Essay of the week ... Ramblings in Natural History by Paddy

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Essay of the "Week": Ramblings in Natural History by Paddy

I shall endeavour to post a new essay each week ... but it's more likely to be each month or year. These essays are copyright and may not be used without my permission.

Central American Iguanas in Fiji

One of the reasons for the success of world-wide chains is that they offer uniformity. A Hilton in New York is presumably pretty much the same as one in Sydney and a McDonalds in France will serve you essentially the same Big Mac as you can get in Los Angeles. For some Americans in particular, this is considered a good thing - after all - God forbid that you should try some of the local food or actually encounter some of their strange local customs.

But Americans aren't alone in this subtle form of xenophobia. Most races and cultures like to be reminded of home -wherever home may be. Early British colonists in New Zealand decided that the almost total lack of local land mammals and the shortage of familiar song and game birds simply wasn't tolerable. So they imported a bewildering variety of exotic creatures that would subsequently drive many New Zealand native species to extinction. It got so ridiculous that a pair of mountain lions were actually in quarantine prior to release when they had the good sense to die. The idea was they would keep the rampant introduced deer population in check. Sadly, New Zealand has many other similar stories: importing weasels and stoats to control the rabbit population (which they didn't do), introducing the Australian brush-tailed possum to stimulate a fur industry (instead it robs eggs out of native bird nests and spreads tuberculosis on dairy farms) - the list goes on.

But at least New Zealand has sensible and well-enforced laws restricting the animals which can be imported - snakes are forbidden and so is almost every other exotic species. It's a shame the United States doesn't have a similar policy. There are chameleons and poison dart frogs and a whole slew of imported birds on Hawai'i . Sadly, Hawai'i has the unenviable record of losing the most species to extinctions since the arrival of modern humans, New Zealand runs a close second.

In Florida there was a spate of green iguanas falling out of trees during a colder than normal winter. Released into the wild by thoughtless pet owners they have no apparent predators and may well continue to spread, unless of course the introduced pythons start finding them an attractive food item. In Cape Coral there is a thriving population of the large Nile Monitor -  it can reach lengths of 7 feet or more. Since 2003 the city has captured 293 of these voracious predators. In addition, the Tegu, an African lizard which grows to 4 feet and predates eggs and young of ground nesting birds, has made a home in south Florida. The Florida Legislature, recognizing the gravity of the situation, passed laws, valid from July 1 this year, preventing residents from owning Burmese pythons, reticulated rock pythons, African rock pythons, Scrub pythons, green anacondas or Nile Monitor lizards. Very much a case of closing the vivarium lid after the reptile has slithered but much better than doing nothing.

Even some of the smaller South Pacific nations have to contend with stupidity like this. Recently, large green iguanas were reported from the island of Qamea in the Republic of Fiji. Apparently well established, this giant reptile is actually breeding. Because most locals are not herpetologists some of the young (which look very like the local banded iguana) have been spread elsewhere and kept as pets, certainly to the neighboring island of Taveuni and perhaps even further afield.

Fortunately, Fijian authorities have acted reasonably promptly and are trying to round up all known specimens. They are fairly sure who introduced them as well, an expatriate American who lived on Qamea. It is unlikely this idiot will ever be brought to justice because it is simply too difficult to prove. Why does this matter? Well it matters because there are currently three known native iguana species on Fiji, themselves under threat from introduced goats grazing vegetation and introduced rats eating their eggs and young. It would be the ultimate irony if their extinction was hastened by an introduced iguana.

Thanks to Nature Fiji I was able to track down specimens of the introduced iguana at the Koronivia Research Station just outside the capital city, Suva. Four specimens were sunning themselves in an outdoor wired enclosure. I asked if the biggest, a 5 foot long giant, could be removed for a photo session. Easier said than done. Their keeper rolled his eyes and expressed extreme reluctance to go in the cage. Egged on by the large crowd who gathered to watch this gladiatorial contest he entered the enclosure and extended a tentative arm towards the patriarch. At this juncture the iguana opened an eye, turned his head and hissed. The keeper beat a hasty retreat to a chorus of shrieks, laughs and questions about his manhood. I cajoled him to try again. This time he managed to put a hand on the iguana and tried to remove it from its perch. Sunbathing was all iggie had on his mind and several powerful blows from his tail made us both realize he wasn't going anywhere. We settled for the smallest. The one in the photos. Small is a relative term -  it was still well over four feet long but relaxed enough to let me take several shots on the only vaguely natural looking background available to me (I passed on the concrete block pile and the old tires).

