Everybody talks about the weather
but nobody does anything about it.
– Mark Twain
TALK OF A hotter, wetter climate is all the go, but I beg of you, don't talk to me about rain. Since moving on to thirteen slushy hectares in one of Australia's wettest rural shires, I have become an expert on mud (viz. its textures, behaviours, tendencies to linger and stain), mould, fungi, mushrooms – edible and otherwise – the ailment of livestock known as greasy heel, ditto rain scald, cabin fever, Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit and Scrabble. And tinea.
City rain is like Tennyson's "useful trouble". This rain, be it spitting or pouring, means a day of sprinting from the impossibly distant car park into your dry warm office, and later back again. In the paved, bituminised, concreted city, rain is a simple but effective call for action. But rain in the verdant valley where I now live means the opposite, at least once you've moved your stock to high ground and finally trekked over the road to put the cover on the water pump, a job which you've procrastinated over for the past three days of gathering storm clouds.
These mundane tasks attended to, there's nothing else to do around these parts but to wait it out as the local creeks flood and the nearby Pacific adds its twice-daily tidal surge to the calculations. A Koori neighbour further up the valley, who lives on the high side of several streams, was once marooned in her powerless, windowless shack for eleven days. There was a brief hiatus on the fifth day, she recalls, when she could have gotten out but didn't bother to, and then it started raining again and it was too late. "It was OK," she told me implacably, "we had enough food."
Eleven days, imagine it! Further down the valley, our family record so far is three long, long soggy days of incarceration when the frogs – yes, the same ones I have protected from herbicides – sang so joyously that we couldn't hear the rain drumming on the roof, let alone each other.
Living outside the city, you inevitably learn to listen to the weather and the wildlife, at least a little. In such a wet spot, some of us grow more and more like Thoreau at Walden Pond, "self-appointed inspectors of snowstorms and rainstorms, who for many years do their duty faithfully".
You would too if you lived here. When summer rolls round, we begin to monitor the movement of ants and take advice from kookaburras as to whether the sky will cloud or clear. And when the heavens open, an idiosyncratic calculus evolves, known only to valley residents. A day and a half of torrential rain (or three days of steady soaking) will cover Phillips' creek crossing two kilometres outside town. Then, to the envy of their townie mates, the valley kids will be sent home early in the afternoon on buses that plough through the water without trouble. Some of these kids will be required to swim flooded creeks to help get the cattle in; others simply bed down in front of the TV or PlayStation, their hours of sky scanning in class amply rewarded by Huey.
Bizarrely, a tiny number of these children never learn to swim. A local cattle breeder was seen in the latest flood a fortnight ago, literally jumping up and down on the dry land, flinging his arms about in anguish as a prized bull calf was swept against submerged barbed wire by the currents. More amphibious farmers than he saved the animal in the end. In each deluge, some residents will also be lucky to escape with their lives. An ill-judged horse rescue last year left a millionaire father and his daughter strapped together with a lead rope and clinging to a fence post as the waters cascaded off Mount Chincogan and rushed over them, tearing at their designer clothes.
As the second day of hard rain dawns, the kids will be kept home from school. Cars begin to slow down on The Pocket road. Drivers squint against the spattering wet and exchange information through half-wound-down windows. "You'll get through Stock Route Road but it's too deep near town" or "I wouldn't risk it". Some always do risk it, of course, including the police, who a couple of years back up-ended their patrol car in the North Arm of the Brunswick and, to general hilarity, made the front page of the Echo. (Don't talk to them about rain, either.)
THE INFORMATION WE receive from the land is tightly nuanced. When our front paddock floods (forming "Lake Charles", after our son Charlie) and is lapping the road, we know we are about to be cut off from civilisation at a crossing five kilometres away. And when the run-off from our ridge breaks the deep gutters of the back paddock and instead makes its exit to the creek via our lawn, we know Kez is trapped a kilometre or so up the road and may soon need the services of a half-tonne Clydesdale or a tractor.
As the rains continue into the second night, two-wheel-drives will slowly accumulate on the western side of Phillips', and their occupants will sit in misted cabins waiting patiently for the next Patrol or Land Cruiser to brave the current. Nobody is a stranger in a flood. Orders for milk, bread and cigarettes will be filled at the shop and cheerfully dropped back by the 4WD owners, until finally, on the third morning, no vehicles at all can get through.
Cut off, the valley reverts to prewar status. After the first day, Telstra will have failed us as automatically as ... well, Telstra. And without mobile reception due to the surrounding hills, and with the landline now cut, there is only word-of-mouth or television to keep us informed and entertained. And if the storms that brought the rain have also knocked the power out, it's 1935 in Main Arm, folks. Even the merry thought of the saturated tourists in Byron who've spent hundreds of dollars a week to watch it piss with rain fails to console us.
Yet it could be – and it seems it probably will be – so much worse. We who live on Bundjalung land know that eventually the rain will stop, the mould will retreat and the mud will dry. Whatever climate change is going to mean for our kids, in the short term life for us will return to normal.
