A Journey Tracing Roots

Peter Cock

Part of our cultural illusion of disconnection from the rest of nature derives from most of us, down under, having come from over there. Our roots are in some other place. My journey was to trace back some of these roots in the hope that I would feel more connected to being an Australian earthling.

My sense of country is not limited to house and garden. My sense of country is held by the Yarra river that winds its way down from the hills where I live to the plains where I was grew up and now work. I wanted to see how far I could extend it.

In a previous trip I went to Scotland and travel led through the country of my MacGregor clan, a clan, as the story of Rob Roy suggests, who were dispersed around the world. This time my journey was to explore my English lineage. They were traced down to the opposite end of England to a place near Lands End in Cornwall. A place of old slate mines, small houses and a heritage of poverty and isolation. My family lineage goes back into the 16th century and before. This is represented by a Cock coat of arms on the wall of a grand Norman Church of England in the Village. This was just down the road from the sea, which helped me to understand my love of the sea even though my up bringing was on a dairy/beef farm on the urban rural fringe of Melbourne.

To our surprise, my wife's family comes from the village next door. Sandraís relatives burial stones were found in a simple Methodists church yard. This helped to make sense of her motherís ritual of making great Cornish pasties.

Making sense of ones heritage isn't just a personal psychological journey it is also cultural. I was bought up and taught that the English are special, and separate from the rest of Europe - the channel you know! Well it is not true. Traveling around Normandy and seeing the tapestry of the battle of Hastings and the victory of the Norman's made me realise how much the English are an amalgam of Vikings, who settled in France, the Saxons from Germany, the Romans from Italy, and not to mention the Celts.

Visits to castles, churches, Stonehenge - sacred sites of battle and spirit, enriched my sense of who I am and who we are. It is definitely time for the English to remember not their history of separation from Europe, but how much they are and have always been part of it and the better for it. The revival of Paganism and Druidry is a celebration of this remembering.

It doesnít surprise me that such journeys are now very popular thanks in part to the Internet. Tracing my pathways from around the planet increased my understanding of who I am and were I am through the exploration of roots to place. A journey enriched by meeting members of the ecopsychology network in England and Wales.

My Evolving Sense of Shared Country

Years earlier, after I had spent two years away and burst into unexpected tears on sighting gum trees in California, I can identify a little with Aboriginesí identity loss when taken from their country. Returning from visiting Pitjantjatjara country, Aboriginal land in Central Australia, I realised that my country isnít the house I live in or the community I am a founding member of. It is more, it is the Yarra country on the edge of the Yarra River. Itís name derived from the original inhabitants the Yarra Yarra Tribe.

One label for my country is dots on a map that are connected by a river and roads; another is the rural fringe of Melbourne. Another is that here is where my mother is buried. I still live where she brought me into country. This is country that owns me, simply because this is where I have always lived.

My arrival in country began with birth and early childhood in a place on a small creek tributary that fed into the Yarra on a dairy farm that is now part of the sprawling Melbourne suburbia and is buried under one of its many freeways.

My sense of place was shaped by:

  • a lineage that was a Scottish and English amalgam
  • a post war birth and the optimism of the 1960's
  • living in country on the urban \rural fringe. The result - a person who felt different and uncertain about his place
  • being a male in country that had scope for fishing and rabbit hunting. My suburban school mates loved its space of freedom
  • being tertiary educated, which made me self-conscious of place.

For most of my adult life I have lived up in the head waters of Yarra country, on top of Mt Toolebewong, overlooking Melbourne. My house is on the edge of mountain ash and stringy bark forest and grazing country. Its pastures allow continued expression of my farming childhood, while its forest provides a new opportunity to engage with nature. The land is shared with 50 others who are part of Moora Moora community. My country is infused with a shared sense of responsibility. It is not individually owned, but privately owned by the group. My attachments to this place, some shared and some not, rub along with others. Being shared, means that I am not alone in looking after it, nor do I possess a monopoly on sense of country.

The changing ways of engaging with such a naturescape are illustrated by the first 16 years of pioneering. These involved building community infrastructure such as roads, a school, houses, gardens, fences, and managing pasture and animals. To begin with, we were absorbed in a nature connection based around making our homes of the earth, developing energy systems with wind and sun. In orthodox senses we were private community developers concerned with plans, designs, and the bricks and mortar of life. If we identified with anyone it was as part of the alternative movement - but in many ways no different from our white pioneering ancestors. Busy reshaping nature as well as adapting to cold winters; experiencing for the first time living with snow and biting winds.

