Helping Country to heal after fire

Opening minds and hearts to give Back To Country

Led by University of Wollongong researcher Dr Anthony McKnight, a team of staff, students and community members are helping flora and fauna on Yuin Country in the Snowy Mountains to recover from the summer’s devastating bushfires.

Richard Swain has a deep connection to his Country. The Wiradjuri man grew up in the Snowy Mountains and was taught by his father and grandfather the ancient laws and traditions of his people.

So after the catastrophic bushfires of last summer, Swain took it upon himself to start trying to heal his Country in the old ways.

For more than six weeks, the Indigenous river guide and Kosciusko lore man wandered the devastated landscape looking for koalas and other injured animals from his people's totems, then taking them to vets to get assessed before returning them to Country.

"He and his wife were travelling all over the Cooma area, getting the animals, driving them for hundreds of kilometres to vets and then bringing them back, all on their own," says Dr Anthony McKnight, a lecturer specialising in Indigenous education at the University of Wollongong's (UOW) School of Education.

Volunteers in the bush at Numeralla, near Cooma. Photo: Richard Woodgate, Grumpy Turtle Creative

When Dr McKnight heard about the work Swain was doing through Yuin elder Uncle Max Harrison, he put out a call to colleagues and soon had organised a group of not just UOW staff and students but also graduates and volunteers from other universities, who all wanted to get involved. People from the North Coast of NSW, Canada, Germany and other countries also heard of the work the Swains were doing and volunteered to help out.

In January 2020, the group spent three days in Cooma, assisting Swain to walk Country, set traps for injured koalas, transport them to vets and then release them back on Country if they were able too.

"Part of the work was to put food out in the paddocks we had access to. We did that in Numeralla, near Cooma, from early January. We found four koalas on those two days, including a mum and bub so badly injured we had to take them to Australian National University in Canberra to get looked after," Dr McKnight says.

The rescue work in Cooma has been, and continues to be, even more important not just because of the severity of the fires but because it is important for all Australians to take care of the totems that are a part of Country, says Dr McKnight.

It is also part of the work of Back To Country, a not-for-profit organisation that aims to reconnect Indigenous and non-Indigenous people back to Country and the traditions that have been passed down over thousands of years in regards to its care and continuance.

Dr McKnight, who is one of the directors of the program which began around nine years ago and was registered as a charity last year, got a call for help from Uncle Max, who has been mentoring Swain.

Volunteers in the bush at Numeralla. Photo: Richard Woodgate, Grumpy Turtle Creative

"Back To Country is looking after the land, looking after the animals on the land, and the birds, reptiles and everything. It is trying to green up the land to help the land rejuvenate," says Uncle Max.

"It was no brainwave of mine. It was the ancients talking to me, what I call spiritual emails, that got me to organise Back To Country. It is getting the young men and women to get back to country, to understand it and get them off their computers, phones and everything like that and to get back to land so they can relate to the general public about the animals, birds, grasses, food, medicines - because the foods are medicine.

"Really it's about going back and sitting and understanding where their ancients came from and what their ancients have done 180,000 years ago. I want to share it - I need it to be shared with all people. We walk the same land, drink the same water, breathe the same air, so how can we be different?

"I have to get non-Indigenous people to really understand, get our young people to work with non-Indigenous people. It's a big task, it's a big dream and big vision, but that's the vision that came through the ancients to motivate me and get me to work with people of all nations."

Uncle Max in the bush at Numeralla. Photo: Richard Woodgate, Grumpy Turtle Creative

Uncle Max said working in Numeralla with Dr McKnight and the UOW staff and students was a way to share the knowledge of what Back To Country means and can achieve.

"Back To Country was down in Numeralla to help one of our young men here [Richard Swain] and to bring the knowledge of the University of Wollongong down here so they can look and see what I am about and what I need to do - not what I want to do, but what I need to do - to give them an understanding of the land," he says.

In February, after the success of the Cooma experience with Swain, Uncle Max, Dr McKnight, other members of Back To Country, and another group of UOW students and staff, took the Back To Country concept to Brogo on the NSW South Coast.

"This time it was about the native bees and insects. We performed a healing ceremony for the insects and planted a range of native plants for the bees, as well as handing out plants to people to put on their own properties," Dr McKnight said.

