Reports from a Wild Country

More than a century ago, on January 13, 1890, a Jesuit diarist in northern Australia wrote:

The wondrous Providence of God intervened to remove a great impediment to our work by taking Daly from this life.

Daly was a senior lawman in the Daly River region who had done much to help the Jesuit priests recruit local Aboriginal people to the work of their mission. By “work” I mean the business of building semi-permanent shelters and beginning doomed attempts to introduce agriculture to the region. In the arena of “mission work,” that is, converting the heathens to the way of Christianity, it seems that Daly was less cooperative, for it was his adherence to traditional Law and his insistence of performing ceremony that earned him the Jesuits’ contempt evidenced in the quotation above. Three days before his death, in the midst of the Wet Season, Daly had appeared at the mission in extreme ill health, seeking aid and comfort. The diarist records:

Daly is in a wretched state, we have judged it better not to admit him to the station because of his hard obstinacy and deceitful character, on the other hand we cannot reject him and expel him by force. He now lies sick out in the open, with his whole family, with no food except what his wife Jinny brings him every day. He has asked whether he is soon going to die.

This incident comprises the most chilling passage in Deborah Bird Rose’s Reports from a Wild Country: ethics for decolonisation (UNSW Press, 2004), and having read it, you should not be surprised to learn that the “wild country” of the title is not Aboriginal land but the country that has been laid over top of it by the settlers.

Rose is an American-born anthropologist who has lived and worked with the Yarralin and Lingara people of the Victoria River Downs Station area since the 1980s. Her work does not attempt the sort of structural analysis of Aboriginal society that is the essence of so much anthropological study. She does not explicate kinship systems, or systematically record Dreaming stories, although how individuals are related to one another and to the stories they tell are intrinsic parts of her narratives over the years. Rather, she excels at listening to stories, retelling them, and drawing from them a philosophical essence through which she attempts to expose an indigenous worldview. To use a perspective often found in her own descriptions, Aboriginal people presented in her books and articles often appear not as objects of scrutiny so much as subjects, or subjectivities, of their own narratives and stories. 

In addition to her concern for the human subjects of these stories, Rose’s scope encompasses the land, perhaps because her intimate connections with the Yarralin over the years have led her to see the country much as they see it. What emerges is what we might call a strong ecological conscience, although I hesitate over the word “ecological” for fear of raising the specter of a Tasmanian “save-the-Franklin” sensibility. But Rose is certainly concerned with the degradation of the environment that once supported the people with whom she has developed such strong emotional and personal ties. Much of the book, again to return to the metaphor of wildness in its title, aims to make the reader understand how the depredations of mining, pastoralism, and even tourism have contributed to taking the “quiet” and balanced country of the pre-contact Yarralin and wrenching it into a state of chaos and disorder that can only be characterized as wild.

Rose could hardly be called a deconstructionist; her work is too fundamentally humanistic (or perhaps humane is a better term) for that. She does, however, often take advantage of the western cultural bias for binary opposition, if only to demonstrate how bankrupt our dichotomizing ways of thought and analysis can be. And in this she does often float close to the classic deconstructionist technique of beginning with a proposition generally regarded as true, then asserting its opposite as the truth, and exploring the philosophical fallout from that reversal: think again of the characterization of “settler” or “settled” Australia as “wild,” a country marked by violence towards both its indigenous inhabitants and its physical landscape.

In another splendidly illuminating example, Rose takes on the concepts of past and future and the orientation of settler and Aboriginal societies to them. The theme of religion, or missionization, is important here, too. She begins with a simple but telling analysis of the Christian concept of time. She notes the fundamental importance of the dichotomy that governs Christian time, and which is generated from “Year Zero,” the birth of Christ, and the sharp division of Western history into two epochs that it creates. As Christians, we understand human history in terms of this division, in which everything that came before the birth of Christ was an imperfect prefiguring of a more perfect realization yet to come. Even in our era following Year Zero (and this is an extremely important piece of the message that the missionaries tried to impart to the Aboriginal people), we are still looking forward to an even more glorious perfection, which is the Last Judgment, the final reckoning and its promise of Heaven or Hell. Just as the Old Testament was a pale foreshadowing of the fulfillment of the New, so our present lives are merely “rubbish” (to use the Aboriginal English judgment) relative to eternal glory. In sounding her ecological themes, Rose suggests that such devaluation of the present leads to an unsurprising lack of concern for the environment.