Iguana introduced species, Koronivia,  Fiji 7812 small.jpg

I don't know where this story will end. Hopefully the exotic iguana will be tracked down and eradicated but I suspect it will survive given the limited resources available in Fiji. There used to be a giant land iguana in Fiji when humans first arrived so perhaps the surviving species will cope in competition between young and for nesting space. Up in the trees the local species may end up competing with small specimens of the alien. The big boys won't be able to venture out on the thinner branches that are the normal habitat of the natives so perhaps co-existence will be possible. But if Florida can't eliminate the green iguana I don't know how Fiji will cope.
2 October, 2010.

The Aboriginal Sense of Time

The view out of the aeroplane window is one of unremitting harshness. Red desert fades into the distance at the limits of the shimmering heat haze. In places, like the hide of a long dead animal penetrated by its own bones, the flat landscape is relieved by low worn mountain ranges. Salt pans appear and disappear with monotonous regularity. Some even hold water. It has been a good “Wet” this year and the giant Lake Eyre is still filling ponderously slowly, in keeping with the immensity of this outback.

It is a tired landscape, ageing and old before its time. There are exposed rocks in Greenland and elsewhere that are as old. But here the rocks are obscenely naked and revealed. Thank the climate for that. This island continent is the second driest on the planet, only the icy fastness of Antarctica receives less precipitation. But when the rains come there is a celebration. Long dormant seeds germinate and sprout; frogs emerge from the desert sands and birds initiate frantic courtship and gorge on the insect bonanza. For several, all too brief months, a new Eden exists on the sere continent.

Time has no meaning in this context. The rains are totally unpredictable. The only certainty is that they will come. For a frog dormant in its sealed chamber this may be too late. Life is a lottery and the wet is the jackpot.

It wasn’t always like this. Time was, not so long ago, that the big lakes were permanent, providing a self-sustaining climate. A good place to live. A good place for humans. In western New South Wales human remains from around Lake Mungo, now dry, indicate a presence at least 40,000 years ago. A presence. Ochre associated with a skeleton and cremated remains reveal a religious sense, or at least a sense of reverence.

Lake Mungo today. © Paddy Ryan

Further north, around the fertile flood plain associated with the Arnhem escarpment the clock has been pushed back further. Debate still rages but increasingly evidence points to Aboriginal habitation 100,000 years ago. One hundred thousand years ago.

One hundred thousand years ago Europe wasn’t inhabited by humans but by Neanderthals. Forty five thousand years ago they existed side by side with the Cro-Magnons. It wasn’t until 35,000 years ago that modern man established in Europe and even then the occupation was temporary. The last Ice Age annihilated most life.

For perhaps one hundred thousand years, four thousand generations of aborigines have dominated and adapted to life in this vast expanse. They were not benign custodians. Like humans everywhere they took advantage of the food bonanza that the continent represented. Slow moving giant marsupials such as Diprotodon, a giant wombat standing 2m at the shoulder and weighing 2000 kg were naive and suffered accordingly. With the giant herbivores gone, the giant predators soon followed. Megalania prisca a giant monitor lizard weighing over 1000 kg and reaching 7 m length, Wonambi narracoortensis, a 100 kg python-like snake and Quinkana sp., strange land crocodiles, all became extinct.

With the giant herbivores gone the environment changed forever. Without constant cropping the vegetation built up. Lightning strikes brought about rampaging forest fires. Hot burns that destroyed much of the flora. There were fires before people came but they were cold burns and the vegetation coped. These early human colonisers were an adaptable people. They evolved ‘fire-stick farming’- deliberately lit fires that consumed the leaf litter without damaging the trees. These burns released nutrients and made them available for use. In essence the aboriginal people became Diprotodonts.

The exact fire regime varied from place to place but it was a useful tool applied selectively. It could also be a weapon. Captain Cook’s party had an enforced stopover at a place now named with little originality, ‘Cooktown’. His ship Endeavour had been holed on the Great Barrier Reef and put ashore for repairs. They outstayed their welcome. The locals lit fires all around them and forced the encampment back into their boats.

An early European explorer, Ernest Giles wrote in 1889:

The natives were about, burning, burning, ever burning; one would think they were of the fabled salamander race, and lived on fire instead of water.

