Essay

Everywhen

Against ‘the power of now’

‘Time, what is time?’
Title of the lead track on Somewhere Far Beyond by German
power-metal band Blind Guardian

 

THERE ARE AS many ways of thinking about time as there are cultures, but I’m going to talk about the one I know best and contrast it with the one that we’ve been drowning in ever since colonial capitalism started pouring it over us in 1788.

In his 1953 essay ‘The Dreaming’, the [good] white Australian anthropologist WEH Stanner wrote: ‘I have never been able to discover any Aboriginal word for “time” as an abstract concept. And the sense of “history” is wholly alien here.’ He translated these understandings as the idea of ‘everywhen’. In Aboriginal time, all things that have happened are still happening now. The past is not just ‘events that happened before’ as in a linear reading of time. In everywhen temporality, the past is still alive in the eternal present, and this is the framework within which all potential and possible events can unfold. Everywhen is all that has happened, is happening now, and all that will continue to happen.

 

THINK ABOUT TIME in a Western, linear sense: Aboriginal occupations of our lands might be figured as a ten-metre length of string in comparison with the two-and-a-half-centimetre length of string representing colonial occupation. Picture a tiny inchworm dwarfed by a massive reticulated python. Even in this simple, linear reckoning of time, our ancestral memory is far longer than any other on Earth. But the enormity of everywhen must be understood beyond the measurements of eras, epochs or eons. I think of colonial time as like an oil spill on the ocean or a bushfire that razes old-growth forest: events so destructive that the aftermath reverberates through all the coming times.

Time forever back and time forever onward lives in the land. All times are compressed and nested inside Country like sedimentary layers, and so it is inside people too. Time is inheritance: we are all embodiments of our families through bloodlines, and we personify our communities through culture. The way Aboriginal people make sense of ourselves is through our kinships, and these relationships deepen through time and across generations, accumulating stories in the process.

Traditional Aboriginal songs and stories embody everywhen: they describe the beginning of time and the creation of land, sky and waters, and as they are passed down through the generations, they contain all information from the past while still remaining relevant for us today and onward. All times are known through our unbroken ancestral memory.

Our stories are not just beautiful moral or metaphysical narratives. They are also ancient geographical histories. Some white scientists have become curious about our stories (rather than sneering at them – as others have done) and, with permission, have used these stories as guides to investigate climate change throughout deep time. Some of these stories have been dated back to the last ice age. They document sea-level changes using narrative techniques to describe what the land once looked like and the ways in which it has changed. Professors Nick Reid and Patrick D Nunn discuss eighteen such examples in their 2015 article ‘Ancient Aboriginal stories preserve history of a rise in sea level’. Though not many of these stories have made it into the public realm to be studied in this way, every community holds similar deep-time stories.

Noongar writer Dr Cassie Lynch also examines deep time in both her scientific work and her creative writing. In her short story ‘Split’ from the 2021 anthology Flock: First Nations Stories Then and Now, deep-time Boorloo still exists inside present-day Perth. We move through the concrete jungle of the CBD, which is still also prehistoric wetland. And in water that is no longer there, a tiger snake swims across the road, a dolphin plays in the car park of a building and a shark stalks the narrator. This story summons Boorloo’s ancient history from the Country that the present commercial centre of Perth was built on.

 

I AM OBSESSED with time. I have always thought about how it works and the shapes it takes. One thing I know is that nothing in the universe travels in a straight line – not me nor you nor the lives we live, not evolution, not space, not time. Not even the straightest seeming roads. Every long highway is curving around the spherical Earth, which spins on its axis as it orbits the sun.

Our planet rotates once on its axis over what we call a day, and our ever-twirling planet orbits the sun over what we call a year. Though they may accrue, both units of time remain cyclical in shape. Land-based cultures have always known this about time.

