By the Fox or the Little Eagle: What Remains Not Regional?

Terry Eyssens

Abstract


Introduction

I work at a regional campus of La Trobe University, Australia. More precisely, I work at the Bendigo campus of La Trobe University. At Bendigo, we are often annoyed when referred to and addressed as ‘regional’ students and staff. Really, we should not be. After all, Bendigo campus is an outpost of La Trobe’s metropolitan base. It is funded, run, and directed from Bundoora (Melbourne). The word ‘regional’ simply describes the situation. A region is an “administrative division of a city or a district [… or …] a country” (Brown 2528). And the Latin etymology of region (regio, regere) includes “direction, line”, and “rule” (Kidd 208, 589). Just as the Bendigo campus of La Trobe is a satellite of the metropolitan campus, the town of Bendigo is an outpost of Melbourne. So, when we are addressed and interpellated (Althusser 48) as regional, it is a reminder of the ongoing fact that Australia is (still) a colony, an outpost of empire, a country organised on the colonial model. From central administrative hubs, spokes of communication, and transportation spread to the outposts. When Bendigo students and staff are addressed as regional, in a way we are also being addressed as colonial.

In this article, the terms ‘region’ and ‘regional’ are deployed as inextricably associated with the Australian version of colonialism. In Australia, in the central metropolitan hubs, where the colonial project is at its most comprehensive, it is hard to see what remains, to see what has escaped that project. The aim of this article is to explore how different aspects of the country escape the totalising project of Australian colonialism. This exploration is undertaken primarily through a discussion of the ways in which some places on this continent remain not regional (and thus, not colonial) how they keep the metropolis at bay, and how they, thus, keep Europe at bay. This discussion includes a general overview of the Australian colonial project, particularly as it pertains to First Nations Peoples, their knowledge and philosophies, and the continent’s unique ecologies. Then the article becomes more speculative, imagining different ways of seeing and experiencing time and place in this country, ways of seeing the remains and refuges of pre-1788, not-regional, and not-colonial Australia. In these remains and refuges, there persist the flourishing and radical difference of this continent’s ecologies and, not surprisingly, the radical suitedness of tens of thousands of years of First Nations Peoples’ culture and thinking to that ecology, as Country. In what remains not regional, I argue, are answers to the question: How will we live here in the Anthropocene?

A Totalising Project

Since 1788, in the face of the ongoing presence and resistance of First Nations cultures, and the continent’s radically unique ecologies, the Australian colonial project has been to convert the continent into a region of Europe. As such, the imposed political, administrative, scientific, and economic institutions are largely European. This is also so, to a lesser extent, of social and cultural institutions. While the continent is not Europe geologically, the notion of the Anthropocene suggests that this is changing (Crutzen and Stoermer). This article does not resummarise the vast body of scholarship on the effects of colonisation, from genocide to missionary charity, to the creation of bureaucratic and comprador classes, and so on. Suffice to say that the different valences of colonisation—from outright malevolence to misguided benevolence–produce similar and common effects. As such, what we experience in metropolitan and regional Australia, is chillingly similar to what people experience in London. Chilling, because this experience demonstrates how the effects of the project tend towards the total.

