In Langscape Magazine Articles

Yarning on Country: Reinvigorating Biocultural Diversity in Australia

November 02, 2022
Three people from different backgrounds weave together their personal and collective histories, deeply intertwined with Country.

Sophie Zaccone, David Doyle, and Mark Lock

Mark, Dave, and Sophie

Mark, Dave, and Sophie meet at Dave’s place on Barkindji Country, Broken Hill, New South Whales, Australia. Photo: Carol Doyle

In sunburnt Australia struggling with climate change, land degradation, and biodiversity loss, three people connect to reinvigorate Country — a First Nations Australian way of being. Dave and Mark are First Nations Australians. Dave is of Barkindji and Malyangapa heritage, who resides on his people’s unceded land in Menindee, New South Wales (NSW). Mark is a Ngiyampaa man, born and raised on unceded Wiradjuri land and living on Awabakal Country in Newcastle, NSW. Sophie is a White Australian living on Garigal land in Collaroy, NSW. A landscape architect with a passion for designing with indigenous Australian species, Sophie draws botanical specimens in collaboration with Dave, designing an educational resource for local school children. The two met through a mutual friend who was aware of their shared interests. Mark is Sophie’s PhD supervisor and met Dave after hearing about the work he and Sophie had been doing around native plants and botanical literacy.

Here, we weave together our personal and collective histories, deeply intertwined with Country. We yarn on our visions and our collaboration, showing how local efforts to reinvigorate biocultural diversity are seedlings for an equitable life for all Australians. Yarning has enabled us, three very different individuals, to work together in respectful collaboration towards shared visions for people and Country.

Australian bush foods at Lee Cecchin’s Old Man Saltbush restaurant

Australian bush foods at Lee Cecchin’s Old Man Saltbush restaurant, where Dave, Mark, and Sophie yarn while enjoying emu pies, lemon myrtle hummus, warrigal greens (native spinach) and mushroom tart, slow-cooked kangaroo, and bush tomato chutney. Photo: Mark Lock

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MARK LOCK: Yarning is a way of talking in a flowing rhythm and style that feels like a river snaking its way through the landscape. There’s no formal and structured agenda, just a general idea of the topics and things to touch on in the yarn. It’s about relationships and trust, first and foremost, where people are treated equally and with respect, regardless of their Western qualifications, credentials, income, or organization.

SOPHIE ZACCONE: I agree, yarning is to communicate in an organic and beautiful way! We have all yarned a lot in developing both our relationships and this collaboration around traditional Indigenous plant knowledges from Barkindji Country — where you reside, Dave, right? You said you remain on your Barkindji and Malyangapa ancestors’ unceded lands?

Yarning is a way of talking in a flowing rhythm and style that feels like a river snaking its way through the landscape.

DAVE DOYLE: I’m from a small place called Menindee, well-known for its lake and river system. We call the river the Barkaa (a.k.a. the Darling River), and it’s one of our places of healing. It’s a place where you can go when you’re not feeling good, or even if you’re feeling good — a place where you can be by yourself or be with people. It’s a really spiritual and magical place.

MARK: That’s the same feeling I remember from growing up on Wiradjuri Country near the Wambuul (a.k.a. the Macquarie River)! As a young fulla, I caught fish, cooked them on the fire, and slept near the river. I would dig a “hip-hole” in the dirt and throw a blanket over me and go to sleep. It was deeply spiritual, although I didn’t see it that way as a boy, of course. People will say, “Oh, you get dirty in the bush!” but it’s not that: you get cuddled by the bush, and staring into the fire was a really calming experience — and that speaks to how people see me when they meet me. I’ve got a calm personality, and many people have said that I’m centered, I know who I am, I don’t have trouble living in my skin. That’s definitely connected to that calmness I felt with Country.

Even though Dave and Mark grew up in different Nations, they are in fact connected because the Wambuul’s waters flow into and become the Barkaa’s waters. Both men are also connected by the trauma of the Stolen Generations, where First Nations Australian children were stolen from their families and trained in servitude to White Australians.

DAVE: My great-grandmother was part of the Stolen Generation, but after a few years she came back from Sydney to Menindee. I’ve spent a lot of time with my great-grandma, who only passed away a few years ago at ninety-six, and with my grandma, who’s still with us. We’ve always spent a lot of time in the bush, teaching and learning from one another.

Mark’s grandmother recounted stories of abuse and degradation at the “training institutes” set up in Australia to remove Aboriginal children from their lands and families and assimilate them into the white community. Despite this trauma, she passed on to him a strong resilience and desire for knowledge.

