Healing the land to heal ourselves

An Indigenous perspective on the worsening bushfire seasons

When we think of bushfires, the issues of long-term drought and climate change spring to mind. But it seems the problem behind our fires runs much deeper and longer – and is now in short supply.

“We have a water problem, not a fire problem. Humans have been taking the water out of the landscape through various means for such a long time,” explains Dr Anthony McKnight an Awabakal, Gumaroi, Yuin man and Senior Lecturer at UOW’s School of Education.

Dr McKnight believes the worsening bushfire seasons date back to 1788 when colonial agriculture and industry began in Australia, removing large quantities of water from the land.

He says the natural environment has suffered severely thanks to a combination of farming, large corporates, exotic animals and many natural waterways being turned into drains.

“Hard-hoofed animals have disrupted our creeks, rivers, streams and billabongs by destroying that natural pooling system that used to happen,” Dr McKnight says. “And those hard hoofs compact the ground, they get rid of the sponge, preventing the water from coming up.

“Soil is another massive issue,” he adds. “With agriculture and introduced animal species and the continuous burning [from the fires], the soil is degraded and it can’t hold the moisture, the plants or the trees.

“The biggest message is we’ve got a water problem – we’ve got to start taking care of our rivers, our creeks and billabongs, our lakes and our oceans. We’ve got to start looking after the water so that all that life that contributes to the water system is maintained.”

Reconnecting to Country

Dr McKnight has been working with UOW students, staff and the community to help repair and regenerate Country severely impacted by the ferocious bushfires as part of Back to Country – a not-for-profit organisation reconnecting people to the land and its ancient knowledge.

In the midst of the bushfire emergency that engulfed Australia in January 2020, Dr McKnight and the group responded to a call for help to assist Wiradjuri man Richard Swain and his wife, who were rescuing injured wildlife in Southern NSW.

They spent several days in the Cooma area, walking through burnt bush in long lines, observing the ground and trees to find injured koalas, wombats and other animals.

“It was a chance for [the group] to learn firsthand what these fires have done to Country. Not just the landscape, not just the people, but to all the living things that call it home,” Dr McKnight shares.

While on Country, the students, staff and community volunteers experienced a special ritual to further embed their connection to the land they were standing on. 

“Each morning we did a small but powerful ceremony where we greeted grandfather [the sun] for the first day of the rest of our lives. It’s important to live in the now, and they all participated in that.

“We did a ceremony because of the support they were giving to our totems [native animals]. Uncle Max [Yuin elder] got permission for spirit to give the people involved a totem through an ancient spiritual ceremony. They now have that responsibility. They have to learn everything about that totem and take care of it,” Dr McKnight says.

A traditional education

For UOW students, going onto Country represents a more traditional way of learning; no books, no computers, no wifi, just nature. It gives them a chance to be still, to observe and listen.

“I think they start looking at themselves and their connection to Country and seeing there’s another way to be, another way to learn, instead of being in a high-pressure education system … but in the teachings, you can’t rush learning,” he explains.

Inspired by Dr McKnight’s teachings, fourth year UOW Bachelor of Primary Education student Olivia Ward is doing her third Aboriginal elective course and has recently been awarded an Aboriginal scholarship.

She considers it a great privilege to have taken part in the wildlife recovery work in Cooma.

“I feel like it was the first time that I actually understood the pain of the land – I felt it myself, the pain of the animals and the land. It was a really interesting experience.

“I felt closer to the culture and closer to Country because I received a totem myself [the finch] and that was a very special experience. I know I’m very privileged to have that,” Olivia acknowledges.

Nurturing new beginnings on the South Coast

On the far South Coast at Brogo near Bega, Back to Country through Uncle Max held a healing ceremony where 300 plants were planted for the bees after fires tore through the area.

The ceremony was an important event to help the local community, who had lost everything in the bushfires, to better understand the importance of establishing a relationship with Country. This in turn, Dr McKnight says, enabled them to view the process of rebuilding very differently.

“That healing of Country is the first focus and then your healing from the fires comes from that,” Dr McKnight adds.

He believes these experiences help students learn from the greatest teachers which are all around us; the birds, the insects, the trees and the water. “It’s learning to read the text of the land, our Country talks without voice.”

A kookaburra laughs in the distance as we speak.

“See there’s the kookaburra reinforcing what I just said. It’s not laughing at me, but letting me know that’s important … I know that laugh is supporting me.

“It’s this continuous communication that I’m talking about that’s around us, from the plants flowering to insects suddenly appearing, there’s this whole communication that we as humans need to get back to. We need to get back to Country to learn from those teachers.”

Dr Anthony McKnight

Bachelor of Education (Physical and Health Education), 1993
Doctor of Philosophy, 2017