Dear friends, this post is not about craft. Just so you know in advance.
Australia’s national day is January 26, so this post is well past its original date. I was overtaken by events in January. But I was also overtaken by my own feelings on this subject and having revisited this post several times since, still find it hard to choose what exactly to say.
‘Our’ national day is supposed somehow to commemorate the claiming of this continent as part of the British Empire and also to celebrate our nation and people. This is a tough balancing act. Impossible in a colonised country, I would say. On the date commemorated, the colonising power had only the vaguest idea of the coast and knew even less about the interior. Of the hundreds of first nations and language groups–they knew almost nothing. Indigenous Australians were never conquered: at the point of colonisation most had never encountered anyone British. They never ceded sovereignty over their lands. The few places where efforts at treaty were begun were abandoned by the colonisers.
Although it was bloody and violent, in my own lifetime this process has often been called ‘settlement’ by non Indigenous Australians; and almost never referred to as a war. So non-Indigenous and white Australians (I speak as a non-Indigenous white person) have a long history of not being able to speak the names of what our ancestors did here. Those whose families arrived here more recently sometimes find this just as difficult: but in recent decades and since the end of the white Australia policy, more people arrive here from countries which have themselves been colonised, so this may yet change.
I had just a small number of days at home around the date. We are currently having an intermittent national debate about whether to change the date of Australia Day. Doing so would at least acknowledge the pain of Indigenous people who are now expected to tolerate ‘the nation’ being celebrated on a date representing colonisation and dispossession. Some prefer to call it Invasion Day. Some call it Survival Day. This graffiti was amended by a racist response, and then a riposte, and then obliteration–all in the course of a week. January 26 is not a date I celebrate, and this year I got up and ran as usual. I know I was planning a blog post, but all that I have of my thoughts are some images.
This first is one of my guerilla plantings of carprobutus, after we had a heatwave that went all the way to 47C. That is not a typo, and Adelaide was not the hottest place in the state. When I was planting this, a gentleman came past apparently bent on persuading me of the futility of my endeavours. I told him I really thought this plant could make it and that was why I had chosen it. He responded by almost claiming I was cheating–so tough is this plant. Just look at it here. Sometimes when I am at a railway station or beside a road, I am looking at ugly (though–often important) infrastructure, and the blighted land that so often surrounds it, regularly poisoned, covered in rubble, a repository for rubbish all too often. I think about the fact that once, and not so long ago, none of this was here. In this place, now a suburb, was dense forest of which no visible clue now remains. This land, and not only places that are still forest or desert or scrub, was once revered as the mother by people who had not faced colonisation.
A little further on, the intense heat has killed trees. This is not exceptional–our city is scattered now with full grown trees that have died since that heat wave. Here is part of the landscape I run through, near where the graffiti above appeared. Care for land is central to every account of Indigenous life and law and ethics I have ever encountered from a person or in a written account. Nothing like the city I live in could spring from this ethic. Nor could the inaction on climate change that has us already facing 47C.
From here, I run into the parklands and then into the cemetery. Here too, vegetation is scorched. Right through the suburbs, even now there are shrubs and trees covered in crisp leaves like these. If they were not regularly watered, these plants could not live here at all.
It’s interesting running through the cemetery. It has me thinking about all manner of things I otherwise might not. For instance, about the imperial war graves. So many of them. Yet these are only the graves of returned servicemen from particular wars, who died after returning from those wars. These very numerous graves are therefore not the total picture. They do not recognise the frontier wars, for instance. They gesture toward the carnage of war which is in reality so much worse than this, and they make the violence that created what we know as Australia today, invisible.
The remainder of the cemetery is relentlessly sectarian. Mostly Christian, with strict divides between Christian sects as well as between Christian sects and other faiths. I run past the Druse and Jewish sections as well as Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox graves. If there is an Indigenous section in this cemetery it is well hidden. But you can see how dry the unwatered parts of the cemetery are here.
Weeds in all their destructiveness, on the other hand, are everywhere. This is one of my nemeses, weed-wise, caltrop that punctures feet and tyres alike (yes, I pulled it up!) I have studied weeds and colonisation both, in different ways, and there are some key ways in which the damage of colonisation is out in the open to be seen, and yet, is not seen. In this way it is rather like weeds–many of us do not know where they came from and the damage they do is not always as easy to see as in the case of caltrop. They have changed the ecology of this ancient land.
Prisons were unknown to Indigenous peoples prior to colonisation. What cruel irony, for this place to have been made a penal colony first of all, and in the present for Indigenous Australians to be so over represented in Australian jails. This is the old Adelaide jail. A horrific place even in the 1980s when I visited someone there, and appalling even in the visitors’ area as distinct from the cells. Historically, people were sent here for the crime of being poor, among others. It is now being partially redeemed by a community garden within the grounds where those put to death for their crimes were buried without the requirements of their faiths as part of their punishment–an idea that horrifies even my atheist sensibility.
In short, I can think of nothing to celebrate about colonisation. In all honesty, I am no fan of the concept of the nation. When it comes to our national anthem, which celebrates Australia as “young and free” when in reality this continent is ancient and so are the cultures of the original peoples whose cultures and ancestors have been here since time immemorial–I think this song by Tiddas expresses it best.
I’ll consider celebrating Australia Day when we are telling the truth, acknowledging the suffering and loss of the past and present, and rectifying the injustices of colonisation. And in that spirit, I give you a revegetation site where once stood weedy, neglected, abused land. Australia: we can do so much better.