In Langscape Magazine Articles

At the Edge of the Region: Where Science and Art Meet in a Storied North Queensland Landscape

August 04, 2017

by Michael Davis

In the tropical north of Queensland, Australia, at the mouth of the Trinity River that runs into the Pacific Ocean, lies the city of Cairns. Here, at this “edge of the region,” a long coastal stretch of mudflats and mangroves, rich in birdlife and other fauna, gives way to a major harbor and tourist precinct at the boundary of the city.

This fragile ecosystem is etched with multiple histories and languages — Indigenous, European, settler, colonial, immigrant — and is also a deeply layered Aboriginal storied landscape. In another mapping, this region embraces two major protected areas: the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Area and the Wet Tropics World Heritage Area. Over the decades, this region of striking contrasts, with its entwined natural, environmental, and human histories, has been an object of intense scientific interest and fascination. It has also captured the artistic and literary imagination. This is a region where dreams of modernity have played out against ancient and enduring knowledge systems.


A rich and varied coastal landscape. Photo: Michael Davis, 2015

Arone Meeks

Arone Meeks (Kokomidiji), Irukandji, 2003. Linocut print, hand-colored. Cairns Regional Gallery Collection. Reproduced with permission.

The river and bay that today provide a focus for both tourism and maritime development were observed in late June 1845 by naturalist John MacGillivray of HMS Rattlesnake during a survey of Australia’s northeast coast and islands. MacGillivray noted “a wide creek running through low mangrove swamps, and with the eye [he] could trace its windings for the distance of two or three miles.” First entertaining the possibility that this was the mouth of a “considerable freshwater stream,” he then dismissed it, writing that “the shallowness of the head of the bay and the usual bar off the mouth of the supposed river, determined Captain Stanley to return to the ship, as the time which would otherwise have been spent in exploring a useless creek might be devoted to some better purpose.” Today, this “useless creek” and its bay form a major hub for North Queensland’s tourism, trade, fishing, and maritime industries.

The narrative of this region is constructed through complex and sometimes contradictory or competing juxtapositions of science, art and aesthetics, natural history, and Aboriginal cultures. From the earliest European explorations into this region, the rich biocultural landscape has been eagerly sought in the interests of research, industry, and government for its abundant flora and fauna. Naturalist MacGillivray, collecting plants, birds, and other animals as specimens for the imperial scientific project, was one of a long chain of individuals who pursued their zealous interests in scientific curiosity, collection, and classification. This extractive activity continues today, having evolved into bioprospecting and the commodification of reef and rainforest biodiversity by both the private and the public sector. The region is, in this sense, defined and constructed as a vast and unique scientific laboratory.

From the earliest European explorations into this region, the rich biocultural landscape has been eagerly sought in the interests of research, industry, and government for its abundant flora and fauna.

Entangled with these scientific interests and activities, the region is also defined by creativity, aesthetics, and a profound artistic vision. The coasts, reefs, islands, forests, hinterlands, and townscapes have been etched in the creative imagination over a very long period of time. Naturalists, ethnographers and collectors, photographers, artists, botanists and botanical artists, conservationists, poets, writers, and sculptors—the list is vast of those through whose passion the region has been creatively inscribed in the human imaginary. A unity of creativity and imagination with science — botanical, geographical, topographical — was the vision of the German explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt. In 1844, in one of his major works, Cosmos, he wrote:

“The principal impulse by which I was directed was the earnest endeavor to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.”

Indigenous knowledges, histories, cultures, and languages all find a significant place in this Humboldtian vision of a totality of the expressive, the poetic, and the scientific. These knowledges are all-encompassing: an Indigenous science of knowing the landscape and its abundant resources, with an enduring capacity to sustainably manage that landscape and those resources, is embedded in creative and expressive cosmological systems of knowledges and practices.

Queensland Mudflat

Mudflat landscape. Photo: Michael Davis, 2015

Anna Eglitis

Anna Eglitis, C for Cassowary, 2004/05. Linocut print, hand-colored. Cairns Regional Gallery Collection. Reproduced with permission.