"As part of the visit, the planting was done through a healing ceremony for the plants, bees and other living entities, which includes the people of Brogo. It was a traditional healing ceremony, and part of ritual life. It is all about being Back To Country, which includes bringing Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people together by inviting them to be part of healing the Country."

More than 200 people took part in the ceremony, including Dr Deborah Gough, a Lecturer in Education at UOW's Bega campus.

Back To Country is operating exclusively at the moment on Yuin country but Dr McKnight said they would be happy to go off Country with permission.

"One of the things we try to do is to work with all communities to take responsibility for taking care of Country," he says.

"At the Brogo healing ceremony we gave people totems and it is now their responsibility to learn about those totems, to take care of them and this means in turn taking care of Country that looks after the totems. In addition, it helps them [totems and people] to recover from the fires and to set up the land so it reduces the chance of fire in the future."

Uncle Max says he wants to give all landowners a totem. "If I can give landowners a totem of our Indigenous animals they can look after them and the animals will look after them and our land," he says.

"That is how the ancients did it. [If a landowner has a totem] they can communicate [with it] and not hunt the totems off country but bring them back to country. It's important they have these totems because these little totems are not like other animals that are surpressing the land. They are all soft-footed and they walk softly on the land."

Dr McKnight says the idea behind giving landowners totems was so they could learn about their importance to the rejuvenation of the land.

"For example, some of things we talk about with community is reducing pests. If we can reduce foxes, cats, wild dogs, we can increase ground bird populations that reduce leaf litter, and small mammals that dig into the ground who also reduce leaf litter.

UOW's Dr Jennifer Atchison helping out in Numeralla. Photo: Richard Woodgate, Grumpy Turtle Creative

"However, the biggest problem is water. We don't have a fire problem, we have a water problem. We have to learn how to put water back in the system and it includes looking at things like feral pigs, brumbies, hard-hoofed animals getting into the river and creek systems.

"It is a whole system approach we are trying to roll out, looking at the way Country has always been and doing things, in partnership with non-Indigenous experts around soil, water, agriculture, horticulture, arborists. It's about working in partnership - that is what Back To Country is all about, and in the process bringing Country back to a state so it can look after itself."

Being granted a totem encourages people to learn about the role it plays in balancing the ecosystem, says Dr McKnight, and is part of the traditional way in which Aboriginal Australians learned what was needed to care for Country.

"It's not a matter of being told what your totem may need. People have to come up with ideas of how to care for their totem. For example, if your totem is native bees, you can do things like include native plants in your gardens, which native bees require, or make sure there is water available for them," he says.

"Once you have a totem you have to use your own heart spirit and mind to figure out how to contribute to it. You have to learn about your totem yourself - observe it and see what it does, what it is connected to, what it eats and start planting those trees etc in your own backyard."

Even those living in the city can be part of Back To Country, says Dr McKnight, through things like protests about issues such as deforestation, especially if their totem lives in threatened bushland.

The University of Wollongong is also now doing its own Back To Country project, planning to support the small native birds that come to the Wollongong campus.

"We want to do something on campus because not everyone can travel to the sites that we may visit as part of Back To Country," Dr McKnight says.

"One of those things is to put in plants with a focus on the small birds to help them recover. A lot of deer have ruined the habitat of these small birds and this is one way they can be helped. If as an organisation we can give examples of what to do, people will do things in their own backyards and lives that will take care of country."

Although the coronavirus pandemic has put a hold on group activities and working on sites, Dr McKnight says Back To Country and the students and staff who have so far taken part in the bushfire rehabilitation and recovery projects are already planning to bring the program to other bushfire-affected areas.

"We need, to the best of our ability, to bring back the systems that existed before colonisation, to reduce fire loads and natural disasters, to bring those birds, marsupials, and bees back in an overarching wholistic approach," he says.

"It's a long-term plan. We have to rethink agriculture, mining, development, water, the removal of trees increasing temperatures and reducing water usage. Our healing ceremonies are connected with taking care of our heritage and we want to work with people in these areas. That's what Back To Country is all about - communities."

Uncle Max says donations to Back To Country would help continue the work he and volunteers are doing.

"The support from other organisations is important to Back To Country, to help me get around to do things. I have been begging for plants and food for wildlife and I should not need do that because of the fire-ravaged country now, but I will do it while there is breath in my body," he says.

"Open your mind, open your hearts and give to Back To Country so we can help this land recover."

Photos courtesy of Richard Woodgate, Grumpy Turtle Creative