the sand.’
When we hear of a sudden change in fate, almost inexplicitly, beyond reasoning, we think a miracle has happened. We are full with a sense of relief, and again, offhandedly even though we do not know why, we give credit to Mother Nature. Where do these beliefs come from, all these reminiscences about Mother Nature that we take for granted? We do not argue in these moments, and say the weather is all about climate change, global warming, man’s stupidity, and this or that. Could it be possible for many Australians that there still exist in their hearts the little engrained remnants of some deeply held and felt ancient belief? Do Australians believe in a different, more powerful law than Australian law? Can that be possible? It might be that people say things without thinking, or perhaps they have thought about these extreme weather events and have realised that some greater authority, something even greater than the laws we make for one another, is more powerful than us.
Sometimes the Mother Nature of our beliefs and imagination acts with miracles that seem to be good and helpful, but at other times we do not appreciate her acts on the world we live in. People have fought against her and many have lost, although others have held their ground and cursed her, and won the day.
Some say that Mother Nature had gone berserk globally in 2010 after thousands of people lost their lives in an earthquake in Haiti, heatwaves and forest fires in Russia, the volcanic eruption of Mount Merapi in Indonesia, earthquakes in China, floods in Pakistan. The world is not as generous to all its human populations. Millions live in extreme weather conditions year after year. For instance, 300,000 people died of famine in Ethiopia in 1983. This country is still plagued by recurrent droughts, and continual poor and erratic seasonal rainfalls. In September 2010 aid agencies and other non-government organisations called for assistance to be given to Niger as 7,000,000 faced starvation. This famine was caused by erratic rains south of the Sahara desert in the farming countries of the Sahel region in Niger and across West Africa. In Brazil, hundreds were killed in severe flooding and mudslides in January 2011. At the same time, a huge cold shadow was traveling across Europe and a good part of North America, where temperatures plummeted, bringing snowstorms and blizzards that forced flights to be cancelled and left thousands stranded in their cars in sub-zero temperatures.
So I wonder what the traditional Indigenous caretakers of the land think about these extreme weather events of flood, fire and wind, where the whole geography of the country is considered sacred. This is a country where the ancestors live in a parallel universe, and ‘where the ordinary laws of time, space, and motion do not apply, where past, future, and present merge into one’. Why are we not hearing about the ancient stories of how to respect the weather? These are stories about ‘stasis, constancy, balance, and consistency’. Doesn’t it make you wonder why Indigenous people have kept their spiritual beliefs and Laws strong for millennia, and even in the world of great, modern Australia, still strive to keep these Law stories alive and strong?
Are we not curious to know something about the deeply rooted beliefs of this country and why they were kept in place over many thousands of years? Why are we not hearing about any of these stories and trying to understand what they might mean? All we hear in the most dominant of Australian media is political positioning of the future of Indigenous people in the grand plan of particular individuals who do not really understand much about what they are doing. Why is there this silence? Tell me, because I think the voices of the Indigenous world are controlled, shouted down and are not heard. What we say is not considered relevant. We champion the universal vales of freedom of speech for other countries but we need to look about our own back yard because there are more ways to silence voices than locking people up in jail.
When Cyclone Yasi was bearing down in far north Queensland, and there were official evacuations up and down the coast where the cyclone could strike, I wondered why Palm Island was not evacuated. I was not the only one. There were hundreds of emails and text messages sent by Australians and people from all over the world who had been worried about the fate of the Indigenous residents of Palm Island. Alf Lacey, the Mayor of Palm Island, later said on ABC radio that ‘they weathered it out and everyone seemed okay’. They had considered evacuation, but did not think it was necessary. He went on in his interview to thank the thousands of people in Queensland, Australia and across the world for their love and thoughts they had shown towards his people. He said, ‘We are a strong bunch of people, and Cyclone Yasi is not going to knock us over yet.’
The people of Palm Island may well be a strong bunch of people, some of the strongest in Queensland without a doubt, but underneath their show of strength also other ways of knowing, of understanding, of feeling the land and sea, environment and its climate. One would always ask the old people to tell them what they think. This is something that most Australians know very little about, and it has taken anthropologists more than a hundred years to even begin to understand something of the intellectual knowledge in the Indigenous world in Australia. W.E.H. Stanner, the well-known anthropologist who is still considered the great oracle on Indigenous Australians, once explained that we were a people without a history: ‘They were, he wrote, a civilization that in a sense had defeated history.’ These experts on Indigenous people continue to argue and talk among themselves, and spend their lives trying to explain the ancient knowledge associated with the Indigenous relationship to the land and to the sea.
This is such a slow nation in every respect when it comes to working with Indigenous people. I wonder how we could begin to penetrate the silence, and not have to wait for some casual reporting to hear what Indigenous people really think, from the deep knowledge that still lives on in our cultures. Knowledge that is still deeply guarded but some of which may be shared if it is respected, honoured and upheld.
The common idea we have is that knowledge about the weather patterns in this country only exists since recordings made by scientists in about the last two centuries. But there are records. For instance, what do we really understand of the rock art? These stories stretch over large areas of land in galleries that are the ancient libraries of this land. For decades, while all of the region’s clan families had moved into the mission towns and settlements in the early harsh colonising period of the north, the rock country art of Arnhem Land was left with no-one to care for it. The late, highly respected Mok clan leader and renowned artist Bardayal Nadjamerrek AO once said of his land that it was like an orphan with no-one to care for it. In 2002 he led a movement of his people back to the plateau to care for it by regular traditional burning, which could stop huge late-season bushfires that sometimes rage for months and permanently damage the landscape.
