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3 Jun 21

Country without Rain

There is a painting in the NGV Collection by John Longstaff titled Gippsland, Sunday Night, February 20th, 1898. Painted more than 120 years ago, it captures a scene and a depth of emotion that still resonates after another Australian summer of bushfire and drought. The painting also captures our enduringly complex, frequently shifting relationships with our personal and collective landscapes. These are the places we work, live, create and nurture in, travel through, and sometimes, imagine from afar. When these landscapes show signs of change or exhibit temperamental or extreme conditions we may worry, but we are also enthralled.

Growing up in Mudgee, in central-west New South Wales, my family took many road trips: we went south to Bathurst to visit grandparents, west to Dubbo for music exams and the zoo, east and northeast for the beach. These trips with my parents and nine siblings took place well before digital devices; Bruce Springsteen bootlegged recordings came from the tape player as protracted games of Twenty Questions rolled along. We had a full van. I was taught to look out the window and see the landscapes we moved through, watch thinning groundcover support the white bones of perished animals, stark and bright on grey-brown land. Note the blackberries hugging valley floors and rabbits dashing for their prickly cover. Read the erosion cutting swathes through hills and gullies, cattle and sheep sitting heavily under dotted trees of sparsely vegetated paddocks, carcasses of those that perished rotting on hillsides, and the willy-willies pulling up red dirt with ease. And then observe how landscapes changed, with floods triggering dormant seeds to sprout and watering native grasses and invasive species all back to unruly life. The return of water transformed the view from the van window to verdant life. There was so much I did not understand, and see, as a white girl who was just beginning to travel in the world.

What you notice reflects what you value. Iconic images of the dry interior capture the desolation and desperation of Country without rain. We can read how landscapes suffer in over-extractive regimes in works such as Drought, 1959, by Dacre Stubbs, held in the NGV Collection. The photograph foregrounds the bleached bones of a long dead bovine and centres a compromised wood-and-wire fence. A windmill dominates the horizon and has apparently failed at its task of pumping sufficient water to ward off drought, while the sun-tipped clouds scudding across the sky mirror the white of the desiccated bovine bones. Those clouds could suggest hope of rain but having lived through drought cycles in rural Australia I’ve learnt to not assume that precipitation necessarily arrives with that sort of sky cover. Rather, I see this monochrome landscape as offering recognition that transformation is necessary, and long overdue, even then in late-1950s.

Perceptions of environments are contingent on multiple tangible and intangible factors that shape how we sense worlds. The same place can mean different things to different individuals and communities, as social and cultural forces construct environments just as much as physical realities, including flood/drought cycles. Writers, artists, academics and activists who grapple with questions of place, care and values keep returning to how this diversity emerges and what it means for the worlds we make and that make us. For instance, Val Plumwood, writing in the Australian Humanities Review (2008), asks for a politics of place that is both social and ecological, and invites us to value not only those places we identify as special and aesthetically beautiful but also places ‘that we don’t have to know about but whose degradation we as commodity consumers are indirectly responsible for’. Calling them ‘shadow places’, Plumwood wrote about the frequently distant and/or marginalised places and peoples that are sacrificed and exploited for rapacious consumption in the ‘Global North’ (a term used to describe how, on the global scale, relatively richer countries tend to be located in the Northern Hemisphere, except Australia and New Zealand). These places are shadowed as people in richer countries don’t want, or need, to know about them: privilege shields the wealthy from full responsibility for how things are made while remote landscapes and communities bear the costs of unfair commodity regimes. Plumwood argued that we should shine a light on these shadowed places and be accountable for the uneven experiences produced by global capital. Shadow waters exist in similar ways to shadow places. A recent paper I co-wrote with Aleshia Lonsdale, a Wiradjuri artist and weaver, and academics Laura Hammersley, Emily O’Gorman and Fiona Miller, details how shadow waters are formed in and around Mudgee.

