Coming home to Mother Earth
The new wave of indigenous tourism
Before we walk on Mother Earth we must let her know we are coming. “It’s like going to visit someone, and you knock on the door,” says Faith Landy-Ariel. “It’s one of the customs we have.”
Landy-Ariel lifts the lid from a small wooden pot filled with creamy ochre; she dips her finger into it and stripes it on my wrist. “This is how we transmit energy. We are communicating with our ancestors through this substance,” she says.
Thus prepared, we regard Mother Earth. She’s spread out all about us, but she no longer resembles the primordial being she was when Landy-Ariel’s ancestors first walked upon her. It’s hard to communicate with her now, for there are joggers gliding along her promenade, women clip-clopping along her pavements on their way to work, tourists milling about her streets.
Mother Earth is largely paved and concreted these days, and the home she provided to the indigenous people all those eons ago — the sandstone bluffs that gave this Sydney suburb of The Rocks its name — have been largely gouged away.
“Look across at the sandstone ridge beside the Opera House ... that’s what this place used to look like,” LandyAriel says. She sweeps her hand from Circular Quay down towards Sydney Cove, indicating the erstwhile flow of the Tank Stream, a tributary thought to have been used by Aboriginal people for freshwater and fish. Today, it’s nothing more than a stormwater drain.
She points towards the Museum of Contemporary Art, where a sandstone formation once stood; in its place now stands the handsome gallery, also clad in sandstone.
It’s an exercise in cognitive trickery, trying to imagine The Rocks, and the greater city, in its original form, but this is precisely what Landy-Ariel and her colleagues at Dreamtime Southern X are helping residents and visitors do during their Sydney cultural tours. The company was established in 2007 by Aunty Margret Campbell, a Dunghutti woman from around Nambucca Heads. This is her dreamtime story, Landy-Ariel says, and she is its custodian.
Landy-Ariel is an excellent teacher, for where I can see nothing around us but modern development, she senses Mother Earth acutely. After all, indigenous Australians are the oldest culture in the world, she reminds me; their relationship to the earth is close, and their connection has never dimmed. “I refer to all living things as a relative ... they come from the ancestors, so they’re part of the family.”
One of these family members, a casuarina tree, stands beside Cadman’s Cottage, another colonial sandstone relic. This is a coastal tree, she says, and it governs the lives of the people who live in its vicinity. She smiles as she recalls how, as a child growing up in the Torres Strait, she would take comfort from the casuarina.
“After playing on the beach I’d go and lie underneath it, on the soft matting of pine needles.” The tree has other
Dreamtime Southern X’s Faith Landy-Ariel with dilly bag in The Rocks, main; wooden pot filled with ochre, above; art for sale at the Blak Markets, left