Today I’m writing in Dharug and Gundungurra Country. This land was never ceded and the Dharug and Gundungurra people, as well as their neighbours, continue to hold deep connection to this land, it’s stories, songs, dances and ceremonies. I am so grateful to be able to call this place home, and I pay my respects to the Elders, past and present, and to anyone of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander heritage reading this today. I’m particularly grateful to the Elders and other friends in the Aboriginal community who have helped me to learn about culture and history here. It is a wonderful community full of caring, generous and kind people who are always teaching and helping everyone to learn about caring for Country.
I didn’t grow up here, but I do love it here very much. I grew up in Guringai Country, on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. I’m also grateful to the people I met there through the Aboriginal Heritage Office who helped me to learn about that place, as shy and apprehensive as I was at the time.
There is so much wisdom for us all to learn about Country. How to be respectful, how to learn well, and how to look after the land just as it looks after us. This has been such an important part of my learning in the last few years and I’m so grateful to have been joined by Jo Clancy, Kristoffer Hughes, David King, Uncle Bruce and Aunty Trish Shillingsworth, and Uncle Peter Williams who are all of First Nations background, in putting together my new book ‘Belonging to the Earth: Nature Spirituality in a Changing World’. Their contributions are so gratefully included in the book.
The book has been a journey for me. I have learned so much it’s almost been overwhelming. I have struggled often as I’ve wrestled with the ethics of how to present this information respectfully and sensitively. Honestly, I’ve often felt very shy about it all, and the process of learning how to do better has been a steep learning curve, but I have learned a lot and I am still learning. There is a lot to learn!
What the journey has also done is propel me into another whole area of learning about what Country means to me. The idea that land and place is not just that, but also the stories, songs, dances and ceremonies that are related to it is a fascinating one, and one that has me questioning what it could mean outside of the context of the continent we call Australia. The way that Aboriginal people I have met so strongly identify with place and the cultural identity through art forms is inspiring. It often seems so familiar to me in the context of Druidry, but there was also a lot to be explored.
Over the last few months I have been exploring this. I was interested to learn about my family DNA and recently had a test done. I found that my family’s DNA has not left the British Isles in over a thousand years (aside from myself and my immediate family who moved to Australia). And in addition to that, in the last three hundred years we were almost entirely contained in the Yorkshire and Lancashire regions of the place we now call England. I wondered… is that my Country?
This question has led me to looking into this place in some more detail. To be honest, despite spending much time around York visiting family over the years, I didn’t know a great deal about the area and its history. My interest in Druidry had sprung from hearing that the Druids were once the spiritual leaders of all of Britain and parts of Europe, and I had then mainly focused on Irish and Welsh sources for information as these were the most easily accessible. But what of this place? I started to explore.
I looked at ancient stone carvings in the area some of which seemed to depict star constellations or maybe maps. I found there were some stone monuments and stone circles I had never seen before, as well as Roman roads and fortresses that would have indicated struggle against the native Celtic people at that time. I looked at place names to see if they suggested deities, myths or folklore. I bought some books about folklore of the area too which led me to finding some interesting locations. I looked up traditional poetry and found that the poem Y Gododdin, which has been preserved by Welsh tradition, was also composed here about a battle at modernday Catterick in Yorkshire. Roman texts gave some information about Queen Cartimandua and her ex husband King Venutius who led a resistance against the Romans that lasted eighty years and was the longest resistance against Roman invasion anywhere in the empire. I found that some of the earliest ballads of Robin Hood Came from the area rather than Nottingham, and that this character may have a much longer history than records suggest.
Having loved learning dance with Jo Clancy here in the mountains, I also wondered about learning about dancing from where I am from. What were the dances of that Country and how could I learn more about them? I found that Morris Dancing has a very long history in England, and though it is possibly it originally came from the Moors of Spain with Morris being a distortion of ‘Moorish’, it has become an iconic dance of English folk tradition. I found a group that practiced Morris Dancing of the Cotswold style and soon found out that there were various traditions of dance that related to very specific towns and groups of people around the country. I have realised there is a lot for me to learn here!
