If the land is sick, you are sick.

I just read this article: ‘If the land is sick, you are sick’: An Aboriginal approach to mental health in times of drought.

It made me think…

We were camping in outback NSW recently and the signs of drought were everywhere. The last time I’d been there, the land was abundant with strange and fascinating wildlife, lizards, butterflies, birds and plants I’d never seen before. Now it was just dust and underneath the worryingly dried out trees, I found the picked over corpses of baby kangaroos and baby emus.

I felt the reality of the climate crisis, I saw that we are truly losing these incredible treasures to the devastating affects of global warming. I thought about how Aboriginal Australians have been on this land for over 50,000 years, I thought of the book “Dark Emu” which demonstrates overwhelming evidence of how they had sophisticated agricultural practices that once made this land a fertile and abundant place and how in such a devastatingly short place of time, colonialism and Western agriculture devastated the land.

Not only were their people raped and murdered, not only was their culture silenced but the carefully tilled soil on their land was stomped down into compacted clay by the hooves of imported livestock, the grasses they made bread with were devoured… in a horrifically short space of time, colonialism and cultural imperialism transformed their verdant, fertile lands into something that was so much less.

And it keeps happening. They keep losing their lands because of our ancestors and because of us. Because of our mismanagement of the land our ancestors stole.

There has been a national crisis of Aboriginal suicides, over this summer, eight Aboriginal children took their own lives. Eight. Eight children killed themselves. Doesn’t this just make your heart break? Doesn’t this make your want to break down in full body sobbing? What drives children to such hopeless despair that they take an action that ends their own lives?

As I walked around the outback, there was dust, bones and silence. Too much silence. The climate crisis is not only taking it’s toll on the beautiful natural world around us but also the people least responsible for it happening. Taking action, demanding better from our politicians, our business leaders and ourselves… it’s our responsibility not just for the sake our our natural world and ourselves, but something we must admit that is a dark debt we owe as part of our colonial inheritance.

I love this country. I’ve lived here my entire adult life and I feel it in my bloodstream as much as my home of Aotearoa New Zealand, I also acutely feel my privilege and the understanding that for Indigenous and underprivileged people around the world, the affects of climate change are already here and they are utterly devastating.

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Outback

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I need to find a way to capture some of this feeling before it dissolves in the atmosphere of the city.

It’s flat, the outback. It reminds me of the way the world felt when I was a kid, yanno, big. Big like when you stand outside at night and stare into the universe. That awestruck thing of you being so small, so insignificant, that liberating thing of some getting some goddamn perspective. Oh hey ego, shut up a tic and look at this cool shit, hey?

Over the anniversary of my 10th year living in Australia, we explored Lake Mungo, the ghost of a lake that once was. Now a dry and flat expanse covered in alien vegetation, 50, 000 years ago this place was freshwater mussels, giant marsupials and people. Some of their bones remain around the edges of the extinct lake and our guitar toting tour guide showed us ancient fire pits, fossilised fish scales, preserved footprints and freshwater mussel shells that looked as if they had been deposited on the ground just yesterday. Actually, the mussel shells were perhaps one of the most striking things – the fact that they did not look old gave me a strange sense of vertigo, a connection with the past and a palpable understanding of how recently that lake existed in the history of things.

For centuries the fossils and things have been preserved in a museum of mud and sand but now the wind is uncovering them and slowly they erode and disintegrate, blending with the dust and sand. Poetry like that is the kind of shit that puts a lump in your throat. Mortality, ephemerality, it makes you feel lonely and sad but in a good way, a poignant way. Isn’t everything just so fucking beautiful when you remember that it’s all temporary?

It’s dry, the outback. To an untrained eye it might seem hostile to life but in fact the biodiversity is astounding and you see things that are so alien and specifically evolved to the ecologies which they inhabit. Brilliantly coloured parrots screeching in voices that somehow remind me of Fran Drescher, lumpy turd shaped lizards with giant mouths, Emus that look like dinosaurs and a run like terrified but athletic nerds, beetles with markings that look tribal and might get them entangled in an online argument about cultural appropriation, weird fungus that is the texture of a pavlova filled with black nightmare weirdness and flowers with petals that feel like dry straw.

You have to stop though, you have to stop and stand still and pay attention. That’s a good rule of thumb in general when it comes to the natural world, remembering that it doesn’t exist to entertain you. The animals and plants have their own shit to do and if you take some time to tune into what that shit might be, you realise just how little you know, just how many worlds exist right before your mostly blind and ignorant eyes. It’s humbling.

“Humble” seems like an old fashioned word doesn’t it? I’d love to see a renaissance of humbleness. Can somebody bring it back into fashion? I don’t mean humble as in subservient or lacking in pride. I mean… Remembering how little any one person can ever truly know, remembering there is always more to learn. Always.

It’s bright, the outback. This part will go down as one of the great memories of my life. The part where we got out of the car and clambered up white sand dunes. When I reached the top of my first dune, I let out an involuntary and childish squeal of excitement and I started to run along it. I’m grateful for the times when I forget to be self-consciousness about what a giant dork I am.