Shadow waters takes the idea of shadow places and applies it to geographies of water to explain how some water bodies are privileged while others are marginalised in resource decision-making. Shadow waters emerge over time and in place and space. Groundwater is frequently shadowed as it is less visible than surface flows while Indigenous water values are historicised or minimised by formal governance processes. A form of ‘Aqua Nullius’ dominates so much of water management in Australia, according to Indigenous academic Virginia Marshall, as Indigenous water knowledges are overlooked and ignored. Aqua nullius is made possible by rendering invisible Indigenous water knowledges, a form of shadowing.

Shadows are, however, contingent as they form with the commingling of light and objects. Shadows can be cast and hide important truths, yet they can also protect and nurture, shield from harsh sunlight and provide refuge. The dark can be a place of comfort and relief. Places that are important and treasured can gain security by the cover of shadows, and environments can heal if metaphorically kept out of the light. It follows, then, that not everyone perceives water bodies in the same way; what may be thought of as shadow waters for one person or community may be a valued water place to others. For instance, the Cudgegong River – a sub-catchment of the Murray-Darling basin – in Mudgee holds high esteem among some non-Indigenous local people, while its ill health is evident to Aboriginal people and environmentalists. The perception of a trashed Cudgegong is due to regulating dams, overuse of pesticides and fertilisers, and the lack of significant flow to regularly flush the river out. The new walkway that meanders around its banks with manicured parkland, however, attracts many people and their animals for daily walks and bike rides.

Meanwhile, the Goulburn River that flows down the other side of the Great Dividing Range and into the Hunter River before reaching the sea at Newcastle, is a part of a treasured songline for Wiradjuri people and an important meeting place. Coal mining activities, current and proposed, are compromising this important river. As a local traditional owner who speaks for Country, including the Goulburn River, attests:

…water is life. Water is woman. It’s everything. It’s about creation and where the tributaries come from and the flows and their tributaries and the connections between the landscapes from one to the other. It’s water and it’s life. Meeting places to trade…

Water is fundamental to existence and being in and with Country. To this woman, water is more than a resource to allow for coal extraction or to facilitate irrigation. Quite differently, a local landowner and wine producer viewed unknown groundwater as a useful, if troublesome, future resource in a 2015 interview:

What we haven’t done is groundwater, it’s too tricky and a wonderful way to study groundwater would be to do coal seam gas at the same time. It’s the next big answer.

The conjoining of groundwater science with coal seam gas extraction is typical of Western orientations to resource management. Frontier expansionism seeps in to this perspective on shadow waters and the unknown is refigured as an opportunity for further carbon emissions and revenue generation.

Different people read the same landscapes in multiple ways, reflecting diverging social, cultural and environmental values in the process. One important place on the Goulburn River is The Drip, a significant place for Wiradjuri people that percolates water into the river below. While the beautiful sandstone cliff face hugs the Goulburn and provides a welcome spot to rest at the end of a riverine walk, it is a special Wiradjuri place for women that not everyone should visit. Country needs constant tending to and caring for, especially when there are forces that are reducing the health of Country, and healing must happen if places are overused. The following conversation that I had with Wiradjuri women around Mudgee captures how views of water places directly affects their community:

Tara: And a lot of the women’s sites, groundwater is sacred to them as well and even some of the women’s business is to do with groundwater as well and caretaking of that.

Jess: So how does that work?

Sam: They reckon they don’t affect it … mines don’t affect it; what are you talking about? So it’s really hard getting them to understand that it might be under the ground and it might be just water to you but it affects people and community. When the rivers get sick we get sick people and [this affects] their ability to pass on knowledge and enjoy those places. Even though they are going to do all this stuff with The Drip, in the back of your mind you think well what is it going to be like in 10 or 15 years’ time? Is it going to be that overrun with people that it takes away from it? I know that they want to fix it up so more people can enjoy it, but then you think, well how far does that go?

The (in)visibility of water that flows underground does not lessen its importance for Wiradjuri women. While the farmer viewed groundwater as a new frontier, Indigenous women are cognisant of the interplay between different bodies of water and want to maintain the integrity of these relationships.