In her poem ‘On Reckoning’ from the fierce and stunning collection Dropbear, Bundjalung poet Evelyn Araluen writes, ‘I know there are other everywhens and not far from ours, sis, the sun burns behind mountain to light campfires in the sky.’ Araluen is referring to an Aboriginal belief that our best and brightest become stars after death, living on in a different but interconnected realm, in a different but relatable form. Nothing truly dies but is transformed by death. When the poet speaks of ‘other everywhens’, she’s acknowledging the wisdom of other land-based cultures who have similar conceptions of time to us. Scratch the surface of recorded history anywhere to reveal deep time and dig deep enough into the roots of any culture and you’ll find similar thinking. All of our ancestors were indigenous to somewhere.

But some cultures seem to have forgotten their everywhens – those that have been deracinated from their own land so long they believe they came from somewhere unearthly. Colonial cultures attempt to displace Indigenous peoples by presuming they are rooting themselves into Indigenous land. But are they? Rooting-in means holding on and holding together, not displacing and extracting.

The Western, colonial-capitalist imagination measures time as a straight line from beginning to end, with finite points bookending this line. Think about where you were born and think about where you are now: do you see all the space and time in between those two points as a straight line? How could that be, when you’ve taken thousands of twirls upon the planet and maybe circled dozens of times around the sun?

Nothing in the universe is ever still, and nothing travels straight. Yet if there is one hallmark of the non-Indigenous, it is the proclivity to force the mind – which exists in a round world that spins and twirls – into straight lines where none actually exist.

 

TRADITIONAL ABORIGINAL LIFE was deeply ceremonial. People moved around according to seasons, and this time was kept by the movement of the Earth itself, in relationship with the sun, moon, tides, wind and rain. I often think of our ancestors and their lifestyles, living gently and deeply with the land, the sky and the waters. They walked and danced for hours and hours every day. I imagine how close to their surface their ecstasy was, able to be tapped into and channelled so easily.

I’ve spent years of my life on the road alone, camping in the mountains or with the ocean shushing in my ears. Whichever highway I travel on this continent, I am moving along an Aboriginal trade route that aligns with the stars above; the songs still live underneath the road in the earth. I’ve walked, danced, slept and made love on many different lands. I’ve partaken in ceremonies that place me in all times and I have been in mind states that have taken me out of time. As I travel these ancient tracks and re-enact ancestral stories, I embody the old ways and draw from our ancient, cultural essence; at the same time, I re-energise and re-enchant the world with my own spirit. Whenever I orient myself to the flow of Country I feel harmony with life and with my ancestors. Whenever I live in shallow, colonial time too much, my spirit gets sick and my body soon follows. I heal and feel human again by forgetting clocks and calendars, by expanding back into the world through my relationships with people and places.

 

WESTERN COLONIAL TIME is a surveillant archival time that carves minutes out of hours and divides and allots them. This operated in tandem with the parcelling and fencing of Country, dividing and removing us from our lands and from each other. The colonial project could not exist without this type of time. Colonial capitalism has always been obsessed with dissecting bodies, blood, land and time, with reducing everything to the smallest units to commodify or study, as if a part can or will teach us about the whole. This is the colonial archive at work. These people thought they were learning about us, but the colonial archive is, more than anything, an insight into white ways of thinking and a record of every cruel way they abused their power over us these last few centuries.

To acquire more land to feed livestock, colony and empire, the British subjugated Aboriginal people in myriad cruel ways, and Aboriginal culture was broken down through the colonial theft of land. Robertson’s Land Act 1863 enabled squatters to steal Aboriginal land, exacerbating the frontier violence of which our ancestors bore the brunt. Colonisation inaugurated private ownership of Aboriginal land for the first time in all of our history. The creation of private property threw up many types of fences, each with multiple restrictions. Aboriginal people were physically fenced out of most places and fenced into others. To create capital through labour, it was necessary to measure time; this threw up clocks, which are energetic fences.