The Aboriginal Peoples of the rainforest region, collectively known as Bama, comprise several language and dialect groups. The Cairns area is a place of cultural and linguistic boundaries where clan and language groups intersect. To the north are Djabugay-speaking peoples, and to the south are Yidinjy speakers. The coastal strip, which includes Trinity Bay and environs, is mainly home to Yirrganydji-speaking peoples. Aboriginal people in this region are actively promoting and maintaining their living traditions and re-asserting the interconnectedness of the cultural landscape — where natural features are interwoven with all the other dimensions of Aboriginal culture: kinship, political and economic systems, cosmology, and heritage.

In their 1990 book Bulurru Storywaters, Roy Banning and Michael Quinn convey a sense of the deep connections between place, peoples, and cosmologies. In their account, Djabugay-speaking groups articulate their ancestral dreamings as “story-places,” or more specifically as Bulurru, glossed as “storywaters.” In this tradition, the Bulurru ancestors “put things in their place” to form the country, or homeland, also known as Bulmba. In the authors’ words, they created the “social institutions that regulated marriage, enabling society to reproduce itself, the Law which guided it, and the aesthetic by which that life was celebrated in art, song and dance.”

Art has always been a vitally important factor in the formation and construction of this region for local Aboriginal Peoples, and so too for incoming European settlers, sojourners, and visitors, in different ways and from different perspectives. The magnificent and extraordinarily diverse Indigenous artistic traditions, from ancient times to the present, are deeply significant ways of inscribing this area in all of its dimensions, connecting cosmology, dreaming, kinship, place, and identity. In parallel, and sometimes intersecting artistic traditions, the region is also etched powerfully by a long succession of European artists, writers, and poets. This aesthetic vision can also be encapsulated in photography, a medium that creatively harnesses science and art.

The Cairns waterfront is a site where the juxtaposition of science and technology with art, creativity, and the deeply embedded Aboriginal cultures and cosmologies come sharply into focus.

The Cairns waterfront is a site where the juxtaposition of science and technology with art, creativity, and the deeply embedded Aboriginal cultures and cosmologies come sharply into focus. One example of this is the conflicted arena in which proposals have been made to dredge and develop the river and harbor environs, in view of building a deeper harbor that will accommodate larger ships for the growing trade and commercial activities. These development proposals speak to an economic and industrial discourse, articulated in a rational, techno-scientific language of measurement, capacity, volume, and speed. This extractive discourse fashions a counter-narrative to the artistic and creative one that envelops Cairns and North Queensland in a distinctively aesthetic sensibility.

Paul Bong

Paul Bong (Bindur Bullin, Yidinji), A White Man Song Lines – Mirriwinni Cane Town Map of Sugar and Sunshine, 2015. Hand-tinted, shaped color zinc-plate etching printed on Arches Velin Cuve paper. Edition 1/30. Cairns Regional Gallery Collection. Reproduced with permission.

Opposition to the dredging proposals has pointed to concerns about the potential environmental impacts on reef and shore, and also makes reference to the deep and ancient Indigenous history and archaeology of the Cairns region, including the extensive use that Aboriginal Peoples make of the region’s abundant natural resources. Archaeological evidence and existing land-use activities attest to the presence of a significant Aboriginal cultural landscape. In the East Trinity area, at the heart of the proposed dredging activity, are sand ridges, pandanus plants, shell fragments and stone flakes, shell scatters, and fishing and crabbing sites in use. The dredging proposal area also abuts a fish habitat to the south and the Great Barrier Reef to the north.

Archaeological evidence and existing land-use activities attest to the presence of a significant Aboriginal cultural landscape.

Dredging development proposals nudge up against narratives of environmental protection and Aboriginal heritage. In a “dialogue of the deaf,” there often is little conversation between and among these different voices. Intersecting and cross-cutting these often-conflicted narratives is the always present aesthetic vision of this region’s extraordinary diversity—linguistic, cultural, environmental—expressed powerfully, poetically, and sometimes poignantly through artistic and literary texts, images, narratives, stories, traditions.


