Genealogies of a threatened river system

Essay first published in the UK journal Futures, 39:1-2 (2007), pp. 306-323 [pdf 180 kb]  >>

Abstract: In 2004 the Lachlan River and its tributaries in south-eastern Australia were nominated as an endangered ecological community “likely to become extinct in nature, unless the circumstances and factors threatening its survival cease to operate”. These “circumstances and factors” can be understood as the enactment, reification or embodiment of the ‘stories’, including civilisational metanarratives, government policies, blueprints and strategic plans, national and community narratives, and personal life-stories narrated by Euro-settlers and their descendants since 1815, the year the Conquest of the Wiradjuri homelands ‘began’. The degradation of the ecological communities of the inland and the dispossession and social exclusion of the Wiradjuri and other indigenous peoples are thus causally connected. The socio-political and ecological interactions contributing to these twin consequences of colonisation are so complex, however, that they cannot be adequately represented by any single ‘story’. In attempting to understand my own family’s complicity — and through my family, the complicity of other settler-descendants — I offer several interconnected ‘genealogies’, each of which is authored from a different perspective. I propose different spatio-temporal settings for the ‘beginnings’ for these stories, including a sheep run in the headwaters of the Lachlan River, a feudal estate in the Scottish Highlands, and an Neolithic archaeological site in southwest Asia. But I offer no ‘endings’, only more complete acknowledgements of the all-important ‘initial conditions’, and richer understandings of possible shared futures within a much loved ecosystem.

Key words: Agriculture, Australia, colonisation, ecological degradation, immigration, indigenous peoples, Lachlan River, land and water resources, Murray Darling Basin, narrative theory, settler societies, sheep and wheat production, sustainability, Wiradjuri.

1.0 Introduction

I write this in a small town in central New South Wales on a river that is slowly meandering towards its terminal wetland, the Great Cumbang Swamp, in the state’s semi-arid Riverina. For most of its 1500 kilometre journey this river flows through Wiradjuri country [2] to trace the presence of Baiamai, the father of creation, Wawi the rainbow snake [3] [4] [5] [6], and other ancestral beings who shaped and ‘animated’ [7] these inland plains. Wiradjuri descendants know the river as Galiyarr [8], or Kalari [9], and two, perhaps three thousand generations of their ancestors are buried in its alluvium [10] [11] [12]. A few ancient trees inscribed with totemic meanings [13] [5] remain to mark the graves of those who died before 1815, the year William Cox and a chain-gang of convicts completed their bullock track across eastern Australia’s Great Dividing Range [14] [15] into the Wiradjuri’s homelands to begin the Conquest. In that year Galiyarr acquired another name. 

2.0 Let the Conquest begin

In May 1815, just a week after Governor Lachlan Macquarie proclaimed the frontier outpost at the end of this track the site of Bathurst, the colony’s first inland city, a young English surveyor, George William Evans, set out on his second exploration of Wiradjuri country. His instructions were to find the fabled inland sea [16] of what was, to the colonists, still a terra incognita. After ten days of slow riding Evans’ party reached a dry and stony river bed under a canopy of Casuarina trees, and followed it until it became a string of languid “ponds” connected by a trickle of running water. This was not the inland sea of Evans’ imaginings, but the country this lazy river snaked through pleased him well enough, for he noted in his journal that

 An handsomer and finer Country I never saw than what I have been over these last two Days; greatest part of the Land is good; Timber is its worst production; Kangaroos Emu and Wild Ducks are very numerous [17].

Evans continued on through steep gorges to an open floodplain where he carved his name into an old eucalyptus tree: Evans 1st June 1815. “The Country continues good, and better than ever I expected to discover”, he wrote [17]. Four days later he formally named the river The Lachlan for Governor Lachlan Macquarie [17], then remounted his horse and returned to the bark huts and barracks that Macquarie had already named for Lord Bathurst, Britain’s Secretary of State for War and the Colonies.

The permanent population of this frontier ‘city’ was, at this time, just a huddle of soldiers and convicts whose primary task was to plough the ‘virgin’ grasslands and sow the seeds of the inland’s first experimental cereal crops [16] (p.10). Such was the influence of the Squatters[1] at this time, however, that most of the arable land west of the Great Dividing Range escaped the plough for the first half of the nineteenth century. Instead of being used to ensure the food security of the still-hungry colony it was transformed into a vast sheep run to grow wool for British mills. The wool barons’ hegemony was not broken until the second half of the nineteenth century when popular agitation forced authorities to “unlock the land” the Squatters had “monopolised” [18] (p.352) and make it available to smaller investors, or “selectors” [19] (p.83), [5]. In one of the land clearing frenzies which accompanied these nineteenth and early twentieth century land reforms, the tree into which William George Evans had carved his name on 1 June, 1815, was “inadvertently ring-barked and killed” [20], along with the riparian woodland it was part of.

2.1 ‘Inadvertent’ consequences

Such deforestation of the Lachlan catchment has caused many far more serious “inadvertent” consequences than the loss of an historically significant tree. These multiple “inadvertencies” include dryland salinity, poor surface water quality, rising water tables, continuing loss of biodiversity, degraded riparian and aquatic ecosystems, and soil erosion [21] (p.7), all of which are associated with pastoral and agricultural practices [22] [23] [19] [24], and with the introduction of exotic species, such as rabbits, foxes, willows and blackberries [25] [26]. All other river systems in south-eastern Australia are similarly threatened.

The toll of these interconnected “inadvertencies” on native biodiversity in the Lachlan catchment is especially alarming: 44 individual plant species, 3 native fish, 8 amphibians, 16 birds, 6 mammals, and 4 reptiles which occur in the Lachlan catchment are now listed as endangered or vulnerable under the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 [21]; and three threatened ecological communities, including grassy white box woodland, are listed under the Endangered Species Protection Act 1992 [27].

3.0 Definitions: enacted narratives, ecosystems, and multiple perspectives

From a narratological perspective the loss of native biodiversity and the degradation of land and water ‘resources’ within the Lachlan catchment, and the parallel dispossession, subjugation and social exclusion of the original landholders, the Wiradjui, are “enacted narratives” [28], the reification [29] or embodiment [30] [31] of Euro-discourses that were first hauled across the Blue Mountains as part of the cultural baggage of colonisation; and of the countless other ideologically-burdened stories which have been narrated and internalised by Euro-settlers and their descendants on these inland plains since 1815 to “systematically form the objects of which they speak” [32].

In these post-“narratavist turn” days story, narrative, discourse and text can be used interchangeably in most contexts [33]; and, as Martin Kreiswirth observes, “narrative and its more homely variety story, as both terms for and modes of rational discursive practice, have come to displace argument and explanation in a whole range of recent philosophic, theoretical, and cross-disciplinary contexts” [34]. In this essay, I use story to signify all narrative representations, or discourses [33] [35], including the metanarratives (after Lyotard) of ‘Progress’ and ‘Sustainability’; parliamentary Acts, such as those which have impacted so damagingly upon the lives of indigenous peoples, as Ian Anderson describes elsewhere; land and water reforms, policies, ‘blueprints’ and strategic plans developed by colonial, federal, state or local government authorities and other agencies for the ‘common good’, such those recently proposed by the Wentworth Group of Scientists [36] [37], the Lachlan Catchment Management Authority, and the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, for example; all the narratives that “sustain the nation” and other collectivities [38], including rural communities and families; all the conversations we participate in; the texts and broadcasts we are exposed to; and our personal life-stories which are “negotiated in the context of narratives told by the communities in which we live” [39].

In south-eastern Australia, the most ecologically damaging narrative enactments have been perpetrated on what is now privately owned land, including the farms my immediate and extended family occupy within the Lachlan’s catchment. But private landowners are the co-authors, co-narrators and protagonists of the stories we enact [40], so have the power to re-emplot [39], or re-compose the narratives that drive our actions [41] [42], and to ‘redream’ radically new stories about our relationships with the ecological communities on which we depend, and with the other people we share the river system with. Recent cognitive research confirms that the way people interpret the world and act in it changes [43] [44] [45] [46] [47] when we integrate new stories into our subjectivities [30], or re-emplot already familiar narratives. It is in this capacity for change that I place my hope for the future of the Lachlan River and other ecosystems we ‘storytellers’ are part of.

In the context of this essay, an ecosystem is understood as “a dynamic complex of plant, animal, and microorganism communities and the nonliving environment interacting as a functional unit” [4] (p.v). Human communities are, of course, included in this definition. The interactions within and between these human and non-human communities are so complex, diverse, nonlinear and multidimensional, however, that they “cannot be adequately ‘captured’ or represented from any single perspective” [49]. Any attempt to understand them demands diverse narratives told “from multiple, non-equivalent perspectives” [49], including different temporal and spatial settings.

The complexity of these socio-ecological interactions presents profound challenges to ‘storytellers’ working all genres and across all discursive communities. The following narratives represent my own tentative response to philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s challenge:

I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’ [1]

I offer my provisional answers in the spirit Arundhati Roy narrates her ‘true’ stories: “not as an ideologue who wants to put one absolutist ideology against another, but as a storyteller who wants to share her way of seeing” [50].

4.0 Colonial dreams fulfilled: sheep, wheat and wetlands

George William Evans, the Euro-settler who carved his name into that eucalypt on the river bank in 1815, explored the inland a third time in 1817 when he accompanied Surveyor General John Oxley on a fuller expedition “for the purpose of ascertaining the course of the Lachlan River, and generally to prosecute the examination of the western interior of New South Wales” [51]. Even as he was leaving the frontier outpost of Bathurst, Surveyor General Oxley was imagining the inland’s future according to the mainstream narratives of his time: his “mind dwelt with pleasure on the idea that at no very distant period these secluded plains would be covered with flocks bearing the richest fleeces, and contribute in no small degree to the prosperity of the eastern settlements” [51], he confided to his journal. On 7 July 1817 his expedition encountered a “morass” which “closed upon us, and rendered all farther progress impossible’. Oxley confessed that “it was with infinite regret and pain that I was forced to come to the conclusion, that the interior of this vast country is a marsh and uninhabitable’ [51].

