“….Country is figured as infant. Country is starving without care. Country can only remain fertile, productive if in fact it is looked after, tended to, fed, properly. And that means work. Ritual, ceremony, what Warlpiri call in English ‘business’, is a labour of lifetime attachment. Ancestors are dependent on humans for the making and keeping of their viscera – species, flora, fauna, sopcial relations and relatedness -animated, enlivened, activated, in a word, attached, to lived sentiments and sensibilities.” from Jennifer Loureide Bidle, Breasts, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert Art as Experience.
As we approach the Equinox, we note the Earth awakening. This morning, geese swept over the house in waves. We were sitting in the sun room as they passed by, honking, clearly visible through the overhead windows. They flew west to east, suggesting they had spent the night on the lake. We heard, yesterday, they were on their way north; now they are here.
I’ve just finished reading Jennifer Biddle’s engaging book on Australia’s women Central Desert artists: Breasts, Bodies, Canvas: Central Desert Art as Experience. It’s not an easy read. She invites us to enter a world animated by the Ancestors, and “vibrant” with their traces. Those ancestors are both human, and non-human, and the world is saturated with their traces, patterns and resonances; these traces are embodied by the landscape and by us, and require constant attention and honoring.
Prior to Contact, Australia, like the Americas, was carefully gardened by her Indigenous people. Every inch of the continent was ritualized, sacred, saturated with Ancestors and the immediacy of Dreaming. Yet the Europeans who colonized her lands and Indigenous people, perceived the landscape to be wild, empty, uncared for. In Australia, as it had been in North America, conquest was often justified by the absence of farming, a specific style of management preferred by Europeans. Indigenous forms of “management,” derived from long experience on the land, were invisible to the invaders.
Also invisible were the Ancestors. For the Europeans, Ancestors were human, and although the Ancestors might watch over them from Heaven of Hell, were distanced from everyday life and the immediacy of the landscape. For Indigenous people in the Americas, the understanding of Ancestors encompassed plant and animals, as well as humans, and the spirits of all who went before were/are alive in the landscape, forming an aspect of the sacred. This was/is even more true for the First Peoples of Australia.
These conflicting understandings of the nature of the inhabited world remain today. On one hand are those who perceive the word as machine like, devoid of spirit. On the other hand, stand people for whom the landscape is alive in its own right, and for whom the Ancestors and spirits remain animating inhabitants of the land. These conflicting worldviews express highly divergent understandings of, and relationships to, the land. One is mechanistic and materialist, and supports a ruthless exploitation of a world without soul. The other implies eons of evolving relationship, and demands ongoing care.
As spring approaches, those of us who live in a world governed by reciprocity are reminded that the Earth is alive, awake, and listening. We are called to honor and care for the landscape, and those who inhabit it, in whatever form. We know that our lives depend on the good will of others, both living and in spirit, and that when we are gone, our traces will need the active care of those who remain, as will our ongoing relationships with them.In an alive, sentient world, there is always work to be done by the living.
The opportunity to live lives embedded in reciprocal caring is a great gift, even as it is a challenge. Yet, in a time when materialism as an ideology continues to discount, mock, and erase the vibrancy of the Indigenous, interconnected, vibrant world, the Earth, and our very souls, remain under threat. As the Earth awakens, may we notice the gift of our lives, and our obligations to those who, going before us, made our lives possible. May we acknowledge our dependency on the caring and sacrifices of others, and in doing so, find gratitude. And finally, may we accept the responsibility implied in reciprocity, and care actively for the Earth and the beings and spirits who inhabit the landscapes of our lives.