Listening to Country is about four journeys across country, where ideas of landscape became more than the physical, more than a backdrop to a story. Landscape became a central character of this book, writing landscape came to embody, for me, the widest meaning of place.

Firstly, a literal journey to the Northern Territory’s Tanami Desert in 2006, camping out for eight days, feeling the gentle cocoon of old land wrapping itself around us physically and spiritually.   

Secondly, with the Tanami journey as its spine, this book would also tell a broader presence on country of a people, the Yanyuwa, particularly their matriarchs, the senior Law women of Borroloola, my mothers, sisters, sisters-in-law, cousins and grandmothers through my marriage to a Yanyuwa man. They are women whose connection to their Dreamings, is still undiminished.

Thirdly it would be our own family journey too of a marriage, children, and a design business, which stretched from our city base to its inspiration in the physical and cultural landscapes of the far reaches of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Ultimately it would be a story of two Australias – white and black, acknowledging disparate and sometimes desperate histories and the hope for a shared future on a shared piece of land.  

This book, my first, began with the seed of an idea about geography (a sense of place), humanity (the warmth and generosity of the Yanyuwa) and philosophy (one that is steeped in place, but speaks universally, over and above race).

Getting to know my Yanyuwa family, particularly the wise and eloquent matriarchs, and taking the reader there to know them too, was the starting point of this book, to set the scene for all the other stories this central relationship would backdrop. Writing the landscape, exploring place, would be the glue of the journey.

My first landscapes, those of my childhood, were in Tasmania, and when I first visited John’s family in remote Borroloola, the sense of land and belonging was not foreign to me. I knew the solitude and beauty of quiet land.

“In the bush of our holidays in the far reaches of the wild west coast’s Pieman River, where perennial rain and ancient huon pines of the Tarkine blended together in primordial vistas. Or on breathy climbs to the summits of Cradle Mountain, Mount Roland and Mount Olympus, where the air was brittle like ice. The lakes inked with translucent indigo. And the silence so loud it intoxicated.”

“Boats and fish and tents on the sand followed noisy family Christmases on trestle tables under rose-clad lattice. My father taught us to love the sea off the bluff, bobbing around for the rock cod to bite; the streams in the mountains where dye from the trees threw clear brown shadows into rock pools; and the enticing but dangerous waters of Bass Strait, which lured him to many a foolhardy crossing.” 

“It was a quiet and gentle way to spend a childhood…”(and it was only later) ”…that I realised the influence of Tasmania’s seductive physicality in my life. Of the way landscape shapes the senses”. 

So while the sense of sitting with land, and the way it nourishes the soul was familiar to me, the depth of connection to country amongst John’s family, when he first took me back to his place in the Gulf, took my breath away.

“The image is vivid in my mind. The night I am thinking about is a clear and recurring memory. Five or six of us are seated on the ground around a smouldering campfire under a star-filled black sky by the waters of the Gulf of Carpentaria in Australia’s remote north. It is 1982 – twenty-seven years ago. Our baby is sleeping in a cot nearby. There is no wind, no temperature to notice, no sounds. The darkness begins immediately behind us. My husband’s uncle, Musso, the ceremonial leader of the Yanyuwa people, is telling stories about spirit ancestors on the bush around us, about people leaving their bodies to travel vast distances, about messages birds and animals bring to people in danger…

We were visiting my husband John’s Aboriginal community at Borroloola, in Australia’s Northern Territory. It was the start of an extraordinary journey. Not so much because of the terrain or the vistas – as spectacularly different as they were – but because the cultural landscape of family and humanity radiated a warmth that seemed to rise from the baked land itself.”

The essence of this book, and its title, are an expression of this idea of the entwined physicality and spirituality of land–

It seems there is a pathway gouged by a metaphorical river of intricate knowledge and wisdom deep inside my husband’s community, which feeds a positive outlook in the face of dire hardship. It is clear that people’s lives are not without sadness, but they find a way to nurture the spirit. The Yanyuwa call it anyngkarrinjarra ki-awarawu, “listening to country”. It is a time and place to sit down, absorb, reflect, see how things really are in the  place you come from. A place in the mind, a place with family, or a physical place where the mind is freed. 

This broad view of landscape as a connector for the story, enabled me to build the human themes of the book – the desert week where the women of my Yanyuwa family upheld their ancient Law, while blending seamlessly with the environment around them. The singing and the dancing. The light, the colour and the textures of the natural world. The orb moon or sponge cake layers of palest blue and pink dawn skies that bleached the morning star away.  

The human side of our joined destinies raised questions about the meaning of land to those of us who’ve arrived since European settlement. When John and I settled in Adelaide in the early 1980s, we were given a stark reminder of whose patch was whose, when we bought a house in a leafy inner city suburb. 

“When we bought a house in fashionable St Peters, our elderly neighbour Gladys knocked on the front door. She was probably in her late seventies.

“Roslynne,” she said, “what nationality is John?”

“Australian, Glad”, I told her.

“No, I mean, where is he from?”

“Australia,” I repeated.

I could see her wringing her hands a bit, skirting around the question she wanted to ask. Trying to place John’s features and skin.

“Actually, he’s Aboriginal,” I volunteered.

“Oh,” she said slowly. “I thought he might be Indian.” Pause. “Or a Pacific Islander.” Or anything else, seemed to be the inference.

“No, Glad. He’s Aboriginal. And the baby is too.”

She didn’t say any more.

We went away for Christmas just as the beautiful wisteria vine at the side of our garden was spilling a torrent of purple blossoms along our veranda roof. We came back to find Glad  had come into our garden and cut if off at its root. Glad hadn’t liked an offshoot wending its unruly way into her lemon tree. A stony silence from over the fence suggested she hadn’t liked us wending our way into her suburb either.