As a result of enormous social pressures in Britain, Australia became a penal colony. At a time when a man could be hung for stealing goods worth more than forty shillings, the vile lifestyle of a convict must have represented some sort of liferaft. Convicts and jailers alike needed to be fed. Initial contacts with the locals were basically friendly but as the new arrivals expanded their beach-head, relations soured. Even those British with good intentions helped wreak havoc amongst the native people. The new colonisers brought diseases that were new. Without natural resistance the aborigines died in droves.

In Tasmania the immigrants waged a private war against the Tasmanian aborigines. A war that had the implicit support of the Governor who declared martial law in 1828. A bounty was placed on the Tasmanian people. Five pounds a head for an adult, two pounds a head for children. In this instance the term head meant precisely that. But the Tasmanians did not go meekly. The war, for that was what it was, was bloody. Over 1000 people died; 200 Europeans and 800 Tasmanians. The Tasmanian survivors did not last long. They were rounded up and shipped to a reserve where they rapidly succumbed to European diseases. This was State sanctioned genocide.

The same story, with minor variations was repeated on the mainland. The settlers considered the interior ‘terra nullius’ somewhere to do with what they liked. Because the aborigines were nomadic they didn’t really count. Perhaps the early European colonisers who entered this fragile dry place encountered a moist Eden. A remnant of a big wet. They introduced their cattle and their sheep, exotic intruders ill-adapted to the vegetation they encountered.

Within a few short years they destroyed much of what was around them, reduced once vegetated areas to dust bowls. It’s a hell of a place to live, away from the benediction that the ocean bestows. The aborigines had adapted over thousands of years to the regime they had introduced and it worked. For over 60,000 years they performed a sophisticated husbandry of their resources.

Emu footprint in mud. ©Paddy Ryan

These excesses occurred in the south and east. Elsewhere there was conflict but aborigines held several good cards. Surprisingly disease was one of them. In the north west, in the Kimberley and Arnhem Land regions, there was sporadic contact with other peoples. The Macassans from Indonesia regularly visited and malaria was endemic.

Europeans tried repeatedly to establish in this region but were defeated time and again by an environment they didn’t understand. The aborigines fared better also because they had better resistance to disease. But even in the Kimberleys there was white annexation of traditional aborigine lands. It is easy with the knowledge of hindsight to criticise these early pioneers. Indeed political correctness seems to make it mandatory to do so. Judged in the light of their own time they were staunch explorers, going where no white man had gone before. For the aborigines spears and throwing sticks were no match for rifles, strychnine-poisoned flour or waterholes. Besides what the white man had was seductive. He had alcohol, he had tobacco, he had flour and sugar.

There were aboriginal converts but there were also patriots. Renegades or outlaws in the parlance of the time. People who were prosecuted for defending their own lands against foreign interlopers. For a while in those pioneer days it seemed that the cattle barons would sweep all before them. And it might have happened sooner were it not for an extraordinary aboriginal.

Drive along the western edge of the King Leopold Range today and you encounter a rugged landscape. Impassable in the wet because of flooding, it dries out enough in late March to enable entry into this rough massif and its outliers, the predominantly limestone Napier and Oscar Ranges. This is Jandamarra country, lined with the unearthly boab trees, close relatives of the African baobabs. With their swollen bases they look like solid fuel booster rockets ready to launch their seeds into space.

But Jandamarra was no flight of fancy, although he seemed so to the interlopers he tormented. Jandamarra or Pigeon was a Bunuba, one of many aboriginal tribes to inhabit the fertile Kimberley region. He worked for years on a cattle station and quickly gained a reputation for the quality of his horsemanship and his accuracy with a rifle. Employed as a native policeman against his own people he rebelled on the day he saw 17 of his kinfolk chained together by the neck and destined for incarceration on distant Rottnest island. Jandamarra shot Richardson, his police employer and released his people.

What followed was the stuff of legend. Jandamarra obtained enough weapons and ammunition to wage guerilla warfare. His intimate knowledge of the mountains enabled him to elude pursuers for years. He must have had extraordinary recuperative powers as he was grievously wounded on several occasions. He quickly gained the reputation amongst his own people of having magical powers, of being a Jalnggangurru, immune to white bullets. Inevitably Jandamarra died but not to a round from a white man. He was shot by another aboriginal, Micki, also a Jalnnggangurru. At Tunnel Creek, Pigeon made his last stand. High on the peaks he shouted defiance at Micki who fired one shot. Jandamarra was hit in the hand and tumbled down the rock face dead, according to the aborigines, long before he hit the ground.