To clarify, when I use the name ‘Australia’ I understand it as the continent’s European name. When I use the term ‘Europe’ or ‘European’, I refer to both the European continent and to the reach and scope of the various colonial and imperial projects of European nations. I take this approach because I think it is necessary to recognise their global effects and loads. In Australia, this load has been evident and present for more than two centuries. On one hand, it is evident in the social, cultural, and political institutions that come with colonisation. On another, it is evident in the environmental impacts of colonisation: impacts that are severely compounded in Australia. In relation to this, there is vital, ongoing scholarship that explores the fact that, ecologically, Australia is a radically different place, and which discusses the ways in which European scientific, aesthetic, and agricultural assumptions, and the associated naturalised and generic understandings of ‘nature’, have grounded activities that have radically transformed the continent’s biosphere. To name but a few, Tim Flannery (Eaters, “Ecosystems”) and Stephen Pyne, respectively, examine the radical difference of this continent’s ecology, geology, climate, and fire regimes. Sylvia Hallam, Bill Gammage, and Bruce Pascoe (“Bolt”, Emu) explore the relationships of First Nations Peoples with that ecology, climate, and fire before 1788, and the European blindness to the complexity of these relationships. For instance, William Lines quotes the strikingly contradictory observations of the colonial surveyor, Thomas Mitchell, where the land is simultaneously “populous” and “without inhabitants” and “ready for the immediate reception of civilised man” and European pastoralism (Mitchell qtd. in Lines 71). Flannery (Eaters) and Tim Low (Feral, New) discuss the impacts of introduced agricultural practices,  exotic animals, and plants. Tom Griffiths tells the story of ‘Improving’ and ‘Acclimatisation Societies’, whose explicit aims were to convert Australian lands into European lands (32–48). The notion of ‘keeping Europe at bay’ is a response to the colonial assumptions, practices, and impositions highlighted by these writers.

The project of converting this continent and hundreds of First Nations Countries into a region of Europe, ‘Australia’, is, in ambition, a totalising one. From the strange flag-plantings, invocations and incantations claiming ownership and dominion, to legalistic conceptions such as terra nullius, the aim has been to speak, to declare, to interpellate the country as European. What is not European, must be made European. What cannot be made European is either (un)seen in a way which diminishes or denies its existence, or must be made not to exist. These are difficult things to do: to not see, to unsee, or to eradicate.

One of the first acts of administrative division (direction and rule) in the Port Phillip colony (now known as Victoria) was that of designating four regional Aboriginal Protectorates. Edward Stone Parker was appointed Assistant Protector of Aborigines for the Loddon District, a district which persists today for many state and local government instrumentalities as the Loddon-Mallee region. In the 1840s, Parker experienced the difficulty described above, in attempting to ‘make European’ the Dja Dja Wurrung people. As part of Parker’s goal of Christianising Dja Dja Wurrung people, he sought to learn their language. Bain Attwood records his frustration:

[Parker] remarked in July 1842. ‘For physical objects and their attributes, the language readily supplies equivalent terms, but for the metaphysical, so far I have been able to discover scarcely any’. A few years later Parker simply despaired that this work of translation could be undertaken. ‘What can be done’, he complained, ‘with a people whose language knows no such terms as holiness, justice, righteousness, sin, guilt, repentance, redemption, pardon, peace, and c., and to whose minds the ideas conveyed by those words are utterly foreign and inexplicable?’ (Attwood 125)

The assumption here is that values and concepts that are ‘untranslatable’ into European understandings mark an absence of such value and concept. Such assumptions are evident in attempts to convince, cajole, or coerce First Nations Peoples into abandoning traditional cultural and custodial relationships with Country in favour of individual private property ownership. The desire to maintain relationships with Country are described by conservative political figures such as Tony Abbott as “lifestyle choices” (Medhora), effectively declaring them non-existent. In addition, processes designed to recognise First Nations relationships to Country are procedurally frustrated. Examples of this are the bizarre decisions made in 2018 and 2019 by Nigel Scullion, the then Indigenous Affairs Minister, to fund objections to land claims from funds designated to alleviate Indigenous disadvantage and to refuse to grant land rights claims even when procedural obstacles have been cleared (Allam). In Australia, given that First Nations social, cultural, and political life is seamlessly interwoven with the environment, ecology, the land–Country, and that the colonial project has always been, and still is, a totalising one, it is a project which aims to sever the connections to place of First Nations Peoples. Concomitantly, when the connections cannot be severed, the people must be either converted, dismissed, or erased.

This project, no matter how brutal and relentless, however, has not achieved totality.

What Remains Not Regional?

If colonisation is a totalising project, and regional Australia stands as evidence of this project’s ongoing push, then what remains not regional, or untouched by the colonial? What escapes the administrative, the institutional, the ecological, the incantatory, and the interpellative reach of the regional? I think that despite this reach, there are such remains. The frustration, the anger, and antipathy of Parker, Abbott, and Scullion bear this out. Their project is unfinished and the resistance to it infuriates. I think that, in Australia, the different ways in which pre-1788 modes of life persist are modes of life which can be said to be ‘keeping Europe at bay’.