But the future Oxley imagined when he was leaving the frontier outpost of Bathurst was fulfilled beyond his wildest expectations, notwithstanding the “uninhabitable” wetlands he encountered on the floodplains of the Lachlan. Over several generations Euro-settlers and their descendants, including my forbears, laboriously enacted colonial, federal and state government policies, along with their own private visions of how this land ‘should’ be, to transform the marshes and grassy woodlands Oxley documented into a patchwork grid of traditional family farms and agri-business estates. The interconnected creeks, paleochannels, anabranches, lagoons, billabongs, and floodrunners, which had overflowed their channels to create the biologically rich floodplains Oxley described [52], were thus stripped of most of their aquatic and riparian vegetation to become degraded, regulated drains.

Today only a few remnant wetlands remain to provide the ecological ‘services’ we human plains-dwellers now recognize as being fundamental to our on-going wellbeing [53] [54] [55]. These include the Lachlan’s terminal marsh, the Great Cumbung Swamp, the Lake Cowal-Wilbertoy Wetlands, Booligal Wetlands, Lake Merrimmarjeel/Murrumbidgil Swamp, Merrowi Creek, Lake Brewster, and the Lower Mirrool Creek floodplain [21] (p.44).Like most other wetlands in Australia, these remnants are very degraded and their areas are much reduced from their original size.

4.1 Galiyarr, aka the Lachlan, today

The catchment of the river Evans re-named in 1815 covers 84,700 square kilometres of Australia’s food bowl, the greater Murray-Darling Basin described elsewhere in this collection. Its tributaries include the Abercrombie, Boorowa and Belubula Rivers, Mandagery Creek [25] [21], and Goobang Creek into which the ephemeral stream which bisects my own family’s farm [56] [57] discharges. Eighty percent of the length of the Lachlan is now regulated for agricultural production [58] and there are now four large water storage facilities within the catchment — Wyangala Dam (1 220 000 ml) at the confluence of the Lachlan and Abercrombie Rivers, Carcoar Dam (36 000ml) on the Belubula River; and the off-river storages of Lake Cargelligo (36 000ml total, 23 000ml usable) and Lake Bewster (153 ml total, 133 ml useable) on the lower Lachlan [25], as well as many smaller weirs, causeways, levee banks, farm dams and other earthworks which have further altered the system’s hydrology. In ‘normal’ seasons this much-modified landscape produces an estimated 14% of the state’s agricultural and horticultural output, including wool, meat and other livestock products, cereals, oil seeds, legumes, irrigated pastures and grasses, wine grapes, fresh fruit and vegetables, and more recently, cotton [59].

4.2 Drought, ENSO, Climate Change and other threats

At the time of writing the entire Murray-Darling Basin is experiencing the worst drought “since records began” [60]. The largest water storage facility, Wyangala Dam, has less than 8 percent of its storage capacity remaining [61], and severe water restrictions have been imposed on both domestic and agricultural users in all communities within the catchment. Lake Cargelligo has only 300 mm of salty, smelly mud covering the lake bed and emergency water is being piped directly from the Lachlan to the town of the same name [62]. Many farmers are entering their fourth and fifth years of drought and “are on the brink of drowning in debt”, according to the National Farmers Federation [63].

But droughts are normal climatic events in eastern Australia, and are now understood as being associated with the irregular warmings of the central Pacific Ocean, known as El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events [64]. At the time of writing farmers are being warned that there is a high probability of another such pattern developing in mid-2005 [65]. If it does this “unprecedented” drought can be expected to continue. Climatologists also warn that lower rainfalls, higher evaporation rates and reduced river flows will become ‘normal’ because of global warming [66] [67] [64], and are urging farmers to reassess their longer term risk management strategies. People in rural communities are thus being forced by circumstances beyond their control to re-emplot their own futures and reconsider their relationships with the river system and the land which has sustained them, in many cases for generations.

4.3 Enacted ecocide

But other challenges remain within the ecosystem that is the Lachlan. The many “inadvertent” consequences of the narratives that have been enacted since 1815 are now endangering the ecological integrity of the entire lowland river system, including the ephemeral and much-degraded creek which runs through my family’s farm [56]. The river system has now reached such a state of degradation that the NSW Fisheries Scientific Committee has nominated “all natural rivers, creeks, streams and associated lagoons, billabongs, lakes, wetlands, paleochannels, floodrunners, effluent streams … and the floodplains of the Lachlan” as an endangered aquatic ecological community “likely to become extinct in nature, unless the circumstances and factors threatening its survival cease to operate” [68 p.7]. The Committee recommended in 2004 that the entire lowland system be listed on Schedule 4 of the NSW Fisheries Management Act 1994[2] [69], and that the degradation of native riparian vegetation be listed as a Key Threatening Process under Schedule 6 of the Act [70]. (The lowland aquatic ecological communities of the natural drainage systems of two other river systems within the Murray-Darling Basin, the Murray and the Darling Rivers, have already been listed as threatened under the 1994 Act [71].

The “circumstances and factors” threatening the survival of the Lachlan’s aquatic biodiversity include, not surprisingly, land clearance (especially of riparian vegetation); dams, levee banks and causeways; reduced seasonal inundation of wetlands; water extraction and regulation; nutrient pollution; deterioration of water quality; grazing; loss of aquatic plants; removal of snags and other woody debris; and introduced species [68]. As I write, conservation biologists and restoration ecologists are awaiting the Minister’s response so they can implement their threat abatement and restoration plans [72].

4.4 Assessing the river system’s health

A study completed in 1997 for the Lachlan Catchment Management Committee clearly documents the scale of ecological damage caused by Euro-farming and grazing regimes to the river and its tributaries [25]. The average condition of riparian vegetation across the catchment was assessed at just 18/100 and was found to extend, on average, to only 12-18 metres from the channel, the width of a single mature tree [25]. At some study sites native trees were still common, but at other sites they were “completely absent”. Little under-story vegetation remained at any of the study sites. The healthier, more intact vegetation tended to be on land which was unsuitable for grazing or farming, or was already protected in conservation reserves, national parks or as Crown Land. But at 96% of study sites sheep and cattle still had direct access to the river, which meant that little regeneration was occurring, channel banks were becoming increasingly unstable, and the degradation of the aquatic environments was continuing. Overall, the riparian zones and adjacent floodplains or reaches were considered to be in good to very good condition at roughly only one third of the study sites, while another third were described as being in a poor or very poor state.

The condition of aquatic vegetation was even worse than that in the riparian zones. Only 1% of the aquatic sites surveyed were considered to be in good condition, 8% moderate, 15% poor and a startling 76% was judged to be very poor. This degradation was attributed not only to livestock, but also to river regulation, salt loads, sedimentation and disturbances by European carp (Cyprinus carpio). The channels themselves were judged to be in very good condition at only 1% of the study sites, while 34% were considered to be poor to very poor [25].

While much of this degradation can be attributed to rural landholders, some of the causes, such as stormwater run-off, sewage pollution and infestations of weeds, were sourced to river towns, including Blaney, Cowra, Forbes, Condobolin, Hillston and Lake Cargelligo. Other damage is associated with past interventions by government authorities, such as the former Water Resources Commission, which planted thousands of European willows and poplars in the 1970s as part of it “river training” program to reduce water velocity, halt erosion and stabilise the river banks [73] (p.10). By 1997 willows were “almost as widely distributed as river red gums” in the river’s upper catchment [25], and millions of dollars are now being spent to remove them as noxious weeds.

4.5 Grassy woodlands and other communities

In 1817 explorer John Oxley described the grassy woodlands he passed through west of the Blue Mountains as “diversified pleasure grounds irregularly laid out and planted” [51]. He failed to understand, however, that this park-like environment was created by generations of land managers using indigenous technologies, such as “firestick farming” [74] [75] [56]. Remnant native vegetation suggests that, at the time of the Conquest, ecological communities ranged from wet and dry sclerophyll forest in the sub-alpine Southern Tablelands, to grassy white box and red gum woodlands in the central lowlands, and black box and salt bush rangelands in the semi-arid plains of the lower Lachlan [21].  The impact of land clearance has been such that in the central Lachlan catchment where my family now farms, only five of 21 identified vegetation alliances “have more than 30% of their original area remaining”, and nine have less than 10%. Of the most threatened of these communities, such as the once-widespread Eucalyptus albens/E. melliodora (White Box/Yellow Box) alliance, less than 1% of the what remains is considered to be in “good” condition [76] (p.2).  All this in just 180 years of Euro-agriculture.

As the value of retaining and restoring native biodiversity on both public and private land has been increasingly recognised [55] [77] attempts have been made by government agencies to predictively map the pre-1750 vegetation cover in an attempt to establish base-line data for future land management strategies [76]. Researchers have concluded, however, that it is impossible to “unambiguously” predict the composition of pre-European vegetation from “current distribution patterns”, because land clearance and other practices, including “selective ring-barking, grazing regimes, changes in fire frequency and the introduction and subsequent decline in rabbits”, have completely altered “the ecological processes that determine species composition, distribution and abundance” [76] (p.139).

5.0 The inland of my ‘belonging’

This much-degraded river valley is the land of my duthchas[3], my belonging [78] [79] [80] [81], the inland to which I am bound by “bonds of milk” [82] which are far stronger, as a Gaelic proverb insists, than Nietzsche and Foucault’s “bonds of blood” [83]. These narrative ties include my own memories and the stories members of my extended family narrate about their lives on the Lachlan and its tributaries, and the lives of our ancestors who settled the inland. But these family narratives, which are so integral to my habitus [84], my subjectivity, my very being, are also discomforting – because they are victors’ stories, and as such, they explicitly exclude, silence or subordinate all the people and other species who are not ‘Us’: the Wiradjuri whose land my forebears invaded; the Chinese workers who cleared much of the inland in the nineteenth century [5] (p. 32), [56], sank our farm dams and established gardens and orchards to provide isolated rural communities with fresh fruit and vegetables; the Afghan and Punjabi cameleers and traders on whom my forebears depended for haulage and other services; and all the non-British settlers and their descendants, including Greek, Italian, French, Lebanese and more recently, Vietnamese horticulturalists and business people who introduced some of the luxuries of ‘civilisation’ to the inland. And they exclude the ecological communities which provide the environmental ‘services’ we still depend on [77] [55]. But it is my family’s ‘forgotten’ relationship with the Wiradjuri that is most immediately discomforting because, as anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose reminds us, we settler-descendants “bear the burden of the violent history of conquest” [85] (p.23). And we still have a lot of ‘unfinished business’ to attend to.

