Bruce Pascoe: Symposium Reflection

Monday, June 20, 2016

Bruce Pascoe is the award-winning author of Dark Emu. Pascoe is a writer, editor and anthologist, and was a guest speaker at Kaldor Public Art Projects' Spot Fire Symposium at the State Library of New South Wales, 7 May 2016. 'Day of Our Mother' is Pascoe's reflection from that day. View the symposium.

Mother’s day, Circular Quay

8 . 5 . 16

for Julie, Uncle Stan, Stretch, Jonathan,

Christine (who made Jonathan learn), Nyoongar Clint,

Uncle Chicka, Uncle Allan, Bunjulung Firestick Oliver,

and John Kaldor.

I know that woman from the South coast. I’ve watched her eyes and so I know her power, but when she spoke yesterday I had rivets of pride shot through my spine. I was straighter, stronger, prouder and more determined than ever to lay down my life for the philosophy our old people had moulded into such a resilient love of land and people; an ironbound principle so profound young people embraced it for 100,000 years.

That lore of love was tossed aside so carelessly just so a bridge of webbed steel could be built, towers of sandstone blocks, roads of hot tar, clever things, useful things, if it were not for the fact that they insulted the land, that they were built on the Tank Stream which flowed through the sacred grove of Gadigal land, paved her with concrete and rods of steel, girdled our mother, clasped her, not with love but with manacles of slag steel and then poured insult upon insult and sluiced sewage and foul poisons into her mouth and nose, into our mother.

That is the crime, not the useful bridge or the handy road leading to the casino but the fact that we do it without any thought for the land. We let ourselves be thrilled by the green ferry that bobs at the Quay, smile as our children cheer and flags wave, but not once do we consider her, the mother and what she would wish for her day.

Can we build a road, a bridge, an opera house without insulting her? Build carefully, respectfully? It can’t be as difficult as it is to build sixty stories into the air, it’s just that we need our engineers to love their mother, to lay awake at night planning not to hurt her.

We need to think. Like our great Uncle who poured the concrete, rigged the steel, not to enrich himself, but so he could serve his people, his mother, serve for forty years on the Redfern Health Board of his people. I didn’t know that Uncle, I’d seen you plenty of times, held your hand, but didn’t know you’d given your life for our health. I listened to you yesterday and I was in awe; and shamed at my age to learn of your silent dignified labour.

Oh, I knew old Uncle Stan, everyone knows and loves Uncle Stan, I’d held his hand too, but had never heard that story of fathers and grandfathers, all of whom told our young Stan to love their mother, their birth mother and the great mother earth and our Stan told an even younger Stan who then read on television and radio, just a few months ago, words which might yet save us so that we might finally turn our eyes to the cormorant of the Tank Stream and say, Mother Cormorant, what can I do so you can stay with us, what can I do to make your life healthy and full of love?

Of course that would be easier for the engineers if there were fewer hands grappling for mother’s attention, fewer mouths sucking at her bounty. Of course she will give all she can but it would be easier, kinder, more respectful to our mother if we did not crowd her with our greediness, suck her dry, poison her with too many lives.

Maybe we should live by the cormorant rule. We should watch her drying her wings in the sun and we should say, mother cormorant, how can we make sure you can get a bellyful of clean fish and dry your wings in the sun, like a washerwoman turning her cloths to the sun, confident that the water is clean, the fish is good and the sun is warm?

And that other woman, the South coast woman, who is too important for me to even mention her name, she said we are nothing but the recycled blood and bones of our grandmothers and grandfathers, so close to them that we can still feel their breath near us.

That South coast woman talked of her saltiness, the lovely salt tears of creation, the salt the cormorant tastes every day, as long as we, the engineers don’t replace the salt with sewage and foul acids. That’s what she told us, the world is built of salt tears and that we are nothing, no greater than a cormorant drying her wings.

She spoke of the sea being formed by our tears, the tears of our struggle not to be alone, not to be like the young boy of legend who struck his brother, knocked him out of the sky to a stony and barren place, the earth, and in that lad’s loneliness he cried oceans and his angry brother became sad to have raised his hand against his own blood and reached down to try and rescue the boy from earth’s stony plain but only succeeded in puncturing the clouds. The rain storm that fell from the rent flooded the earth with rain and great rivers formed and the ocean of salty tears filled and overflowed. And that is how the world was made, explained the south coast woman and how we must care for the world and most of all we must not raise a hand against our brother.

I was spellbound, of course, because I’d heard my mother and grandmother tell much the same story; see that wren, see that beetle, they are just as important as you, watch where you step, think about your every move, think about respecting your home.

And I have tried hard, but it wasn’t until I heard that woman that I fully woke up, that I realised where I was. Uncle Stan told about loving the land, begged us to watch the land, watch as she tried to talk to us, Uncle Chicka showed what love of mother is really all about; devotion and sacrifice of self. I saw that other young man, skinny legs, and I smiled to myself because I know him and know that because of him there’ll be a tomorrow, our skinny young brother, our Atlas.

It was he who brought us together to think about Sydney’s Garden Palace exhibition of 1879. He didn’t tell us what to think, just brought us together, the day before our mother’s day, to talk about what it meant.

We cheerfully failed to mention the Garden Palace, of course, that great international exhibition, an expression of our colonial pride, our competition with our other mother, Old England, who hosted the first exhibition in the Crystal Palace of 1851.

And we failed to mention that it burnt to the ground just three years later in 1882, not because we disrespected John Kaldor’s generosity in funding the celebration to mark that enterprise, but because it meant nothing to us. It housed our artefacts from all over Australia, taken from the dead hands of our ancestor warriors, but still it meant nothing to us, that incineration of our art, because we’d already lost those treasures. We knew that if our two hundred and twenty years of appeals to the King, God and his church for the return of our war dead, followed by fifty years of pleas to the highest courts in the land, if all that failed, what hope did we have of retrieving the shields and digging sticks taken from the hands of grandmother and grandfather dead.

So we weren’t being rude, in our avoidance of the Garden Palace or its destruction, it’s just that it meant nothing to us, at least nothing more than our stolen children or stolen land.

I heard the young Nyoongar man speak of the whale, and I needed that story, the last piece in the puzzle of the lore, the key that slides in the lock and releases it so I can say to my brothers and uncles, we can go now, we know the old people’s story who live at the end of the whale’s journey, we can travel from beginning to end in honour of our whale ancestor. It’s my son’s journey, my daughter’s journey to follow Gurruwul, but my brothers and uncles already knew that, but it took that woman of the south coast to explain the meaning of salt, to me, a man who has breathed it all his life, whose greatest pleasure is to dive for fish and then sit in the sun, his mouth sluiced with salt like an old cormorant.

And despite years of that taste it was only the day before the day of our mother that I learnt the story of salty tears and their chemistry, the building blocks of our life.

My brothers and sisters you can be sure that like Uncle Chicka, I’ll die in the traces, hauling our wagon of lore as we search for salt, be sure that I pressed my shoulders more firmly in the traces because of your words, your hearts, your salt.

  • The Tank Stream flowed into Sydney Harbour near present day Circular Quay but was gradually built over by the city and became, effectively, a sewer.

  • A wonderful fountain by the artist Stephen Walker now commemorates the site but has failed to resurrect the pure stream that used to run through a sacred grove of the Gadigal. Iron cormorants now sit hopefully by a steel stream.

  • John Kaldor’s art project celebrates the Garden Palace Exhibition Building of 1879 and is built around the art of Koori artist, Jonathan Jones, the skinny fella.

Uncle Stan, some young fella and Stretch. Mother’s Day 2016.