The Drip is a place layered with meanings and readings. Brett Whiteley famously frolicked in the Goulburn upstream of The Drip in 1970, leaving his own painted marks on the sandstone walls of the river. The artwork became part of the justification for extending Goulburn National Park to The Drip in the lead up to the 2015 New South Wales election. It is only in the past ten years that Whiteley’s art near The Drip has gained prominence and, prior to this, his white outlined images were sometimes mistaken as Wiradjuri art. Wendy Whiteley, his wife, was camping with Brett and their child at the time and said in 2009 that Brett spontaneously painted the piece after being inspired by Indigenous people: ‘He made the drawings as a homage to the fact Aboriginals did amazing cave paintings at other places.’

Artists are adept at reflecting on discourses of inclusion and exclusion, pushing their audiences to reflect on their assumptions of absence and presence, the acknowledged and invisible in urban and rural landscapes. Aleshia Lonsdale, the Wiradjuri artist I mentioned earlier, has produced pieces that work at these edges, inspired by her lived experience of growing up in heavily settled rural Australia. For example, her Recognize artwork is a piece of street art in New York that combines the ‘ALWAYS WAS ALWAYS WILL BE ABORIGINAL LAND’ political statement with the Native American medicine wheel. The yellow stencil on red and black burnished brickwork is ‘an attempt to bring to people’s consciousness the presence of First Nations people in New York City and their connection to their land.’ Landscapes continue to be rewritten by people like Lonsdale who refuse to accept that there is no alternative to the status quo.

Connections to land and waters can be tenuous in places like Australia where settler colonial mentalities still hold power. Bruce Pascoe writes in Dark Emu that ‘We are terrified of fire’, following devastating landscape-transforming events like Black Saturday in 2009. The fear we have of bushfires has come from experiencing landscapes that are radically changed as a result of colonial resource management fire regimes. These regimes have arisen from settler colonial efforts that overwrite pre-existing burning practices. We can see the fear of fire in John Longstaff’s Gippsland, Sunday Night, February 20th, 1898, depicting the chaos of the Great Gippsland Fires that killed twelve people and burnt about 260,000 hectares. Longstaff’s work centres a man on a horse, half-turning to assess what is behind him, or possibly warning his more distant friend to hurry on, while moving towards two women, one of whom holds a baby and stands with an older child, positioned at the edge of the frame. A vivid orange-red wall of flame lines the horizon and the strength of the fire dominates the trees it is moving towards. The older child seems to be tugging the arm of their mother and urging them all to move on – they are afraid. Indigenous burning practices stand in contrast to this fraught scenario. Pascoe explains in Dark Emu how fire was used as a way to nurture Country, ‘with a mosaic pattern of low-level burns’ to avoid the devastation of massive bushfires.

I was taught at school that the early colonising artists of what would eventually become Australia had failed to see the nuance of that landscape and had transplanted their remembered visions of their mother country on to the landscapes before them; effectively, the watercolour-rendered wide-open plains were imaginings inspired by their distant homes. A key artist of early colonial times was landscape painter Conrad Martens, and his Pass above Wiseman’s Ferry, Hawkesbury River, 1839, held in the NGV Collection, which shows a landscape with trees lining ridges and grassy plains. Space, light and fey can be seen in his landscape. My high school art teacher narrated that this was a flawed, romantic view and that the land was much more densely vegetated with sclerophyll all round. More like the patches of Wollemi National Park than the cliched and manicured rolling hills of England’s Lake District, the art teacher attested. That teacher’s view, however, was just another layer in the palimpsest of Australia’s reading of itself, folding back over representations that probably weren’t as skewed as once thought. Bill Gammage shares in his book The Biggest Estate on Earth (2011) how the landscapes that greeted settler colonialists were well managed by fire. Country was cleansed and cared for with fire. The capacity to use fire as an agent for care, to nurture and nourish, came through passing down knowledge at the right time and to the right people, as the nuances of where, when, how much and for how long to burn were crucial in this cultural practice. Gammage and Pascoe argue that Indigenous fire regimes made for different landscapes than those we see now, and arose from noticing and nurturing Country. There are efforts to rebuild Indigenous cultural burning practices around Australia and this may contribute to healing these damaged places. Perhaps even fear could be displaced when recognition of Indigenous fire knowledge is strong and flourishing landscapes go on.