Then she had a motive for a change of heart. She knocked on the front door.

“Roslynne,” she started. “You know how you and John was Aboriginal, well, does he do any of those really Aboriginal things, like throw the boomerang or play the didgeridoo?”

“Yes, Glad, he does both,” I told her.

“Oh, that’s good,” she said. “Because my relatives are coming from Germany, and I’d like to do a little show.”

I am not sure if I should tell you that John did the show. We didn’t ever strike up much of a friendship with Gladys, but her relatives hosted us in Stuttgart and we had a ball.

On the ceremony week, more than twenty years after Glad’s chilly welcome to her suburb, as songs ring out through the desert, I revisit respective views of the experience of the land we share.

“It occurs to me that the invisibility of the occasion is remarkable. The modern sophisticated nation I live in has no idea that the singing of the continent it sits on continues in the heart of its landscapes. We newcomers have barely scratched the surface of the power of the land we occupy to inspire and nourish. To stir the senses and lift the heart. We see the stillness of dawn at the ocean, the cacophony of summer cicadas, the ripples of red dunes in the desert, and marvel at Australia’s natural endowments. But we are far from being at one with it. We sip at its physicality, when we could gulp from the well of its spirit.”  

Being in such powerful landscapes brings home too the poignancy of severing our links to place, and to the meaning of country. It relates to old Tim, a man after whom we named our first son, Tim. Old Tim remembered the Maccassins who traded with northern Australia for six hundred years before the arrival of the British.  

“When I think back to those three days when I watched Tim Wakuwurlma with our baby on his lap, I feel in awe of the generations of spiritual life on the Australian continent he embodied. As well, I feel deeply sad and frustrated to have witnessed the wafer of time that separated the rich and bountiful bush living he had been born to, and the impoverished town existence of his life’s twilight. In the blink of this old man’s lifetime, the secret sacred world of his generation, and all the generations before him, was flickering passively, silently, towards its ending. Late twentieth century Australia would mark the point of no return. The riches of mind, body and spirit that Aboriginal people had painstakingly nurtured and passed down for thousands of years would fade from memory and practice for ever. The spectre of this passing brought for me confronting questions and an unease about the folly of denial among those of us who embrace an Australia that only began when the British arrived. The feeling of not knowing what is lost until it is gone.” 

The story of my husband John being taken away from his country as a four year old, as a stolen generation child, is also a story of severing from land, and this book is his story too. But alongside the sadness is a conviction he had even as a small child, that he would be reunited to his mother, to family and to land, a confidence made more possible by the physical connection to country his mother upheld when she sent him a small woven basket she’d made, with a dugong tusk inside. A reminder to him that his place in the world continued to exist in her hope for his return.

It was John’s story of survival, and his family’s story of deep belonging to their land and culture, that led us to create a design company that would fly Qantas jumbo jets covered in Aboriginal design. These aircraft would carry art drenched in the colours of the Australian landscape, and “Wunala (kangaroo) Dreaming was rolled out onto the tarmac to face the country’s media on 4 September 1994. The power of it left a lot of jaws on the ground…a crew of engineers, painters and technicians rollered, brushed and sprayed six hundred litres of brilliantly coloured expandable paint onto the aircraft. The green of the Wet season, blue-purple of mountain ridges at dusk, yellow ochre of sandstone country, charcoal of campfires and white ochre of body paint shimmered on the red base of the design. Kangaroos leapt across songlines and campsites that wrapped around the aircraft’s belly in the way we wanted their meaning to wrap around the nation.”    

That meaning finds powerful expression in the majesty of Australian landscapes, and the anchor of this book became its series of chapter openers which translate the philosophy of Yanyuwa matriarchs – in a sense, these are their rules for happy lives. “Listening to Country” is ultimately a tribute to these women, to their resilience, to their love for family, and to their generosity. It is a story of positivity and connection that comes from a culture in perfect balance with its natural world, one with a deep belonging to its landscapes, with the generosity to share its connections.

1

Purpose

Anyngkarrinjarra ki-awarawu

Listening in a quiet place lets you see

When I am still, and the quiet washes over my spirit, then I can hear. When I find a calm place in my mind, I can see where to go.  

2

Belonging

narnu-yuwa

You belong to a place in the minds of your ancestors

My life fulfils the imagination of the generations who came before me, and whose spirit I carry forward. They prepared a special place for me, through their hope, dreams and love. I will always have that belonging. 

3

Giving

ngulhu

Generosity and understanding my obligation are the same

Generosity is a given : it is not a special thing, it is only what is expected of me  

4

Meaning

ngalki

My inner spirit is my substance in the world

My inner spirit holds the unique beauty and meaning of my being. It is the essence of who I am in the world.

5

Love

kina palirra

Thank you, you are there.

I love you as you are. You are there. It is enough. 

6

Compassion 

ngarramilmila

My chest is warm when I have compassion

When I have compassion for you, my heart feels good. When I show you my emotion I know the warmth of being brave. 

7 

Truth

lhaanjima

Beauty is when I am straight with my integrity

Truth is a tranquil pool in my soul. When I keep my integrity, that’s when I know the inner beauty of my spirit. 

8

Truth

lhaanjima

Beauty is when I am straight with my integrity

Truth is a tranquil pool in my soul. When I keep my integrity, that’s when I know the inner beauty of my spirit.  

9

Family

li-malarnngu

My family is the country of my soul

My family is the song of my life. It leads me across the landscape of my destiny.  

10

Forgiveness

Wunthanbayarra

When I forgive you, I am free.

Making peace with you cools my head and calms my spirit.