‘As Impossible as a Black Swan’ was written as part of the Writers’ In the Dust Litlink Project, funded by the NSW Ministry of the Arts in 2002. The reflection was subsequently published in Social Alternatives in 2007. I find on rereading, little has changed.
The First Europeans to see a black swan were Dutch. In 1697, the explorer Willem de Vlamingh captured two to take back across the ocean (dead on arrival). Even with the evidence before their eyes, many compatriots still refused to believe him. What kind of dye was this to darken the feathers? It was a hoax, as the British declared the duck-billed, otter-skinned platypus to be. The world was not so unknowable. All swans were white. Surely.
I am sitting here writing in Wiradjuri country. I live in Wiradjuri country, at one end, beside the Milawa, which we call the Murray, and we drove most of yesterday and I’m still in their country, but now on the very northern edge. Across Willandra Creek it is Wongaibon country. Not that I’ll be crossing over. The creek, even in this drought, is wide enough to deter anyone without a bark canoe. It is opaque: a milky green, unknowably deep. Imported willows dip tendril fingers of hanging branches and ripple the surface.
It is a new thing that I know the name of the traditional owners of the land I pass through. Growing up in Canberra, the Ngunnawal were never mentioned. Aboriginal people didn’t come from around here. They’d gone from around here. They were up North or over in the West. Surely. Aboriginal Australia, if you asked, was a tourist draw-card, a dot painting in a New York gallery, and a New Age rendition on the didjeridoo.
Or they are petrol sniffing car thieves.
They are not people who live in your street. Surely.
I have discovered recently that my descent is from the Irish (another of the new things I know; there are so many I still don’t). Previously the only imagery I had of my antecedents were Blackpool tower—a lesser Eiffel—a pier, and rock, pink striped with B-L-A-C-K-P-O-O-L through and through the long tube of sugar candy.
The story is told that the Blackpool great-grandparents got to the dock at Portsmouth just in time to catch the last civilian ship leaving for Australia. From then on all shipping was commandeered for troops. This was the War to End All Wars. 1914. We were relatively late European arrivals to Australia, possessions left on the English wharf in the pandemonium of war, hands clutching heirlooms of a Royal Doulton tea set and a few stories to hand down (too few).
1914. Europeans had been in Australia simply years. All that Contact period stuff had nothing to do with us.
Now my parents are getting older and realising they are soon to be the oldest generation, they are looking further and further back: to find the Gympie mob had a history after all.
1859. It is a long time since great-great-great grandfather left Kanturk in County Cork.
So I’ve Irish heritage. Irish ancestors who disembarked at Moreton Bay and travelled north: shepherds and stockmen, station hands, horse breakers, brumby runners, licensees of remote hotels; the inventor of Downing Never Fail patented cure (“highly regarded as a great healer to man and beast”).
I don’t feel any different knowing this. Australia is home. The part of Australia that is Wiradjuri country.
It’s wonderful to sit here under the peppercorn trees. (The peppercorns are a pale pink like a young girl’s lipstick).
Willandra Homestead hugs the land behind me within its skirt of 9’ 6” verandahs, a huge building in its glory of up-to-the-1918-minute fibro (asbestos) cement external walls. The hum of bees in the peppercorns and the metronome clicking of the rotating sprinklers are all there is to distract me (and distract me they do!). This peacefully quiet, dozing homestead represents the history of our country thriving on the sheep’s back. The Willandra stud merino rams, pampered beasts bedded down under thatch in individual stalls with individual rugs and irrigated pastures close by, were bred to win awards; which they did.
Staying here, we are as pampered as the rams. Not for us the privations of heat, drought (the bore provides), fires, floods, the inconvenience of flies, plagues of grasshoppers, burrs, bushrangers and blacks.
Not that there’s much mention of the latter in contemporary (century before last) accounts. There are a few references tothe natives becoming shepherds (like my great-great-great grandfather up north Nanango way) and farmhands, having been seduced by flour, sugar, tobacco and alcohol. There is the supposition that there weren’t many Wiradjuri out here to start with. They preferred the regions near the major rivers, as the Europeans did until it was all taken by the Squatters and late-comers had to explore outer back, and take up leases in the back blocks.
Last century some Aboriginal people were employed on Stations round about, rabbiting—they called the kerosene lamps taken out at night to snare the pests rabbit lamps. Or they were paid (poorly) to keep back weeds. In fact, by the books I read it sounds like they were employed to get rid of all the introduced species—except one.
A few were also drovers and stockmen but why ruin a great thought.
Not far from here as the crow flies (though why would it want to—the carcasses of roos are a feast at Willandra), and a very long way in a four-wheel drive, and an epic on foot, are the Willandra Lakes. The opaque green Willandra Creek used to flow into these Lakes. When they used to be lakes.