5.1 Conflicted feelings

Like the late Judith Wright, the much-revered poet who shared my rural heritage, I have struggled to reconcile my conflicted feelings about my family’s past:  These two strands—the love of the land we have invaded, and the guilt of the invasion—have become part of me, Wright wrote[4].

And yes, these “two strands” are as hard to reconcile on the Lachlan, or Galiyarr, as they have been along every other river and stream in the so-called ‘New World’ since 1492. Because not only have many of the narratives ‘my mob’ told and enacted in inland Australia been ecocidal, as the deterioration of the Lachlan and its catchment since 1815 demonstrates, they have also been genocidal [86] [87] [88] [89] [90].

But where do these stories of ecocide and attempted genocide ‘begin’? And how is it that I am part of them? 

6.0 ‘My’ river story: ‘initial conditions’

Stories are traditionally understood as representations of actions, or events, that are temporally organized into a beginning, middle and ending through the device of a plot [91] [92]. Beginnings, like other boundaries, are arbitrary, as any storyteller knows, but the “initial conditions” they represent have a bearing on the way the story unfolds and ‘ends’, just as “initial conditions” influence the way ‘events’ unfold in nature, as we know from Chaos Theory [93].

6.0.1 Back-to-the-future

In its traditional narration my Lachlan River story ‘begins’ in 1840, on my mother’s side of the family, with the arrival of a couple of impoverished landless Gaels, Margaret and Donald McInnes, on a sheep run in the Lachlan’s headwaters where Wiradjuri territory adjoins the clan estates of the Gandangara and Ngunawal peoples [13] (p.108), [94]. By this time these Uplands were already known as County Argyle, a name bestowed on them in 1820 by Governor Lachlan Macquarie in honour of his own Scottish homeland [15] [95] [96], the same Argyllshire Donald and Margaret, my great-great-great grandparents, their nine surviving children and three of Donald’s siblings [97] [98] [99] sailed from to escape famine and destitution. But, after four months at sea and three weeks on a bullock dray, here they were back-in-the-future, in a county with the same name as the one they left behind, working for another Gaelic laird, the part-time Squatter, soldier, police officer and “merino magistrate” [18 p. 27], Captain Lachlan McAlister, on a sheep run named Strathaird for his family estate on the Isle of Skye off Scotland’s Hebridean coast [100] [101] [102] [103]. The Scots had done in the ‘Antipodes’ what most colonists have always done, even in Ancient Greece as Thucydides observed over two thousand years ago [104]: in transplanting themselves to a new topography they enacted their same old familiar stories, and so replicated the society they had left behind in every fine-grained detail.

6.1 Imagining the ancestors

Donald McInnes was already fifty years old when he emigrated, and Margaret a decade younger [99]. They were probably illiterate, probably spoke Gaelic, and they were Catholics bound for a society dominated by English and Scottish Protestants. Their employment opportunities might seem extraordinarily limited by today’s standards but, in the sheep-obsessed colony of New South Wales, Donald’s skills were in demand [18] (p.319). Donald was a shepherd, as were two of his adult sons [99] [98], and from 1838, when convicts were no longer assigned to them, Squatters were desperate for skilled sheep herders who were hardy enough to endure the deprivation and isolation of the colony’s inland [18] (p.319), [105] (p.95).

My immediated family knows little about Donald and Margaret’s lives before they emigrated to New South Wales. We know their occupations, because these were listed in the manifest of the George Fyfe, the barque they boarded at the fishing port of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, on 6 September, 1839, for their all-expenses-paid bounty voyage to salvation; and we know that in 1830 and 1832, the years their two youngest surviving children were baptized, they were living on Eilean Shona, a small rocky outcrop at the entrance to Argyll’s Loch Moidart on what was then the estate of the Macdonalds of Clanranald, because their place of residence was recorded in the Moidart Parish Register along with the baptisms. The older children were presumably baptized, but the Moidart register only dates only from 1829 [98], the year of the Catholic Emancipation Act [106].

Donald’s parents, John McInnes and Mary MacDougal, “were married in the village of Moidart in the late 1780s”, according to one family historian [97], but my I know little of Margaret’s parents, Donald and Marian McGregor [98] [99] beyond their names. Circumstantial evidence suggests that at least some members of Donald and Margaret’s extended families might have been resettled on Eilean Shona after a Clearance on a Clanranald estate at Rhu-Arisaig in 1794. In his presentation to the Deer Forest Commission of 1892 Aeneas R. Macdonell recalled that the tacksman, or leasee, of the Rhu-Arisaig property “was obliged to remove all the sub-tenants upon it who had been there generations before him or his ancestors” to the Lochshiel Estate of the Macdonalds of Clanranald [107], which, at this time, included Eilean Shona [108]; and several Macinnes [sic] were listed amongst the evicted crofters, cottars and squatters. That Donald and two of his sons gave their occupations as shepherds suggests that they were employed on a sheep walk, and there were plenty of sheep to walk in the parish of Moidart while he was there. In 1795 there were ten thousand, according to a “Statistical Account” made in that year: there were also one thousand cattle, three ploughs, twenty four horses, and sixty farmers and drovers [109]. The dataset cited does not include the population of landless Gaels, such as my forebears, however, an omission which parallels the exclusion of the Wiradjuri and other indigenous peoples from the census data in the colony of New South Wales, and the later census data of the Commonwealth of Australia until the second half of the twentieth century.

6.2 Digging up pre-Gaelic roots

Eilean Shona, the small island at the entrance to Loch Moidart in Argyll, is of great heritage significance to contemporary Gaels, because it is the site of the ruins of the medieval Castle Tioram, a “material memory” [110] which connects them to Somerled, the twelfth century Celtic-Norse warlord credited with expelling the Vikings from Western Scotland [111]. For centuries Castle Tioram was the “centre of power” for the MacDonalds of Clanranald [112] who claim descent from Somerled, but it was torched by one of the Clanranlad chiefs during the Jacobite Uprising of 1715 to prevent forces loyal to the London-based Hanover dynasty occupying it. Castle Tioram has remained in ruins ever since [112] [113].[5]

My ancestors’ family roots in Argyll probably extend back much further than Somerled’s time, however [114]; they probably even predate the foundation of the Gaelic Kingdom of Dál Riata in Argyll [115] [116], the event from which the legend of a united Scotland ‘begins’. Recent DNA analysis [117] [118] [119], palaeobotanical evidence [120] and biological morphometrics [121] suggest that Donald and Margaret’s ancestors, and through them my own, may have been grazing sheep and cattle and growing cereal crops in Scotland from the time people first began intensifying their subsistence strategies and living more sedentary lifestyles after the last glaciation. In this sense Donald and Margaret were aboriginal people, and for them every peak, strath, loch, burn and brae of Argyllshire, their Scottish homeland, must have been as deeply storied as was their new homeland for the Gandangara, Ngunawal and Wiradjuri peoples they displaced. The wrench of leaving the Scottish Highlands for the other side of the world must have been profound, notwithstanding the poverty and injustices they experienced there.

6.3 The lives they left behind

The former Clanranald estates are littered with the ruins of small cottages and shieling shelters which would have been very familiar to subsistence crofters, cotters, squatters, shepherds and housemaids like my Gaelic ancestors, and provide the raw material for Margaret and Donald’s descendants to imaginatively evoke the lives our ancestors left behind. Archaeological research at the now-abandoned village of Port a’ Bhàta  on the southern rim of Loch Moidart [122] is particularly helpful in this context, because this settlement was still occupied in 1838 when Donald and Margaret and their family packed their trunks and said their final farewells.

At this time the Gaels of Port a’ Bhàta were living in small dry-stone huts, many of which consisted of a single room with a central hearth used for both cooking and warmth. The cottages had no chimneys so smoke from the fire and lamps would have escaped though the straw, reed, heather or bracken thatch of the roofs. The villagers cultivated potatoes, their staple food, along with bere barley and oats, on the little arable land that was available to them, and kept a few sheep and small black cattle. In summer the men took the stock to the sheilings, or pastures, but in winter the animals were ‘stabled’ with the families inside the cottages. The cattle were probably bled and milked rather than butchered for meat. Their milk was churned for butter, and the blood used for black pudding. The archaeological record suggests that villagers distilled whiskey from their barley, and fished for herring which they may have dried. They might also have earned cash income from collecting and burning kelp, from smuggling, and from cutting and burning timber for charcoal [122] [123]. Margaret and Donald lives on Eilean Shona may have been very similar up until September 1839, when they sailed from the Isle of Mull on their bounty ship.

6.4 Destitution and redundancy

By the nineteenth century Argyllshire’s landless poor were producing only enough food to support themselves for half the year; for the rest of the year they depended on food relief provided by landowners and humanitarian agencies. Many reasons have been cited for the food deficit and the impoverishment Highland Gaels, such as Margaret and Donald McInnes, were experiencing at this time. One 1837 eye-witness, Robert Graham, a University of Glasgow botanist and humanitarian, claimed their “unexampled destitution” was caused by the collapse of the herring fisheries, reduced intakes by the British military after the defeat of Napoleon, and poor potato harvests from 1835 [124]. More recent commentators have added high population growth [125] [126] (p.23), the social changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution, the financial crash of 1826 and the depression of the mid-1830s to Graham’s list of causal factors; while other scholars, such as T.C. Smout, understand the destitution in terms of the lack of investment in education and infrastructure; the fall in cattle prices after Waterloo; the increasing debt burden many estates were carrying; land management decisions made to maximise profits at the expense of subsistence tenants (ie the Clearances) [127] [123] [124]; and racist narratives in which the proprietorial and professional classes constructed the native Gaels as “primitive”, ”lazy”, ”uncivilised” and ”backward”, and treated them accordingly [127]. (These racist narratives paralleled those that were enacted in the colonies at the expense of indigenous peoples, as the Wiradjuri know too well.)