Many Aboriginal people were forced into slavery and servitude. Others refused to work for free on their own stolen lands, which the colony rationalised as laziness, and so the colony stole other Black people and labour from nearby South Sea Islands to do the work. Aboriginal seasonal movement and ceremonial travel was completely at odds with producing capital for the colonial project: it was denigrated as ‘walkabout’ and outlawed.

Segregated onto missions and reserves, previously healthy, active Aboriginal people were forced into the stasis of staying put, exposed to the disease and malaise that come from such sedentary lifestyles, and suffering through the indignity of relying on the charity of surveillant overlords for subpar food and miserly rations – the same people who took their children away to abuse and whitewash them. Countless languages, dances, customs and ceremonies were suppressed and demonised, and our sexuality was shamed and abused through fears of miscegenation and Christian distrust of sex for pleasure’s sake. If Aboriginal people wanted to leave these prison camps for work they had to beg permission, and often had to disavow their own families and languages to do so.

Time is consequence: when land and time were stolen from our ancestors they were also stolen from their descendants. The theft of their land and time was the theft of our culture, and so the colony back then stole our birthrights in situ today – the freedom to move, eat, relax, believe, love and relate as our old people did.

 

ABORIGINAL PEOPLE TALK of the past as though it is with us because it is. For us, time is deepening and accumulating. Many Australians find time distancing and alienating. History is everything that happened before they were born; events feel far away to them. They often don’t feel close to their ancestors.

This is a natural outcome of belonging to a culture that actively tries to distance contemporary life from the past. Australian culture wants to leave things behind and move on – and they want us to do the same. They want to detach themselves from the causes of the consequences that we all live through today. Australia refuses our past and therefore our present too.

Australia classifies itself relative to its own occupation of Aboriginal land, divvying up a continuum of time into dissimilar units – colonial and postcolonial – where nothing has actually changed for the colonised. This way of dividing time into cultural movements – pre-industrial, postmodern, late capital – is a Western inheritance. Western ‘rationalism’ attempts to divorce its contemporary knowledge from ancestral memory; this creates psychic distance from the past and insists that newer versions of civilisation come with improved intellect and humanity, which is certainly not always true. Naming and defining eras hierarchises them in competitive cultures. Contemporary knowledge is always privileged as the most up-to-date and most correct, yet it refuses the wisdom of all knowledges from all times. In Western cultures, there are statutes of limitations in law, and cultural wisdom often becomes outdated and inaccurate as time goes by. In Kakadu Man (1985), Mr Bill Neidjie says that ‘The white man’s law is always changing, but Aboriginal Law never changes, and is valid for all people.’

Aboriginal cultures are often represented in terms of ancientness, but we look as far into the future as we do into the past. Aboriginal Law encodes the regeneration of resources so that future descendants may enjoy life’s bounty as much as our ancestors did. Contrast this with Australian laws that extract and hoard wealth from Aboriginal land for the benefit of a few in the here and now.

In ‘The Centre’, a futuristic piece of speculative fiction – spec fic – from the brilliant and dynamic Blakwork (2018), Gomeroi writer Alison Whittaker envisions a gamified carceral future. At first, Blackfellas are interred in the titular Centre, but they soon come to prefer it over reality. The Centre of this story was born of many things. The genesis was ‘mob’s big time mapping and data collecting, beginning with the everywhen and ending with the archive’. To me, this exemplifies the two time zones we exist in simultaneously: no, we don’t have ‘a foot in each world’. We live in ours and another has been forced over us, but still, everywhen engulfs colonial time.

I’ve recently joined a group of First Nations writers who, over the last thirty years, have been writing ourselves into the future, rendering our absence in the spec-fic genre a thing of the past, pushing back against any insult or absurdity in our representation by others. Beginning with Birri Gubba and Wunjaburra author and activist Sam Watson’s 1990 The Kadaitcha Sung, the field of spec fic written by Blackfellas has exploded exponentially over the last few years and is still rapidly growing. Up until 2020 our writers had produced twenty-six stories that were set wholly or partly in some version of the future: ten novels, one novella, fourteen short stories and one television series. Even more stories were published in 2021 and 2022.