They are a special place, a record of more than 40,000 years of continuous occupation by Aboriginal people. Around Lake Mungo and Lake Gampang, ancient burials have been uncovered as erosion sweeps away the dunes of the extinct lake beds. The earliest known cremation in the world; a corpse dusted in red ochre. Tens of thousands of years ago there was a culture with symbolic systems and complex rituals. Tourists flock there. It is visually astounding and the heritage safely a very, very long time ago.
There are three tribes traditionally affiliated with the Willandra Lakes and the land: the Barkinji, Mutthi Mutthi and Nyiampaa. They are still there.
We have been taken on a tour of the property, or rather, a small part of the small part which is now a National Park. As we drive out we scale back down the hierarchy of Station life. Homestead, jackaroos’ quarters (sons of landowners round about), the married men’s houses, the shearers’ quarters far away because of their rowdiness (and lewdness judging by the graffiti on the walls). The Aboriginal camp, coming in for seasonal work, was out along the creek.
With us on our tour we are lucky to have a woman who grew up at Willandra when a child in the 1940s. She remembers for us. She remembers her world—encircled by the salt bush hedge around the homestead. She remembers naughtiness and being sent away to Boarding school: before the muster she and her sister stole watermelons from the kitchen garden, escaping the Chinese gardener, to hollow them out as jack-o-lanterns. Stealing candles and sheets they waited till dark and set up an elaborate and ghostly fright. There were no Aboriginal men for the muster next day. And the girls were put on a train for Sydney.
It is hard to imagine. The naughty child is a generous, confident woman; the viable land is an overgrazed wasteland of poverty bush. As we drive by kangaroos conserve energy: they simply watch unmoving as we kick up dust. Some will never move again. They have lain down and died, of natural causes—what is more natural than drought? They lie in a comma, ear tip curved to tip of the tail, spine curvature a low arc; shoulders, forelegs, belly, pockets of desiccating flesh.
Seen from the air, the Willandra Lakes have left this same imprint on the red soil. Lakes Mulurulu and Pan Ban at the head, Lake Mungo the belly, the Pringle lakes trailing down the tail. The Barkinji, whose land is on the western foreshore, have a story about the lakes that fit the aerial photography.
Bookamurra the giant kangaroo was tracked down by Barkinji clever men warriors and killed at the southern end of what is now the lakes. The lake system and surrounding area are the actual remains of Bookamurra: the lakes that gave richness to life.
Along our tour route, leaving the creek that fed the lakes, are a number of exclosures: fenced areas not to keep animals in but to keep them out. Native plants are regenerating within the chicken wire fence now that the sheep and roos are kept away.
Now it is time to get to the point perhaps. I have been circling around the concept of Black Australia—as legends, 26,000 year old cremations, nineteenth century shepherds and twentieth century stockmen. Keeping it safely in the distance: the past, that foreign country. It’s what most of middle-Australia does, if we remember there is an Aboriginal population at all. Are we blinkered or blind? For all our acceptance, now, of black swans, there remains one area of impossibility about Black Australia.
From the proclamation of terra nullius, White Australia has been able to forge ahead pretty much ignoring the fact of the first Australians. And not just in the past. Now.
What now? Will I tell you the story about the young black woman giving birth to her fourth child in four years, that she didn’t see a doctor throughout the pregnancy, about the premature delivery? Or about the second son in a family to kill himself, about the grief of the mother? The stories fit the stereotypes of the disadvantaged community, and they’re true. Or will I tell you about the four year old daughter of the university educated mother who writes her name on my computer and helps me install Disney games; or about the bloke off in Albuquerque on a scholarship to learn about leadership? Also true.
Will I tell you about the Aboriginal people I work with who have jobs, cars, houses, new sofas to chose, children at school, worries for their future? They’re not up in Arnhem land, they don’t speak language, they are not even black (“us yellow skins,” the Elder says of himself). They live in our towns, in our streets. They are our Aboriginal community.
We see what we want to see, we take in the stories we want to hear. In actual fact, it’s easy not to meet an Aboriginal Australian, in all the truth of their diversity.
But if we are not having conversations on a personal level, what hope at the political?
I am reminded of another legend. Perhaps because the sky is so vast and so low out here at Willandra; so much a part of the landscape. Perhaps because I’ve been reading about the naming of Lake Mungo—was it after a church saint in Scotland, or was it an old name in the language of the area? The native word for boat heard along the Murray was mungoeand a lake is a place of boats and canoes. Apparently, the Ranger has told us, even now tourists turn up to Lake Mungo with canoes and jet skis and stand gobsmacked on the lake shores, 15,000 years too late.
Perhaps I am reminded of this legend, and why I repeat it here, is because—well you’ll see.
It’s a Celtic legend. I suppose that makes it part of my heritage now I know about Bartholomew Downing of County Cork (though I’d appropriated the story before I discovered my descent). It concerns the sky which is so, so blue above me now, so, so empty of rain clouds, of birds, of boats sailing by.
