Land and Love in Melbourne

An Australian referendum to provide a political voice for First Peoples may have failed, but the push will continue.

I arrived to stay for good in Melbourne, Australia, during the coldest, darkest season here. At the time, this place felt like a foreign land. I moved from New Jersey in June, where it was a humid, green summer, and Melbourne’s grey morning mists and rainy days made clear that this was not my country. Eight years later, in July 2023, I did some traveling during a Northern summer, and when I returned to Melbourne, it was misty and rainy and cold again, and I felt like I had come home.

Feeling at home here has come as a surprise. Before I moved to Australia, my national identity was strong. I was an American, of a particular kind, from the United States. I had been raised by civil rights activists, in a tradition of dissent. I was raised to believe in the promise of American democracy, in the commitment that it requires of its denizens, in the poetry that lives devoted to it can create. I was educated by teachers who shared those commitments, whose deepest devotion was to the possibilities that democracy might create for human life together. I was oriented by all things American.

In Melbourne, the author reread Walden and began to wonder what Henry David Thoreau might teach modern environmentalists. Photo by David Newheiser.

My identification with America persisted after I arrived in Australia. In the first two years I lived in Melbourne, I read and reread Walden, an American literary classic. I wrote a book about Henry David Thoreau and what Walden ought to mean for environmental politics. I was charmed by environmentalists, by their love for the land, their fight for our future. And yet, I thought, they should take a different lesson from Thoreau than they often had. In their vision of Thoreau, they described him in a tradition with John Muir and Aldo Leopold. But Thoreau, an abolitionist and a labor activist, had a wider vision of social justice than either Muir or Leopold, both of whom, in different ways, were caught up in the everyday elitism and white supremacy of their settler society, a society built on the robbery of land and labor. Thoreau, my reading of him suggested, had a more critical view on the colonial project as it had played out in the United States, and this made him vital for present efforts to build a more egalitarian environmental politics.

This reading of Thoreau was indebted, I am sure, and in ways I am only beginning to understand, to the land I wrote it on. In Melbourne, I live and work on land that was stolen by the British Crown from the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. Moving here, I saw a poster for sale at my local garden nursery about the Wurundjeri seasons. The season of morning mists and rain that I encountered first in 2015 is called waring in Woi wurrung, the language of the Wurundjeri, after the wombats who come out of their burrows at that time. This longest, wintriest season generally lasts from April to July, when the days are short. There are no flowers or fruits. The land is soaking up the water, and plants are happy for the nourishment, though growing slowly if at all. Around August, the season changes as the days grow a bit longer, and the turning of time brings in guling, the Woi wurrung name for orchids and the season when they bloom. Silver wattle flowers festoon the forests with yellow. Some days are less cold; the sun feels like a blessing.

I have come to love this land and its seasons. When I return here, to eucalypts and wattle, to rainbow lorikeets and galahs, I can’t imagine my life without this place. I am learning the history of loving land here on this continent. This history includes the longest continuous human cultures on Earth, developed and maintained by First Peoples who managed land sustainably for many tens of thousands of years before colonization. We often call these people Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, but there are hundreds of First Nations, with specific relationships to wildly diverse territories: Wurundjeri, Gadigal, Wiradjuri, Anagu, Kuku Yalanji; the list goes on.

On Oct. 14, 2023, Australians – of which I am now one – voted in a constitutional referendum on whether to alter our Constitution to recognize the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice. The Voice would have established a representative body in the Australian Federal Government, tasked to give advice to the Parliament and Government on matters relating to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. There have been such bodies in the past, but their existence was always subject to the vagaries of politics, politics from which Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders have often been systematically excluded. The referendum would have given the Voice a permanent home in Canberra, the seat of our federal government.

We voted on this referendum during the season called poorneet in Woi wurrung. As the days got longer and the nights got shorter, all kinds of things were coming to life again, especially the tadpoles for whom the season is named. They were everywhere in lakes and streams. Murnong, a flowering yam daisy that was a staple food at the time of European invasion, flowers in this season, indicating that its tuber is ready to eat. All the green things start to grow again.

The Uluru monolith lends its name to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, which was written in 2017 by First Nations peoples as an invitation to non-Indigenous Australians for right relations. Photo by Ondrej Machart/Unsplash.

It would have been a good time to start something new, a good time to say yes to the Uluru Statement from the Heart. That document was written in 2017 by a First Nations National Constitutional Convention of 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people after an extensive process of consultation with more than 1,200 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people through a series of Regional Dialogues. The document offered non-Indigenous Australians an invitation to set right relations with the First Nations by establishing a First Nations Voice in the Constitution and by creating a Makarrata Commission to supervise agreement-making and truth-telling about First Nations history.

Tragically, voters rejected that invitation. The referendum began as a modest, bipartisan response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, a concrete way to right some of the wrongs of violent colonization and exclusion. In the end, however, politicians on the right withdrew their support, sensing a political opportunity, and false advertising did in the Yes campaign. By the time the referendum was over, there was broad consensus among Australians that there ought to be truth in political advertising laws.

Australians lost an important opportunity in that vote, but I was proud to have been part of what Megan Davis called the chorus of six million Australians pushing our national politics beyond business as usual for First Nations people. All of us were lucky to be part of an effort designed by Indigenous people in a process for First Nations recognition that has never before been tried. And the push will go on. In my state of Victoria, the Yoorrook Justice Commission has been engaged for years in the first formal truth-telling process, about injustices experienced by First Nations people here. That process is currently open for submissions. The First Peoples’ Assembly of Victoria is enacting the ongoing sovereignty of First Nations people, pushing ahead to make treaties with our state government. And groups based in other states, like Firesticks, are nurturing and sharing the cultural knowledge that is required to care for the diverse country on this continent.

The Uluru Statement from the Heart, the push for the referendum, and ongoing enactments of sovereignty have made me so grateful for the peoples whose lands these are. Learning to feel at home on their country, in their seasons, has been one of the most soul-expanding experiences of my life. And now in the watershed of the Birrarung, the Yarra River, we are in the season the Wurundjeri call biderap. It’s hot and everything gets dry. The tussock grasses are long, and snakes lie out in the sun. The heat builds for days, and every now and then a giant thunderstorm brings relief. This year, those storms have brought so much more rain than usual. The climate is changing, and the Wurundjeri seasons are shifting. But this land is old, the people who have cared for it through tens of thousands of years continue to love it, and I am grateful to call it home.

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