6.5 Emigration as the ‘only solution’

According to members of Britain’s propertied classes the only solution to Highland destitution was ”large-scale emigration” of ”redundant population” [124]. For landholders, ship owners, wool barons, church authorities, humanitarians and others with vested interests in the impoverished Gaels the equation was simple: there were too many poor people in the Highlands of Scotland and not enough in the colonies, such as the extended sheep run that was the colony of New South Wales. Emigration advocates rallied from both ends of the shipping route. In 1835 the colonial government in Sydney established its Colonial Land Fund to subsidise a bounty scheme to bring working class migrants from Britain [126], and the following year a naval surgeon, Dr Stephen Boyter, was appointed Colonial Emigration Agent [128]. In Scotland landowners and proprietors associated with Edinburgh Destitution Committee and other Highland relief organisations lobbied the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, as well as their own parliamentarians, to send bounty ships to the western Highlands, while in Moidart itself clergymen like the ”most zealous Roman Catholic missionary”, Rev. Ranald Rankin [129], were encouraging their flocks to seek greener pastures in the Australian colonies. In 1836-37 Presbyterian evangelist and colonist, John Dunmore Lang, visited London to urge authorities to select more Highlanders as bounty migrants, although his preference was for impoverished Protestants rather than Catholics like Margaret and Donald McInnes.

In 1838 certain “noblemen, gentlemen, and proprietors” from Arisaig, Moidart, and surrounding districts sought a formal extension of the bounty scheme to include “redundant population” from their own estates; and in May of that year the Colonial Emigration Agent, Stephen Boyter visited the Western Highlands to establish a temporary immigration office in Fort William, as the Inverness Courier of 30 May 1838 reported:

The news of his arrival, like the fiery cross of old, soon spread through every glen of the district, and at an early hour on Monday, thousands of enterprising Gaels might be seen ranked around the Caledonian Hotel, anxious to quit the land of their forefathers and to go and possess the unbounded pastures of Australia [128].

I don’t know whether Donald and Margaret McInnes and their children were amongst the “enterprising Gaels” at Fort William, and nor do I know whether their choice to emigrate was made voluntarily, or was forced upon them by their laird, but they must have applied for resettlement in Australia and been approved by Boyter at around this time. And on 6th September, 1839, they sailed from Tobermory on the Isle of Mull for the other side of the world.

6.6 Drought, hunger and crashing banks: welcome to NSW

Donald and Margaret, their nine children and their fellow travellers stepped ashore at the dusty colonial outpost of Sydney Cove on 23 January, 1840. I don’t know whether they were already indentured to Lachlan McAlister, or whether they agreed to work for him upon their arrival. And nor do I know whether they were taken to McAlister’s farm at Picton, or sent straight to his 16,000 acre sheep run on the Breadalbane Plains near Taralga in County Argyle [130] where the Lachlan River rises. But by 1841 they had certainly settled in County Argyle [98] and were slowly becoming Australian.

New South Wales at this time was far from a land of plenty. The colony was recovering from the drought, or ENSO event, of 1837-39 [131] when “It seemed as if a terrific stench – the smell of dying stock — were rolling in as the answer of the newly violated interior; and the colonists had no defence.” [18] (p.112). Food was scarce and the colony’s urban poor, like the Gaels back in Moidart, were dependent on food aid, including grain imported from India, South America and China [18] (p.200). By this time the Squatters were shipping over ten million pounds of wool per year to Britain [18] (p.43) and had little interest in using the land they were occupying to ensure the colony’s food security.

The drought was followed by a financial crisis [18] (p.113) which reached its peak in 1843, when the price of wool fell to below production costs and the banks crashed [18] (p.193). Hundreds of investors in the wool industry, including some of McAlister’s well-connected neighbours in Argyle County, lost everything [132]. Many of the Squatters who survived did so by converting their stock to tallow by boiling them down in large vats.

6.7 Upward mobility: the first thirty acre blocks

By the mid-1840s the colonial economy had recovered  and New South Wales was heading towards the boom years which accompanied the discovery of gold in the 1850s [18] (p.210). By this time Margaret and Donald’s second son, Angus, had already bought his first thirty acres of land on the Tarlo River [133] in Gundungurra territory [94]. Donald and Margaret purchased their own thirty acres nearby in 1852. Both these blocks have been incorporated into a larger holding and are still ‘in the family’. Their present owner, one of Donald and Margaret McInnes’s many descendants, is also called Donald McInnes.

In the autumn of 2005 my mother, my aunt and I visited the old McInnes farm on the Tarlo River and were taken by our distant cousins, Donald McInnes and his brother Neil, to the site of the first tiny stone cottage our common ancestors built on a steep brae overlooking the ‘middle arm’ of the river. The drought-stricken slopes were brown and bare, and Donald’s fine wool merinos ran towards our vehicle expecting to be hand-fed. We stood in silence and gazed out across the narrow valley which, for our ancestors, must have been filled with dreams which would have been undreamable had they remained on Eilean Shona in far-off Argyllshire.

The old couple and their children must have worked feverishly from the 1850s to drain and plough the poa swamps[6]; ring-bark and burn the trees; and strip the hills bare and replant them with European species to make these Antipodean straths and braes more like the home they left behind. Today only a single eucalypt remains on the hill above the site of their first stone cottage. My distant cousin, the present owner of the property, is of a generation of farmers who would like to clear even more land and joked that the local Landcare group had given up trying to get him involved in planting natives to restore the Tarlo River and its catachment. Like so many older settler-descendants his dreams for the future of the land he loves are still rooted in his family’s Euro-past. It is for the next generations of Donald and Margaret’s descendants to dream new dreams to restore the Tarlo’s ‘middle arm’ to its former health.

6.8 Migrating down the Lachlan

Donald and Margaret’s third son, Gregor, was also living on the Tarlo River in 1852, according to the certificate documenting his marriage to his neighbour, Anne Gibson [98]. The couple bought their own thirty acre block in 1859, but at some time after the big sheep runs in central and western New South Wales were being ‘thrown open’ to smaller investors, or Selectors, Gregor and Anne McInnes, my great-great grandparents, headed down the Lachlan with one of their sons, Allan, in search of more land. They re-entered the historic record in 1879-80 [134] when Allan purchased re-gazetted Crown Land near Lake Cargelligo in the middle reaches of the Lachlan, where Wiradjuri country adjoins Ngiyambaa territory. He called his new property Boorathumble Station for Mount Boorathumble, a conspicuous hill that is of great symbolic significance to Wiradjuri landowners.

At Lake Cargelligo Allan McInnes met and married Mary McFadzean, the daughter of Mary Hinkley and William McFadzean, a carpenter who landed in Melbourne from Craigie in Ayreshire in the 1850s and established a successful business building homesteads and shearing sheds along the inland rivers. The couple raised twelve children on Boorathumble, one of whom, their only surviving daughter Agnes, married Austin L’Estrange, a young ‘grazier’ whose family had selected land further upstream at Condobolin. She settled with him on a farm which is also still ‘in the family’. The eldest of Agnes and Austin’s three daughters married the local shire engineer and settled with him on a small irrigation block. I was their first-born of three children. In the 1960s our family migrated further upstream to the larger farm we still own on one of the Lachlan’s many tributaries.

6.9 Back to Boorathumble

In the late nineties some of Donald and Margaret McInnes’ many descendants met on the shore of Lake Cargelligo for a family reunion. We visited the graves of my great-great grandparents, Gregor and Anne McInnes, and great grandparents Allan and Mary McInnes at ‘The Lake’ cemetery, and then made a dusty ‘pilgrimage’ to Boorathumble, a place I knew only from rose-tinted anecdotes narrated by my mother, aunts and other relatives at family weddings and funerals, and from a fading family photograph of a sprawling timber homestead with a bull-nose veranda set in a Victorian cottage garden surrounded by mulga scrub.

The first stop in this ‘pilgrimage’ was the historic Boorathumble shearing shed on another ephemeral tributary of the Lachlan. In good years more than 40 000 sheep were shorn under its soaring cathedral roof, and throughout my mother’s childhood Santa and his fairy-queen assistant (one of the uncles dressed up in a mosquito net tutu) arrived in a decorated sulky to distribute gifts at the annual family Christmas party. In these years the shearers quarters also served as the school house for a tribe of my mother’s first cousins who re-narrated their favourite anecdotes as we crowded around the wooden benches at which they learned to read and write.

6.10 The end of the idyll

Our convoy continued on to the old homestead in which Mary and Allan McInnes raised their twelve surviving children with the support of Wiradjuri ‘housegirls’, Chinese gardeners, resident governesses and tutors, and diverse other station workers and service providers who tend to be omitted from family narratives. The bull-nose veranda was gone, several of the walls had collapsed, the floorboards had been removed, and sheets of the ornately patterned pressed metal which once lined the interior walls were now rusty and flapping in the breeze. Of my great-grandmother Mary’s European-style garden only a grove of ‘angel trees’ survived, along with her climbing roses which, against the odds, were smothering the ruins of a gauzed-in breezeway with cascades of fully-blown pink blossoms. Inside the homestead an angel tree was growing between the flooring joists of what had once been my great-grandmother’s sitting room. The marble mantle-piece had been removed from the fireplace, and the window frames, once filled with coloured glass — soft blue and rose in my imagination — were empty. I rested my arms on a sill and stared out across the plain my forebears, including the male descendants of a couple of impoverished landless peasants, had claimed as their own a century before. One of mother’s younger cousins joined me, a man of around sixty years. I asked him, almost in a whisper, about the original landowners. Yes, he could remember the last “wild blacks” passing through, he told me; the last ‘footwalkers’ of this Country. And then we drove off in our convoy of dusty utilities, cars and 4WD vehicles.

