Almost a year ago I reviewed a short story, “The silent majority”, by Melissa Lucashenko in the Griffith Review of November 2009. I enjoyed the story and so, in honour of NAIDOC Week and ANZLitLovers Indigenous Literature Week, I thought I’d review another of her Griffith Review contributions. This one, “How green is my valley”, is described as a memoir, and was published in Winter 2006.
I love how Lucashenko, with her dual Aboriginal and European heritage, traverses both in her writing. She commences “The silent majority” with the famous opening words of Pride and prejudice – “”It is a truth universally acknowledged”. The title of this piece immediately brings to mind Richard Llewellyn‘s classic novel How green was my valley, and clues us into her themes: beauty under threat, complicated relationships with land, and the precarious balances involved in maintaining it.
Lucashenko starts her memoir – though, really, I’d call it a personal essay – with a Mark Twain quote, which has a prescience now that he could not have guessed:
Everybody talks about the weather/but nobody does anything about it.
She then describes the experience of torrential rain in Bundjalung country, the coastal regions of north-east New South Wales/southeast Queensland. She’s moved, she says, to “one of Australia’s wettest shires”. The first half of the essay describes how residents manage – or don’t – the rain. She talks of students being let off school, of the weather not distinguishing between rich and poor, and of how community is fostered as people with 4WDs deliver food to the stranded who don’t. “The information we receive from land”, she says, “is tightly nuanced”. Farmers watch closely and know how the days will pan out once the rain sets in:
We who live on Bundjalung land know that eventually the rain will stop, the mould will retreat and the mud will dry. Whatever climate change is going to mean for our kids, in the short term life for us will return to normal.
Then, halfway through the essay, comes the sting in the tail: she reminds us that the inhabitants of Tuvalu will lose their home in the next few decades as their island is submerged, and the semi-traditional hunting lifestyle of the Inuit of the Arctic Circle “will be shattered by global warming even sooner”. She wonders whether indigenous people like the Inuit will be able to translate “the clan, the traditions of egalitarianism, stoicism and intensely valued community, to life in suburbs and towns.”
Lucashenko’s thesis is that it can be done, that it is possible to be “bicultural”, to span the chasm “between industrial and indigenous views of the ‘good life’ and what constitutes a proper society”. She argues that the egalitarian ethic espoused by Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson –
the traditions of mateship that faithfully mimic the brotherhood of initiated Aboriginal men and the myriad skills of surviving from and maintaining the land – were learned by some colonial whites from Aboriginal people.
Hmm … I haven’t heard that before. I suspect Australia’s mateship tradition has rather multi-pronged origins but this could certainly be part of it.
Lucashenko’s point though is to draw a parallel between white Australians’ love of land and indigenous people’s. She says that any Australian who has holidayed at the same beach every summer, or “diligently looked after” their own little patch, has “walked in Aboriginal footsteps” whether they know it or not. Hmmm … again I think this is a little bit of a long bow, in the sense that there are people all over the world who love their bit of land. But it doesn’t spoil her argument that it would have been good had the influence of Aboriginal knowledge and practice been greater, because then
More Australians might have learned not just to love the place (as some indisputably do) but to listen to the land more seriously. Had more Aboriginal philosophers been valued rather than shot or packed off to missions, all Australians might have learned the careful and intense attention to detail that many of us in the valley are still forced to practise as a matter of course.
With climate change breathing down our necks, will we all “be rooned”, she asks (alluding to one of my favourite old ballads “Said Hanrahan“). Will our “valley” be destroyed by our inability to tame our capitalistic consumerist urges, or will we learn in time how to be true custodians of our land?