Being an intentional community we were vulnerable to begin with, as we were without the taken-for-grantedness that comes with being born into a tribe. The community has evolved from intention to organisation to culture. In parallel, my engagement with the land has diversified and shifted from moulder of the place to listener; from walking the paddocks to walking the forest; from looking to Melbourne and the sea to considering the ants below my knees. Maybe it was only with the pioneering done that turning to dialogue with the mountain became possible. My nurture shifted from the success of human community achievements to drawing from the landscape. The beginnings of a different dreaming. But I needed a teacher to show me how this was possible. Then this missing piece from my engagement with my country began to take shape and find expression.

I wonder why this country? My Scottish and English Celtic roots may mean an impulse towards country that involves experience of lowlands and highlands that are cold and wet for some of the year. Somehow maybe my roots unconsciously strive for an expression of heritage, a taste of ancestors.

Environmentalism Through a Shared Sense of Country?

The desert for the Pitjantjatjara people, and the mountains and the sea for me, are naturescapes where humans are part of nature and accountable to its power. They are places that human power has not disempowered. For these reasons they are places for being enriched through simply being there.

Sharing our varied experiences of different country is a sound basis for intercultural dialogue. Experiences of others through history, novels and travel help to bring home what it is. The contrast of difference enriches experience of oneís own country. At the same time it puts oneís intimate country into perspective as part of the planet.

Too many white Australians have lost their intimate engagement with a sense of country. They are duped in the large cities into believing that they don't need nature for their wellbeing. A few utterly dependent flower pots as a symbolic expression of nature, will not suffice nor will a phone call to grandparents once a month. Neither will these remnants of a sense of place be substituted for by virtual reality experiences of either. Globalisation and the virtual reality of the techno-culture is a far greater threat to our personal engagement with country than the risk of excessive nationalism developed through over identification with the uniqueness of the Australian landscape.

Whites are struggling with the extremes between disconnected private and public senses of country. At one extreme is a sense of private country that doesn't extend beyond a suburban block fence and at the other, public country that has been defined in terms of national government, its armed forces and bureaucracies.

Both these senses of country are under attack. The public nation state is under attack from multi-nationals, global governance, communications, markets, tourism and westernisation. Private country is under assault from the diminishing size of family/household with increasing mobility between places and intimate others. It is increasingly rare if we stay in the one place with the one spouse for a generation. The false belief in the myth of individualistic humanism that says we can be separated from being part of country and community, wandering from place to place and still be whole, powerful persons. It is unrealistic to expect such individuals to sustain a life engaged in daily practice of partnership with nature. Individually we are not that powerful.

What I have indicated in the above is that an additional sense of country is vital to our wellbeing. This involves the redevelopment of the meaning and focus of country as part of a shared sense through tribe/community within an awareness of one planet. What is new to such a sense of country is the awareness that we are part of the one planet. As a result of the picture of Gaia spinning in space our sense of country can never again be experienced in isolation.

What hasn't changed is that community redevelopment is a vital part of the process for the renewal of an intermediate sense of country. We are dependent on a sense of country through community as a base for collective environmental action: A sense of country that:

  • celebrates first peoples sense of country as our vital roots for a future
  • comes from a larger private universe that is shared with many people and species
  • that extends beyond an individualistic sense of country and yet one that is personal and intimate,
  • honours a sense of country rooted in a local community of people and species.
  • is not defined by media generated superficial symbols of a nationwide sense of nationalism.
  • a sense of country conscious of its place within the earth system.
  • comes out of living in country and knowing one's country as a key step towards being country carers.
  • redevelops an ecospirituality dependent on roots in place and a community of people and species.

This means environmentalism needs to direct energy to redeveloping a sense of community in country. However, strength and spirit from community and place is dependent on knowing and keeping our place in nature. Transcending materialistic individualism through shifting the focus of spirituality from sky to earth and sky is not helped by urban-based images of the beautiful sunset on a warm summers night. As wonderful as they are, they are no substitute for the work of living in and with country. Such instant transcendence hits are a substitute for being within the earth. This leaves us vulnerable to our techno/virtual culture creating a false sense of our power as the earthís god, and as such, we are no longer capable of listening and learning other than from ourselves.

Welcome to Mt Toole-be-wong Country
Mountain Spirit

Welcome to the spring rains
the moving clouds
rushing wind power
still fog
twinkling lights
surprising sun
soft, black soil
cool nights and changing days

Welcome to
dancing lyreburds
digging wombats
soaring eagles
shy wallabies

Welcome to the regenerating forest
logged and fire storied
moss-hidden blackened logs,
follies of blackberries, ragwort, and hollies
tough stringybark
high mountain ash
ancient tree ferns
wild flowers

Welcome to places of cooperative community
small clusters of
solar-powered earth houses,
hamlet vegetable gardens
food coop. cafe
part-time work

Welcome to community highs and lows
multi generations
barter exchanges
dinners and dances
workdays and meeting nights
struggle together with promise.

Moora Moora, 2001

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