Mount Boorathumble, the sacred site for which my forebears’ sheep station was named, is now a quarry. Indeed one could argue that the entire Lachlan valley has become a quarry, given the way ‘my mob’, we Euro-settlers, have treated it since George Evans carved his name into that riparian eucalypt in 1815. A postcard I purchased at the Lake Cargelligo tourist centre shows a dust storm engulfing the town in 1995, tonnes of irreplaceable red topsoil from the surrounding paddocks filling the sky. It looks like the end of the world. For some people it has been; and for some of the flora and fauna that were part of their Dreaming. 

 7.0 Stan Grant’s river story

Compare my family’s river story with that of Stan Grant, an international broadcaster and journalist now working as CNN’s Beijing correspondent [135] [136]. Like me, Grant retains strong family connections with Galiyarr, or the Lachlan, through his parents, his grandparents, and his ancestors before them, even though he himself was born in Griffith on the Murrumbidgee River [90] (p.48). His extended family and my own have inhabited the same topography for over 160 years, and yet we might as well have lived in parallel universes for much of that time. While my McInnes progenitors, the offsprings of a “redundant population” of Highland Gaels, were acquiring thousands of hectares of Gundungurra and Wiradjuri territory, along with the privileges that accompany land ownership, Stan Grant’s Wiradjuri forbears were being dispossessed of their clan estates in ways that paralleled the Scottish Clearances, and ‘replaced’ by sheep, “a more relentless occupation force than regiments of red-coated soldiers” [18 p.1].

Edward Landor, who witnessed the dispossession of Australia’s First Peoples in the 1840s, unhesitatingly called it a “conquest”: “We have seized upon the country, and shot down the inhabitants, until the survivors have found it expedient to submit to our rule,” he wrote[137]. Military observer, Lt. Colonel Godfrey Mundy, who visited central western New South Wales in 1846, understood the dispossession more as “a sort of gradual eviction”:

As our flocks and herds and population increase, and corresponding increase of space is required, the natural owners of the soil are thrust back without treaty, bargain or apology. A tract of rich and virgin pasture is heard of through a surveyor or through some adventurous settler or stockman riding in search of fresh ‘runs’, and in an incredibly short time it is overrun with livestock [138] (p.128).

Mundy confirmed, however, that the dispossession, whether it is interpreted as a “conquest” or a forced “eviction”, was bloody and brutal: “Dreadful tales of cold-blooded carnage … are whispered about in the provinces and although there be Crown Land Commissioners, police magistrates and settlers of mark, who deny, qualify, or ignore these wholesale massacres of the black population, there can be no real doubt their extirpation from the land is rapidly going on” [138] (p.130). 

7.1 The other side of the frontier

In his recent memoir, Tears of Strangers, Stan Grant records his own ‘pilgrimage’ to a former sheep run near Bathurst to connect with the other side of this frontier violence. The property was Brucedale, the site of the grave of Wiindhuraydhine, the Wiradjuri warrior who led a meticulously planned and executed guerrilla campaign against the pastoralists in the early 1820s, in retaliation for the theft of land and the many atrocities his family and other Wiradjuri had suffered [139] [89]: “I need to come here to understand where my family’s story truly begins – not in the hazy mythology of the dreamtime, but in the very red brutality of the Australian frontier” [90] (p.64), Grant writes.

Wiindhuraydhine’s war was well documented in the Sydney Gazette and other publications of the day, although generally from the perspective of the squatters and their vigilantes whom Governor Brisbane supported with troop reinforcements and, on 14 August 1824, with a declaration of martial law. As Grant comments, “For the first and only time on Australian soil the slaughter of my people – the Wiradjuri – was legally sanctioned” [90] (p.67).

The discovery that his indigenous ancestors resisted the invasion and that “We did not drop our weapons and flee” [90] (p.78) was profoundly important to Stan Grant, as it has been to other Wiradjuri descendants: “As I devour the public records I’m erasing the shame of the child who was brainwashed into believing his people fled without honour”[90] (p.64). For Grant the memory of this defeat in the mid-1820s is as heroic and identity-affirming as is the memory of the ANZACs defeat in the battle of Lone Pine in World War I is to settler-descendants; and the courage the Wiradjuri warriors displayed in the face of overwhelming odds as worthy of commemoration as that of the ANZAC warriors during the Gallipoli campaign [90] (p.64). But only one of these defeats is nationally commemorated.

7.2 Mixed ‘bloodlines’

Stan Grant’s search for his own family’s history took him to another former sheep run, to Merriganowry on the Lachlan near Cowra, where two men he believes are his direct progenitors are buried: the Wiradjuri leader Wongamar, whose grave is unmarked, and the Squatter John Grant who is interred “beneath an enormous headstone on the land he claimed as his own” [90] (p.109). These two men are linked through Wongamar’s daughter Mary Ann, and the child she gave birth to at Merriganowry in about 1857, William Hugh Grant, Stan Grant’s great-grandfather [90] (p.143).

7.3 Other Conquests

The Grant strand of Stan Grant’s family story, as narrated along a male line of descent, ‘begins’ in Normandy in the year 940 with Otto Gherardini, a Florentine mercenary whose descendants were assimilated into Norman society and changed their name to Le Grant. More than two hundred years later, in 1170, Otto’s descendants “were among the first Normans to arrive in Ireland, becoming the Barons of Iverk in Kilkenny” [90] (p.88), [140] after they brutally dispossessed the Gaelic and Norse-speaking peoples who were the descendants of earlier invaders [114] [141] [142]. Centuries after the Norman Conquest of Ireland the descendants of the Catholic Barons of Iverk were similarly ‘dispossessed’ [90 p.88] by Oliver Cromwell’s Protestant troops, and from that time, 1649 [143] (p.3), they became “flotsom on the sea of Irish history, every generation being forced to move on by famine and civil unrest” [90] (p.88), as one of John Grant’s ‘white’ descendants, Monsignor Leo Grant, asserts [144]. The Grants fought the armies of the British Crown in the ‘Rebellion’ of 1798 [90] (p.97) and were again suppressed and dispersed [145] [146], but after the 1801 Act of Union some of them re-emerged as successful tenant farmers in Moyne, Country Tipperary. In Stan Grant’s re-emplotment of the family narrative, two of the Moyne sons, Jeremiah and John, were persecuted by “one of the most despised and vindictive landlords” in the district [90] (pp 88-89) for their association with one of Ireland’s many secret agrarian societies. Jeremiah and John were arrested after a convoluted series of events involving the landlord, his son, the Grant boys’ sister, a murder and an alleged attempted murder. Jeremiah escaped custody to begin a short career as an “outlaw” [147] — or, in Stan Grant’s re-narration, “one of the country’s leading young rebels” [90] (p.89) — while John, a lad of just seventeen, was transported in 1811 to New South Wales on the convict ship Providence [148] [149]. He was assigned to physician William Redfern, himself an emancipated convict, and through Redfern acquired his first small block of land, as well as first hand experience of the brutality of the frontier [90] (pp.97-98).

In 1821, after receiving a pardon from Governor Macquarie, John Grant settled on a larger property within Gundungurra territory [94] near Hartley. During the ENSO event of 1826-27 [131], when “land was still being opened up at the point of a gun” [90] (p.86), John Grant headed west with “seventeen men, 1000 head of cattle and seven flocks of sheep, each numbering between 500 and 1000” [90] (p.88) in search of fresh pastures. He found them on one of the Lachlan’s tributaries, the Belabula, near the present town of Canowindra, and later at Merriganowry [5] (p.29), where he soon adopted all the manners and aspirations of the ‘landlords’ he had so despised as a youth in Tipperary. For Stan Grant, “This was a man all too familiar with terror, yet here he would reap its benefits as the black suffered the same fate as his countrymen had endured. The oppressed so quickly becomes the oppressor” [90] (p.97).

7.4 ‘History belongs to the white man’

Squatter John Grant’s life is well documented. His name is recorded as a ‘pioneer’ and ‘founder’ of the towns of Hartley and Canowindra, for example, and there are several web sites dedicated to him by keen ‘white’ Grant family historians. But few of the names of the Wiradjuri who lived on the fertile floodplains of the Lachlan River at the time John Grant invaded with his stock have entered the historic record, because, as Stan Grant observes, with a nod to African American writer James Baldwin, “History belongs to the white man” [90] (p.64).

The memory of Stan Grant’s great-great-great grandfather Wongamar has been kept alive in the oral traditions of his descendants. Certain details can also be verified in the historic record because, in 1847, John Grant presented Wongamar with a brass ‘king plate’, an imperial reward based on the military gorget [150] handed out by many squatters to ‘natives’ for services rendered:

The old man Wongamar had seen his land stolen, his people shot down and poisoned and his daughter give birth to a white man’s child. In return he got a brass breastplate and a mocking title: King of the Merriganourie’ [90] (p.109).

The full text of the breastplate reads “Wongamar, King of the Merriganoury, Back Creek, Konimbla Creek, Lachlan River, John Grant 1847” [90] (p. 85).

By this time some Squatters were actively seeking the protection of Wiradjuri clans by encouraging them to live near their homesteads to “keep off strange blacks who might otherwise make dangerous incursions”, according to “a new settler” in the Saturday Magazine of 25 June 1836 [5] (p. 28). It is possible that Wongamar and his extended family pragmatically decided to ‘protect’ Grant from on-going guerrilla attacks in this way, but such an arrangement must surely have been mutually beneficial, because, in the absence of such a ‘benefactor’, Wiradjuri families were still “likely to die of exposure, violence or malnutrition” [5] (p. 34), or even poisoning [5] (p. 24). The Saturday Magazine correspondent also noted that ‘natives’ sometimes adopted the names of the Squatters on whose runs they camped: Stan Grant’s family insists, however, that, in their case, their surname was not ‘adopted’, but inherited ‘by blood’ through John Grant’s son, William Hugh Grant, one of many Wiradjuri who, Stand Grant claims, owed their paternity to this Irish squatter and ex-convict [90] (p.108). Many other families along the Lachlan can claim parallel ‘mixed blood’ genealogies.