Why this explosion of futurism? Well, in these abject and uncertain times, it’s important for all people to see themselves enduring into the future, but for colonised people whose ancestors survived attempted genocide, living in a present from which Australia tried to erase us, our survival today is proof that our ancestors’ resistance worked. What better way to honour them than by writing ourselves into the future? As Black American activist Angela Davis said in a 2014 lecture given at Southern Illinois University, ‘you have to act as if it were possible to radically transform the world. And you have to do it all the time.’

By imagining ourselves into more empowering possibilities, we can work backwards and take note of the steps so that our descendants will get to enjoy the legacies we’re building for them. It’s a matter of ethics and cultural responsibility that our young people see liberation and good living in their futures. Ursula K Le Guin prophesised this as she accepted her Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2014:

Hard times are coming, when we’ll be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now, can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine real grounds for hope. We’ll need writers who can remember freedom – poets, visionaries – realists of a larger reality.

 

IN 1997, GERMAN New Age philosopher Eckhart Tolle published The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, a self-help guide book to living in the moment in order to free the self of depression and anxiety that is purportedly caused by living too much in the past or the future. It’s a reworked Zen philosophy made palatable for the self-focused Western audience that lapped it up. Twenty-five years on and the book has sold millions of copies – it’s been lauded by every (neo)liberal talking head from Oprah to Paris Hilton and has become a foundational text for every budding New Age philosopher.

I loathe The Power of Now. I’ve never read the book and I don’t need to. Its ideas, or at least a popular interpretation of them, seeped into my life as I grew up in the Tweed, smack bang between the plastic paradise of the Gold Coast (whose urban planning thinks of no past or future) and the New Age mecca of the Northern Rivers of New South Wales (birthplace of the white Aquarian utopia). These white subcultural epicentres, though apparently vastly different on the surface, are joined on a deeper level by their preoccupation with wellness of the self in the now. In both spaces, there is a focus on the self: the extreme centring of the self to solipsistic proportions; the framing of everything in relation to the self. Self-love and self-care are good remedies for selfless people who are forced to be so. But culturally, I reckon the pendulum has swung too far the other way, and this self-focus is a condition of a narcissistic, neoliberal politics that wants to shift responsibility away from itself (the system) and onto individuals.

The power of now is the trick of every New-Age charlatan, wellness guru, charismatic cult leader and mealy-mouthed politician to live in the rapturous, imminent, ever-present now, at the cost of all responsibility backwards and forwards, discarding all accountability to past and future generations.

Australia lives in its own powerful now, which is often the length of an election cycle, a strategy of politicians who are (literally) banking on our short memories to sit pretty for a few years at a time.

I don’t mind that individuals want to live in the moment because, contrary to neoliberal logic, individual choices are not the problem. It’s when an idea like this becomes powerful and cultural that it becomes dangerous. Living in the moment as a mindfulness practice is a great way to escape nostalgia and sadness for the past and anxiety over the unknowns of the future. This contracts all times to that in which the self exists at this moment. As a mindfulness practice, it can ward off existential dread and ground the self from spinning out in a maelstrom of spiralling thoughts – but as a cultural phenomenon it doesn’t do anything about the systems that have, are and will be ruining our planet and killing its inhabitants.

All it does is keep people suspended in the false comfort of an ever-present now, focused on themselves – not learning from the past because ‘it’s behind us’, and not planning for the future because ‘it doesn’t exist yet’.

But the past is alive in all of us, and in every place too, and the future does exist. The only future that is coming for us is the one that will naturally grow from all that we are doing now – and what we aren’t doing. The future might be unknown, but we are all making it, destroying it, dreaming it, bringing it into existence right now. You, dear reader, you are shaping the days, weeks, months and years to come, whether you’re conscious of it or not. Just like everyone who ever lived before us had a hand in shaping the way we live right now – bodily, as in all of our ancestors, and culturally, through our lineages of various communities. In this way, you are a shaper of time too.

