Kumuwuki: thinking sustainably

by Jane

Saturday Plenary 

Tom Trevorrow is an Ngarrindjeri Elder, and the chair of the Ngarrindjeri Heritage Committee and the manager of Camp Coorong a living cultural museum in the land of the Ngarrindjeri people. With members of his community, Trevorrow worked in the creation of the The Ngarrindjeri Sea Country Plan [PDF], a document aimed at “government agencies, natural resource managers, researchers, industry and the wider Australian community to better understand and recognise rights and responsibilities to our Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country), including the lower Murray River, Lakes, Coorong and adjacent marine and land areas.”

Starting his presentation welcoming us to Kumuwuki, Trevorrow said the bringing together of people here “means a lot to us as Ngarrindjeri people because it never happened in the past where we could all come together and smile at each other and talk to each other, and even hug each other.”

The Ngarrindjeri people come from eighteen groups, who Trevorrow told us “are connected by our creation stories […], we’re connected by language, our initiation ceremonies, and connected by land.”

When Trevorrow grew up, Aboriginal people we’re allowed to live within a mile of town. “I come from what they call the ‘fringe dwellers’ because we weren’t allowed to live in town with the rest of society.”

He told us he has great respect for the upbringing he got as a fringe dweller “to be able to grow up on country and be with my elders, my Ngarrindjeri elders who were able to talk about country and pass knowledge on to me. And as I travelled through Ngarrindjeri country […] I used to stay at campsites where my Elders were camping out on the land. I don’t know if i was a lucky one or if i was an inquisitive one, but i asked a lot of questions of my elders and they always spoke about country. And it’s in me. They planted a seed in me.”

These Elders would tell Trevorrow about what the lands and country used to be like. He said although the land had already been impacted on by the time he was a child, he has great memories of this land. “We used to go to the river down in Wellington […] and we used to drink the water […] and we used to swim in it. But I wouldn’t do that today.”

He is now deeply invested in protecting and conserving his land. “What we as Ngarrindjeri developed great concerns for what is happening in our lands and waters, and in the past with my elders that voices were not allowed to be heard. But times have changed. We’re moving on. Things are getting better. […] Aboriginal people are allowed to speak. And that is what we’re doing. And we’re doing it in a sharing caring way.”

“When we walk country we see it differently. When we see our birds and our animals we see a story about them, and that’s why we want to see them protected.”

“We started to speak out, and we started to start producing our own material, because we noticed people always spoke about us […] but we weren’t writing about us, we weren’t speaking our own stories […] we had to stand up in public and have our voices heard. I guess that’s why I’m here today.”

Trevorrow and the Ngarrindjeri people worked with assistance from organisations such as Flinders University: getting legal advice and working as a business. “If we don’t do it,” he asked, “what are we going to leave children for the future?”

Talking about the Sea Country document, he spoke about the power of it being a written, published document: “When you put it down in black and white – you’re reading it. You can speak as much as you like but people won’t listen.”

Trevorrow brought our attention to several sections of the document:

Ngarrindjeri Concern for Country:

The land and waters is a living body.
We the Ngarrindjeri people are a part of its existence.
The land and waters must be healthy for the Ngarrindjeri people to be healthy.
We are hurting for our Country.
The Land is dying, the River is dying, the Kurangk (Coorong) is dying
and the Murray Mouth is closing.
What does the future hold for us?
(Tom Trevorrow, Ngarrindjeri Elder, Camp Coorong, 2002.)

Ngarrindjeri Vision for Country
Kungun Ngarrindjeri Yunnan
(Listen to what Ngarrindjeri people have to say)

Our Lands, Our Waters, Our People, All Living Things are connected. We implore people to respect our Ruwe (Country) as it was created in the Kaldowinyeri (the Creation). We long for sparkling, clean waters, healthy land and people and all living things. We long for the Yarluwar-Ruwe (Sea Country) of our ancestors. Our vision is all people Caring, Sharing, Knowing and Respecting the lands, the waters and all living things.

Our Goals are:

  • For our people, children and descendants to be healthy and to enjoy our healthy lands and waters.
  • To see our lands and waters healthy and spiritually alive.
  • For all our people to benefit from our equity in our lands and waters.
  • To see our closest friends – our Ngartjis (special animals) – healthy and spiritually alive.
  • For our people to continue to occupy and benefit from our lands and waters.
  • To see all people respecting our laws and living in harmony with our lands and waters.

Trevorrow told us his Ngartijs is a pelican, and he has a responsibility to care for it. If the Coorong dies, he said, the pelican dies. If the pelican dies, he dies. Each of the eighteen groups which make up the Ngarrrindjeri people has their own Ngartjis – their own connection to county, the animal they must care for to keep their nation alive.

“If we don’t come together and share our knowledge and information, how are we supposed to live together?”

