This winter I went to Australia with my son. Its the perfect place for a California Landscape Designer to explore, as its just one of the five Mediterranean climates around the world. I use a lot of the plant material from there, and to see these plants in their native environments is interesting and instructive.
I was in Australia for several months over twenty years ago, so this was my second visit. I planned to go back to Sydney, then venture up to the Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest and a UNESCO site (north of Cairns) and then to Atherton Tablelands wetlands retreat in a savannah ecosystem. My son has a teacher from Australia who said “You MUST go to Uluru.” I hadn’t planned to go there. I knew about Ayers Rock for a long time. It’s a long trek, by plane or otherwise, to see ‘just a rock’ I thought. Besides, I live in a most beautiful place, surrounded by magnificent mountains and rock features, geysers and wildlife. I’ve visited many deserts and spent a lot of time in Death Valley and Joshua Tree. What could one rock in the middle of the country possibly hold for me?
My travel agent also brought up the idea, and since we were in Australia over Christmas and many places were shut down for several days, Uluru seemed like a likely ‘detour’ during that lull. We were to be there for a day and a half and then drive to Alice Springs. But the holiday put a wrench in the travel plans…ferries didn’t run, planes had restricted schedules, etc…so we spent an extra day in Uluru/Kata Tjuta area.
We flew to Uluru and rented a car. It was hot, 38 degrees Celsius. Uluru/Kata Tjuta (formerly known as Ayers Rock and The Olgas) is the National Park. Surrounding the national park is Aboriginal Land. All the accommodations, from camping to 5 star, are in Yulara, an small area about 20 minutes by car outside of the Park. This helps minimize impact.
I knew Uluru was a sacred site to the Anangu, the Aboriginal people living there. But what I wasn’t prepared for was how Uluru felt. When the temperature cooled down a bit we drove into the Park. Even from afar, you could feel a massive Presence coming from the Rock. Dusk was settling and the light was changing. We parked and began walking around, next to the rock itself. Its features constantly changed as you walked. Some areas the sandstone was smooth, others eroded into cave-like holes.
But what impressed both my son and I wasn’t just its unique geological formations, but the feeling of the Rock itself. I asked my son “Do you think others are feeling this?” and he observed “Everyone is so quiet, like they’re in church.” There was a stunning Presence, a timelessness, a melding of all moments into just this Moment. My every action and movement felt thick in a holy sea of silence.
The next morning we got to the Rock at 5:30 AM to avoid the heat of the day. We walked only about a quarter of the way around, taking in some of the permanent watering holes. In Anangu culture, it is a taboo to kill animals when they are at the watering holes. They share it with the wildlife. That is a conscious way of management.
Occasionally we’d walk past an area of the rock that had a sign saying ‘No Photographs’. These areas are full of Dreamtime Stories, stories that tell of ancient animals and the Land’s formation. These are special and sacred sites that are ‘served’ today by the Aboriginal culture. This ‘service’ involves special ceremonies. When that happens, the Park is shut down to visitors.
We stopped at the Cultural Centre for the Park. I suppose this is the equivalent of our Visitor Centers in our National Parks. But instead of informational displays seen through the lens of science, all the displays were set up to inform tourists about the culture and history of the native peoples. I bought a handout on the native plants. The handout had the Latin name, the Aboriginal name, and the use of each plant by the Anangu.
The next morning, before we were to fly out, we hiked around Kata Tjuta. My understanding is that this is the ‘men’s site’ to serve, whereas Uluru is the women’s site to perform ceremony at. Kata Tjuta, unlike Uluru, is a series of large mound-like formations that you can hike through into a valley and up to lookouts. It is an entire environment that one can walk through, rather than one enormous rock that a person circumambulates.
Uluru/Kata Tjuta stayed with me long after I left. I felt a Presence there. It was an unexpected pilgrimage. After I left Australia, I began to think of the Aboriginal Presence in Australia like a didgeridoo–a low supportive rumbling underneath all the superficial comings and goings of modern day society. The spirit of the place was alive, presently.
Thinking about my experiences, intuitively I feel that what makes Uluru sing are the sacred ceremonies of the Anangu. They still serve the Land just as they’ve been doing for thousands of years.
I live outside of Yellowstone, the model Park for the last 150 years. When Yellowstone was created, the indigenous peoples living there were moved out. The idea of preserving Land was to have protected areas devoid of human interference. Yet many indigenous cultures have successfully tended their Land, gardened them if you like. Aboriginals have been living in Australia, tending, burning, harvesting the Land for over 50,000 years. There is even dispute as to whether the plant material adapted to fire because of the Aboriginal burning, rather than through natural evolution of lightning strikes and successive droughts.
Australia is embarking on a new experiment. Uluru is fast becoming the new model, replacing the Yellowstone model. When I was there, I found out that Uluru/Kata Tjuta Park was given back to the Aboriginals, who then leased it back to the Government for 99 years. There is joint management of the Park, with 6 of the 10 board members Aboriginals. A percentage of Park entrance fees supports the Anangu as well as the tourism. The Park is presented to tourists not through the lens of only science, but culturally and spiritually. Biologists work jointly with Aboriginals to preserve the land.
“What Aboriginal people know to be ‘true’ about the land and its aspects is derived from the basis of practical as well as religious and ceremonial training, which for a senior person, could be of a duration of fifty or more years. Even an extensive field trip of many months by a scientist would be considered a brief foray on the land to any adult Aboriginal person living in the area today…Aboriginal people have an enormous contribution to make to management of ecosystems whether in national parks and reserves or in general. The information they can provide is unique and in many instances is not obtainable through conventional survey techniques. This information can be integrated with scientific information to significantly enhance the management of ecosystems.” (L.S. Baker)
That statement sums up, for me, not only ecological and land management issues, but also the enhancement and tending of the spirit of a Place. When Mabel McKay, a deceased Pomo basket weaver and doctor, heard somebody say that he had used native medicinal herbs but that they hadn’t worked for him, she responded, “You don’t know the songs. You have to know the right songs.”
Not only do the plants respond to the songs and ceremonies, but the very essence of the Land as well.
In my valley outside of Yellowstone there are many sheeptraps from the Sheepeater Shoshone Indians. There are also several ancient archaeological sites, evidence that people lived here for over 10,000 years. There is an abundance of game and plant life, clean rivers and impressive geology. Yet there is a kind of silence resting over the land. Not the silence that comes with wilderness vs. society. But the silence that comes with lack of ceremony; the silence of lonliness; the silence that comes when we don’t know the songs that make the mountains sing with an energy like Uluru.
When I went to Uluru, I saw the missing piece. Science is good. It informs us and helps us to understand the natural world around us and, to an extent, how to manage the land. But real management can only come when one combines oneself with the Land, not only for a lifetime, but with knowledge that has been passed on from generation to generation. I have a dream that somehow, here in the United States, we can look at this new Uluru model as our new model. How that can be achieved, I have no idea. I am a dreamer, not a lawyer nor a land manager.