The spirituality of these places where the Bunuba made their home remains today. By Tunnel Creek hand stencils and rock art still bear testament to a living culture. In Windjana Gorge, the caves hint at long familiarity with people. These places that Jandamarra claimed as his own are now National parks, administered from Perth with little input from the traditional owners. There are deep wounds here, wrongs to be righted.

Handprints at Tunnel Creek, Western Australia. © Paddy Ryan

Finding an aboriginal to talk to is easy. To find an aboriginal who is still in touch with his or her culture is more difficult. The stereotype still exists today amongst many Australians that aborigines are a lazy pack of drunkards. If you take your cue from the fifty to a hundred aboriginals sitting or staggering outside the Fitzroy Crossing Hotel you might concur. It is an easy accusation to make and alcohol is a seductive escape from the pressures of being caught between two cultures and being a member of neither.

At the end of the bar, can of Emu draught in his hand, is an imposing aborigine with a huge bushy white beard. He has a quiet dignity as he sits here with his wife, much more at home inside the hotel than outside. Butcher Cheral Janangoo is an artist and an elder of the Muludja Community. A meeting is arranged for 8.00 am to discuss the aboriginal concept of time. At 10.00 am Butcher appears and poses proudly in front of his paintings. They are huge sweeps of colour depicting aspects of his culture and the world around him. “These paintings are about my life,” he says. To a European eye the paintings are essentially abstract pointillism. We may look in vain for the things that Butcher says are there. But from what Butcher tells us we know that the element of time is missing, even from the dreamtime sequences. A dictionary of a local language, Walmajarri doesn’t even contain the word. The concept continues to elude.

Dreamtime, the dreaming. A hard notion for foreigners to understand. As near as it can be put into words the dreaming is a continuing tradition which melds stories and events with kinship, religion and cosmology. It is a plan of life which puts everything into a framework, everything is interconnected on a cosmic scale. There is usually a creation myth associated with the dreaming. Either a great father or a great mother depending upon the tribe and locality.

Throughout it all slithers a Rainbow Serpent, usually responsible for creating landforms. The Wolfe Creek Crater, the world’s second largest confirmed terrestrial meteor crater lies around 140 km south of Hall’s Creek. According to geologists the 850m wide crater occurred two million years ago from the impact with an extra-terrestrial body. To the local aborigines it represents the emergence hole of a dream serpent. It’s an impressive sight to watch the sun go down from the crater rim. With astonishing rapidity the 50m deep crater becomes first blue, then indigo and then a deep inky black. It was once 250m deep but time has taken its toll and it has slowly filled.

In Australia your concept of time is being continually challenged. The country is so vast and so ancient. There are rocks in Western Australia that are 3.5 billion years old. Not only that but they contain micro-fossils, the oldest record of life on the planet. Lacking is the vigorous uplift that occurs when plates collide. There are no Alps, Rockies, Himalayas or Andes in Australia. Away from the South East the mountains are all old and eroded.

Purnululu National Park has become an emblem for the erosive powers of rain coupled with an apparent eternity in which to work its magic. The Bungle Bungles, as they are commonly known, have only recently made an impact on the Australian tourist scene. They, or at least the rock from whence they came, have only been around for a mere 850 million years. From the air the beehives march into the distance. Banded, rounded edifices from another planet. They cannot be of this earth. This much we know. Little wonder that the locals found them special places too.

Bungle Bungles aerial.  ©Paddy Ryan

From the ground Cathedral Gorge is more imposing than the structures after which it was named. An alien figure in sombre grey stands on mute guard at the entrance. Only after apologising for intruding on his solitude does it seem possible to enter this domain. It seems a little strange to be talking to what is ostensibly a termite mound but that is what the Bungle Bungles does to you.

Bungle Bungles, Western Australia. ©Paddy Ryan

This is a sacred place. Without being told you know that. You don’t shout or sing in this Cathedral, you wonder, wander and remain silent. What is it that transcends cultures, that reaches out across such a huge gulf and demands your respect? The dreaming is not far. The Rainbow Serpent wrought well. The Fitzroy Crossing Hotel is a lifetime away.

The people who discovered these special places and respected their spirituality can still be found. But access to aboriginal communities is not something to be set up overnight. In the Kimberleys respected aboriginal elders and statesmen are busy people. They are down in Canberra, arguing for the rights of their kinfolk. People without elder status will not offer opinions because it is not their place to do so.