I’ve never been on sand dunes before, not proper ones like this. They were a thing of myths, of the books I read in my childhood. It is utterly thrilling to be somewhere that just looks and feels so different from anything familiar and I swear, my heart raced with excitement as I bound down the side of the first dune in giant gravity propelled leaps! I ran through the flat valley between the dunes then up another, down another, up again. I felt a manic, brilliant joy.

When I paused for my breath to catch up on me, I realised that the white expanse seemed to be spinning and flickering just a little, as if my brain couldn’t quite take the exertion, the heat or the brightness of the sun reflecting with such intensity on the white surface. I wondered if I was going to faint and the idea seemed so hilariously pathetic that I burst into laughter. Then I stopped to breathe in the place and listen to the absence of traffic, the wind, bugs and the occasional bird or rare other tourist.

I watched him in the distance, my travel companion who is one of the great loves of my life and who has a thirst for adventure and novelty that feeds and ignites my own. I knew, through the excited grins we had shared all day, that he was finding this as magical as I, albeit in his own way. He looked up into the sky and I followed his gaze, it was a bird. The internet tells me it was probably a nankeen kestrel.

It hovered and wove silently through the sky and as it came towards me, that feeling of awe I had been experiencing all day seemed to reach a climactic peak. As it flew directly above me, I literally fell to my knees and watched it pass in front of the sun, an act which caused its feathers and much of its body to glow. Holy. Fuck.

I have a voice memo on my phone from after that moment. My voice is faint, trembling. You can barely hear it over the wind but I wanted to transcribe my words, rambling, unaltered.

“Today I saw the sun shining through a hawk while sitting on a sand dune… and I’m so glad I lived for this. I wanted to take a photo or a video for the memory and for writing about it but I thought that would be really inferior. And I thought about the shame I feel for taking photos instead of living in the moment. 
But then I thought about how we’ve always told stories, the thing that makes us human is telling stories about the things we do, that’s why we take photos of everything and try to record things… that’s something really special about us… that we… we tell each other stories about what we’ve done, what we’ve eaten, where we’ve been. It’s how we learn, it’s how we relate and I think we should tell all our stories. I don’t think there should be bad stories. I think we should tell stories about the most poignant moments in our lives, the moments when we run across sand dunes but also the time we shit our pants on the tram down Sydney Rd or the sex we had that was just so filthy or… the time we wanted to die.”

Exactly a week before I was running on the sand dunes, I wanted to die. The theme was one I had written of before, unhappiness with my health, sorrow about how significantly decreased my abilities are, chronic pain, lost potential, fears of things worsening, missing painting with the ever-present ache of lost love. I felt trapped, I had temporarily stopped seeing the colour in things. All I could see when I closed my eyes was a recent x-ray of my fucked up body and all the ways in which I cannot have the things I love.

Exactly a week afterwards, I sat in the dark where we had set up camp and though the suicidal inclinations had passed, I was still feeling tenuous. I decided to risk trusting this relatively new love of mine with the story of my sadness and he gave me the generous gift of listening and then just holding me for a little bit. Something lifted after that, it is such a fundamentally human need to have our sorrow witnessed. And our joy. One of the most meaningful things you can give another person is to listen to them when they tell you how they feel. I am tremendously grateful for the people who have loved and listened to me and I hope I do the same for them.

The next day, I was watching the sun shining through a hawk on a sand dune. Then I stood up and went to my love, we embraced and showed one another various treasures we had discovered – old fashioned glass fragments, dead bugs, bones. We both went wandering in separate directions again and I played a game with myself where I walked along the flat sand with my eyes closed until eventually I reached a dune that meant I was now climbing upwards with eyes still closed. Suddenly my foot touched air and, gasping in surprise, I fell onto my arse, I had reached the top of the dune and had fallen onto the other side of it. I laughed, filled with joy over how effective such a simple game had been at delighting me in this magical place.

I made a second voice memo.

“I can’t remember the last time I was this happy. It’s that thing… that thing where you have to tell the stories you don’t want to tell. You have to accept your vulnerabilities you have to (the wind gets too loud here and my voice is too faint to decipher for a moment) … somehow it just frees you up. It frees you up to feel good. It’s that Brené Brown thing about vulnerability it’s…oh my God I just found a little jawbone!”

A week ago I wanted to die. A week after that, I visited a place so special that it unlocked passions for the natural world which had lain relatively dormant within me since childhood. When we got back to Melbourne, my mood dropped and I cried when I walked into my house. But it was nothing dramatic, I’m feeling a lot stronger and my cat has been demanding cuddles which always helps me keep it real, yo.

It’s important to remember that the pain is real but so is the joy. It is so important to be reminded of how incredible the world is and I will hold onto that for dear life.

