Nature Spirituality in a Changing world.
By Julie Brett
With contributions from Jo Clancy, Kristoffer Hughes, David King, Bruce and Patricia Shillingsworth, and Peter Williams.
My new book title, Belonging to the Earth: Nature Spirituality in a Changing World has been written with wonderful contributions from First Nations community leaders that I have met as I’ve explored how our nature-based spiritual communities are responding to the threat of climate crisis. They are friends who inspire me and have helped me to understand how we can all do better living in this beautiful world, with respect for the Earth, for Indigenous traditions, and with wonder at the magic of her beauty and the art that comes to us from her. The book has five interview chapters that they have helped me with, and also includes stories of rituals, trips I have taken to learn about caring for the land, and local community actions. I’ve explored the many ways we have been processing natural disasters like drought, fire, flood and the COVID-19 pandemic in our own ways, and how our connection to the Earth is an integral part of the healing journey.
I wrote the book while living in Dharug and Gundungurra Country, in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Country I acknowledge as Aboriginal land, and I pay my respects to the Elders past and present and extend that respect to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people reading this article, or reading the book.
The book begins with a wonderful foreword written by Professor Carole Cusack of Sydney University. She was an important teacher there for me when I did my BA in Studies in Religion. I am so pleased to have her kind, understanding and inspiring words introduce the book.
Living in Katoomba has been significant in the ways in which the stories of the book have formed, with much of it taking place locally. There were also trips around the country to Queensland, the Central West of NSW and to South Australia. In 2019 I went to learn about the Darling River, which is also known as the Baaka and the Parwon in local languages of the Central West of NSW, and how communities there were suffering not only due to drought, but also because of poor water and land management. The Yaama Ngunna Baaka tour of 2019 introduced me to Aboriginal culture in those places as we travelled between the towns of Walgett, Brewarrina, Bourke, Wilcannia, and the Menindee Lakes. At each place we heard Elders speak about important issues, and learned about the Dreaming and Songlines in corroboree where stories, songs and dances were shared. Everyone was welcomed and urged that we all look after country together. It was a life changing experience and one that led to so much more learning.
I was so moved by this experience and felt that it would be wonderful to share it with my Druidry community, and with others in the nature spirituality community, but as I was only new myself to some of this information, and it was important to include information directly from the people from whom I had learned it, I decided to do so through interviews with those involved. The text includes five interviews. Each one showing a facet of the stories of our shared love of the Earth and of the incredible importance of First Nations people and Indigenous cultures as the world as a whole is finding the balance it needs to support future generations.
I spoke with Uncle Peter Williams, a Ngemba man from the Brewarrina area, who also lives in Katoomba. He shares with us his story of rediscovering his culture through learning the dances and songs from his Elders, and how he became a part of the corroborees along the rivers that led to the Yaama Ngunna Baaka tour. He also speaks to us about arriving well, and how the first Europeans to come to Australia did not understand how to engage with Aboriginal culture. He suggests that the stories are there to be learned and that we can all be a part of that learning. He also speaks of his dreams to open a cultural learning center where everyone can come to learn together.
The Yaama Ngunna Baaka tour was put together by Uncle Bruce Shillingsworth, a Budjiti and Muruwarri man, along with various community groups, activist groups and political groups who supported it. I spoke with Uncle Bruce and his wife Aunty Trish, (Patricia Shillingsworth) an Uralaroi woman, about how it came about and what changes they would like to see as a result of these kinds of actions. They share with us the importance of protocol for everyone to understand, in each part of the world, we need to look to our First Nations leaders for guidance, and for permission. They explained the need for this to come from a place of friendship and unity, welcoming everyone in to learn about traditional culture. Their work in activism and community engagement is astounding, and ever present is kindness and love, friendship and care in what they do.
David King is from the local Gundungurra community and plays an important role at Garguree, The Gully here in Katoomba. He shares with us how it is an important place for the Aboriginal community in their history when the Burragorang Valley was flooded to make way for the Warragamba Dam in 1948. The Aboriginal community there was displaced but found refuge in The Gully. A racetrack development threatened the community there again shortly afterwards in 1957, but eventually it was returned in 2002 and it is now officially an Aboriginal place. Many local people meet there monthly to help with rehabilitation of the native environment in a swampcare project and it is wonderful to see. David shares this story and the importance of protecting the valley from any further damage due to proposals for raising the dam wall.
Jo Clancy is a Wirradjuri woman who teaches dance classes in Wentworth Falls, not far from Katoomba. I have been taking classes with her on and off for a few years. I love how she combines contemporary dance, stretching and strength training with traditional Aboriginal Dance. Some of her classes are just for the Aboriginal community, and others are for everyone. She tells us why she shares dance with the community, and how her traditional dances come from inspiration within the land. She shares a beautiful story of how she created a dance for dyagula, the lyrebird.
I also interview Kristoffer Hughes, of the Anglesey Druid Order in Wales to give a Frist Nations perspective of Britain as a native Welsh person. He shares stories of how the land itself speaks and inspires us, and how stories are held in places, with the mythological landscape coming alive as those stories are told. The similarities with Australian First Nations cultures are inspiring and point to the importance of keeping the traditions of story, song, dance, as ways of maintaining connection with the magic of the land wherever we are in the world. It’s so important that we look to the First Nations cultures of every place to help us all understand how to live in balance.
These interviews and conversations are such an important part of the book, but they are not it’s entirely. I also take time in the book to explore important concepts that I think all Australians should understand about Aboriginal culture when conducting rituals in these lands. The importance of giving an Acknowledgement of Country at the start of our rituals, or inviting local Traditional Owners to give a Welcome to Country at larger events is significant. I also talk about “doing better” – knowing that many non-Indigenous people are in a process of learning, and that its hard to get things perfect straight away, but the point is to live and learn and make changes as we learn more.
The interviews make up a third of the book, but are so important and I am so grateful to be able to include them that I wanted to focus on them in this blog. I will speak about other parts of the book in more detail in blogs to come. The other parts of the book explore the importance of ritual for healing the Earth and healing ourselves, as well as the power of story, dance, poetry and song in all cultures and places, and for all people. I take you on walks to speak with nature, into rituals for the seasons and for the Earth, around the wheel of the year, and into the power of poetry and story. When we are struck with the pain of bushfire destruction, when the pandemic keeps us apart, when we want to acknowledge the hurts of the world – ritual and art can be powerful healing and transformative actions. The state of the Earth reflects our own state. When she is hurting, so too are we. Addressing this can bring the solidarity and energy needed to continue the fight for the Earth that is so necessary right now. As we acknowledge the wounds, we come together to heal them. When we acknowledge how the land around us is affecting our being, and we hers; when we sing and dance those feelings; it helps us to make a difference within each of us that spreads out into the world. It gives us the resolve to stand together and stand up for her, because we are all in this together.
I have so much gratitude to those who have made contributions to the book. May these stories of hope and healing help us all to see how we magical it is that we belong to the Earth. Each of the interviews was also recorded and will feature as an episode of my podcast Forest Spirituality with Julie Brett in 2022. Find it on your favourite podcast app or here.
You can pre-order a copy of Belonging to the Earth: Nature Spirituality in a Changing World now here. A part of the profits goes towards the contributors and their projects.
We will be having a book launch in Katoomba in February 2022. More details soon.
I acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the Dharug and Gundungurra people on whose Country this article and this book were written, and the Ngemba, Budjiti, Muruwari, Uralaroi and Wirradjuri people whose lands I have also mentioned. I pay my respects to the Elders past and present, and to any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people who might read these words. Sovereignty was never ceded. The many Countries of the place we call Australia always were and always will be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander land.