Country: Being and Belonging on Aboriginal Lands
Lucashenko, Melissa, Journal of Australian Studies
I have given myself a fair amount of trouble writing this piece. Usually, words come easily to me, and writer's block is a syndrome I'm not troubled by. But when I sat down to think about this thing called country, any fluency and ease evaporated. At first, and I am speaking of some months here, no useful words would come. The concept of 'country' seemed to me to be simple, and self-contained. It seemed that the truths I knew about country were mere truisms, and that my imaginings of country were so simple to me, and yet so obscure to others, that there was little point in talking of them.
So I spoke with my husband. I went to learned authors, poets especially. I went and sat in the bush. I sat as I often do in my suburban backyard, looking at the trees. I tended my vegetable garden. I spoke to the magpies, and said the Ancestor names of the peewees and the black wattle that flourish near my house. I constantly asked the question: what is this thing country? What does country mean? My task was complicated by the fact that I don't currently live in country that is in any sense my own, either by blood or by long and legitimate residence. I was forced to grope for meanings while surrounded by what was literally unfamiliar.
Looking back I realise that I didn't ask many Aboriginal people what country 'meant'. To them it would have seemed a strange, almost ridiculous, question. So mostly I spoke aloud to white people. I learned as I questioned and searched that to many non-Aborigines who have understanding of Aboriginal ways, country is now synonymous with belonging. If a woman can only find the right country, I was told, she will find her Home at last. One white man told me that country meant the feelings he felt on Anzac Day--of seeing white male power structures reinforced, and being simultaneously moved and repulsed by this European ceremony. I interpreted his discomfort to mean, once more, some sort of non-belonging here. Or a belonging to an unwanted place, an illegitimate belonging. The same man also alluded to his journey of finding his own and his family's history in the South. Of street names, suburbs, of returning to the places of his youth and undertaking the serious and important work of finding his memory.
I spoke with others who said country meant Home, but who added the caveat that Home resided in people rather than places-a kind of portable Country. This idea, coming from Sea People, didn't fit my Earth people jigsaw at all, and I quickly put it aside. I gave attention to these things: Saltwater Country, Freshwater Country, cold and hot, high and low. Here and There. Mine, and so much notmine, strange and foreign.
And after all this talk and reading my answers were still false, disgusting to me. I wavered politically. First to one edge--this is our country, not yours in your historical murders and current shame--and then to another--we all share country, we all must live here, Aboriginal and Other alike, and the only question is how to do that honourably. I tried to tease out some ways in which non-Indigenous people have understood country. I made categories: Country as Economy. Country as Geography. Country as Society. Country as Myth. Country as History. Words came, but they were unsatisfactory and shallow. For all that I walked, slept, breathed and dreamed Country, the language still would not come. My trust in words had finally come to this: Nothing. I began to think I might have to deliver mere rhetoric to you, rather than something that might sustain us both.
But if the Aboriginal people of Northwest Australia are correct in their cosmology, then surely Nothing is Nothing. Not only country, but also my confusion, had a meaning worth discovering. And there was indeed a meaning, hidden and dormant. Looking back I am unsurprised. 'The land', Barry Lopez has written, 'does not give easily. The desert is like a boulder, you expect to wait'. And with time, my stupidity and ignorance faded a little. …