Not so for the inhabitants of Tuvalu, who can expect their entire country to be submerged sometime in the next few decades. And not so for the Inuit of the Arctic Circle, whose semi-traditional hunting lifestyle will be shattered by global warming even sooner. You can build houses or teepees using forest timber, but you can't build igloos with it. Nor can you catch fish through a hole in the ice or hunt caribou or seal in what has become a temperate forest zone. And once the ice, and the hunting practices and game animals go, what is the point of a culture built around a celebration of their subtleties and their spirit?
Indigenous cultures worldwide are set on the (once unshakable) foundations of geography and ecology. The essential values of hunter-gatherer lifestyles can be carried forward into industrial life, but only with great difficulty. It remains to be seen whether indigenous peoples in trauma – as the Inuit and others inevitably will be – can successfully adapt the clan, the traditions of egalitarianism, stoicism and intensely valued community, to life in suburbs and towns. How will the values of the hunting band serve an Inuit computer programmer, or a Cree teacher? These aren't rhetorical questions but serious issues about the survival of indigenous ways of life in a world vastly different to that which spawned our traditions.
A number of us urban Aborigines have managed it. I don't refer to those dark families who have, through no fault of their own, merely assimilated to the culture of Big Brother, MTV and Kmart while leaving almost all Aboriginal tradition behind. I am talking about the other blackfellas, we who are bicultural – fluent in both traditions – and who walk a tightrope between both the industrial and indigenous world, which in the urban situation are pretty much in the same geographic place. I am talking about the blackfellas for whom our culture means a great deal more than superficial "dots, dancing and didges" and who think and talk about the place of indigenous philosophy in the modern world.
Those Landcare gubbas are
looking after the place, and
there's nothing more Koori than
looking after the land.
– Mrs Ellie Gilbert
I AM TALKING about Kooris and Murris who are aware of the chasm between industrial and indigenous views of the "good life" and of what constitutes a proper society. And those who are aware also of the places where the two views meet and a philosophic settlement might be reached.
From the earliest colonial times there have been such indigenes to critique white society to itself and to their own people. These figures – Unaipon, Marika, Oodgeroo, and many other, anonymous, figures – have influenced the wider society in the process. As Kim Scott, coauthor with Hazel Brown of the book Kayang and Me (Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005), argues, assimilation has cut both ways. Even in bad relationships, both parties are altered by the other; neither is ever left unchanged. As a Yolgnu elder told Pathways adolescent educators in Byron Shire: "You white men here are doing the same thing as we have always done. Exactly the same."
The egalitarian ethic celebrated by Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson – the traditions of mateship that faithfully mimic the brotherhood of initiated Aboriginal men and the myriad skills of surviving from and enjoying and maintaining the land – were learnt by some colonial whites from Aboriginal people. And a significant fraction of this knowledge has been passed down into the general Australian culture – its indigenous roots long forgotten.
Australia is one of the most casually, unself-consciously racist countries in the developed world, but it is also blacker than it knows. Paul Theroux, writing in The Happy Isles of Oceania (Putnam, 1992), found white Aussies living and playing in Central Australia and was struck by their similarity to the Aborigines they had displaced:
These white Australians were doing – perhaps a bit more boisterously – what Aboriginals had always done there. Because there was always water at Glen Helen it had been a meeting place for the Aranda people ... This water hole was known as Yapalpe, the home of the Giant Watersnake of Aboriginal myth, and over there where Estelle Digby was putting sunblock on her nose (and there was something about the gummy white sunblock that looked like Aboriginal body paint) the first shapeless Dreamtime beings emerged ... It is perhaps oversimple to suggest that white Australians are Aboriginals in different T-shirts, but they are nearer to that than they would ever admit ... After all, a bungalow is just another kind of humpy.
If you've ever done "hard yakka" (rather than simply worked up a sweat), if you've retreated to the same beach each summer for a month of barefoot fishing and swimming or have diligently looked after your own little patch of Australia, then you have walked in Aboriginal footsteps whether you know it or not.
Would that this influence had been greater. More Australians might have learned not just to love the place (as some indisputably do) but to listen to the land more seriously. Had more Aboriginal philosophers been valued rather than shot or packed off to missions, all Australians might have learned the careful and intense attention to detail that many of us in the valley are still forced to practise as a matter of course. And this close attention to detail would, almost inevitably, have translated to a widespread reverence for the natural world. More Australians of all ethnicities could have become "self-appointed inspectors of wetlands and forests and beaches" rather than once-ayear visitors to national parks, who bravely blaze their trail with cigarette butts and Coke cans.
Is it too late, or will we all be "rooned"? Tim Flannery tells us that we need to drive electric cars and choose the green option on our power bills and that this will go much of the way to ameliorating the damage we've done. Sounds sensible enough to me, and fairly easy too, once we bite the economic bullet.
When the alternative may be a melting of the Greenland ice sheet and a rise in ocean levels of seven metres, sticking to electric cars seems laughably simple. But what will likely have to come first – or at least concurrently – is some sense of where we are.
But listen! Is that rain I can hear? I have to go: the creek will be rising and there's nobody else at home to look after the place.