7.5 Two thousand generations of lost river stories

When John Grant and his assigned convicts arrived in Wiradjuri country in the 1820s Wongamar “was still living a life his people had enjoyed for two thousand generations” [90] (p. 93). In the absence of written documentation from their pre-Contact past Wiradjuri descendants rely on their own oral traditions, interpretations of the archaeological record, texts authored by European eye-witnesses, and extrapolations from the narratives of other indigenous nations as they understand the loves of their ancestors, and the ‘initial conditions’ upon which their futures now rest. What is obvious from the victors’ stories is that Wiradjuri people learned the language of the invaders and engaged with them remarkably quickly. In 1817, just two years after the road was completed across the Blue Mountains, the first Wiradjuri John Oxley and his expedition encountered on the Lachlan River already spoke and understood enough English to maintain a conversation. On 25 April he noted in his journal that:

We had scarcely alighted from our horses, when natives were seen in considerable numbers on the other side of the river. I went down opposite to them, and after some little persuasion about twenty of them swam across, having their galengar or stone hatchet in one hand, which on their landing they threw at our feet, to show us that they were as much divested of arms as ourselves. After staying a short time they were presented with some kangaroo flesh, with which they re-crossed the river, and kindled their fires. They were very stout and manly, well featured, with long beards: there were a few cloaks among them made of the opossum skin, and it was evident that some of the party had been at Bathurst, from their making use of several English words, and from their readily comprehending many of our questions [51]. 

7.5.1 Proto-agriculture and settled villages

By the time Major Thomas Mitchell surveyed the Lachlan valley in 1835 Squatters had already claimed most of the floodplains as sheep or cattle runs, and it was increasingly difficult for Stan Grant’s Wiradjuri forebears to practice their traditional subsistence strategies [5]. Further west, however, Mitchell encountered indigenous landholders who were less affected by the processes of colonisation. In Paakantji[7] Country on the Darling River, for example, he saw evidence of what we would now call proto-agriculture [4]. On 19 June, 1835, he documented mounds of harvested native yams and hay ricks of native millet “extending for miles”, such that, to his eyes, “the desert was softened into the agreeable semblance of a hay-field” [152]. Like the Wiradjuri, the Paakantji harvested native grasses, dried and stored them, and ground the seeds into flour from which they made a bread-like dough [151]. The Paajantji also lived in semi-permanent villages for at least some of the year. On 22 June, 1835, Mitchell’s expedition passed through one settlement of well-constructed semi-circular “permanent huts” on both sides of the Darling River, some of which were “large enough certainly to contain a family of 15 persons”. These houses were “well thatched with straw, forming altogether a covering of about a foot in thickness, and they were well able to afford a ready and dry shelter in bad weather” [152], and, except that they were constructed from timber rather than stone, they were not dissimilar from the houses my Gaelic peasant forebears lived in. Mitchell also documented substantial kurgan-like burial mounds he believed were built for victims of a smallpox epidemic which had recently decimated inland nations.

 7.5.2 The ‘last’ burbungs

Throughout the nineteenth century Wiradjuri elders fought hard to pass on their own narratives and discursive practices to their young people, despite of the best efforts of colonial missionaries and government officers to force them to internalise and enact Euro-stories. Colonial anthropologist and linguist Robert Hamilton Mathews documented several burbungs, or initiation ceremonies, in the 1890s [6] [153] [154], at a time when the Wiradjuri had already been living for several generations on sheep and cattle stations, missions and government reserves, or in semi-seasonal camps on the outskirts of towns or on stock routes. Four Wiradjuri boys were initiated at a burbung held on Bulgeraga Creek, an anabranch of the Macquarie River, in 1893 [6] (pp.298-312), for example. In preparation for this event the woodlands were transformed into a deeply symbolic environment with giant earth sculptures, carvings and other assemblages representing ancestral beings. Mathews observed one earth sculpture of a giant figure “lying face downwards, with his arms spread out” created from soil mounded up to a height of more than half a metre, and stretching for over seven metres in length and nearly two metres in width. Nearby were “imprints of a gigantic hand in the soil” said to have been left by Baiamai, while some distance away representations of Baiamai’s wife Gunuanbul, and one of Baiamai’s sons, had been constructed, as well as a sinuous eighteen metre figure representing Wawi the rainbow snake. Mathews described thirty smaller sculpted figures, or yam’munyamun, up to four metres in length; 59 carved trees; a series of screens constructed from tree branches; chairs made from upturned roots; deep pits dug into the ground; a goombo, or large clearing in which the earth was swept clean of every twig and blade of grass; and a sacred fire, or mil’lendee, which was kept burning for the entire duration of the ceremonies [6] (pp 299-302). Ninety eight men, women and children [154] participated in this burbung, but in pre-Conquest times such events would have attracted up hundreds more [5] (p. 14).

7.5.3 The first map of Galiyarr?

The extraordinary earthworks Mathews documented have eroded or been destroyed, as have the villages, burial mounds, hay ricks and other structures described by Mitchell, but in the upper reaches of Galiyarr, or the Lachlan, where the river runs through the gorges of the Southern Tablelands, a rock shelter reveals more lasting evidence of the symbolic dimensions of life in pre-Conquest times: a painted frieze of human and non-human figures on either side of a winding ochre line. Locals believe this artwork is a narrative map of Galiyarr and some of its tributaries. Archaeologist Josephine Flood agrees that “The windings bear a marked resemblance to the Lachlan River”, and suggests that one of the ‘creeks’ painted on the wall could be Sandy Creek, the watercourse that runs near the rock shelter. But she also admits that the lines could be interpreted as snakes [13] (pp.137-139). Unfortunately we can never know what the frieze meant to the people who created it, but their visual representations of their own narratives remain to connect contemporary Wiradjuri with their pre-Conquest past, and to inspire new stories about their ongoing relationship with the river they now must share.

7.5.4 Whitefella lies

Neither Stan Grant, nor I, nor most other Australians of my generation, were ever told that the Wiradjuri speaking peoples of the inland rivers of south-eastern Australia lived in thatched timber villages, practised what could be called agriculture, buried their dead in kurgans like the ancient Celts, or painted ‘maps’ of the river. And nor were we told about their highly developed land management technologies [75] [56]. Instead we were told stories that served the interests of the invaders about ‘primitive’ nomadic ‘hunter-gatherers’ who inhabited a ‘terra nullius’ [155] [156]. For Stan Grant and other Wiradjuri descendants such stories were psychologically damaging and profoundly disempowering.

 7.6 The ‘First Australian’ and his descendants

The child who born of the informal relationship between Squatter John Grant and Wongamar’s daughter Mary Ann in around 1857 is, for Stan Grant, “the first Australian in my family, someone who carried both black and white within him in equal measure and whose life was lived in the greyness between the two” [90] (p. 143).

This “first Australian”, William Hugh, or  Bill Grant, died in December 1939, having married two women, “one white, one black”, and fathered fifteen children who, like other ‘mixed-blood’ children, were arbitrarily subjected to the paternalistic whims of Christian missionaries and the Aborigines Protection Board [5] (p. ix). Some of Bill Grant’s descendants adopted ‘white’ identity, while others grew up ‘black’ on various inland missions, never knowing their relatives on the other side of the racial divide [90] (pp.100-104). And at least one of his daughters, Eunice, was removed from her family to become a ward of the NSW Aborigines Protection Board under the ‘dispersal’ powers it acquired through the Aborigines Protection Act of 1909 [5] (p.xiv).

Stan Grant’s “Aunty Eunice” was taken in 1927 from Bulgandramine Mission near Peak Hill, where she was living with her married sister. The mission manager claimed she was “neglected” and had “No fixed place of abode”. Eunice Grant was sent to the much-feared Cootamundra Girls Home where she was trained for domestic service, the only option available. In 1930, at the age of 15, she went to Colleymugga Station, Angladool, to work for a Mrs L.J. Sevil. Five years later she returned to the Cowra Aboriginal Station to be with her father [90] (pp144-146). Other members of Stan Grant’s extended family fled from one town to another ahead of the ‘welfare’ so their children would not be taken away like “Aunty Eunice”, to become part of what is now called The Stolen Generation [90] (pp 35-36), [157].

7.7 Condo and Cowra: the Wiradjuri side of the river

Another of Bill Grant’s children, Cecil William Henry Grant, married Josephine Johnson from Condobolin, the small town on the Lachlan where both my mother and I were born. Cecil and Josephine Grant settled on the mission at Willow Bend just upstream from the small irrigation farm on which I spent the first years of my life in the 1950s. But the Condobolin Josie and Cecil Grant and their five children, including Stan Grant’s father, experienced was very different from the town my own family knew. Unlike my family, the Grants were subjected to systemic racism, social segregation, police harassment, paternalism and the selective enforcement of the Aboriginal Protection Act, and later the 1939 Child Welfare Act [5] (p. 315) [158]. The Shire Council and the police were equally culpable, as Peter Read reports:

Memories of police brutality run long in Condo: stories are told of men dragged through the streets handcuffed to mounted policemen, of pursuits by Alsatian dogs. The official reserve was unsafe, for dozens of people are recorded in the Board’s minutes to have been expelled from the reserve between 1920 and 1930. There was nowhere to go. The implacable council hounded anyone Aboriginal, by its own definition … who did not live on the reserve, and, through the Board, those who did [5] (p. 146).

At the beginning of World War II Cecil Grant enlisted in the Australian army and in 1941 “earned his equality” in the Battle for Tobruk. On his return to Australia he took his family to Griffith, an irrigation town on the Murrumbidgee River, where he “became the first Aborigine to find work on the local Shire Council” [90] (p.165).

Cecil and Josephine Grant’s son, Stan Grant Senior, spent most of his youth in Cowra where he experienced the full brunt of the “racially charge 50s and 60s”, a time when

Drinking wasn’t a crime, being black and drinking was; swearing was acceptable, black swearing was offensive language; being poor was no crime, being black and poor meant a man could lose his family or his home. This was the world Dad lived in, and he has the scars to prove it! [90] (p. 10).