In the Northern Territory a permit is required if you want to enter Arnhem Land. Large fines are imposed for anyone carrying in alcohol. In this morass of bureaucracy one despairs of ever finding an aborigine of both worlds, one who can tell you about his concept of time without looking at a wrist watch. The problem is discussed with the Darwin Regional Tourist Authority. “We can get you on a plane to the Tiwi Islands, provide the permit and introduce you to the local community”.

The plane leaves at 6.00 am as the early morning light casts giant shadows. From above, Melville and Bathurst Islands are green and flat. A bus meets the plane. “I’m Hadlee, named after the great New Zealand cricketer” we are told. The capital of Bathurst Island is Nguiu and we get to see all of it. There are no drunkards in this community, no beer cans lining the road. Several of the buildings are painted in vibrant colours and local designs.

The tourist venture is an initiative by the local community. They are proud of what they have achieved and want the world to know. Doreen explains, “We want people to understand how we live up here, to know how it used to be and how it is.” Doreen and companions demonstrate a variety of local arts and crafts. Hadlee introduces spear and club throwing. On the 17th try a mock wallaby is speared in the backside. It is concluded we wouldn’t make successful hunters. The ladies dance; a crocodile dance, a shark dance and a snake dance.

Doreen. ©Paddy Ryan

Hadlee rounds up his charges and puts them into the bus. A short crossing to Melville Island follows where he goes directly to a gravesite. It is a mixture of the traditional and the Christian. Brightly patterned burial posts surround a cross. Each post represents respect from its maker. Later, inside the Catholic church, the mix between traditional and new continues. The wall is a mural of vibrant x-ray animals, no scenes from the Holy Land here. Hadlee says “When my aunt died, my totem, the blue-winged kookaburra, came and found me where I was working. I knew she was dead before they told me”.  She was buried near the church. Around her grave are burial posts decorated in the traditional manner.

The Tiwi community has managed to tread that narrow dividing line between cultures. But there are times when one will dominate. The buzz was about the grand final. Here in the sultry tropics it seemed the ultimate absurdity, a game of Australian Rules Football. One occasion in which time is important.

Queried about time Hadlee replies, “Same, same, the sun comes up, the sun goes down”. The approaching millennium has no significance. Why should it? The Tiwi people have been here forever. The millennium is a solely Christian concept and it is enormously arrogant to assume that other cultures care about extra zeroes on a date.

Tropical seasons are not as distinct as in temperate regions but they still exist. In the Kimberleys and Arnhem Land the rains are regular and predictable. All life, including human, revolves around the annual monsoon. When the wet comes the rivers swell to many times their normal volume, break their banks and spread across a wide flood plain. The Fitzroy River can discharge 28,000 cumecs when in flood which is about four times the normal flow of the Danube. The Ord River, now tamed by a dam to produce Lake Argyle, can double this.

The flood plains take their cue from this annual inundation and the local aborigines use the changes in flora and fauna as their calendar. The Gagudju people, after whom the Kakadu region is named, divide the year into at least six distinct seasons. Gunumeleng is the October/December pre-monsoon season of hot and humid weather with afternoon thunderstorms. Darwin residents call it the build-up or the suicide season. Gudjewg is the season of violent thunderstorms and flooding as the floodplain becomes a lake. In March there is Banggereng when the water starts to recede and violent “knock ‘em down” storms flatten the high spear grass. Yegge, around April, brings morning mists and drying winds. It is the start of the burn-off and lasts until June when Wurrgeng brings the “cold” weather with “low” humidity. The final season is Gurrung from August through to October. It is windless and hot.

Art work older than the paintings of Lascaux adorn many overhangs and cliff faces. In the main the animals depicted are recognisable, a tribute to the quality of the art. At Ubirr Rock there are hundreds of these ochre masterpieces, now carefully protected by lines of silicone rubber designed to divert water. Archaeologists recognise four distinct periods in the works which trace the physical changes that occurred around the artists; pre-estuarine, estuarine, freshwater and contact. Time plays no part in the paintings, only their subsequent interpretation. Thanks to the art, we learn that the Tasmanian tiger or thylacine and the numbat roamed these plains. We find that the long-beaked echidna, extinct in Australia for over 18,000 years were once residents in this region. This gives us a date for the art without the need for carbon-dating, notoriously unreliable once ages of beyond 20,000 years are reached. The changing physical environment from rising sea levels is revealed in the increasing importance of freshwater species, barramundi, crocodiles.

