Ancient Belonging Places

The title of this story was inspired by Kathryn, a friend and colleague, a Kaanju/Birri woman from Queensland, responding to my Facebook post.

The idea for the story came from this encounter with birds in flight.

Ancient Belonging Places – the story

Sulphur crested cockatoos massed above the Canary Island Palms and spreading Moreton Bay figs, appearing through gaps in the canopy, then disappearing behind the next tree before massing in a clear space between the trees. A discordant sound dominated all. Gathering up the spectacle with my iPhone I edited several clips into a short movie and posted it to Facebook.

Next day, over an outdoor lunch at home with some visiting Indonesian friends, they flew by again in a cacophony of sound.

Kakatua,” I exclaimed.

My wife Catherine looked quizzical. “I was talking with someone the other day who said they weren’t cockatoos but something else.” Her tone suggested there was more to it.

“Come to think of it, I can’t see any sulphur crests. Perhaps they are.”

Reaching for my iPad I tapped the Michael Morcombe eGuide to the Birds of Australia14 app, I waited. Soon we were able to identify the vast circling flock as little corella. These birds are mostly white with a blue grey eye ring. When in flight, sometimes a sulphur coloured wash on their underwing is visible.

I felt a little silly, not having bothered to do more than make a guess at their identity before rushing to use my iMovie app. posting to Facebook, and authoritatively identifying them as sulphur crested cockatoos.

One thing puzzled me and explained my initial confusion. They are not coastal birds but inhabit tree-lined watercourses and adjacent plains; savannah woodland, mulga and mallee. So, what were they doing on the coast?

Kathryn, a friend and colleague, a Kaanju/Birri woman from Queensland, responded to my Facebook post.

“Have you heard them going off like that through the night at 2am in the early morning and daytime too ”

“I have. Why do you think they are behaving this way?”

“Distressed. I don’t know, maybe the fires! Flying low and fast on a daily basis around where we live since Christmas.” “There’s something unsettling about it, a sense of alarm.”

14 https://itunes.apple.com/au/app/michael-morcombe-eguide-to/id397979505?mt=8

“Yep, you feel for them and it’s been like this for thousands of years. Their flight from their belonging place I suppose.”

A quick Internet search confirmed what she was saying. Thirty fires still burned around the state in areas as dispersed as Cooma, Deans Gap, Sussex Inlet, Lithgow, Yass and Mudgee, engulfing the natural habitats of the little corella.

Kathryn’s words lingered with me, “their belonging place”. Such a beautiful concept, ancient belonging places. Those of us who are non-Indigenous have no ancient belonging places in Australia. Our presence is the result of dispossession. Her roots stretched into the beginning of human time in Australia, mine into the mid 19th century. She crystallised what I’ve been thinking.

Our ancestor newcomers unleashed an era of great ecological and social destruction in the land. They had no sense of belonging, sure their poets and balladeers scrambled to invent one, but in reality, their sense of belonging proceeded from many acts of dispossession and denial of the original occupants’ rights to the land. Their sense of belonging was founded on a sense of ownership, of property, of the division of the land into parcels.

Though our ancestors took the land from the first Australians, we have struggled for it ever since. We have no ancient knowledge of caring for the land, our approach has been mainly extractive. We have so much to learn.

Kathryn’s words also provoked memories of earlier fires. One stood out, not because of its severity but because amidst the turmoil, an old friend passed. His Orthodox Christian funeral was held in the old St Thomas’ Anglican Church, Port Macquarie.

Built by convict labour, the church was a reminder of a harsh age when Port Macquarie was a penal settlement.

As our group of mourners crested a rise above the church, far to the north a fire exploded into view. Driven by scorching hot winds, it raced across coastal forest and heath lands beyond the town.

Energies around death often lead to heightened spiritual appreciation. In that state, I sensed a turbulence reaching far beyond the flames and atmospherics. Had my friend’s death opened a gateway? Was I witnessing an ancient judgement, a reminder of the violence inflicted on the land and its first peoples.

Some of the earliest and most systematic violence perpetrated on Australia’s Aboriginal peoples was at the direction of Governor Lachlan Macquarie, the founder of this town. Five years before the town’s foundation, he made an order for his soldiers to open fire on Aboriginal groups that offered any resistance to their presence. His troops took this as licence to rampage through the countryside killing at will.

Macquarie did nothing to discipline these soldiers, and as their commander was responsible for mass murder. By modern standards, Macquarie would be considered a war criminal. Yet a plaque on his statue in Sydney’s Hyde Park reads: “He was a perfect gentleman, a Christian and supreme legislator of the human heart.”

The late afternoon flight back to Sydney was what I imagined a trip into the infernal kingdom would be. Beneath the plane, large stretches of blackened atmosphere were broken in places by the bright red orange of flames dominating stretches of the flight path. Arriving home in Sydney was a relief.

Over ensuing days, a brown speckled bird took up residence on the branch of a casuarina tree in my inner-city garden, metres from my second story bedroom window. Silent and motionless, it kept watch. Was it my friend!s spirit? After about four days it disappeared, never to return.

Now many years later, Kathryn’s words refreshed my memory. This bird was a brush cuckoo. They are found in rainforests, wet sclerophyll forests, along waterways and in more open forests and woodlands. Sometimes they find their way to well established gardens outside the centre of cities, but fires drove this bird to seek shelter beyond its ancient belonging place.

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