“Storyplaces” along the Cairns shoreline show deep connections between local Aboriginal languages, place, clan names, plants, and animals, embedded in culture and cosmology. Left: Gimuy, the local Yidinji word for the place now known as Cairns, taken from the name for the slippery blue fig tree (Ficus albipila), which grew abundantly in the area. Center: The story of Wungarrl, the carpet snake, who was a trader and now rests in this place. Right: The story of Gindarja, the cassowary, a beautiful bird that flew from the Tablelands to the coast. Photos: Michael Davis, 2015

The Aboriginal narrative for the Cairns region also finds articulation through political, legislative, and advocacy activities. These developments enhance an understanding of the deep and profound interrelationships between people, place, art, language, and law. Following a successful native title determination in 2006 for the Mandingalbay Yidinji people, traditional owners “began working towards ‘putting country back together,’” negotiating with the Commonwealth Government, and eventually established an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in 2011. Layered within the region, the IPA is described thus:

“Straddling the Wet Tropics and Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Areas in north Queensland, Mandingalbay Yidinji country lies just east of Cairns across Trinity Inlet and includes a great diversity of environments—marine areas, mangroves, freshwater wetlands, rainforest clad mountains, coastal plains, beaches, reefs and islands” (Mandingalbay Yidinji Indigenous Protected Area Fact Sheet, November 2011, Australian Government).

The great diversity of natural and cultural resources is similarly described in a 2014 Sea Country Plan drawn by the Yirrganydji-speaking people, a dialect group that includes the Traditional Owners of the region from Trinity Inlet (Pana Wangai) to Port Douglas (Diju). The Sea Country Plan states:

“Our sea country has significant natural and cultural values including the Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics World Heritage listed areas, fish habitat areas and important habitat for threatened and rare species including marine turtles, dugongs, dolphins, whales, fish, crustaceans, molluscs, invertebrates, migratory shorebirds and seabirds” (Yirrganydji Kulpul-Wu Mamingal, “Looking After Sea Country,” prepared in collaboration between the Dawul Wuru Aboriginal Corporation and Yirrganydji people).

Queensland mudflats

Textures of the mudflats. Photo: Michael Davis, 2015

Roy McIvor

Roy McIvor (Bindi/Guugu Yimidthirr), Buurraay Milbaal (Water-Tears) – Wet, 2010. Screenprint. Cairns Regional Gallery Collection. Reproduced with permission.The Yirrganydji Sea Country Plan connects past and present and maps ancestral dreamings, customary laws and practices, art and knowledge systems, histories and ecologies, together with the contemporary imperatives of land, water, and sea environmental management.

At the Cairns waterfront, where Trinity Creek runs into the bay, in a fragile silted environment of mudflats, assemblages form, dissolve, and re-form. In new configurations of sedimented knowledge formations, science and technology, art and creativity, local histories, stories, places, ancestral tracks, and cosmologies jostle with narratives of dredging and harbor-side development, global environmental protection and management, and the politics of urban growth.


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Michael Davis researches and writes about Aboriginal and European histories and encounters, relationships between Indigenous and other knowledge systems, ecology and place, and ethical guidelines and protocols for Indigenous research. His most recent book (co-edited with Joni Adamson) is Humanities for the Environment: Integrating Knowledge, Forging New Constellations of Practice (Routledge, 2016). Read more from Michael Davis.

Further Reading

Banning, R., & Quinn, M. (1989). Djabugay Ngirrma Gulu: Djabugay Language Here. Cairns, QLD, Australia: Kuranda.

Banning, R., & Quinn, M. (1990). Bulurru Storywaters. Cairns, QLD, Australia: Kuranda.

Bottoms, T. (1999). Djabugay Country: An Aboriginal History of Tropical North Queensland. Crows Nest, NSW, Australia: Allen & Unwin.

Dixon, R. M. W. (1991). Words of Our Country: Stories, Place Names and Vocabulary in Yidiny, the Aboriginal Language of the Cairns-Yarrabah Region. St. Lucia, QLD, Australia: Queensland University Press.

von Humboldt, A. (1997). Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe (Vol. I; E. C. Otté, Trans.). Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

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