RURAL | Grounded, grounding

Posted on 20/11/2022


This post is likely to diverge into multiple ways of knowing regions and territory. Paul Carter’s Ground Truthing: Explorations in a Creative Region poses an alternative idea of ground truthing to shift it from its technical application. He proposes an alternative that is “a philosophy of creative regions. If it succeeds it shows that the phrase ‘creative region’ is a tautology. A region imagined as a reflective space reaches out beyond itself and conceals within itself the space beyond.” He then reflects on the concept of ‘chora’ which I know well from time writing experimental hypermedia works and engaged in cultural theory; and collective explorations of liminality, chaos and spatial uncertainty. Carter’s study is centred on the Mallee region and acknowledges the poetic sense of the term Ground Truthing; that “the history of a region [is] told through its story-lines, its poetically defined pathways”. Can there be any design without story?

Reading Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly’s book, Songlines: The Power and Promise argues that all knowledge is based on memory. Developed over thousands and thousands of years, “songlines optimise the way human memory works”. It embeds a relationship with places and ancestors: “when an Aboriginal person is engaged with a Songline, they are mentally in the physical spaces where the actions of ancestors occurred”. The descriptions of songlines are joyful and powerful, drawing on the storied accounts of memory experiments and knowledge passed on. Songlines are also alive. O’Neale describes them as “a big sponge that keeps on absorbing new stuff and releasing it with a little pressure”. For millennia, they have allowed Aboriginal people “to navigate not only vast amounts of information efficiently but also vast distances”.

I wonder about devastation wrought over the last couple of centuries. Artists from Kaurna and Narungga Country in South Australia, and Lardil and Kaiadilt Country (Wellesley Islands in the Gulf where my partner works) in Queensland recently collaborated on a project for wild dog stories and songlines which extend from South East Asia through to Queensland to South Australia. Wild Dog or Dingo stories are bountiful yet all over the country wild dogs (dingos) are being hunted for bounty. O’Neale explains that when Aboriginal people are absent or removed from Country then Songlines can fragment or be lost. Like O’Neale’s work on the Songlines: Tracking the Seven Sisters exhibition, the Wild Dog project aimed in part to maintain and revive cultural knowledge. For Wild Dog, there was also a desire to change negative attitudes towards dingos in Australia, where they are regarded by some as a pest and a threat to farming. In some regions, where are apex predators, dingos are now extinct. As Songlines break and native animals are decimated, so much knowledge can turn to dust.

In an ABC story about dingo hunting, Gunditjmara, Djap Wurrung, Yuin and Bidjara woman, Yaraan Couzens-Bundle goes to the heart of tensions between farmers and traditional owners in the Victorian highlands when she says, “You know we need to eat. We love the farmers and the work that they do to feed Australia, but we’re not compromising on the values of our love for country and what is right anymore. Their lie has gone on long enough, and it’s actually ruining what Australia is.”

The hysteria about wild dogs has evoked a heavy handed cruelty and slaughter. The parallels are not lost on Couzens-Bundle who observes that the farming and policy attitude to dingos bears a striking resemblance to attitudes about Aboriginal people, only “they couldn’t get away with shooting us anymore”. The ABC report also provides the following figures:

There are over 22 million livestock on Victorian farms – in the last year, about 1200 were reported killed by wild dogs. Around the same period, nearly 1400 wild dogs, or dingoes, were killed through trapping and hunting programs. It’s unknown how many died from poison baiting.

The dingo debate and the controversial practice of wild dog management, ABC News, 14 Nov 2022

In the ABC report, Couzens-Bundle also says that a plan to reintroduce dingos into Gariwerd or the Grampians National Park was scuttled because of public and farmer backlash. In Wild Dog Dreaming, ethnographer Deborah Rose Bird repeats an account of a 1940s dog shooting event on a cattle station camp. Aboriginal people desperately tried to save their dogs from marauding constables who embarked on a shooting frenzy. Rose wrote, “The use of dog shooting to induce terror, and thus to display power, is vivid in these passages. For people who had already been subjected to massacres, the dog shooting was a clear message of the right to kill with impunity.” It’s not hard to see how the fears and refusals manifest as an assault on Country.

I don’t know if rural design might provide a platform for addressing these tensions by elevating the importance of Country, challenging Western conceptions of animal-human relations, and shifting farming practices that are so violent. As is the case in the Victorian highlands, Aboriginal people are clearly speaking out in an effort to assert Country-based values. O’Neale cites Kimberley elder Paddy Roe as encapsulating the reckless attitude to knowledge of this country: “You people try and dig little bit more deep – you bin digging only white soil”. In digging into the deep history, O’Neale’s work digs beyond white soil.

In O’Neale’s and Carter’s narratives, the authors elucidate ‘other’ knowledge systems and structures of place and space that imbue alternative visions, practice and meaning. The generosity of Margo Neale and Lynne Kelly is humbling, as is that of the numerous people who have shared knowledge with them. In Neale’s introduction she provides such an open personal account of connecting with culture and being woven into complex kinship networks, having endured growing up in white suburbia and hiding her Aboriginality. The Songlines exhibition involved travelling

… the tracks of the Seven Sisters across three deserts, amounting to some 7000 kilometres, with a relay of traditional custodians and knowledge holders passing the baton as the Songlines stretched beyond one language group’s Country into the next. It is future-proofing the Songlines by ground-proofing them.

Margo O’Neale, Songlines, p42

In both these works, ideas of groundedness is central. Not only in memory held by and in ground, it is also recounted with and through ground. Beyond conceptions of the rural, place and the bush, groundedness situates people in ways that Alison Page described in Building on Country. There is so much more to say about the insights provided by these works; there are so many questions. The problem of rural design is not one for me to solve, but rather to open up and invite others to participate in. I had hoped that one of the longer term drives of this work might be to establish some kind of rural design network or node through which communities can be supported to learn the deep stories of what it means to share and live in this country, to connect with others, to grow our food, to care for people and ecology. As the Elders of the Songlines exhibition entreat: “without the deep stories you can’t take root, you will only ever be a transplant”.

Posted in: ruraldesign