The extent of these paintings is only now becoming realised and new sites are still being found. Few locals now practice the art. These days bark paintings are the preferred medium but these lack the longevity of rock art. Undoubtedly the humidity and torrential rains have destroyed many sites over the millennia. Artwork fares better in the dry conditions of the hot interior.

Scattered throughout Uluru-Kata Tjuka National Park are numerous art work sites. Many still have great significance to the local Anangu people and are closed to the public. Here the traditional owners of Ayers Rock and the Olgas share in the park administration. It is a pragmatic relationship that appears to work well with both parties benefitting from the presumably lucrative tourist trade.

Most tourists arrive by air. The airport is a production line of aircraft and people. The visitors stay one night to watch the sun set over the rock, watch the sun rise the following morning, and then leave. Three hundred and fifty thousand of them a year. The Rock is considered sacred by the local land owners and visitors are asked not to climb the monolith. Few take any notice. It is not only white Australians who can be accused of cultural insensitivity.

Uluru (Ayers Rock) at sunset. ©Paddy Ryan

When Kathy Freeman ran a lap of honour after her wonderful victory in the Olympic 400 m she carried with her an aboriginal flag. For many in the outside world it was their first glimpse of this symbol of Aboriginal hope. Here in the Red Centre of Australia the colours seem perfect and the aspirations of aborigines reasonable and just. The movers and shakers in Canberra are slowly accepting the justice of the aboriginal cause.

As early as December 1992 the Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, included the following in a speech to launch the International Year of the World’s Indigenous Peoples.

It was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life; we brought the diseases, the alcohol; we committed the murders; we took the children from their mothers; we practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice, and our failure to imagine these things being done to us. With some noble exceptions, we failed to make the most basic human response and enter into their hearts and minds. We failed to ask: “How would we feel if this was done to me?” As a consequence, we failed to see that what we were doing degraded all of us.... Imagine if ours was the oldest culture in the world and that we were told that it was worthless ... Imagine if we had suffered the injustice and then were blamed for it ... Gradually we are learning to see Australia through Aboriginal eyes, beginning to recognise the wisdom in their epic story.

It is an epic story. For perhaps one hundred thousand years these people have lived in one of the world’s most harsh environments. And the story contains wisdom. After Aborigines inflicted initial mass extinctions on the megafauna they learned to husband and farm their resources. Not in our way. Not with fences and sheds and irrigation but with fire and common sense. However, what of the approaching millennium?

The rains have brought green back to the landscape but the animals seem strangely lacking. Abstract tracks on the sandhills at night hint at a veritable menagerie but their artists stay hidden during the day. All except a thorny devil, Moloch horridus to the scientist.

Thonry Devil. ©Paddy Ryan

With agonising slowness he steps out onto the hot bitumen, past the squashed remains of a distant relative. Like a tiny clockwork toy he staggers unsteadily a few steps forward and pauses, a few steps forward and pauses. His concept of time must be very different from ours, he has all day to cross this expanse. He becomes a metaphor for aboriginal rights. The huge tourist buses whistling past represent white culture, the hot bitumen the road to the freedom offered by the other side. It is too much, he can’t do it on his own. He is gently lifted, carried to the other side and placed into some Spinifex.

Thorny Devil and Ayer's Rock (Uluru). © Paddy Ryan

There is nothing patronising in the lifting and carrying. The approaching millennium has significance to both Aboriginal and White Australian culture. The Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation has reconciliation as its major goal for the year 2001. Chairperson Patrick Dodson, a Yawuru man of the Kimberley in Western Australia, explains in his own words:

Australians cannot go together into the new millennium without having made significant progress towards reconciliation ... Reconciliation needs the support of all the community.

Our history binds us all. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and the wider community have experienced a shared history since European settlement. That history is about to enter a new chapter, one which we will write together.

When, from the perspective of the year 2001, we look back over the previous five years, we should be able to say that we finally came together as one Australia, recognising diversity, honouring co-existence and celebrating unity ... Reconciliation is about acceptance, respect and recognition. It accepts the special place of indigenous peoples in the nation’s history, respects indigenous cultures and recognises their human rights.”

So despite the abortive search for an aboriginal concept of time and a complete lack of interest in the millennium, both may well have significance for the future. If reconciliation works the way that people of good faith hope for, there will be a new beginning for this arid red continent. A time when the Aboriginal flag may be held up high by all Australians. Time for reflection. Time to celebrate one hundred thousand years of culture. Time to be proud to be Australian. Time to live.

Magpie Geese in Kakadu. © Paddy Ryan

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