In contrast to this forward-looking, teleological, Western/Christian outlook, Rose points to the Dreaming. While Christians face the future in a search for meaning, Aboriginal people face the past. Their work in life is to follow up the Dreaming; they do not anticipate a better world to come, and such future orientation as they express resolves to pass on to the generation that comes behind them the stories and Law that have come down from the Dreaming. Instead of locating value in an as yet unrealized future, indigenous people locate it in the past. In such a context, the European valorization of “progress” is meaningless. This fundamental difference in orientation is one of the qualities that allowed white invaders to condemn the Aboriginal mode of thought, and with it the respect for country and connectedness that characterized pre-contact civilizations. Terra nullius is rooted not so much in an absurd denial of the inhabitation of the Australian continent in 1788 as it is on a generally accepted notion that the indigenous people hadfailed to improve the land. This same complaint can be heard in the newspapers today under the rubric of Shared Responsibility Agreements. But Rose again turns the critique on its head.

We live in a world that is forever being dismantled, ostensibly in the service of our desires but more potently in the service of wealth, and this broken and fragmented world is increasingly unable to hold systems of life together.

Connectedness is at the heart of Rose’s “ethics for decolonisation.” In the context of the present moment in Australia, Rose seeks ways of obscuring, ameliorating, or erasing the dichotomies Western thought has imposed on the continent. In practical terms this means a willingness on the part of both cultures to respect each other and to work in concert to rectify the damage wrought by the violence of invasion and conflict on both land and people.

The book presents a variety of stories and essays to illustrate this theme, some positively, others negatively, still others as an ambiguous melange. Her chapter on the rodeo, “Cattle Kings and Sacred Cows,” reflects on the themes of bifurcation and offers hope of resolution in the contradictions inherent in the ritual of white and black, man and animal, danger and mastery that constitute the rodeo in Australia. A chapter entitled “The Fellowship of Mates,” originally published in Race Matters: Indigenous Australians and ‘Our’ Society (Aboriginal Studies Press, 2000) edited by the brilliant Gillian Cowlishaw, offers an alternately hilarious and maddening analysis of a tourist bush adventure that demonstrates how white bushmen seek legitimacy by positioning themselves as the inheritors of the black man’s survival skills in the harshness of the Outback. The mummery of the tour also affords her an opportunity to skewer mateship and its implications for gender relations along with the easier target of bush tourism, which she treats as a sort of ready-made oxymoron.

Reports from a Wild Country is an intriguing if sometimes messy patchwork of a book. I have omitted mention of whole (and wonderful) chapters from this discussion, including a delightful excursus on Eurocentric notions of the values in geography that privilege the east (source of life and religion) over west (the lands of death) and similarly ascribe high values to north/top/head and low values to south/bottom/bottom, leading inevitably to Prime Minister Paul Keating’s reputed characterization of Australia as “the arse-end of the world.” 

Rose’s work here is a philosophical inquiry that proceeds via narrative and metaphor. I’m not sure quite what to make of this strategy. Her metaphors can be illuminating in ways that strict logical investigations may not be, but at the same time she risks slippery inexactitude by approaching her core ideas from such an oblique angle. Sometimes her arguments seem to stray far from the point and it takes some imagination on the reader’s part to knit them back together, no matter how amusing, intriguing, or telling the stories are in themselves. Despite these objections, I found it to be a worthy effort, precisely because it is grounded in the particular stories of particular people and places and thus bears out the author’s central and important proposition that history happens in the here and now.

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