Dave and Mark also share a love of poetry.

DAVE: Most of the stuff I wrote was during the drought in 2018. Back then, the government was talking about decommissioning the lake system, which is also one of the last natural nurseries for golden perch in the Murray–Darling Basin, so there was a potential for those fish to become extinct. It was a really scary time to be here. We were trying to keep alive not only the township but also the species that depended on it.

Sophie asks him to shares some of that poetry.

DAVE: This one’s called “Ancestors Lament”:

There’s plenty water flowin’
Though the rivers gone dry
Only moisture about
Is tears in my eyes
They’ll move water round
In a pipe across state
From another river
What’s the logic there mate?

Behind closed doors
State decisions are made
But I’m sure it’s decided
By how much they’re paid

Don’t waste water
Don’t let it float to the sky
Cause it’ll make rain
And then fall where it likes

Someone had an idea
Drain the water away
Shut down the lakes
Dry, let them stay

The ancestors they’re cryin’
I can hear them lament
How can they drink,
From a pipe of cement?

Waters been sold
Still crops have been sown
Stolen water that’s where
The cottons a growin’

Go to the river
See the water that’s dry
That’s where you’ll see me
With tears in my eyes.

The Baarka, also known as the Darling River

The Baarka, also known as the Darling River, is reinvigorated after recent rains and bordered by thriving native trees and shrubs. Photo: Ken Griffiths / Shutterstock

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SOPHIE: So, what we’ve tried to do is gather Indigenous plant knowledges and transfer them into a resource to share with the kids at the Menindee Central School, near Dave. The aim being to teach kids about bush foods and medicines, making sure those knowledges are respected, protected, and passed down.

DAVE: But one of the things I’ve realized is we’ve forgotten about some of the edibles and medicinal plants from the region! So, one of the good things about sharing knowledge with you, Sophie, is it’s encouraged me to find out more about the plant species we’ve traditionally used.

Through reciprocal knowledge sharing, Dave takes a photograph of a plant, Sophie draws the plant, and then Dave adds the plant details, which are then put together on a plant identification card to be printed and used with the jarjums (children) at Menindee.

Wild Orange (Capparis mitchelli)

Wild Orange (Capparis mitchelli), a native plant of western New South Whales. Related to capers, the seeds have a mustard-like flavor. The cream-colored flowers are followed by a green fruit. Photo: Mark Lock

Wild Orange flower

Wild Orange flower on its branch. Dave takes a photo of the plant, and Sophie illustrates the species and transfers the illustrations to native plant cards. Photo: All The Lights Photography

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DAVE: The school’s actually got a little nursery that has been kind of left to itself for about ten years. It’s got water to it, and Land Care (a not-for-profit organization that involves groups of local volunteers in restoring the environment) has already given them a grant to prepare the plot.

Dave’s local knowledge, the children’s enthusiasm, and the support of local knowledge holders also transform into another project.

DAVE: It’s a really good time to be part of this, as the kids got great energy around it and, with the lack of infrastructure and employment in the community, it’s a good way for the kids to learn skills that they’ll be able to take with them. I’ve also looked at doing a pilot project of native harvests, to be able to present back to community and say, “This is what we’ve found” and talk about how to do it, so people can start their own industry around native plants and seeds.

illustration of sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus).

Dave and Sophie meet at Dave’s house to discuss the design of the Indigenous plant cards. They are holding an illustration of sow thistle (Sonchus oleraceus). Photo: Mark Lock

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Sharing knowledges on harvesting and using indigenous plants and seeds engages with cultural ways of being, promotes cultural pride, and enhances employment pathways that are indelibly tied to Country. Connecting with kids and passing down knowledge are strong motivators for Dave’s work.

Sharing knowledges on harvesting and using indigenous plants and seeds engages with cultural ways of being, promotes cultural pride, and enhances employment pathways that are indelibly tied to Country.

Dave’s medicinal products

A collection of Dave’s medicinal products using Barkindji plant species: emu bush body butter; quandong body scrub and butter; emu bush, lemongrass, and gumbi gumbi soaps in a coolabah [gum tree] bark coolamon [an Australian vessel of bark or wood that resembles a basin]. Photo: David Doyle

DAVE: It’s a way of linking people through Country. These are both Caucasian and Indigenous kids that work together really easily. We’re all learning how to start looking after Country better. A lot of Elders don’t have access to the medicinal plants anymore, so I’ve also tried to create a way for people to have access to medicinal plants by incorporating them into soaps and creams. So far, I’ve used emu bush, quandong, native lemongrass, and gumbi gumbi. Collaboration is how to move forward — I have a lot of big dreams and hope they come to fruition, but no one person can do it all. I’m starting to learn that.