The Celtic Sky Myth seems to have had its origins in the eighth century when people on the ground saw not one but three ships sailing on the sky above. The story was, as stories are, elaborated on over the centuries. The boats were not only sailing but the people in them were fishing now. Huge salmon swum in the blueness under the ships, above the townsfolk’s heads. As the people on the land watched, in awe, in fascination, a fisherman in the first boat speared a salmon and drew it in. But then a second fellow throws his spear, misses the salmon, and the spear falls through the water, down from the sky, and lands on the ground at their feet.
Before the townsfolk can react, the fisherman has dived from his boat in the sky and is swimming down to retrieve his spear. To him their sky is his ocean. That is his reality. Nothing is abnormal to him. He is out fishing. He is diving down to get his spear.
The people on the ground are thinking this is magical and mystical, they are thinking of God and the miracles of existence. They gather around the fisherman and his spear, touching the miracle, holding the man, asking how, why, tell us.
Only the fisherman is begging them, let me go, let me go back to my ship. I will die down here. Can’t you see I am drowning?
He swims through the sky to safety.
And so the sky people and the earth people could not meet. The two cultures could see each other, but they lived in different worlds. Oxygen to one was death to the other.
The legend doesn’t say if the boats sailed by again. And if they did, whether the fishermen waved.
So maybe I am privileged to work with Aboriginal people, to share the daily round with them; to breathe the same air.
My son was told a story at school about how the kangaroo came to be named for Europeans. I cannot vouch for the story’s authenticity but supposedly when European explorers (invaders?) first saw these amazing hopping animals with sweet deer faces and powerful haunches, they asked a nativewhat they were called. They were told kangaroo. And so they are now, all over the lawn in front of Willandra Homestead, roos, boomers (male), flyers (female), joeys (babies). All members of the kangaroo family.
Only kangaroo, it turns out, so this story goes, does not refer to Australia’s iconic animal at all. In the language of the people who were asked, in English, this question, kangaroomeans I don’t understand.
We have not understood each other since the beginning. All the history of contact, death, dispossession, stolen generations and lost generations. All the years when blackfellas weren’t allowed live in town, let alone the same street. All the not understanding of the needs and aspirations of people who have been here a very long time. Long before 1914. Long before 1859.
I have no words for answers, I seem only to be able to wipe the dust off some questions to ask. Where can we start? When? How? Is Reconciliation possible? Can we talk about it?
(Is sorry really the hardest word?)
A National Parks Aboriginal Site Manager and two Nyiampaa Elders come to the Homestead to share their knowledge with us. They sit yarning on the 9’ 6” verandahs (I mention to precise dimensions a second time as they are oft referred to in the literature and I feel the compulsion to follow suit). There are stories of Flash Jack and falling in love, of rock art and johnny cakes. We have tea and beautiful homestead-made biscuits. The Elder tells us of his droving days, six mile a day with great mobs, sleeping in camps, of the bitter cold. The first man willing to get up in the morning and stoke the fire alive was a hero.
The morning is gone. Where did it go so fast?
Everyone has been part of the conversation. No-one wants to move.
The Willandra Homestead is close by the creek. Its serpentine course informs our walks—and ensures we do not get lost. Amongst the straggly black box and river cooba it feels like little-white-child lost territory. It is not hard to imagine the jackaroos out with kerosene lamps, the stockmen out with rabbit lamps and loud cooees. A black child wouldn’t have got lost of course. The Wiradjuri, the Nyiampaa, and all the Indigenous people, adapted to their different surroundings: riverlands, semi-arid back blocks, the outback and the outer back. They have adapted to changes in the environment: the drying up of the Willandra Lakes 15,000 years ago, the disappearance of the megafauna, the arrival of white men, and women. They have not died out, they were never a dying race. They are still adapting and surviving in their environment.
On one walk I am induced to taste the small silvery leaf of a salt bush. It is salty. It’s good to know the obvious. We see a shingleback lizard, a dead emu, ant lions and lots of salt bush. Further upstream, amongst the bullrushes are a pair of black swans and a gaggle of cygnets. I haven’t seen them but have no reason to disbelieve the report.
We have accepted black swans. The black swan is now the emblem of a State (Western Australia), and endless commercial concerns (beer, plumbing products and B&Bs, Jazz bands and publishing houses and theatre companies). There is nothing impossible about them (except perhaps their impossible beauty?)
On my walk, I am looking down at the bush litter—the tiny necklace seeds of the river cooba, the desiccated leaves of cooba and eucalypts—when an animal barrels through the undergrowth up ahead. Pig. Black pig. It has gone like a shot toward the creek. As my eyes lift I see a huge body take off over the water, flap its wings, glide.
It is a pelican, and another, and another. They circle on the air draughts, undercarriages like those of flying boats. The pig has disappeared into the salt bush. But just for a moment…