7.8 Reclaiming the past

Stan Grant Senior is now a member of the Wiradjuri Council of Elders and a key figure in the Wiradjuri Language Reclamation Program he initiated in the 1990s with his brother Pastor Cecil Grant Wongamar and anthropologist and linguist John Rudder. Through their work the language that so many authorities claimed was lost and forgotten is now being taught in communities throughout the inland to both Wiradjuri and settler-descendants [159] [160], and many young Wiradjuri are again engaging with their own histories on their own terms, and inventing and enacting new stories about their relationships with the ecological communities which sustained their ancestors for millenni

8.0 Your story, my story

Despite the best efforts of ‘my mob’ to suppress and silence, even “extirpate”  them, Wiradjuri descendants have retained their identity as a distinct nation, and insist on their right to determine their own futures. Many, including Stan Grant (Junior), remain justifiably angry about the way mainstream Australia continues to ‘whitewash’ the past. In his memoir Grant argues that non-indigenous Australians need to remove the “white blindfold” and “own” their own histories:

This is your story and my story, the story of a country that took black lives and smashed them. It smashed their culture, their language and their families. This is my father’s legacy, and the pain I’ve inherited. It’s about what makes us black, even when you don’t see it. I don’t write this to condemn, but to remove the blindfold of Australia’s history to reveal what it’s created’ [90] (p. 20).

In June 2005 indigenous leader Patrick Dodson reminded Australians that:

If the much-touted national dream (the fair go) for all Australian children to share equally in the national bounty is ever to come to fruition, then the choices we make from today will determine the outcomes of that dream. It will be a crime and a national shame if prejudice, fear and political opportunism and casuistry prevent us from going forward into the 21st century as a nation that has faced the truth of its past and healed the wounds created from our national denial [88].

Like Stan Grant, Dodson demands that non-indigenous Australians face “the truth of our shared history” [161]. In response to such challenges, and with a shared conviction that “ethical dialogue requires that we acknowledge and understand our particular and harshly situated presence” [85] (p. 23), many of us settler-descendants are now attempting to rip off our “white blindfolds” and re-emplot our national, community and personal stories from our own “damaged places”. This essay is a contribution to this transformative process.

9.0 In search of new ‘beginnings’ …

To recapitulate: narratives are traditionally understood as representations of actions or events that are temporally organized into a beginning, middle and ending through the device of a plot. The events or actions are configured, or emplotted, in such a way that they appear to be causally connected. Although ‘beginnings’ are arbitrary they nevertheless influence the way narratives proceed and are interpreted, and have a bearing on their ‘endings’, or, if you prefer, their conclusions or resolutions, just as “initial conditions” [93] influence the way ecosystems evolve over time.

Any number of ‘real’ or imagined events can be selected as the ‘beginnings’ of narratives about the interconnected dispossession of indigenous peoples and the degradation of ecological communities in inland Australia. Some storytellers choose the ‘discovery’ of the continent’s east coast by Captain Cook in 1770 as their ‘beginning’; others select the arrival of the First Fleet of eleven prison ships in Sydney Harbour in 1788 with their cargo of marines, convicts and seamen along with the first sheep, cattle and horses, and the first cuttings and seeds of European plants. (Indeed, Australia’s national holiday on 26 January commemorates the day on which the First Fleet’s Captain Arthur Phillip formally ‘took possession’ of the east coast for the British Crown.) Storytellers who focus on the inland of New South Wales similarly have many events to choose from for narrative ‘beginnings’: the crossing of the Blue Mountains by William Wentworth, Gregory Blaxland and William Lawson and their companions’ in 1813 [162]; George Evans’ confirmation of their discoveries in 1814 [163]; or the completion of the first road across the ‘Sandstone Curtain’ of the Great Dividing Range in 1815, the year I select as my Year Zero.

Stan Grant narrates his own polyphonic story about the invasion, one narrative thread of which ‘begins’ in “the very red brutality of the Australian frontier”, and another with the Norman Conquest of Ireland. In re-emplotting my own family story I have drawn on events that occurred in the Highlands of Scotland from the time indigenous Scots first began experimenting with already-domesticated plant and animal species, including oats, barley, sheep and cattle, up until the year 1839, when some of my Gaelic forebears emigrated. Anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose, who has done much of her research in northern Australia, pushes her ‘beginning’ back even further to “about 10 000 years ago when our ancestors domesticated cattle and began a long and intermittent career of cattle herding and raiding” [85] (p. 74). In Rose’s re-narration these early “cowboys” included the Indo-European-speaking Celts who galloped across the steppes of eastern Europe to conquer the hunter-gatherers of Europe, in much the same way, she surmises, as their descendants ‘conquered’ the indigenous peoples of northern Australia many thousands of years later [85] (p. 75).

Rose’s provocative notion of the “Cowboy diaspora” [85] (p. 74), which draws on ideas popularised by archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe and Marija Gimbutas amongst others, is useful in attempting to understand the cattle industry’s brutal heritage and its possible futures in Northern Australia. But recent linguistic work appears to confirm an alternative scenario as proposed by Colin Renfrew and others: that the Indo-European languages, which include Gaelic and most other languages now spoken in Europe, and their embedded ideologies were spread not by kurgan-building “cowboys” from the Eurasian steppes, but by migrating proto-farmers from Anatolia [141]. Other scholars suggest that Indo-European languages were spread even earlier by hunter gatherers who migrated from Anatolia during times of rapid climate change [164].

Given my own background, the Anatolian proto-farmers scenario is especially appealing. For me, therefore, the bigger story of the Conquest of Australia, and my own genealogy, ‘begins’ not with galloping Celtic “cowboys”, but with the hunter-gatherers turned proto-farmers who first domesticated the species my extended family now farms within the catchment of the Lachlan River [56]. 

10.0 Sheep, wheat and Çarşamba Çay

DNA analysis suggests that the progenitors of the sheep Donald McInnes shepherded in the headwaters of the Lachlan in the 1840s and those now grazing my own family’s drought-stricken paddocks along one of its tributaries include the wild moufflon, Ovis orientalis, a native of Anatolia and Iran, and one or more wild but still unidentified ancestors from central or southwest Asia [165] [166] [167]. The progenitors of the wheat cultivars my family has farmed along the Lachlan since the late nineteenth century include Triticum monococcum, or einkorn wheat grass, and T. dicoccoides, or emmer wheat, both of which are also indigenous to southwest Asia and still grow wild there [168]. Plant geneticists and paleo-botanists have not yet agreed where emmer wheat was first domesticated, but there is general consensus that einkorn was domesticated only once and at one site, the slopes of the Karacadag Mountains in south eastern Anatolia, Turkey [169] [170].

By nine thousand years ago the knowledge gained by hunter-gatherers on these slopes had spread throughout southwest Asia, and was being enacted by the inhabitants of a mudbrick ‘city’ on the banks of a seasonal river which, like the Lachlan, disappeared into a terminal wetland on a vast and relatively stoneless inland plain [171] [172]. This Neolithic ‘city’ is now called Çatalhöyük; the paleo-river is known as Çarşamba Çay [173] [174]; and the landscape it once flowed across is now called the Konya Plain. 

10.1 From the top of the tell, the next extinction …

In the late northern summer of 2001 I visited Çatalhöyük to learn where my family story, and the interconnected stories of the invasion of Wiradjuri Country and the degradation of Galiyarr “truly began”. Most visitors to Çatalhöyük interpret this archaeological site as the ‘beginning’ of urbanisation, or ‘Civilisation’ [175], and/or they associate it with ‘mother goddesses’ and matriarchy [176] [177] [178] [179] [180] [181]. These associations are seductive, but for me Çatalhöyük overwhelmingly represented a ‘beginning’ of a ten thousand year catastrophe for the planet’s temperate grassland, woodland and wetland communities, and for the many hunter-gatherer peoples, including the Wiradjuri, who inhabited them. While enough Wiradjuri survived the invasion of their homelands to retain their identity as a nation, as Stan Grant’s narrative demonstrates, many of the native species that were part of their world at the time of the British Conquest have not. And the view from the top of the accumulated remains of 9 000 years of agricultural production and urbanisation was not reassuring: in 2001 all I could see was an industrialised monoculture grid of recently harvested wheat, bright green maize and other irrigated crops, and intermittent rows of commercial poplars stretching off towards the Karacadag Mountains on the eastern horizon. From the top of the tell that is Çatalhöyük the sixth mass extinction event in the history of Earth [182] seemed all too real.

10.2 Nine thousand years of ‘inadvertent’ consequences

The site of Çatalhöyük was settled and abandoned many times over its long history [171] [183], but of particular interest to me were the eighteen Neolithic habitation levels representing 1200 years of continuous occupation from 9 000 years BP [180] [178]. At its peak, this Neolithic ‘city’ covered an area of 10.5 hectares (26 acres) and was home to an estimated 8 000 people, a population similar to that of the largest towns on the Lachlan River today. The residents lived in mud-brick houses with flat mud-covered roofs supported by timber beams. There were no streets as we know them: instead people entered their living spaces via stairs leading from a hole in their roofs through which the smoke from the hearths, ovens and oil lamps also passed. Few of the dwellings had any windows or door openings: instead, wall surfaces were decorated with frescoes of wild animals and hunters and symbolic designs, and with fixtures made from the crania and horns of wild aurochs or rams [180] [178] [172].

Although the people who occupied Neolithic Çatalhöyük lived a settled life they gathered most of their food and fibre from the river and from the wetlands and surrounding oak woodlands and grasslands [184] [185], and hunted wild game, including aurochs (wild cattle), equids (wild horses), deer, pigs, and wild sheep and goats [186]. But they also cultivated morphologically domesticated wheat and barley on the drier slopes of the Uplands 10-15 kilometres further west, and raised sheep and goats which were also morphologically domesticated. Stock were penned on-site for some of the year, but were taken further upstream to graze in Spring before the floodplains were inundated. These domesticated species provided most of the meat eaten by the inhabitants of Çatalhöyük. There is no evidence of domesticated cattle at this site, however, although wild cattle were certainly butchered and consumed here, and were symbolically very important to Çatalhöyük people, as the frescoes and ‘altars’ in the houses indicate [178] [172].

