Here and there – An Australian novelist on being Australian

This is the second piece on Tim Winton’s reflections on Australia in his book the boy behind the curtain.  The following extract comes from a discussion about aborigines and the environment about Lake Moore and Mount Gibson.

Aborigines on site

Although the site on the lake is protected under federal legislation, its custodian is a frail old man who lives nearly 200 km away, and upon his passing there is small prospect of the place having a new guardian with the full authority of traditional law.

There are human sites in this country that thrum with power, places whose ancient presences intimidate and confront, but this is not one of them.  This feels like a monument to lost songs, languages, connections and clans, and a place without its people is bereft.  Across Australia, many of the 250-plus Aboriginal languages have disappeared since the colonial era, and too many folkways have fallen away in our own time.  The coercive paternalism of earlier eras has been replaced by a paralysing and infantilizing regime of cradle-to-grave welfare.  And to be blunt, the journey from cradle to grave is scandalously brief great shame, for despite significant legal and political advances, there are likely now more Aboriginal Australians in ill health, without education or employment, than in the years of my childhood, more adults without agency in either tradition or modernity, more young people illiterate in every sense.  In some Aboriginal communities, the funeral has become the dominant form of social gathering.

On previous visits to this ancient site I have walked away consumed by sadness and anger.  But my conviction that it was a lost place, another bit of silent country, was presumptuous.  In recent years Aboriginal people have been coming to the lake and its environs more frequently, either seeing these sites for the first time or revisiting them in an effort to revive the old and educate the young.  Separated by great distances, some Aboriginal people are looking to the internet as a tool for the encryption and propagation of secret and sacred lore, and although cultural connections are sometimes as sketchy as the register of extant species of marsupials hereabouts, the will for recovery and restoration gives some cause for optimism.  When the surrounding country bore all the disheartening marks of degradation, it was harder to sense much human promise in this place.  The old war on nature, for too long our prevailing mindset, seemed unassailable.  It was evident in every bullet-riddled sign, every bleached paddock, every redneck bumper sticker and depressing roadhouse conversation.  But this year, in a landscape speckled with new growth, hope for the cultural and environmental future of the region is just that little bit easier to cling to……

These projects are all private concerns, the labour of mere citizens.  The native flora and fauna under their protection belonged to the state, but the operations are leaner and nimbler, and can be more immediately responsive than most government agencies, which are politicized and bureaucratically inert.  Faithful public servants working to protect the environment have to endure vacillations of policy, infuriating budgetary constraints, and the sick reality that every other arm of government is hostile to their efforts.  The advent of this new movement will hardly make the work of government agencies redundant.  Nor does the welcome emergence of philanthropy in this part of the world mean that strident advocacy has become unnecessary – far from it, for most significant gains in conservation must still be won in the brutal, sapping rhetorical arenas of the courts, the parliaments and the media.  But the arrival of a quiet and respectable third way is a critical part of the cultural change needed in Australia if we are to restore our scorched earth.

If you drive from Broome to Darwin, you will likely be reduced to hopeless despair about our blackfellas. Apart from saying that in my view Jonathon Thurston is the most valuable and the grittiest footballer in Australia – he plays rugby league – I have no idea what to do or say about the first owners of our land.  I think that what Winton says sounds sensible and fair, about both the land and its people, but who would want to try frame Australian values about the aborigines?

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