The boom and bust patterns in Australia’s climatic cycles are changing. While Indigenous Australians have long been successful in living with these unpredictable shifts, settler colonial farmers and pastoralists have fought against these patterns. Applying their imported notions of agriculture, settler colonialists resisted inevitable cycles of dry and wet times in Australia and adopted an engineering perspective to remake landscapes into channelled and measurable rivers. Meandering rivers that once flooded out to wetlands were redirected and controlled by impoundments, of varying scale and intent, from weirs in township areas to provide swimming pools, to dams for irrigation and water security.

Such visions of control and conquer persist today in Australian water management. In 2018, the Federal Government led a National Drought Summit, searching desperately for ways to ‘drought-proof’ Australia. The ‘Future Drought Fund’ announced at this summit was slated to pay for more water infrastructure, like dams, as if this may insulate unsustainable agro-industrial systems from the realities of changing climate. We even have a ‘drought envoy’, Barnaby Joyce, who makes loud and frequent calls for more dams, all around this continent. The modernist thinking that undergirds efforts to secure Australia from drought are laid bare at these crucial moments. The misplaced faith in science and technology to solve a problem produced by over-consumption and, now, global environmental change, arises with perceived mastery of the environment. The multiple landscapes we live in and with, are glimpsed as deficient in these narratives, needing more technical interventions to render them familiar and hospitable. But it is foolish to believe that more landscape engineering will change the fraught ways in which agro-industrial systems keep pushing environments to collapse.

The gaps between perception and multiple realities is a key theme in a course I teach at Macquarie University called Rethinking Resource Management. This course asks students to think again about resource management, starting with how we perceive resources and ending with how we might do better resource management. Using local, international and global case studies, many drawing on the experiences of Indigenous peoples.

This course offers students new ways of seeing resource management systems, new ways of thinking about the geopolitics of resources, and a range of practical skills and applied examples. To illuminate how we all see things differently, in one activity students analyse classic visual tricks like the older woman/younger woman image and more recent ones like the blue/green or gold/white dress. Every year, different students perceive the same stimulus in contrasting ways and we talk through what some of them are not seeing on first look to help reveal the other representation, a present image that initially hides from view thanks to our different ways of seeing. From here, we move to consider how knowledge is socially constructed, based on multiple perspectives, and that environmentally and socially just outcomes can only be achieved with careful incorporation of this diversity.

In Rethinking Resource Management, I have asked students to look at their own ways of thinking, seeing, doing and being. Many students who take this course will go on to be teachers, urban and rural planners, resource and environmental managers, environmental consultants, conservation and sustainability officers, and innumerable other jobs and roles in society. The decisions that these students will be empowered to make every day in their working lives will affect how others see and experience the world around them. Teaching students to not always trust what is seemingly self-evident, to second-guess what passes for common sense, to consider and look again, and once again, if they can, has been a necessary challenge. I hope that these students may take their different ways of seeing to the institutions that they will find work in, from the public to the private, as these are increasingly neoliberalised, and could benefit from more advocates for diverse views.

I now drive to Mudgee with my ten-year-old, over the Blue Mountains and down to the Central Tablelands, with digital devices firmly in tow. But I’m also asking him to look out to the horizon, to notice the different landscapes that emerge at wetter or drier times and observe the valleys in their dry grey-brown times, smell the land and waters that we move through and spend time with. I want him to understand the multiplicity that makes these places valuable, in their shadow and light, and to care for the futures of these landscapes as he comes to know them.

This piece was originally commissioned for and published in NGV Magazine Issue 16 May–Jun 2019.