Thinking through Country
Chrissiejoy and I developed the methodology of Thinking through Country for a project about her beloved Narran Lake, part of the system of land and waterways that makes up the Murray-Darling Basin. The
Murray-Darling Basin extends across all of the eastern states and territories of Australia and the system was dying as the result of a 13-year drought and unsustainable agricultural practices. Our research project was about learning alternative ways of relating to water through art and story. In our project we asked: How can places teach us about water? and How can we incorporate their pedagogical possibilities into educational systems in order to ensure the protection of people and their places? Our research followed the waterways as they travelled down from the Narran Lake to the Darling River, joining the Murray River in Victoria. The Murray River rises in the Snowy Mountains where the Gunnai/Kurnai peoples began their long walks to the coastal plains on the edge of the Great Southern Oceans.
Chrissiejoy first came to me as a doctoral student to research the process of developing a conflict resolution package with a number of Aboriginal communities across New South Wales. After struggling with academic thought and language we worked out that in order to make any knowledge claims at all, Chrissiejoy had to 'think through Country', the specific country of the Narran Lake. She developed her methodology as a DVD presentation for her fellow students using a combination of her paintings, oral and written language and moving between translations of Erinbinjori and U'Alayi languages into English.
Each painting that structured her presentation represented an aspect of Chrissiejoy's methodology. An overall jigsaw painting combined all of the parts and formed the introduction to the DVD (for extracts see website, Somerville, 2013b). As the project evolved it became clear that these paintings, and those of other Aboriginal artists who joined the project, were maps of Country, offering alternative storylines of how to live in this land. The form and structure of these maps of Country were as important as the content of the paintings themselves. By moving between the paintings, the oral storytelling and the written word, Chrissiejoy was able to articulate meanings that otherwise would have been unsayable and unknowable in her academic writing. In talking about one of her paintings in her DVD Chrissiejoy explains that the purpose of her paintings is not art in the conventional sense but a way to pass on knowledge.
The images held in her paintings constitute a symbolic language of the knowledge of Country. Knowledge of Country is not about a generalised entity such as 'environment' or 'land', nor is it so human-focused as 'place'. It derives from a specific material landscape that has its own life force, energies and connections, and embodies all that exists within it. It includes herself as a distinctive life entity, the other beings who have shaped her multiple lives, all living and non-living things. The methodology of Thinking through Country fundamentally challenges the separation of nature and culture in Western thought and language and can be thought of as a natureculture.
Two of the paintings and their accompanying explanations are relevant to the analysis of the children's place learning maps generated within the Morwell River wetlands study. The first, called 'A Mudmap of Country', is structured as a jigsaw puzzle which incorporates all of the elements of the methodology. Chrissiejoy begins her story of the painting with a piece in the top centre:
This jigsaw piece is viewed as a mud map of the Noongahburrah Country. The black lines are the rivers within, and marking the boundaries of this Country, and the black orb in the centre represents the Narran Lake, where I was raised, and which has always been the most significant and sacred site for Noongahburrah, Murriburrah, Ngunnaburrah, and all the other peoples of the nation that spoke the U'Alayi language as well as several other nations of Aboriginal people within bordering countries.
The Narran Lake was always a great gathering place, a place in the creation stories of the ancestral beings who created the world and all its creatures in the dreamtime. Chrissiejoy's attachment to the Narran Lake is a mixture of her personal (post)colonial story and its deep significance for the Noongahburrah or water people. The second piece of the jigsaw painting shows two black swans on blue water and her storytelling goes deeper into the ontology of her U'Alayi knowledge.
The piece depicting water and the swans is introducing me, myself, and I and again gives respect to the knowledge that was given to me through Noongahburrah country, my mother and her mother, my grandmother, and the influence these play on my identity. Myanbul is the language word for swan. One swan is the Mulgury (Mingin) of my mother, Karrawanna, who died within a couple of hours of my birth. The second swan is for Noongahburrah, my grandfather's mob who lived around the Narran Lake, Terewah, is where this Mulgury belongs - to that land and those people. In depicting swans on a lake I acknowledge not only my mother's spirit but also the spirit of people and Country that have been the foundation of my identity.
Swan is Mulgury, and Chrissiejoy says that as an Aboriginal person you are given a Mulgury at birth and it comes with the responsibility for that living thing. Part of that obligation is to learn all about your Mulgury and everything that is connected to it. The black swans depicted on the blue waters are Mulgury, signalling their collective meaning as mythical creatures of the dreamtime, as well as representing an individual's connection to a particular living creature and its life- world. Chrissiejoy's mother is swan, Noongahburrah people collectively are swan. Swan belongs to the time and place of the creation of the land and to the people of Terewah, the home of the black swan, in the past, the present and the future. Those who carry that identity are both swan and place. Country, swan and person are together an ontological reality.
In a second painting which Chrissiejoy describes as a 'practical methodology', she explores the ways that children learn about their Mulgury, the process of becoming connected to Country. This particular painting of the Narran Lake is different from all of her other paintings. She calls it 'Finding and knowing place of self and others in Country'. Unlike her other paintings which typically have muted ochre colours, this one has gaudy pinks, greens, yellows, oranges and blues, the brightest and most energetic of all the paintings. In the centre, against a background of patches of country marked by different coloured dots, a bright pink circle is outlined in blue dots with inner concentric circles of blue. The digital image of this painting, and this one alone, has an extraordinary quality. The dots which make up the shapes and form of the painting shimmer and move, as if animated by the energy of the lake's waters. I read these concentric circles in the painting's blue centre as the intertwining of self and other, each shaping and forming the other through Niddeerie, the Dreamtime of creation.
Outside the inner circles four pink snake-like shapes flow towards the four corners of north, south, east and west. At the same time the eye is drawn inwards towards the centre. The wavy snake shapes are not quite connected to the centre, except when the shimmer of blue dots that outlines their form merges with the blue dots around the centre circle. The shimmer animates the connections of form and being to each other and to Country. Bright green tree-like forms also stretch out in all the directions of the painting. They are wavy childlike stems and leaves with small red and orange fruit along the stem. Around the treeleaf stems, fat shiny white bodies of witchetty grubs are scattered across this country, with the symbols of seated figures and their camps nearby.
As children we spent much time following the life cycle of the grub, as we did with all other animals, birds, insects and plant life. We would learn when they mated, how the mother prepared for her babies, we watched the young grubs grow and we knew how to know when they reached maturity. You can imagine the depth of knowledge gained from this kind of learning. It not only gave knowledge about the insect itself, but also about everything that is connected to it, the type of conditions most favoured. We learned what happened when floods or drought hit the area, what the grub needed for survival and what other animals and birds fed on the grub itself. In addition, we were shown how it all connected to us.
In the epicentre of the painting, in the centre of all of the circles, a pale pink eye shape with a blue-lined iris gazes out at me. This blue eye/I centre is also the blue of the Narran Lake when the waters arrive and life returns. It is the Blue of our day in the wetlands when children from Commercial Road Primary School learned Country.