The whole Dampier Archipelago in Western Australia is covered in a body of ancient art that they say cannot be ‘read’ piecemeal. The traditional landowners say this highly significant ceremonial area ‘is a gift from the ancestral spirits, to care for and learn from’. In the name of progress, this country continues to ignore and will often destroy this ancient treasure as though it is meaningless.
As a new country, Australia has still not learnt a way of working with the deep knowledge of this continent, while Indigenous people struggle to retain their right to keep a strong cultural sense of what the environment is telling us, through stories that are everywhere in this country. These stories, if understood, may give us the knowledge we need today. In the aftermath of Black Saturday in 2009, a group of ceremonial traditional landowners from the Top End visited the bushfire regions in Victoria. They performed ceremonies for healing. They talked to the victims of this devastation, touched them and gave comfort.
Had there been treaties with the Indigenous peoples of this country, and a proper, respectful relationship between the laws and government of Australia and the laws and religious beliefs of Indigenous nations, we would have found a way to communicate with one another. We could talk about the ancient beliefs of this land in a way that tells Indigenous people that our knowledge counts for something, that it is valuable and that everyone understands that we believe this knowledge is upheld because of the power that resides in this land. It is about accepting and giving respect to other forms of knowledge, but most importantly healing the wounds of the last two centuries so that we can all learn from the archives of stories that retain the deep knowledge of this country. I believe in the transforming power of stories, and that once these stories are heard there is an opportunity to see this other way of knowing, and the sensitivity to acknowledge the legitimacy of beliefs that have held this land together for thousands of years.
In his book Story about Feeling, Bill Neidjie says we should think about these stories and listen carefully, so that the spirit of country will ‘come in your feeling and you will feel it …’ He talked about cyclones in his part of the country:
Can’t break Law.
The Ring-place must stay way e started
because that Ring-place is import,
just about like Djang… dreaming place.
And you can’t change it no-matter anyone,
no-matter rich man whatever,
No-matter is King, whatever King
but that Law e can’t break.
Ring-place e can’t go through…
The reason, he explained, was that there was something under the earth: ‘We don’t know. You don’t know yourself. I don’t know myself but that story.’ To upset the dreaming place would mean this:
Because that Djang we sitting on under,
e watching, that Djang, what you want to do.
If you touch it you might get heavy cyclone,
heavy rain, flood or e kill in another place…
other country e might kill im.
Bill Neidjie generously gave this country a wealth of knowledge about how we might start to think about the country by knowing the power of the land through its stories. To consider how important and powerful those stories are and why they are kept secret and special. ‘They don’t want to tell ‘im. They won’t tell ‘im story easy . . . Secret might be e kill somebody or something come out or kill other place or wind. That way they fright.’
In other parts of the world where nations have sought treaties with Indigenous people, so much progress has been made on how two laws can coexist and help one another. The Indigenous guardians of the land know that they have the authority to work government to government. If we look at Nunavut, the state of Canada returned administrative control of traditional territories about the size of Western Europe to 26,000 Inuit people. Canada did this in 1999 through a comprehensive agreement—a modern treaty, because it recognised that ‘unique ethnicities, Indigenous peoples, First Nations, do not stand in the way of a country’s destiny; rather they contribute to it, if given a chance’.
It is for these reasons that even now it is worthwhile to continue pushing the idea of treaties—modern comprehensive agreements with Indigenous nations as the way forward to honour each other’s laws, that are best accomplished through Indigenous self-government. This might help create the confidence and trust required to start talking about the ancient stories of this country—that knowledge that goes back thousands of years. This is where you will find the weather charts, the records about the climate, and how the Indigenous peoples learnt how to survive on this continent.
We need to overcome the situation where traditional elders in places like the Northern Territory feel such pain and desperation they issue ‘An Elders Statement to the People of Australia’, saying that:
Under the [NT] Intervention we lost our rights as human beings, as Australian citizens, as the First People of the Land. We feel very deeply the threat to our languages, our culture and our heritage. Through harsh changes we have had removed from us all control over our communities and our lives. Our lands have been compulsorily taken from us. We have been left with nothing.
In a document written in February 2011, Djiniyini Gondarra and Richard Trudgen describe how the Yolngu people of north-east Arnhem Land are seeking treaties that respect Indigenous law and custom. Dr Gondarra believes there must be diplomatic dialogue between Customary Law and the Westminster system. This document generally describes the foundation of their Indigenous system of law in this region, their government, their sovereignty, and explains why they would like the Australian and Northern Territory governments to start real diplomatic discussions for the development of a treaty with the political leaders under their law—the original and supreme law that originates from their Great Creator Spirit.
Treaty-making is important business to get right. It requires delicate negotiations between nation and nation, and it must be seen as the future for Australia. Each Indigenous nation and region will have different expectations, different ways of negotiating, different ways of seeing the past and the future. But together, we will have a common dream of wanting the best outcome.
There will be new dreamings in the Indigenous world that come from the wisdom developed from ancient time in this place. We need good dreamings from stories that can only be made with a settled mind in the land. But if we could reach these long-sought-after agreements, it may be possible to share the vast storehouse of highly significant knowledge in the Indigenous world to help explain something about this environment.
Might we then, at last, dare to dream of Aboriginal nations and their governments willingly contributing to a national council of elders speaking with authority to the Australian Government about the ancient knowledge of living in this country?
This essay was originally published in the Winter issue of 2011.
Alexis Wright is a member of the Waanyi nation of the Gulf of Carpentaria and the author of the prize-winning novels Carpentaria and The Swan Book. Her most recent book, Tracker, was awarded the 2018 Stella Prize. She holds the Boisbouvier Chair in Australian Literature at the University of Melbourne.