I hear the North West style is related to Lancashire, and forms of clog dancing and sword dancing are more related to Yorkshire. I haven’t had the opportunity to learn these yet, but I would like to one day. I have been learning Morris Dancing for about nine months now and have even participated in performances with the Black Joak Morris side at the National Folk Festival in Canberra this year. It was a great experience.
I’ve also been intrigued to learn more about Anglo Saxon, Viking and Norse history in Britain. This has led me to learn more about the runes, the Norse myths, the Beowulf story, and the relationship between these cultures, Celtic cultures, and Christianity. What I have discovered is that there was a lot more synchretism and cooperation between these cultures than we are often led to believe. Certainly there were battles and struggles for the hold on leadership of areas, but aside from the stories of aristocracy, for the most part, the common people learned to get along. Their traditions blended and worked together or alongside one another. They taught each others children and found ways to make peace.
I began my journey in Paganism and Druidry thinking all these cultures were the same. Gradually I have come to understand the importance of knowing their differences. And now, I am coming to learn more about how they are integrated, related and intertwined. These are the stories of people, the land and of ourselves and learning about them helps us to understand who we are too.
One day I hope to return to see how these stories I have discovered present themselves in the landscape itself. Visiting a fort site to feel the story of Celtic resistance to Rome, or visiting a place thought to have King Arthur and his men sleeping beneath it in cave, or visiting sites with the word “Grim” in them – another word for “Odin” and wondering how the stories of those people came to be in that place too. I’d also love to see more folk dancing and learn more about folk traditions such as seasonal celebrations in person. Going from place to place, linking these stories, songs and ceremonies with the place, I imagine it would be like coming to know the songlines of that place too.
‘Songlines’ is a word used in Aboriginal culture to talk about the way that the landscape acts as a mnemonic device for story, and that story holds much cultural information. In Belonging to the Earth I speculate about the existence of Songlines in many parts of the world, including Britain. I wonder what Songlines might look like there. How are places related to story, song, dance and ceremony? How are they related to one another? And how can we rediscover the importance of them in a way that will help us all learn more about caring for the Earth and each other? That’s where this journey has taken me lately. It’s been fascinating how much the concept of ‘Country’ has opened my eyes to the possibilities of learning more about the land I come from. What’s more, whether I call it “my” Country seems less important that the fact that I am exploring the idea of Country in those places I am related to.
I wonder how exploring the idea of Country will inspire others too? Does it inspire you? Perhaps, like me, you can identify a particular place that you feel you come from, but perhaps that is more difficult for you. Many people have multicultural families with ancestors from many places. Many people also have family histories that have moved around a lot and have history in many different places. How do these people identify the place that they belong to? I can’t say I have an easy answer to that. It is something I will need to think about some more and I hope you will too. I have been on my journey, and you are on yours. If this is your story, it is yours to tell. But I would encourage you to look into the histories and cultures of all those places. Knowing the diverse, complex story of your family history is a wonderful thing. Start with your own birthplace and learn about that. Find out about its First Nations history as well as its more recent history, its artists, its beautiful places and sites of importance. Look at the place names and learn about the language of the area. Then look at the birthplaces of your parents if you have access to that, and then see how far back you can go to finding out more about your family tree. A DNA test can also be helpful, particularly if you have been adopted or if there are gaps in your family history.
And, of course we can all be grateful that there is such a lot to learn about the places we already live in. We can find a deep connection right now to the lands on which we stand and know that we are always in a place that has a deep and rich history of stories, songs, dances and ceremonies; sacred sites and songlines that connect it with other places in the world. It’s a magical place this Earth, full of wonder, history and story. Let’s love it wherever we are, and whoever we are because all Country is sacred.
Featured image: The black and white image of a house featured at the beginning of this article is of the house that my Great Grandfather built in 1912. My mother and her family grew up there and my Uncle and his family live there today. It’s just north of the city of York in a town called Wigginton. This is an old photo taken probably in the 1940s before cars were in regular use. The area is now much more suburban.
Belonging to the Earth: Nature Spirituality in a Changing World is a book about ways that the Nature Spirituality community is responding to the climate crisis. It emphasises the importance of learning about Aboriginal culture and ways of caring for the Earth as well as creating rituals and art as a way of processing grief around environmental destruction. Through these it explores ways we can all find hope for the future.