Let the Land Sing:
Lessons for a 21
st Century Eco-Psychology from Aboriginal Australia

by John Croft

Many have commented upon the supposed ecological wisdom of indigenous cultures by comparison with the practices found in the industrialised world. Others caution us against a "noble savage" view. Where lies reality? What can we learn from Australian Aboriginal experience.

The Australian Aboriginal cultures have been called "old stone age" by the first European invaders, and were believed to have maintained unchanged hunter-gatherer lifestyles for up to 60,000 years. Recent archaeological and cultural work, whilst demonstrating an unbroken occupation of the continent by the indigenous people, shows that Aboriginal cultures were amongst the most innovative on the planet, developing by 30,000 years ago technologies that only appeared in Europe with the Neolithic, 6,000 years ago. The finding of horticulture in the Australoid Pacific, dated accurately at 25,000 years ago, suggests that plant cultivation may have started in this region, rather than the Middle East. Aboriginal people seem to have understood the principles of plant propagation, but refused to undertake the heavy debilitating work, or agree to the reduced life expectancy and poorer diets found in peasant cultures. As a highly leisured society, ceremony, story, dance and ritual were fully integrated in ways that make modern life seem impoverished by comparison. Nevertheless, the fact that the continent was home to over 270 different languages, with enormous cultural diversity between groups, suggests that the European "settler" view that Aboriginal people are "all the same" is about as meaningful as those views which would assert that Swedes are the same as Sicilians.

The greatest product of the Australian Aboriginal is the Australian environment, which rather than being an unpopulated "terra nullius" was a cultural creation of the highest order. "Firestick farming" cleared underbrush, returned vital nutrients to the soil, increased green cover and thus increased the carrying capacity of the natural environment for important game animals and "bush tucker" plants. Certain important food crops actually needed the hot temperatures or the smokey waters from local human caused fires to germinate. At the same time, food taboos amongst certain groups, and the maintenance of refugaria in which hunting and gathering was culturally prohibited, prevented species extinctions. Practices were finely worked out according to local sources of supply, to yield a rich and varied diet far superior to that of most farming cultures. As a result Australia has preserved a biodiversity unrivalled anywhere else on Earth.

Civilisation, by comparison, since its creation in Southern Iraq, 50 centuries ago has a poor track record when assessed on these criteria. Over-exploiting local resources seems to be common in sedentary cultures. It is no accident that the zone of anthropogenic deserts, stretching from the African shore adjacent to the Canary Islands to Northern China has its epicentre exactly in the urban and pastoral cultures of Southern Iraq. Civilisation has coped with this over-exploitation in one of three ways. Firstly, by collapsing to a simpler, less complex mode of existence (Western Europe in the "Dark Ages" after the fall of Rome). Secondly, through technologically intensifying the exploitation of existing resources (the European Industrial Revolution). Thirdly, by expropriating the resource base of others peripheral to the culture (exploiting Third World minerals and energy today). As we move into the 21st century it is clear that, like so many before us, our global civilisation of 6 billion people has drastically exceeded the limits of the carrying capacity of its planetary environment. It is inevitable that the first alternative awaits us. What remains to be determined is how painful the lessons are to be. From these examples it is clear that a study of Aboriginal practices is of value as we ourselves attempt to move from being a culture which "eats its own future", to become one which is fully sustainable for the medium to long term.

The core of the Aboriginal achievement is the complex of lore, law, culture and story associated with the concept of "the Dreaming". European Australians associated "the Dreaming" with a creative mythic past, and Aboriginal myths and legends were written from this viewpoint. In actual fact the Dreaming is better described as an "everywhen", closer to Einstein’s concept of "the space-time continuum" than to our concept of linear clock time, organised as a move from past, through the present, to the future. Unlike us, who have only one absolute linear concept of time, Aboriginal Australians had two: what we would recognise as "waking consciousness" (linear time) and "the Dreaming". Whereas we recognise "waking consciousness" as "objective" and our dreams as "subjective", to Aboriginal Australians the reverse was the case. Linear time was a subjective creation, created at about age three with the first memory, and destined to end with death. One moved between the two, from linear to dreaming, with sleep, with ritual and ceremony, through story, song and dance. It was through dreaming, that one became one with the land.

So intimate was this relationship, amongst the Nyoongar of Western Australia, for instance, that they believed the Dreaming started at the moment the baby kicked in the womb for the first time (which has been confirmed to mark the true beginning of the brain rhythms associated with "dreaming"). At that moment "the land" was believed to have entered the womb, to give the child its identity or "skin". At birth the child would be considered to be custodian and care-keeper of the spot where the mother was standing at that time. The story of that place would be a part of a songline, linking story, place and song, cared for by other custodians. In good years an individual group may decide to bring together all custodians, to share the song of country, from beginning to end. Some songlines stretched right across the continent, passing through many different language groups, providing those who knew their intricacies with a psychic linear map of the terrain, its resources and pitfalls and traps. The intersection of songlines were significant as there the chief characters of songs interacted in local events, the creation of country, and the establishment of culture and law.

The continued "singing of country" was what literally kept it in existence, and kept the true balance between human and the more than human worlds, that were never separated, but seen instead as one and the same. To the Aboriginal people, culture was not the antithesis of nature. Songlines were living encyclopedias of ecological lore and law. When the singing stopped, as subsequent history has shown, the country literally starts to die. Nyoongar lands through inappropriate modern exploitation are turning to salt at the rate of 60 football fields per hour. In this way Australia at the time of "first contact" can best be visualised as one gigantic, intricately complex orchestra of song. It is a fabric that has been torn and rent by invasion and dispossession, but whose outlines, and in some places whole structures, have survived. The re-indigenisation of Australians of European or overseas extraction offers hope that the structure will survive, to play an important role in the 21st century building of a fully sustainable Australian culture for the future.

What does this teach us for eco-psychology? Firstly it shows the possibility for integration, for the re-linking of modes of discourse, personal creativity, cultural experiences and care for country into a seamless whole. This needs to become the dominant task of our culture; to create systems of education and enculturation that lead people to automatically behave in ecologically responsible ways, and to ensure that these are universally applied. We need to develop the sensitivity to detect the symptoms of social, environmental and economic disquiet (disease) that occur in cases when we exceed the carrying capacity of our environment. Only then will we be able to secure a survival commensurate with the 60 -100,000 years of continuity that the Australian Aboriginal people have enjoyed.

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