There is also talk of larger-scale projects for the team.

DAVE: We’re also looking at propagating those species into a native garden and maybe developing further into growing tube stock as a garden distributor and selling commercially. I also do a lot of cooking to promote native ingredients. They make for really good food, and I don’t understand why we’re not looking at farming some. There are some really nice farms that are not big enough for international buyers, but big enough to regenerate and grow natives again, letting people have access to them.

warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides)

Out on Country, Dave introduced Sophie and Mark to warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides). These edible plants grow in abundance in the region after the rains. Photo: Mark Lock

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A clear force behind these visions is a drive for ongoing, rigorous research, particularly around well-being, health, and nutrition.

MARK: I love great research. We can have fantastic ideas and best intentions, but we need to have some good empirical research to add substance to the rhetoric. That’s my vision, just to always be better at doing research and gathering evidence.

Despite the history of trauma and the geographical distances that characterize New South Wales, Dave, Mark, and Sophie focus on reciprocal messages of hope and resilience. This is a really important point for Mark.

MARK: I want to contribute to a way of talking about Aboriginal men that is positive and says, “We can do it. Yeah, we can be healthy, we can be nonviolent, we can be good family people, you know, we can be educated, we can write, as well as dance and play sports.” So, that’s my vision for the future. I want to see much more positivity about successes and cultural values. Personally, I have survived all these critical periods that Aboriginal men don’t get through: I’m older, I’ve passed over the critical periods of suicide, violence, abuse, imprisonment, diabetes, cardiovascular disease. All the things that I’m “supposed” to do as an Aboriginal man, I’m not doing. So, I’ve defeated the deficit discourse so far at fifty-two.

Dave and Mark yarning and relaxing on Country at Mutawintji National Park, NSW. Photo: Sophie Zaccone

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Since meeting Mark and then Dave, Sophie has been aware of the qualities they inherently share.

SOPHIE: The interesting thing about getting to know you both is that you’re not trained in the same things but your essential visions are the same. You share a drive to work collaboratively, you’re both concerned with well-being — of both community and Country — and you have a spiritual connection to riverways. In fact, I think we all share a feeling of reverence for land or Country. Country seems to speak through us, connecting us, healing us, and allowing us to share that healing by awakening to our interconnected roots. I believe that, with a shared reverence for Country, there always is the potential to respectfully connect, yarn, and seek an equitable life for people and Country.

Country seems to speak through us, connecting us, healing us, and allowing us to share that healing by awakening to our interconnected roots.

MARK: As an adult now, I reflect back on growing up next to the Wambuul and wonder whether there’s some kind of metaphysical connection, like, was that my ancestors reaching out? I wonder whether there’s a transference there that’s completely beyond physical or logical reasoning, or scientific method — whether there’s something else happening there.

DAVE: Hearing this gives me more energy! I see that what I envision is starting to happen, so I feel like I want more and more of it. You both definitely need to get out here in January for the healing benefits of the lakes and river. You’ll understand why I love this part of the Country — it’s magical!

MARK: I reckon! It’s just amazing how we came together even though we have different life journeys! It’s as though our ancestors have sung us together through our connections to Country.

Recent rains

Dave takes Mark and Sophie from Broken Hill to Menindee. Recent rains fill the lake system and herald in a new sense of hope. Photo: Sophie Zaccone

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Sophie Zaccone.

Sophie Zaccone is a non-Indigenous Australian. She lives on the land of the Garigal Clan, also known as Collaroy, Sydney, New South Wales. She makes a living from the land as a landscape architect, writer, illustrator, and researcher in psychology and well-being. She has two young children, a husband, and garden overrun with indigenous plants.

Dave Doyle.

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David Doyle lives with his wife and two children. He has been educated as an Aboriginal health practitioner and as a Barkindji and Malyangapa Aboriginal countryman by his Elders. He uses both styles to educate others and is one of a few people in the region to have Elders’ approval to do smoking ceremonies and repatriation of ancestors’ remains.

Mark Lock.

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Mark Lock is a Ngiyampaa First Nations Australian man with English, Scottish, and Latvian heritage. He combines cultural rigor and research rigor, through a cultural safety lens, to ensure First Nations Peoples’ cultural voices are heard in policy, research, and practice. Australia, he affirms, always was and always will be Aboriginal Land. Read more from Mark Lock.

 

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