In Reports from a Wild Country: Ethics for Decolonisation, Deborah Bird Rose compares Western/European conceptualisations of time, with those of the people living in the communities around the Victoria River in the Northern Territory. Rose describes Western constructions of time as characterised by disjunction (for example, the ‘birth’ of philosophy, the beginnings of Christianity) and by irreversible sequence (for example, concepts of telos, apocalypse, and progress). These constructions have become so naturalised as to carry a “seemingly commonsensical orientation toward the future” (15). Orientation, in an Australian society “built on destruction, enables regimes of violence to continue their work while claiming the moral ground of making a better future” (15). Such an orientation “enables us to turn our backs on the current social facts of pain, damage, destruction and despair which exist in the present, but which we will only acknowledge as our past” (17).

In contrast to this ‘future vision’, Rose describes what she calls the ‘canonical’ time-space conceptualisation of the Victoria River people (55). Here, rather than a temporal extension into an empty future, orientation is towards living, peopled, and grounded origins, with the emphasis on the plural, rather than a single point of origin or disjunction:

We here now, meaning we here in a shared present, are distinct from the people of the early days by the fact that they preceded us and made our lives possible. We are the ‘behind mob’—those who come after. The future is the domain of those who come after us. They are referred to as […] those ‘behind us’. (55)

By way of illustration, when we walk into a sheep paddock, even if we are going somewhere (even the future), we are also irrevocably walking behind ancestors, predecessor ecologies, previous effects. The paddock, is how it is, after about 65,000 years of occupation, custodianship, and management, after European surveyors, squatters, frontier conflict and violence, the radical transformation of the country, the destruction of the systems that came before. Everything there, as Freya Mathews would put it, is of “the given” (“Becoming” 254, “Old” 127). We are coming up behind. That paddock is the past and present, and what happens next is irrevocably shaped by it. We cannot walk away from it.

What remains not regional is there in front of us. Country, language, and knowledge remain in the sheep paddock, coexisting with everyone and everything else that everyone in this country follows (including the colonial and the regional). It is not gone. We have to learn how to see it.

By the Fox or the Little Eagle

Figure 1: A Scatter of Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo Feathers at Wehla. Image Credit: Terry Eyssens.

As a way of elaborating on this, I will tell you about a small, eight hectare, patch of land in Dja Dja Wurrung Country. Depending on the day, or the season, or your reason, it could take fifteen minutes to walk from one end to the other or it might take four hours, from the time you start walking, to the time when you get back to where you started. At this place, I found a scatter of White Cockatoo feathers (Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo—Cacatua galerita). There was no body, just the feathers, but it was clear that the Cockatoo had died, had been caught by something, for food. The scatter was beautiful. The feathers, their sulphur highlights, were lying on yellow-brown, creamy, dry grass. I dwelled on the scatter. I looked. I looked around. I walked around. I scanned the horizon and squinted at the sky. And I wondered, what happened.

This small patch of land in Dja Dja Wurrung Country is in an area now known as Wehla. In the Dja Dja Wurrung and many other Victorian languages, ‘Wehla’ (and variants of this word) is a name for the Brushtail Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula). In the time I spend there/here, I see all kinds of animals. Of these, two are particularly involved in this story. One is the Fox (Vulpes vulpes), which I usually see just the back of, going away. They are never surprised. They know, or seem to know, where everyone is. They have a trot, a purposeful, cocky trot, whether they are going away because of me or whether they are going somewhere for their own good reasons. Another animal I see often is the Little Eagle (Hieraaetus morphnoides). It is a half to two-thirds the size of a Wedge-tailed Eagle (Aquila audax). It soars impressively. Sometimes I mistake a Little Eagle for a Wedge-tail, until I get a better look and realise that it is not quite that big. I am not sure where the Little Eagle’s nest is but it must be close by.