He left us with this: “Don’t be greedy. Don’t take any more than you need. Share with each other. Don’t tell lies. Be respectful. Because if we don’t then everyone suffers.”

Alison Tickell is, among other things, the Chief Executive of UK company Julie’s Bicycle, a company which works towards environmental sustainability in the arts.

She opened by speaking of how “we’re living in an incredible time of Renaissance thinking.” Similar to Sara Diamond at yesterday’s plenary, she spoke of how we are seeing a coming together of disciplines which are often seen as disparate: engineering, design, arts, and social sciences are being smashed together: “there are global realignments taking place.”

“Art is very stretchy at the moment. We have an explosion of new approaches, artists, and audiences.”

“Conversations about what we value, what constitutes real value have always circled arts, but now they have taken on new relevance and have a much harder edge.”

Speaking of how external forces are pulling us into a different conversation, Tickell said this “is inspired by the greatest challenge we will ever have to rise to,” and we collectively need to learn how to understand, expect, and come to live with the bounds of the world that we live in.

Tickell spoke of how the age of fossil fuels is such a recent part of history, “but boy is it making a noise,” and references Vandana Shiva’s Beyond fossilised paradigms. We are currently living in a world, she said, where “the poorest countries with the least ability to help [..] are experiencing the most extreme consequences.” This is due to the increased impact of environmental disasters in these areas of the world, the increased impact of sea level rising on low lying island countries, and vast areas of land being bought up by wealthy countries.

How we can solve this, she said, is “hugely, mind bogglingly different.”

“Gathering the will to create change is going to take change […] rarely seen outside of war.”

There is hope though. In 2011, the investment in renewable technology exceeded $US250 billion and “political shifts, while agonisingly slow, are happening.” In Australia, she said, “the carbon tax has put climate change at the heart of the political agenda” but in becoming part of the two-party political debate, ” has in equal measure twisted it out of shape”, where sensible, fact-based debate is often stifled.

It is now everyone’s responsibility, she said, to act on these issues. “There has never before been such an exciting time to be involved in sustainability within the creative industries – now is the time to act.”

She spoke of how acts of turning of appliances at the wall and other tiny, daily interventions, can actually be a force of creativity. “Measuring your data should be a source of artistic interpretation.”

“The act of doing has a transformative effect on being. If we want to solve some of our environmental problems […] look into the future and make art. We should embrace sustainability with all of our hearts.”

Through Julie’s Bicycle, Tickell has been witness to “a palpable shift in the arts [..] as a result of understanding this relationship between doing and being.”

She gave us several examples of companies which have been embracing sustainability into their artistic practices. The Battersea Arts Centre has worked on a project called “Art per kilowatt”, and The Young Vic has created a program called climate classics, where plays from the traditional repertory are subjected in terms of production to environmental sustainability.

Julie’s Bicycle works in partnership with organisations, while also preparing resources for use by the wider sector, in terms of creating guide books, top tips, and measurement facilities. “Wherever their is energy” in regards to working sustainably, she said, “we’ll use it.

“We’ll do what ever it takes where these is some spark of interest.”

Tickell also spoke of the environmental reporting that Arts Council England has introduced.  “This says that this matters.”

Major funded organisations have to report annually on their environmental impacts, and they have to create an environmental impact plan. This relationship, which says sustainability “needs to sit alongside the financial and operational base”, and is the world’s first such relationship within arts funding, and ripple effect to other countries and industries.

A focus on sustainability “supports innovation and it supports prudence, and it creates a compelling business case.”

Through focusing on sustainability, too, the arts are also bring an exposure to the science, and the way the artistic community has joined this conversation is making an impact. Speaking of work on environmental themes closer to our homes, she mentioned Griffin Theatre Company’s Between Two Waves

Tickell said arts organisations focusing on sustainability need to look at:

  • coming together to jointly support and force the market
  • connect with emerging trends, particularly in the digital sphere.
  • finding new ways of modeling our arts economy

It’s important, too, to not lose the connection between the sustainability practice and the arts practice: “doing work suitability has a direct impact on the art – don’t keep the processes apart.”

“Work together at scale at a whole system level, and with other agents, discipline and ideas.”

Finishing her presentation, Tickell said “creativity is the most sustainable and renewable energy source on the planet” and then left us with these words from a lecture by Kate Grenville:

If writers and writing are to have any part in our time of change – if we’re going to be “stakeholders” in it – then our first task is to assert that we have something to contribute. Let’s recognise the power of art to bring about change at the molecular level of the organism. Let’s assert the value of art, in an age where the quantifiable and the immediately-understandable have come to rule.

As writers, let’s pick up our axe and hone it to a fine old edge. Let’s hoist it up onto our shoulders and swing it with a mighty arm. Let us write with passion, let us write deeply into the mysterious folds of the human interior. Let us write as if it matters, because it does.