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Rock Art

We’ve been slowly driving down a gravel road on the outside of the Gariwerd. We have come this way to see what will be the first indigenous Australian rock art I’ll have seen. As we pull into the car park for Bunjil’s Shelter I battle my habitual instinct to be comically irreverent and suppress the urge to make a joke about how this would be a good place for us to dump the leftover food scraps and rubbish from the camping trip we have just been on. It gets on my nerves when people make jokes during tragic parts of movies or take jokey selfies in front of stunning landscapes they have only just arrived at, so I feel my stupid joke would be disrespectful and make me the kind of jerk I hate. I know my sense of decorum is somewhat arbitrary but that doesn’t make me feel any less self-righteous about it.

The walk is short; after a two-minute tramp up a small hill covered in boulders and scraggly, dry Australian flora, we are surrounded by a landscape that is rural with patches of forest and sandstone mountain ranges in the distance. We quickly come across the rock art, painted in a shallow little cave within a huge boulder. The art is separated from us by a protective metal cage but nevertheless I am struck by it. I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t want to force myself to feel anything, like when you hold a hundred million year old fossil in your hand and try to make yourself understand, truly understand how ancient it is but all you can think about is how you’re hungry, horny and insecure about why so and so hasn’t called. But in this case, I needn’t force myself to feel something because I am struck instantly.

I’m reminded of a time at art school where we were made to do a meditative drawing exercise in the beautiful Tangatarua Marae. We were each blindfolded and then handed an object which we had to draw in our sketchbook for several hours without being able to see anything we drew. The instructor handed me a soft object, a roll of toilet paper, I laughed and cursed him but as the hours passed I found myself hurtling through swirling vortexes while simultaneously drawing them into existence. When we finally took off our blindfolds, I was disappointed and amused by how tiny and unremarkable my drawings were because they had felt immense. We discussed our individual experiences and one woman spoke of how she had spent the last half-hour sobbing because she had reconnected with mark making and was so deeply touched by it.

I remember that lady as I look at an artwork that I reflect could perhaps be 3000 years old. I think about mark making, how old and deep that impulse is within us. I think about how it is a means of communication through generations, an attempt at defying mortality, a method of creating and expressing meaning. I think about my own ever-present urge to make marks and how my body and my injury no longer allows me to do it compulsively. I think about how lucky I am during those times when I can pick up a paintbrush and how, to me as an atheist, art is the closest I come to religion, art is how I express angst and awe.  I think about how some of the marks are from more recent European white overpainting, an attempt perhaps at preservation. I think about white paint, white people, colonialism. I think about how I can never know what was going through the artist’s mind when they painted this, I can never know if they were inspired, leaving a message or simply a bored kid killing time through the hottest hours of the afternoon.

After a while I leave that spot and start to explore the small hill and boulders surrounding it. I want to hang onto this feeling I’m having, this calm, so I walk slowly, running my hand along the boulders and feeling as if I truly comprehend the weight of them. I climb up onto one of the rocks and look out across the landscape. I begin to imagine the people who had been here before me, thousands of years before me and I feel sorrow while beholding a landscape that I now perceiv to be blighted by agriculture and scarred by roads. I find myself imagining someone a thousand years ago standing on this same boulder and surveying a land unblemished and I am uncomfortably aware of myself romanticising a past, a place and a people I will never know.

I run my hand across the lichen and observe that this particular organism looks as if it is covered in thousands of tiny, gaping baby bird maws. I observe the whiteness of my own hand and the tacky cat print dress I brought in Thailand. I think about my own whiteness and about how when I was a kid growing up in New Zealand, I thought I was Māori because most of the kids at my school were. We sung songs in Māori, we ate hangis, drew koru patterns and my grandfather was Fijian which, to a six year old, is the same thing. When I realised I was not Māori, I remember feeling strange and uncomfortable about the realisation that I was… Pākehā. I think about how I never quite felt at home in New Zealand, America or, now, Australia. Perhaps I will always slightly feel as if I am trespassing on the space of others, but how this is not a feeling that especially causes me angst anymore because it simply is. Humans are an invasive species.

I think about my tendencies to daydream and how I love places with a sense of history connected to nature. I also think about how one can navigate an appreciation of other cultures and foreign lands without colonising those places, without romanticising the other. At the same time, I think about how romanticisation is a way in which we connect to the past, the way we feel a lovely and painful nostalgia for that which once existed but which we never knew.

I think about the more recent graffiti that people have left on the boulders and which has been removed by do-gooders with scrubbing brushes. I think about the value we place on the past while considering the scrawlings people have left from our own time to be without value. I think about how I am glad that the graffiti has been removed, how I am glad that we treasure the disappearing remnants of the past and try, desperately, to preserve places of natural beauty… but how we also forget that this current time we are in is just as transient, someday there will only be fragments of this left and someday there will be nothing. We think we are separate from nature but all of this is the exact same stuff and the only thing that separates it is the meanings we assign.

I reach my hands out and feel a warm wind blowing against my skin. The air here is alive, perhaps only with the meanings I have embedded into this place but nonetheless, it is beautiful and sacred and I feel grateful. As we leave, I find myself touching the blackened stump of a tree consumed by a bushfire and whispering “thank you”.