I wondered about this scatter of White Cockatoo feathers. I wondered, was the scatter of White Cockatoo feathers by the Fox or by the Little Eagle? This could be just a cute thought experiment. But I think the question matters because it provokes thinking about what is regional and what remains not regional. The Fox is absolutely imperial. It is introduced and widespread. Low describes it as among Australia’s “greatest agent[s] of extinction” (124). It is part of the colonisation of this place, down to this small patch of land in Dja Dja Wurrung Country. Where the Fox is, colonisation, and everything that goes with it, remains, and maintains. So, that scatter of feathers could be a colonial, regional happening. Or maybe it is something that remains not regional, not colonial. Maybe the scatter is something that escapes the regional. The Little Eagles and the Cockatoos, who were here before colonisation, and their dance (a dance of death for the Cockatoo, a dance of life for the Little Eagle), is maybe something that remains not regional.

But, so what if the scatter of White Cockatoo feathers, this few square metres of wind-blown matter, is not regional? Well, if it is ‘not regional’, then, if Australia is to become something other than a colony, we have to look for these things that are not regional, that are not colonial, that are not imperial. Maybe if we start with a scatter of White Cockatoo feathers that was by the Little Eagle, and then build outwards again, we might start to notice more things that are not regional, that still somehow escape. For example, the persistence of First Nations modes of land custodianship and First Nations understandings of time. Then, taking care not to fetishise First Nations philosophies and cultures, take the time and care to recognise the associations of all of those things with simply, the places themselves, like a patch of land in Dja Dja Wurrung Country, which is now known as Wehla. Instead of understanding that place as something that is just part of the former Aboriginal Protectorate of Loddon or of the Loddon Mallee region of Victoria, it is Wehla.

The beginning of decolonisation is deregionalisation. Every time we recognise the not regional (which is hopefully, eventually, articulated in a more positive sense than ‘not regional’), and just say something like ‘Wehla’, we can start to keep Europe at bay. Europe’s done enough.

seeing and Seeing

China Miéville’s The City and The City (2009) is set in a place, in which the citizens of two cities live. The cities, Besźel and Ul Qoma, occupy the same space, are culturally and politically different. Their relationship to each other is similar to that of border-sharing Cold War states. Citizens of the two cities are forbidden to interact with each other. This prohibition is radically policed. Even though the citizens of Besźel and Ul Qoma live in adjoining buildings, share roads, and walk the same streets, they are forbidden to see each other. The populations of each city grow up learning how to see what is permitted and to not see, or unsee, the forbidden other (14).

I think that seeing a scatter of White Cockatoo feathers and wondering if it was by the Fox or by the Little Eagle is akin to the different practices of seeing and not seeing in Besźel and Ul Qoma. The scatter of feathers is regional and colonial and, equally, it is not. Two countries occupy the same space. Australia and a continent with its hundreds of Countries. What remains not regional is what is given and Seen as such. Understanding ourselves as walking behind everything that has gone before us enables this. As such, it is possible to see the scatter of White Cockatoo feathers as by the Fox, as happening in ‘regional Australia’, as thus characterised by around 200 years of carnage, where the success of one species comes at the expense of countless others. On the other hand, it is possible to See the feathers as by the Little Eagles, and as happening on a small patch of land in Dja Dja Wurrung Country, as a dance that has been happening for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of years. It is a way of keeping Europe at bay.

I think these Cockatoo feathers are a form of address. They are capable of interpellating something other than the regional, the colonial, and the imperial. A story of feathers, Foxes, and Little Eagles can remind us of our ‘behindness’, and evoke, and invoke, and exemplify ways of seeing and engaging with where we live that are tens of thousands of years old. This is both an act of the imagination and a practice of Seeing what is really there. When we learn to see the remains and refuges, the persistence of the not regional, we might also begin to learn how to live here in the Anthropocene. But, Anthropocene or no Anthropocene, we have to learn how to live here anyway.

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Keywords


Colonial; Ecology; First Nations People; Philosophy; Regional; Wehla



Copyright (c) 2019 Terry Eyssens

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