Late twentieth century and early twenty-first century interpretations of the archaeological record at Çatalhöyük challenge many established narratives about ‘hunter-gatherer’ peoples and the relationship between early agriculture and settled societies, as does much of the research now being done in Australia. Evidence from Çatalhöyük also confirms the link between Neolithic farming practices and environmental degradation, notwithstanding the environmental changes induced by climatic shifts since the site was first settled.

10.2.1 Land clearance and salinity: the same old story

The pattern of Neolithic land degradation is all too familiar. Farmers cleared the Uplands for wheat and barley and grazed their sheep and goats on the slopes. Without its vegetation cover the soil eroded and was carried downstream where it was deposited on the plain during the Spring floods. Grazing by the sheep and goats inhibited the regeneration of the trees and understorey, more soil eroded and the soil load in the river increased. The level of the plain rose, the hydrology changed, and the wetlands on which the community still depended for much of its food and other ‘services’ began to dry out. Climate change was certainly a factor, but Ian Hodder and his colleagues believe that these changes were driven by “a fairly large component of human impact” [172].

By the time farmers adopted iron tools to clear and cultivate their land the level of the plain had risen around Çatalhöyük by 3-4 metres. And, with the sediment, the river was also depositing salt across its floodplain. As crop yields declined because of salinity agriculture was abandoned and could only be resumed when technological innovations were developed to flush the salts from the soil, as occurred in Byzantine times, for example [172]. Photographs taken of the Konya Plain in the 1960s, when archaeological work began at Çatalhöyük, show a salted and inhospitable landscape very different from the agri-business grid of recently harvested wheat crops and irrigated maize I saw in 2001. This most recent ‘greening’ has been effected by large-scale centralised irrigation projects which have pushed the agricultural frontier ever further into the Anatolian steppe [187]. Ironically irrigation has caused the water table to fall an estimated “20-30 metres in ten years”, which Hodder claims is at least partly the result of local irrigators pumping water from wells rather than buying it from irrigation authorities [172]. The falling water table is not only affecting the archaeological site [188], but also threatens the remaining native vegetation of the central Anatolian steppe [189].

The proto-farmers of Çatalhöyük could not have foreseen these many “inadvertent” consequences of their actions, but in this re-narration of their story, of my own story, the entire Konya Plain, the entire planet, including the catchment of the Lachlan River in inland Australia, is now reaping what they sowed [48]. For at least nine thousand years the same old stories have been narrated, and the same old patterns of behaviour have been repeated on this plain, and now they are being enacted on temperate plains around the world wherever sheep are grazed and wheat is cultivated. 

11.0 In just ‘three human lifetimes’ …

The species that were first domesticated in southwest Asia from around ten thousand years ago have been farmed and consumed in Australia for just “three human lifetimes” [190] (p. 2), a mere blink of an eye in the context of this continent’s two or three thousand generations of human occupation. The “inadvertent” consequences of the agricultural practices associated with them have been extreme but, as many commentators have pointed out, “three human lifetimes” is far too short a period for we settler-descendants to understand, adapt to and co-evolve with the unique ecological communities we are now part of. But the stories about producing food and fibre and other agricultural commodities in inland Australia have not yet reached their narrative closures, or ‘endings’: indeed, to cite another farming story, a poem by Robert Frost, as told from another much-damaged continent:

Ends and beginnings – there are no such things.

There are only middles [191].

11.1 Generational change

Profound generational shifts are now occurring in rural Australia. Old Euro-narratives about managing land and water ‘resources’ and producing food, fibre, timber and other agricultural commodities are fraying and wearing thin, and new ‘native-born’ narrative threads are being spun to replace them. This process of rescripting our shared stories about the ongoing human occupation of this continent, and the Lachlan Valley in particular, is being driven by external forces, such as drought, climate change, falling commodity prices, economic globalisation and challenges posed by special interest groups concerned about animal welfare and ecological degradation; as well as by endogenous factors, such as the aging of rural populations, the involvement of women and indigenous people in land management decisions; and the interrelated needs to restore and retain the productivity of farmlands [192], the viability of rural communities, and the moral licence to farm. Many of the new stories are about ‘reconciliation’ between both farmers and native biodiversity [193] [194] [195] [196] [37], and between settler-descendants and the descendants of the First Peoples, including the Wiradjuri. It is now possible, therefore, to imagine the next three human lifetimes – those of the children and grandchildren of babies born today  –  with some hope. If those children are born into communities, into families who embrace these new life-affirming narratives; if they absorb these narratives into their very subjectivities and live by the restorative ethics embedded within them; and if they are supported in their actions by the broader polity, then — but still only perhaps — the “inadvertent” environmental consequences of the actions of their settler-parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and great-greats back to 1815 might be halted and reversed; and the much more intentional socio-political consequences of the invasion and colonisation of the inland on the people of the Wiradjuri nation might be fully acknowledged, and the psychological stress, injustice and social exclusion so many Wiradjuri continue to suffer might finally be ameliorated, though not forgotten. But these twin reconciliations can only occur if settler-descendants, including my own family, metaphorically tear off our multiple ‘blindfolds’, acknowledge our multiple culpabilities and complicities, and “own” the myriad stories of which we are part, in all their textual depth, complexity and interconnectivity. 

12.0 What am I to do?

The stories of which “I find myself a part”  [1] (p. 216), as I have narrated them here, are set in the past, and/or in the ambiguous timeframe Westerners call ‘the present’, but the stories I want to be part of, as a co-author, narrator and protagonist, are ‘truth and reconciliation’ stories that are yet to be enacted, the stories that are set in the future. In these emerging narratives “the much-touted national dream … for all Australian children to share equally in the national bounty” has “come to fruition” [88]; and in all humility we increasingly ‘mixed blood’ settler-descendants are, at last, learning from the descendants of the people our forebears dispossessed and actively excluded from “the national bounty”.  In simultaneously unfolding stories about our relationships with other species, the “natural rivers, creeks, streams and associated lagoons, billabongs, lakes, wetlands, paleochannels, floodrunners, effluent streams … and the floodplains of the Lachlan” are no longer “likely to become extinct in nature”, [68] (p.7), because “the circumstances and factors” that were once threatening their survival have, indeed, “ceas[ed] to operate”.

In these new stories, farmers (or pharmers) are represented as both the eco-producers of food, fibre, medicine, building materials and other commodities, and as highly trained stewards of once threatened, endangered or locally extinct species [193]. Their land management skills are evaluated according to a globally recognized biodiversity intactness index [197], and they are rewarded by their broader collectivities for the quality of both their stewardship of native biodiversity and their eco-produce. As a consequence of these twin reconciliations the broad plains of the inland are now more like the “diversified pleasure grounds irregularly laid out and planted” [51] the explorers George Evans and John Oxley passed through in the early nineteenth century than the landscape I grew up in. The monocultural grid of cleared paddocks has been replaced by a mosaic of interconnected wildlife habitats (rehabilitated or reconstituted wetland, grassland and woodland communities) and more open spaces which are managed for the production of eco-agricultural produce. Native grasses, including millet (Panicum decompositum) [198], are again being dried in hay-ricks similar to those Surveyor Mitchell documented in 1835 [152]; and native yams, the potato-like tubers of Microseris scapigera [199] and other native species which have co-evolved on this continent are again being harvested for food, fibre, timber and medicine [200]. And once again Wawi the rainbow snake, Baiamai the creator and other ancestral beings are being propitiated in ways that symbolically connect all Galiyarr’s river peoples with the other species we share this ecosystem with.

But these narratives are yet to “form the objects of which they speak” [32]; and for some native species the wait has already been too long [201].

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank anthropologist Jo Erskine from the Forbes office of the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Services; freshwater ecologist Patrick Driver from the Forbes office of the NSW Department of Industry, Planning and Natural Resources; Ian Smith and staff from what was the Forbes office of the NSW Department of Agriculture (now the Department of Primary Industries) for their support in researching the condition of the Lachlan catchment; archaeologist Ian Hodder and his colleagues from the Çatalhöyük Archaeological Project for the time they spared me in Turkey; Stan Grant and other Wiradjuri writers who have helped me understand ‘the stories of which I am part’ from different perspectives; and my colleagues in the Environment and Planning Program, RMIT University, Melbourne, for their continued support. I would also like to thank my mother, my aunt, our distant cousin Donald McInnes from the ‘middle arm’ of the Tarlo River, and our closer cousin Neil (Ned) McInnes, who spent his childhood and youth on Boorathumble Station, for sharing their own stories with me. 


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Copyright Merrill Findlay

Australia 2005


[1] Squatters monopolised large areas of the inland as sheep and cattle runs, often illegally, or ahead of British law. After 1835 they were required to pay an annual licence fee for the right to run their stock on what the colonial authorities still considered ‘Crown’ land.

[2] At the time of writing, the Fisheries Scientific Committee is awaiting a response from the Minister, but changes pending to the Threatened Species Legislation Amendment Act 2004 will mean that the Committee will be able to make determinations and amend the threatened species lists directly.

[3] Gaelic word for belonging.

[4] Judith Wright, 1991, ‘The Broken Links’, in Born of the Conquerors, Aboriginal Studies P[ress, Canberra, p.30, cited in [78], p.14.

[5] A controversial proposal by Castle Tioram’s present owner to restore it to its pre-1715 condition awaits planning approval.

[6] Rod McInnes, Personal communication, 11 July, 2005.

[7] ‘Paaka’ can be interpreted as Darling River, and ‘ntji’ means ‘belonging to’. (NSWS Former Kinchega Station Sites, Kinchega National Park Conservation Management & Cultural Tourism Plan 2001: Section 3 – Historical Overview. 2001, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service: Sydney.) 


Page last updated 15 August 2015. A correction made to the Edward Landor citation.


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