 

I DON’T PARTICULARLY want to think about the recent past and the near future, but I am Aboriginal so I must: all day, every day, when reading, writing, teaching, talking, listening, scrolling, existing. I am often so horror-struck by thinking about what has been done to us and what will be done, what we barely survived and what lies ahead, that it paralyses me.

Whenever my grief about history and my panic about the future becomes too much, I remind myself to go much further back and further forward, to truly live in a now that is on a continuum of all that’s happened and all that is yet to come. Whenever I feel small and ineffective I meditate on the Talmudic Jewish ethic: ‘You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’ This, too, is everywhen thinking. I am fortified by the political organising of staunch grassroots activists who have never dropped the baton.

I am also inspired by the creativity and intelligence of our ancestors, whose wisdom and foresight ensured peace and good living for thousands of generations, without any thought of war or slavery or ecocide among hundreds of nations. Aboriginal cultures are bodies of expertise for living in community (relational politics, power sharing, conflict resolution) and Country (climate health, resource management). The proof is in our exceptionally long and peaceful histories, in our cultural ways that have us living with each other and with Country in complex systems of kinship that establishes respect through rights and responsibilities. This expertise, tried and tested over countless millennia, is as relevant today as it ever was, and will continue to be for as long as people have to live with each other on this planet.

In Ursula K Le Guin’s 1974 novel The Farthest Shore, Sparrowhawk says: ‘To deny the past is to deny the future… If the rowan’s roots are shallow it bears no crown.’

We need to think like this – like futurists – if we want to bequeath a living planet to our descendants. We also need to be historians because every single problem we face today has its roots in the past. We must support leaders and activists who are past and future thinkers too and starve the now-mongers of attention and power. There is so much at stake right now. If these psychopaths aren’t pulled into line they’ll wreck the future for all – and all over the world, as always, Indigenous peoples and the working poor will feel the brunt of this.

Fuck the power of now. Fuck solipsism. Fuck capitalism and the horse it rode in on, colonialism. Fuck amnesiac and blinkered cultures, fuck surveillant archival cultures, fuck extractive and carceral cultures.

The popular land rights slogan ‘Always was, always will be Aboriginal land’ is all-times thinking. Originating in the 1980s in far western New South Wales, the phrase is attributed to Uncle Jim Bates, father of Barkindji land rights activist William Bates. Explaining the history of the phrase for Explore, the Australian Museum’s magazine, Laura McBride (Wailwan, Kooma) writes:

On one of the many trips out on Country during this land rights campaign, Uncle William’s father, Uncle Jim Bates, became excited and started telling stories of his Country and land. Uncle William said, ‘Dad, it’s not your land anymore, whitefellas own it,’ and Uncle Jim replied, ‘No, they only borrowed it; it always was, and always will be Aboriginal land.’

This slogan is an assertion of Aboriginal sovereignty, invoking everywhen as the source of sovereignty and, as McBride says, ‘a clear declaration that First Nations people are still here and are never leaving’. We’ve been here since the beginning of (human) time and we will one day see the fall of these systems.

I am comforted knowing that sooner or later, all destructive systems destroy themselves – history shows it cannot be any other way. Toxic empires either change or they collapse. I might not see it in my lifetime, but I know it will happen.

It might not be easy, but the greatest act of reckoning we have to do is to know ourselves in the fullness of time, to know that the past lives all around us and inside us and the future lives around and inside us too. This is not always comforting if we face the truth of it – but it is arguably the most powerful thinking we can do.

Nothing exists in isolation, especially time. There are no dissimilar units parcelled out into discrete periods. It’s all one big everywhen and we’ve got to start acting like it.

As Indian author Arundhati Roy says in her essay ‘Confronting Empire’, ‘Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. Maybe many of us won’t be here to greet her, but on a quiet day, if I listen very carefully, I can hear her breathing.’

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